She acts as a kind of inoculation against real tyranny (Photo by Eddie Mulholland - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

April 21, 2021   6 mins

At my step-grandfather’s funeral, after decades of marriage, my grandma looked tiny and fragile. But she didn’t shed a single tear. Afterwards, she spent three days in bed with a migraine; but for the public event, she kept it together.

I was reminded of her iron self-control and bird-like fragility watching our Queen enter St George’s Chapel for the funeral of Prince Philip on Saturday. She stumbled momentarily as she approached the chapel door; inside, she sat alone. Born 12 years after my grandmother, she has been our Queen since 1952 and remains so today, her 95th birthday.

And yet despite the dignified pathos of last Saturday, we can be sure that some will celebrate the Queen’s birthday by calling for her deposition. For many progressives view the Queen as an unacceptable relic of the past. Never mind personal travails; monarchy, they say, is undemocratic, even if the Queen never wields her power. We should have an elected head of state.

But far from being a relic of despotism, constitutional monarchy is our best protection against its reappearance. The story we like to recall traces a thousand years of royal continuity — the same deep history which progressives say demonstrates the obsolescence of our monarchy. But in truth this story skates over a profound rupture: the end of absolute kingship.

Medieval England was broadly Catholic, ruled spiritually from the Vatican by a Pope whose word was officially infallible. It was Henry VIII’s break from Rome in 1534 that signalled England’s secession from this absolute spiritual rule. But Henry retained absolute rule in the temporal world: he was not just a symbolic but an executive head of state, who believed his right to be obeyed came direct from God.

School history today doesn’t often dwell on England’s transition from the absolutism of Henry VIII’s day to the modern settlement. France had its Revolution, America had its Founding, but the significance of Britain’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 is under-discussed, despite its importance.

Perhaps it’s still too much of a sore point. After all, it was also the moment that completed the rupture with Rome begun by Henry VIII. Over a few tumultuous months, the Catholic James II was challenged and then deposed by a cabal of senior English statesmen, in favour of the Protestant William of Orange. Certainly, relations between Catholics and Protestants in the British Isles have been uneasy since, a fact that still drives political unrest in Ireland today.

Just as the Reformation represented England’s secession from spiritual absolutism, the Glorious Revolution represented something similar in the political sphere. Having got rid of one absolute monarch, the statesmen who defenestrated James II set about making sure their new monarch, William, knew his place. A 1689 Bill of Rights set out constitutional principles we have to this day, including regular Parliaments, open elections and freedom of speech. The Bill also limited and specified the monarch’s powers.

The Reformation and Glorious Revolution produced an England in which both spiritual and temporal rule had the same figurehead: a head of both Church and Parliament. The change was subtle but profound, as the authority of England’s priest-kings now theoretically extended across moral and political domains. But in practice, they wielded no direct power.

This homeopathic dilution of theocratic tyranny proved exceptionally liberating. The new settlement drove the emergence of our parliamentary system, our two main political parties, and — as the monarchy sought a new role — many of the High Victorian institutions such as the Royal Societies, whose grand buildings form the majestic backbone of London today.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were an age of public enquiry, noisy debatescientific discoveries, imperial expansion and a fair few atrocities — but also of a bouncing, self-confident conviction that Britain’s destiny was in British hands, not those of fate, or of a despot or even God.

Two world wars, one collapsed empire and a de-industrialised North later, things look rather different. Today, younger adults widely believe the world has been getting worse throughout their lives, and are pessimistic about the capacity of science, government or their own agency to change this. In parallel, the freedom of speech first guaranteed in the 1689 Bill of Rights is increasingly regarded as a stalking-horse for hatred. Growing numbers believe that what’s right and wrong — especially where it concerns the rights of marginalised groups — are sufficiently self-evident they shouldn’t be up for debate.

But who decides on the exceptions to our post-Glorious Revolution norm of debate? It’s been nearly half a millennium since Henry VIII ended England’s official embrace of the Pope in this role. Progressives have yet to offer a clear alternative to either the Pope or the Defender of the Faith, though many assert that no hereditary ruler should be allowed such spiritual clout.

Unsurprisingly, then, progressives (such as Jeremy Corbyn) who support abolishing the monarchy, often also argue for disestablishment of the Church of England. Meanwhile a growing chorus of other progressive voices calls for a lengthening list of often self-contradictory articles of faith to be excluded from legitimate debate — a move that bears comparison with the religious ordinances of England’s Catholic and Anglican eras.

But what if the progressives are wrong and power can never truly be democratised? This was the argument advanced by political theorist Carl Schmitt. Schmitt argued that democracy is always compromised by absolutism, because no matter how flawless a set of rules you devise, and no matter how fair your electoral system, sooner or later a situation will crop up that doesn’t fit the rules.

When that happens, you have to break the rules: a situation Schmitt called the “state of exception”. Coronavirus lockdowns are a good example: of the past year, countless ordinary freedoms were abruptly suspended in the name of virus control. Schmitt argued that you can tell who’s really in charge by who gets to implement such a state: “Sovereign is he who decides the exception”.

Carl Schmitt was, of course, a Nazi. For him, exposing the traces of arbitrary rule that persist even in democratic government was part of a wider argument in favour of strongman rule.

Critics might argue that quoting a Nazi in defence of the Queen isn’t likely to make the monarchy seem more progressive. But if we accept Schmitt’s argument that even democracies can’t avoid the odd despotic moment, it’s far easier to understand why constitutional monarchies are so often more egalitarian than republics. For even if Schmitt is right, it doesn’t follow that because someone has to decide the exception, that decision-maker has to be a dictator. It wasn’t the Queen who decided to suspend our ordinary liberties for the pandemic, but Parliament, which is made up of our elected representatives.

The role of our Queen is to symbolise that tyrannical twitch we can’t wholly eradicate even in democracies, lest such twitches break out more regularly among our elected leaders. And she must do so without availing herself of actual power. As such, she acts as a kind of inoculation against real tyranny.

Our Queen has two birthdays: her actual birthdate, which is today, and her “official” birthday on the second weekend in June. This aptly reflects her double existence. On the one hand she’s a human individual with a family, a birthday and a recent, terrible bereavement. On the other, she’s an interchangeable cipher, a part not just replaceable but designed to be replaced by her heir apparent when the time comes. Her role is to act, with total self-effacement, as the fulcrum between tyranny and democracy. It’s a position that, once understood, is rightly seen as profoundly sacred.

That understanding feels fainter than ever today. It wasn’t just our monarch who seemed fragile and bird-like in mourning for Prince Philip. A whole world feels as though it’s wearing thin, and that with the death of Philip yet another of its underpinnings has sheared away: the world of enquiry, debate and optimism; one that felt liberated by having only a titular head of Church and State and responded with two centuries of flourishing culture.

Increasingly, I fear that a new generation feels less liberated than abandoned by such light-touch authorities, and yearns — under the banner of progress itself — for something closer to the moral and political strongmen envisaged by Carl Schmitt.

For ultimately, progressive calls to abolish the monarchy — whether as head of Church or state — amount not to a democratisation of power, but a removal of the principal safeguard we have against a return of the political and moral absolutism that preceded England’s Reformation and Glorious Revolution. Should the mounting demands for authority over the moral exception merge with similar calls for authority over the political one, the relative freedom guaranteed for us by our ceremonial priest-kings may be replaced by something far more direct and assertive.

If there’s any hope, it lies in the despised rural and post-industrial backwaters: Deep England. Perhaps only outside the bubble of elite discourse, our nation’s instinctive appreciation for the paradox of constitutional monarchy is robust enough to survive the progressives who seek to tear down its moral and political dimensions.

Never mind heaven on earth. On the whole, Deep England would just like to be left in peace. On this difficult birthday for Her Majesty, we can only pray that the destructive forces of progress accord her the same courtesy.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.