While paying tribute to the late Queen, Sharon Osbourne nevertheless observed that “many people miss the point of the royal family.”
If she meant foreigners, then what does she expect? If, however, she was talking about Britons, then this is a death certificate issued to our education.
For anyone who misses the point of the royal family, also misses the point of Britain, her constitution, her laws, her history, her religion, her national character – her soul.
This is no mere oversight. It’s the pigheaded ignorance of those who are either proud to be ignorant or too lazy to do something about it. However, on the off-chance that such underachievers really want to learn, here are a few signposts on the route to understanding.
A question first: What’s the point of a military parade? After all, it has nothing to do with the challenges the troops will face on the battlefield.
Soldiers won’t be goosestepping there. Neither will they all be bunched together, marching in formation. There will be no brass band playing. The officer leading them will be carrying a rifle, not a sabre. They’ll be wearing body armour, not lurid uniforms and bearskins. They’ll be hearing explosions and machinegun bursts, not cheering and applause.
And so on ad infinitum. There’s absolutely no point to a military parade, and don’t get me going on the Union Jack flapping in the wind and the accompanying sound of the national anthem.
Would the soldiers shoot straighter if the former were replaced with the Jolly Roger and the latter with a song by Mrs Osbourne’s husband? See what I mean? There’s no point either to the flag or to the music.
At this point any sensible person will disagree. He knows that what makes an army victorious isn’t only the soldiers’ physical combat skills and weaponry, but above all their metaphysical sense of higher purpose, discipline, sense of camaraderie, esprit de corps, patriotism they affirm each time they salute the flag or the anthem.
Agreed? Then what’s true of an army is also true, many times over, of a nation. And in specifically the British nation the royal family embodies its metaphysical essence to such an extent that the nation and the family are one.
But can’t the same be said about the president of a republic or a prime minister wielding executive power? Perhaps it can. But not nearly with the same conviction or the same accuracy.
A useful clue is provided by a dialogue that took place on 2 June, 1953, at Her Majesty’s coronation.
Archbishop: “Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England?” The Queen: “All this I promise to do.”
This was a reminder that it’s not any political post in the offices of Westminster but priestly service at the altar of God that’s perhaps the closest approximation of the monarch’s mission.
Self-abnegation for the sake of something greater than oneself, offering one’s whole life as a conduit of transcendence, submitting one’s own self to a greater good – that’s what a priest’s job is. And the monarch’s.
Both derive their remit and inspiration from God, and the divine right of kings used to be the basis of Western statehood. That doctrine has fallen into disrepute, but only an obtuse ignoramus will deny that monarchy is not just a secular institution, but also a sacral one.
When the French debated the notion of the divine right of kings, Joseph de Maistre remarked that the origin of royal legitimacy can’t be readily traced back to any other source. It goes so far back that we might as well assume it derives from God.
In the British constitution the sacral nature of the royal remit is a matter of law, not just philosophical speculation. Our monarchs are given the traditional title of defensor fidei, Defender of the Faith, first granted to Henry VIII.
It remains to be seen if Charles III will accept that title: in his pronouncements as the Prince of Wales he hinted he saw himself more as the “defender of faith”, meaning all faiths. I hope he has reconsidered, for dropping that definite article would be constitutional sabotage even worse than anything Blair perpetrated.
After all, our monarch is also the Supreme Governor of the established church, which job ought to make it hard for him to defend, say, animism, Flagellantism or any cult involving human sacrifice.
Defending the faith also means defending the culture and civilisation based on the faith, preventing any unbridgeable fissure appearing among the generations past, present and future. In this the monarch is supposed to be assisted by both Parliament and the established church.
These aren’t just any old institutions. They are all instruments of historical continuity, bodies that protect, define and perpetuate the nation as a cohesive entity, not an aggregate of atomised individuals.
The recent record of both Parliament and the church in this vital aspect of their mission can only charitably be described as mixed. That places an even heavier burden on the monarch as a factor of constancy, the sentinel of the British national soul.
Our world is in flux, with every traditional certitude being replaced at a kaleidoscopic speed. The speed is much greater than ever, but things have never stood still: the wheels of life are spinning and they have always done so.
So much more vital it is then that they spin around a sturdy axle, and that, no matter how much any specific laws change, their constitutional essence remains constant and immutable.
Speaking in a different context, the great missionary Matteo Ricci (d. 1610) said: “Simus, ut sumus, aut non simus” (“We shall remain as we are or we shall not remain at all”). This adage applies, or rather should apply, to the British monarchy, although not with dogmatic commitment to every detail.
The mission of our monarchy isn’t to prevent change. It’s to make sure that, in the midst of chaotic, often irreversible toing and froing, the metaphysical, constitutional and legal essence of the nation remains the same – for otherwise it may not remain at all.
Lest you may think it’s all about metaphysics, it isn’t. There exist a ganglion of intersecting synapses of government, mainly legal, that would all atrophy without the monarchy acting as the cortex.
Tony ‘Anthony’ Blair found that out the hard way, when, in the midst of his orgy of constitutional vandalism, he tried to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor. The post predates that of prime minister, in fact it predates the Norman Conquest, but the patina of historical continuity means nothing to modern barbarians.
However, Blair discovered to his chagrin that abolishing the post would produce an irreparable legal mayhem, bringing down the whole constitutional edifice of Britain. Hence even he had to backtrack and reconsider.
Yet the Lord Chancellor is a mere bolt in the vehicle of our legal system, whereas the monarch is its engine. Remove the monarch, and our legality, which is to say our polity and civility, will sputter to a juddering stop.
This isn’t an attempt at an exhaustive exegesis of monarchy as a key British institution. As I mentioned earlier, it’s merely a few signposts for those who “miss the point of the royal family” to find it by their own efforts. This job should have been done in elementary school but, by the sound of it, hasn’t been.
As I write this, the Privy Council has just proclaimed our new monarch, King Charles III. God bless him.
7 thoughts on “What’s the point of the monarchy?”
I think that Charles III’s first speech is brilliant.
I agree. Hope he started as he means to go on.
I was in an underground train in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace earlier today when the driver shared with passengers that, following yesterday’s address, he ‘had a really good feeling about King Charles’. Tube drivers don’t normally share their feelings about current affairs, unless inconveniencing the capital by going on strike, so that was an example, I thought, of how the monarchy binds the nation together.
Mr Boot, the admirable sentiments you express today qualify you well for citizenship. Am I wrong to suppose that you are not a naturalised Briton? I have always supposed that your comments are those of a well-meaning ‘foreigner’.
Be that as it may, there are some points that deserve comment.
1. Your opening seems to assume that education in the UK automatically brings with it some sort of brainwashing. Perhaps it does, but if so, in my case (London County Council schools 1939-1950) the effect was quite imperceptible at the time.
2. The then-current Royal Family and its role in our society received no attention that I recall during my secondary (grammar) schooling. During the infants school years there was some fuss at the time of Edward’s abdication and George’s accession, but it was very low key and memorable mainly for the small goodies that were handed out.
Nevertheless I grew up with the idea that, compared with nations such as Germany, France, the United States or Russia, etc. we were uniquely blessed to have a pragmatically effective civic leadership. Its details may not survive intellectual analysis, but it works, and through times of global political instability has worked well. Long may it continue!
Thank you for validating my civic credentials, but I’ve been a British subject for the best part of 30 years. My using of the pronoun ‘we’ when talking about Britain should have been a dead give-away.
I apologise for my cloth ears and am happy to know that you are, indeed, a British citizen.
Actually, I am not. I am a British subject.