It’s a little-known fact that Shakespeare hated Americans. At least, when in Twelfth Night Sir Andrew Aguecheek said “I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician”, he meant the same impertinent little cult that would later set out on the Mayflower.
So it seems especially impertinent — hence especially appropriate — for an American to criticise your monarchy. Especially an American monarchist like me. I am not even a costume monarchist — I am not in it for the castles, weddings, and funny hats. I actually think of monarchy as a legitimate form of government. And by monarchy I mean actual monarchy: absolute monarchy.
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There are only three forms of government: monarchy (rule of one), oligarchy (rule of few), and democracy (rule of many). Monarchy is good because it is better than oligarchy. Democracy is neither good nor bad — it is just impossible. With today’s voters, at least. It is not just that voters are not wise enough to control the government. It’s worse: the voters are not powerful enough to control the government. They — or at least the politicians they elect — have not had significant power for decades.
Monarchy is both the most common form of public-sector governance in history, and the universal form of private-sector governance (all corporations have CEOs). Any private-sector firm could operate as a republic or other oligarchical form. None do. There are no senates, assemblies or supreme courts in the private sector — let alone anything like the administrative state. Monarchy —ideally accountable monarchy, with a board of directors or some other safety mechanism — just works better.
So either the whole public sector today is mad, or the rest of human history was mad, and so is the entire private sector. As an American monarchist, I choose the former. But in Britain, how should you feel about it? You already have a monarchy. Not monarchy as a form of government — but as a theatre of government. It’s a sort of official soap opera, one that has been on-air a long time — about 300 years, by some counts.
As even its defenders would surely admit, the British monarchy is not a functional organ of governance. It is a living monument of history. The German for “monument” is evocative — Denkmal, meaning “an occasion to think”. To ask questions, perhaps. Simple questions. Dangerous questions.
Yet in this year of Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, few Englishmen will stop to ask the simplest, most dangerous form of question that history can ask: to ask the past for a judgment of the present. One insanely dangerous way for you to ask is: what would Elizabeth I think of Elizabeth II?
Leopold von Ranke, not a Nazi Panzer commander but actually the inventor of modern history, wrote: “Every age stands equal before God.” Ranke’s law does not deny any era the right to judge any other. But it must allow itself to be judged in return.
At the birth of Elizabeth I, England was a minor power. At the death of Elizabeth II, the UK will be a minor power. In between, Britons ruled the world for a century and a half. In Elizabeth I’s time, England was a rising power. In Elizabeth II’s time, England is a fading power.
How would Elizabeth Tudor feel about all this? Petrified? Blimpish? If she had to characterise Elizabeth Windsor’s perspective of monarchy and government, what adjectives would she use? The term roi fainéant (a do-nothing monarch) is a millennium older than the Tudors — invented for the hopeless Merovingians.
How would the Tudors not find the comparison of the Windsors to the Merovingians obvious? Especially when they heard that the Windsors, unlike the Merovingians in France in the 5th century, had reigned over a palpable national decline? At least the Merovingians had the good grace to give way to the frankly much more badass Carolingians. The Windsors have given way not even to Parliament, but to a bunch of bureaucrats; to a gang of foundations, quangos, media conglomerates and university administrators. At least the early Merovingians won and held their crowns by the sword. Perhaps: once a costume dynasty, always a costume dynasty.
It is easy for Elizabeth II to judge Elizabeth I. For example, diversity and inclusion are among Elizabeth Windsor’s core principles whereas Elizabeth Tudor was a racist. But we need not accept Elizabeth I’s prehistoric racial theories to find her political insights relevant. The past, without being perfect, can usefully criticise the present.
It was Bagehot, the 19th-century theorist of the English Constitution, who best described the difference between Elizabeth I and II. Bagehot divided sovereigns into the effective (actually in control of the state) and the dignified (a crowned Kardashian, a long-haired Merovingian man-doll). A more modern version of these labels might be operating and ceremonial. Elizabeth I was the operating Elizabeth. Elizabeth II is the ceremonial Elizabeth. A costume Queen.
It is true that the binary is not absolute. In Bagehot’s day, Parliament was effective and Victoria was ceremonial. But Victoria certainly mattered much more than Elizabeth II, if much less than Elizabeth I. In our day we might say that both Parliament and Queen are dignified —the operating power lies in Whitehall (if it is in England at all).
Moreover, a really critical Tudor historian might question whether the decline of working absolutism in the English monarchy did not precede Elizabeth II. The Stuarts, alien in nation and suspect in religion, were never secure on the throne. James I ranted about divine right and absolute power, because he knew he doesn’t have it. Charles I seriously tried to be a limited monarch — resulting in the judicial murder of Strafford; Charles II was restored only as a limited monarch; don’t even start me on the “Glorious Revolution”. But surely Elizabeth I was peak England?
But was Elizabethan England really Elizabeth’s? To what extent was this woman actually the CEO of the government? Was she in charge — or was it “Leicester’s Commonwealth”? Was it really the Cecils who invented the Deep State? And Walsingham the intelligence community?
We do get a sense of the increasing importance of an early “deep state” as the Tudor dynasty boots up. Henry VIII was a kingly king, but his attention did seem to wander, and his policies did often seem driven by his advisers. I know of no indication that his father, Henry VII, meant anything but business — as anyone would expect of a chad rebel who seized the throne on horseback with his sword. For there were true kings on Earth in those days. But let us treat the Tudors as a homogeneous monolith and history as binary. Tudors both reign and rule; Windsors only reign, but do not rule. (Cromwell, also a monarch, ruled, but did not reign.)
One way to identify a ceremonial or dignified institution is to detect a situation in which a seeming organ of power is vestigial. An organ or organisation in a larger regime is vestigial if the regime could continue operating as usual without it. When Elizabeth I kicked it, that was the end of Elizabethan England. What followed was still very cool, but it was not Elizabethan England.
An objective political change can change the lives of everyone in the country — think of everyone who used to be an East German — and always somehow disrupts or replaces the governing elite. If Elizabeth II passes away tomorrow, the trash in London will still be picked up. If the monarchy did not exist, Whitehall would function as usual. If Parliament, the Cabinet, and the voters did not exist, Whitehall would function as usual.
What this “Elizabeth test” teaches us is that it is obvious to even the dogs in the street that democracy has gone the way of monarchy, becoming ceremonial or dignified. The 20th-century removal of politics and politicians, and hence voters and elections, from actual authority over the government, was the century’s great changing of the guard.
The Trump administration did not disrupt the elite. Disruption can be measured by number of jobs destroyed. How many elite jobs did Trump destroy? He annoyed and energised the elite. He was the best thing that ever happened to the New York Times. Thousands of public-spirited Ivy graduates must owe Trump their jobs to this day.
Brexit did not disrupt the elite. If anything, Brexit gave power back to some purely British institution — such as Whitehall (for Yanks, the British deep state). But Whitehall would much rather implement directives from Brussels — freeing the native mandarins from responsibility, the bane of all bureaucrats. The only possible recipients of power in Brexit did not even want it. The voters? They voted for Brexit, accepted a few weird bureaucratic complications, and went back to their fish and chips.
As Bagehot explains, putting a fake power in front of the real power has tremendous benefits. It is even better to have two layers of fake — both monarchy and democracy. This double panel acts as a perfect bullet-absorber for the civil-service oligarchy, which, though young, was already building its strength in Bagehot’s time.
The working Queen, Elizabeth I, must feel that her fancy-dress successor was in some way tricked out of her rightful power. Elizabeth I will judge Elizabeth II for investing in this trick — rather than exposing it, rising up and restoring the monarchy. For the people, too, were tricked — out of their right to a real monarch.
How did monarchies even become ceremonial? Usually not in one step. Rather, their first step was to become constitutional. It turns out that as soon as a monarchy loses any power, it very soon loses all power — and often its head as well.
Ultimately, the purpose of a ceremonial monarchy is to prevent the existence of a functional monarchy. Where a puppet reigns, no one else can reign; so no one reigns at all. So a murky, distributed oligarchy can rule — unchallenged by the clear, clean sunlight of irresistible central power.
The Whig oligarchs of the early 18th century installed the Hanoverians, a dynasty with no inherent support base in England, in place of the dangerous Stuarts. Any Stuart revolt — and there were two — would have to go through the Hanoverians first. But it is a long time since the early 18th century.
We can look at the UK today and ask: what would Elizabeth Tudor do? When we imagine Elizabeth Tudor waking up in the rejuvenated body of Elizabeth Windsor, it makes little difference that their actual roles in government have changed. Nothing at all has changed about the English constitution. The Queen reserves all her royal prerogative.
It is customary for the British monarch to use prerogative power only under her ministers’ advice — except in an emergency. While monarchy is nothing without a deep respect for custom, unfortunately it is an emergency. And has been, Elizabeth Tudor will tell you, for at least the last half-century.
The new old Elizabeth declares martial law and puts the police under her direct orders. She never considers the possibility that she has anything less than absolute power. Bobbies everywhere are shutting down the oligarchy — padlocking the buildings, imaging the servers, freezing the accounts. All state, media, quango and university employees are retired. Even primary schools are closed for the reset. Only essential productive workers still work — for now, everyone else can chill, and still get paid. As we learned under Covid, the paycheck is the essence of the bullshit job.
Of course, this day is only the start of the renewal of Britain. “The revolution was first in the mind of the king.” The truth about the revolution is that, in nations with a surviving monarchy — even a purely ceremonial monarchy, like Britain’s today — the revolution remains in the mind of the monarch.
A modern monarch who chose to be not a costume-king in the school of the Windsors, but at the very least a Patriot King in the school of Bolingbroke, would not have to work hard at all to regain monarchical control of the state. At least, regaining full control is much easier than regaining a tiny bit of control.
The essence of the modern coup d’etat is the use of popular enthusiasm to gain stable, unified, direct control over the security forces. Everything about this transition must feel completely natural, inevitable and irreversible — in retrospect. This is exactly how it could feel — it won’t, of course — when Charles III finally takes the throne.
All agencies other than the army and police can be retired. This cannot be done with the security forces. No one wants anarchy in the UK. But also, no one actually needs the Ministry of Defence — what is it defending? Just bring everyone home already. At least temporarily.
Under direct royal command, military and police leadership must undergo a rapid purge and reshuffle. Staff who can show their (prior) commitment to the new regime are rapidly advanced; those known to be sympathetic to the old are sidelined. It may not be fair. What is? What ever was?
And power is a shark. It has to keep moving. Power for power’s sake is a dead fish. What does Charles III want to make of his Britain? What does he have the power to change? After executing this manoeuvre — anything. The Patriot King is the nation’s gardener; his goal is to make its lovely human flora burgeon and blossom. Obviously, his first job is building a new government — but the problem goes far beyond this. He has to build a new society and a new economy. Everything is a ruin.
If there is any set of people who need to be challenged the most, it is the highest elites. An aspect of the Elizabethan court which is almost impossible to explain to the modern world is that it is the centre of excellence in everything. In the early Elizabethan era at least, the best plays and poems in England were by courtiers. In the modern era, a royal court in the Elizabethan style would be surrounded by the country’s best scientists, filmmakers, mountain climbers. Not only would royal sponsorship select and fund the best people; it would even lead them stylistically. The style of the king would become the fashion of the country.
As opposed to — where does style come from, nowadays? Centres of excellence are hidden to those not in the know; they are widely spread across fields; sometimes they are taken over by bad people, and become centres of badness. But elites benefit from concentration; concentrating the elite of an elite around one centre is the way to create the most awesome elite. Such is the job of a royal court.
Of course, it all depends on the right king. In the history of kings, which is most of human history, there are awesome kings and not-so-awesome kings. But if we accept Elizabeth II’s responsibility for the condition of England, and try to hypothesise Elizabeth I’s reaction to that same condition, “not so awesome” doesn’t cover it. Imagine her inspecting some of what you chaps call “council housing”.
Yet as an American I must face the fact that London is the last city outside America which still has the right to call itself the capital of the world. “Though much is taken, much abides.” It will probably keep falling. It could rise again.
A proud, renewed and independent royal Britain, a based Britain, could easily create elite institutions and cohorts that challenged and surpassed the aging titans of the American world. Because of London’s legacy of world domination, anti-American nationalists everywhere would naturally become Anglophiles.
And even we Americans could easily throw off the vast carcass of our 20th-century regime by appealing to a higher power to restore order — were there any such power. One day we may elect a President with a mandate to peacefully cede sovereignty to our rightful king, Charles III.
The King is right there, on the inauguration podium. The President hands him the Bible and the nuclear football. He takes command and the President calls an Uber. From the river, a deep roar — a corps of Royal Marines, on enormous transatlantic Hovercraft, is cruising in formation up the Potomac…