Anyone whose memory stretches as far back as January might be confused by the spectacle of American conservatives professing their love for Britain’s monarchy. Two days before Donald Trump left office, his “1776 Commission” praised the Declaration of Independence as a historically momentous document that made America a “unique” nation. During the Obama administration, the iconography of America’s revolutionary struggle against the British Crown was so pervasive that the right wing of the GOP actually called itself the “Tea Party.”
Yet when Meghan Markle and Prince Harry criticized the royal family in a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, the response of at least some figures in prominent conservative institutions was to hail the very institution America’s founders were rebelling against in 1776. Multiple defenses of the monarchy appeared in publications like the Federalist and the National Review. The Heritage Foundation hosted a virtual event entitled “The Crown Under Fire: Why the Left’s Campaign to Cancel the Monarchy and Undermine a Cornerstone of Western Democracy will Fail.”
It’s hard to read that without thinking of the official slogans of the ruling party in George Orwell’s novel 1984. War is peace! Freedom is slavery! The monarchy is a cornerstone of democracy!
Christopher Hitchens vs. the National Review
The classic modern statement against the monarchy is Christopher Hitchens’s 1990 pamphlet “The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favourite Fetish.” While Hitchens would drift to the right a decade later in reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in 1990, he was a dedicated socialist — and one of the best writers on the Left.
Over the course of the pamphlet, “Hitch” gleefully demolishes the standard defenses of the monarchy, pointing out, for example, that the same royal apologists who insist in one breath that no harm is being done to British democracy by having the ceremonial functions of heads of state performed by otherwise powerless hereditary monarchs will in another breath say that the royals use “what power they have” for good causes.
If you don’t see his point there, imagine that someone told you tomorrow, “From now on, you’ll have a weekly private ‘audience’ with the prime minister or president or chancellor of your nation, and if you so much as hint that you were displeased with that official, it would be considered a major news story. Oh, and any time you wanted, you could provoke a constitutional crisis by withholding your assent from a law, although you’d risk losing your status by doing this.” Would you consider this to be a decrease or increase in the amount of political power you wielded as a private citizen?
Those who argue that constitutional monarchy isn’t a particularly objectionable form of government often say that a society having “royals” is no worse than one having wealthy celebrities of any kind, but what Hitchens points to is a clear disanalogy. You can argue that the level of emotional investment some ordinary people might have in the lives of actors and pop stars they’ll never meet is unhealthy, and you can certainly argue that a great deal of those actors and pop stars’ wealth should be redistributed, but Beyoncé and Queen Elizabeth simply don’t wield comparable amounts of power.
In a National Review article entitled “An American Defense of Britain’s Constitutional Monarchy,” the Heritage Foundation’s Joseph Loconte rails against the “the Left” and “the radical Left” for its hostility to the monarchy. He doesn’t quote Hitchens, nor any more recent left-wing writer. The only anti-monarchist he mentions by name is . . . Maximilien Robespierre. He contrasts the French revolutionary’s aspirations for a “dawn of universal bliss” with the monarchy’s allegedly glorious history of “constitutionalism.”
Loconte’s strategy throughout is to give Britain’s monarchs credit for every hard-won concession ever extracted from them by rebellious nobles (the Magna Carta) or by popular forces (universal suffrage). Referring to the former, Loconte says that “[t]he monarchy agreed that no political leader was above the rule of law.” The approximate equivalent would be saying that “General Motors agreed to recognize the United Auto Workers” or “the Confederacy agreed at Appomattox to rejoin the United States.”
Similarly, in his paeans to “parliamentary democracy,” Loconte doesn’t see fit to mention all the Chartists who died or went to prison or exile fighting for the right of British working-class men to vote in parliamentary elections, or the suffragettes who fought at the beginning of the twentieth century to extend that right to women. In the real world, these struggles were waged against the British establishment headed by the royal family.
This bizarre whitewashing reaches its zenith when Loconte discusses the English Civil War.
When King Charles I tried to rule without Parliament, he set off a constitutional crisis. Although there were other issues in play, the English Civil War (1642–1651) was an existential struggle between political absolutism and constitutionalism. In the end, Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan lost the argument. In the decades that followed, England became the epicenter of the most important debates occurring anywhere over mankind’s inalienable rights: freedom of speech, of the press, of the right to assemble, and the right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience.
While I feel a professional obligation to point out that Hobbes’s actual views about the monarchy were more complicated than this passage suggests, Loconte’s real crime against history is a lot more straightforward. He leaves out the fact that the victory of constitutionalism, in this case, meant that the parliamentary forces beheaded Charles and temporarily abolished the monarchy.
Discussing the American Revolution, Loconte claims that the war was fought by Americans to reclaim our “‘chartered rights’ as Englishmen.” He avoids quoting the Declaration of Independence, which is entirely framed as a bill of indictment against “the present King of Great Britain.” Nor does he mention the principled arguments against the very idea of hereditary monarchy in one of the most important texts of that struggle, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Instead, he says that when designing the Constitution, the founders were influenced by Montesquieu, a “French theorist who prized the English example” of constitutionalism.
So, really, if you think about it hard enough, a successful revolution to throw off the rule of Britain’s monarchy redounded to the credit of . . . Britain’s monarchy. This certainly would have been a surprise to everyone in the early United States, where the most toxic insult that Jeffersonians could hurl against Alexander Hamilton was that he was a crypto-monarchist.
Loconte even finds a tortured way to credit the monarchy for abolishing slavery. Did Britain’s monarchs oversee a vast slave trade? Sure, but “the monarchy, as guardians of the Church of England, was eventually confronted by the Christian conscience of parliament,” which got rid of the slave trade. Even putting aside the excised role of Caribbean slave rebellions in this account, the verbal gymnastics on display here are remarkable. Parliament ended slavery in the British Empire thanks to the royal family because anti-slavery polemicists used religious language and the king was the head of the Church? Or something?
More serious defenses of the monarchy often revolve around the idea that the institution has provided “stability and continuity” while allowing democratic institutions to evolve. Even there, though, Christopher Hitchens gives us a devastating reminder of how little these ideas resemble the monarchy’s real history, from the English Civil War to the reign of Edward VIII, who was forced to step down not because of his pro-Nazi sympathies but because he wanted to marry a divorced actress.
[T]he number of times that a royal ‘succession’ has been peaceful or has resulted in ‘stability’ is relatively few. Between the execution of King Charles I outside the Banqueting House in January 1649, for example, and the extinction of the Jacobite cause at Culloden in 1746, not even Thomas Hobbes himself could make complete sense of the monarchic principle. It kept having to be reinvented by force, and indeed needed repeated infusions from the already etiolated European mainland princelings . . . It’s not considered at all polite to dwell on this fact, but only an exercise of laughable moral absolutism in 1936 prevented (by accident admittedly, but then all thing predicated on the hereditary principle are by accident) the accession of a young man with pronounced sympathy for National Socialism. The former Edward VIII, as Duke of Windsor, was a permanent worry and embarrassment to the British government during the Second World War, and seems never to have abandoned his conviction that Hitler had a point. Had things gone the other way, he was a candidate for providing stability and continuity to a foreign-imposed regime of quite a different sort.
Why Abolishing the Monarchy Matters
All of this is, you might complain, is rehashing ancient history. The monarchy might have an extraordinarily ugly history, but now — even if we stop short of claiming that the royals have “no” political power — the role they play is mostly symbolic.
Hitchens again provides useful perspective. “It is a paltry definition of a nation’s ‘political’ life,” Hitch writes, “that does not include the customary, the tribal, the ritualistic, and the commemorative.”
To see his point, think about the controversies last summer about removing Confederate statues. Focusing too much on merely symbolic issues can be an unhelpful distraction, but it really is obscene to force the descendants of slaves to be confronted with giant statues honoring pro-slavery monsters like Robert E. Lee. To the extent that the role of the royal family is merely symbolic, we should ask what they symbolize and whether this is a symbol that a democratic society in the twenty-first century should uphold.
One thing they symbolize is all the history Loconte so awkwardly tries to whitewash — some of which is quite recent. The current queen, for example, awarded the Order of the British Empire to the soldiers who carried out the Bloody Sunday massacre in Ireland. And if history were all the monarchy symbolized, this would already make them very expensive living versions of Confederate statues that would richly deserve to be toppled.
But they also symbolize brutal, naked hierarchy. They’re essentially the team mascots for hereditary privilege. That’s why conservatives on this side of the Atlantic instinctively feel protective of the institution.
The idea that any human being would deserve to have a role within a state institution purely because of their bloodline is offensive for the same reason it’s offensive that we live in a world where some people are born into wealth and others into poverty. If the British state stopped celebrating that odious idea, the result might not be a “dawn of universal bliss.” But it would be a decent start.