French tabloids are screaming in 60-point type that Prince Jean of France has got married.
This must be big news, for otherwise popular magazines wouldn’t give it such prominence. The French then, 225 years after their revolution, are still keenly interested in the Bourbons, and I don’t mean the whiskies.
Perfectly synchronised with this outburst of latent French monarchism is an article in our own Sunday Times, in which Philip Collins bemoans his Christian – sorry, he’d probably prefer ‘first’ – name.
Apparently he was named after the Duke of Edinburgh, and Collins finds this accident of birth hard to reconcile with the hatred of monarchy he feels in his republican heart.
There’s a paradox there somewhere: England after all is a monarchy and France is a republic. Yet republican sentiments are festering in our country, whereas the French follow royal news the way the English follow Kim Kardashian.
Why do people living in republics of long standing still seem nostalgic for the monarchies of yesteryear?
And why do so many European countries still keep their kings and queens even though they don’t seem to serve any practical purpose – and despite the resentment for monarchy dripping off silly pundits’ pens?
Perhaps people sense that modern republics are all ideological contrivances lacking any historical, as opposed to merely legal, claim to legitimacy.
Such a claim can only be based on continuity, something traceable so far back that it can’t be pinpointed to any one event or to any political idea.
St Paul wrote that all power is from God, on which Joseph de Maistre, a French monarchist who never lived in France and a constitutional scholar who despised written constitutions, made an interesting comment.
Because monarchies are organic, he wrote, their origins go so far back that we might as well assume they derive from God. They can’t be reliably attributed to any other source.
Aware of this continuity, the people of organic European realms have preserved their monarchies (with minor hiatuses here and there), even though they may have divested them of executive power.
However, they understand intuitively that dispensing with even the seemingly powerless monarchs would represent an irreplaceable loss.
As all those countries are now enthusiastically secular and ideologically democratic, few people there would be able to identify what it is that they’d be reluctant to lose. If pressed, they’re likely to refer obliquely to ‘tradition’, without fully realising what that means.
Many would resent the thought that monarchies link their secular present with their Christian past, yet this is precisely what monarchies do. They are Christendom’s envoys to modernity, and even those who’d throw up their arms in horror at this suggestion will still hear vague, intuitive echoes in their souls.
Royal families remind them of the origin of their own families – kings and queens are their link to the past they ostensibly no longer cherish and to God in whom they ostensibly no longer believe.
This is whence they derive their sense of organic continuity, something they desperately, if often unwittingly, crave – and something that’s denied to nations where monarchies no longer exist or have never existed.
They may not know exactly what they’re missing, but rest assured that deep down they realise they’re missing something vital, something they won’t get from any secular creed.
Moving from psychology to politics, one can’t help noticing that conservatism sits uneasily with republicanism.
Ultimately, a conservative has to decide what it is that he’d like to conserve. In the West, only one answer to this question would brook no easy refutation: the legacy of our civilisation, which historical honesty demands we call by its traditional name of Christendom.
Today’s secular conservatives all talk about small government, which they correctly believe is superior to a giant, omnipotent state. In this they display sound instincts but poor logic.
For, while a small central state is an essential feature of a Christian monarchy, it goes against the grain of a modern republic. Like the Church, traditional monarchies were based on the principle of subsidiarity, the devolution of power to the lowest sensible level.
That’s why the fundamental political institutions of Christendom were all patterned after the family, the most fundamental institution of all.
This kernel of our polity was protected from central power by a thick shell of familial organisations: local government, magistrate, guild, parish, village commune, township and so forth.
The king had precious little power over those, and Louis XIV’s famous pronouncement “L’état, c’est moi” was a lament, not a boast. That most absolute of monarchs knew that he could lord it over his loftiest courtiers more easily than over the lowest peasants.
This reflected the triumph of res privata over res publica: Christianity privatised the spirit, thereby stressing, among other things, the supremacy of the individual over the state.
The modern revolutionary republic – and all modern republics are revolutionary to some extent – destroyed subsidiarity, as it had set out to do. That’s why a modern president or prime minister boasts power unimaginable to a Christian king.
As its name suggests, res publica presupposes universal participation in public affairs. Hence American Founders, such as Adams, were illogical in the horror they felt at observing their cherished republic being undermined by a centralised democracy.
Saying that centralisation undermines a republic is like saying that pregnancy undermines sex. Such inability to discern a clear-cut causal relationship is most unfortunate.
A republic has to become either a democracy or an oligarchy or, as our modern republics prove, both. Sooner or later it has to empower ever greater numbers to take part in governance.
But great numbers can’t govern, if for no other than purely practical reasons. They have to transfer their sovereignty to those who govern in their name and, once relinquished, the sovereignty is no longer reclaimable.
That’s why it’s wrong to say, along with Plato and Aristotle, that democracy is mob rule. The mob (‘We, the People’) never rules, not for long at any rate.
Sooner or later that function will be usurped by a small group presumably governing in the mob’s name, but in fact increasingly pursuing its own interests – hanging on to power being the primary, and eventually the only, one.
Republicanism and democracy, its natural extension, represent an aggressive denial of political tradition based on the founding tenets of our civilisation.
Such nihilism can’t go unpunished, and all our crises, be it social, cultural or economic, are directly attributable to it. That’s why, before proudly declaring his republicanism, Philip Collins would be well-advised to think about it more deeply.
Assuming he can, which is an unsafe assumption about our ‘opinion formers’.
P.S. My new book, Democracy as a Neocon Trick, coming out this autumn, makes this argument without journalistic shortcuts. You can pre-order from roperpenberthy.co.uk
1 thought on “French monarchists and English republicans”
Monarchy is a more recent innovation than a democratic-type polity. Most humans throughout history have lived in some type of democracy – albeit one with zero individualism, one where all decisions are made with unaminity, where dissent is not permitted (indeed, is almost unthinkable). Then again, most of humankind has never even lived in a state. It is monarchy, which arose out of chiefdoms, that is an innovation. Republican/democratic government is merely a return to the natural state of governance for human beings, albeit one that accommodates the individuality found in civilized societies.