WASHINGTON — In 1932, Europe’s oldest political institution embraced the newest communication innovation, radio. Britain’s King George V gave the first royal Christmas broadcast, during which he coughed.
His subjects were struck. “A coughing king is another human being” said the Spectator, for readers who doubted it.
The death at 96 of George V’s granddaughter, herself a great-grandmother, underlines the continuity at a time of disjunctions. Elizabeth II became queen in 1952 at age 25, when her prime minister was Winston Churchill. Her father, George VI, died aged 56; her mother, however, lived to be 101, and Elizabeth easily overtook (as of September 2015) Victoria as the longest-serving occupant of the 1,000-year-old British throne. During a reign that spanned 14 American presidencies, beginning with that of Harry S. Truman, and seven papacies, she met and had (very) small talk with perhaps 3 million people. Although she was exquisitely polite, there were limits to the indulgence she would allow her duties to require. When he was handed a speech that said “I’m very happy to be back in Birmingham,” she crossed out “very.” It wasn’t really a royal prerogative, but better than nothing.
The original rationale for the monarchy was: It is the will of God. This useful fiction from the childhood of humanity solved, with more or less sometimes bloody success, the problem of sovereignty: where to situate it? That was before humanity achieved the democratic enlightenment of ” Vox Populi vox dei “. During Britain’s transition to democracy, the monarchy was a constitutional necessity, a notion still honored in terminology: the prime minister is just that — the sovereign’s prime minister.
The prime minister is head of government, but not head of state. The separation of these functions isolates Great Britain from the infantilism peculiar to the American republic. Here, the cult of the presidency invests absurd glory and expectations in the occupants of this office, who are generally mediocre because politicians, like lawyers, plumbers and columnists, etc., produce a curve in the shape of a Bell.
In Walter Bagehot’s famous formula, the modern monarch is part of the “worthy” unlike the “efficient” part of the state. (The absence of a monarch does not explain why in George III’s former American colonies the state lacked both dignity and efficiency.) The role of the monarch, he says, is “to consult” “encourage” and “to warn.” And not to do any of this publicly. In 1936, in the depths of the Depression, King Edward VIII, shocked by the unemployment he was experiencing in Wales, exclaimed: “Something has to be done to find them work.” This was considered a serious constitutional irregularity — an opinion that was impertinent because it was relevant to the work of Parliament.
British royalty have been stripped of serious governance obligations and exist primarily to perform public liturgies for a civic religion with even fewer serious believers than those who attend Church of England services. As one of Elizabeth I’s subjects wrote,
“And what do kings have that soldiers do not have,
“Save the ceremony, save the general ceremony?
Because much of what royalty does amounts to public relations for itself, its occupational hazard is infantilism, to which several merry Windsor wives and bewildered husbands have succumbed in recent decades. Bad taste is bad business when you’re in the business of magnificence, but the phenomenon of lumpenroyalty – Faulkner’s Snopes family crave endless pageantry – is nothing new. William IV, who died in 1837, had 10 illegitimate children by one of his mistresses, which may have constituted a sort of monogamy.
But the monarchy remains useful. The coronation ceremony of Elizabeth II in 1953 rekindled for war-weary Britain the collective feelings that make up a community. Symbolically stripped of her authority when she was stripped of the robes in which she had arrived at Westminster Abbey, she stood alone in a white shirt and promised to obey the laws and customs of the nation. Kneeling before the Archbishop of Canterbury, she was crowned, thus placed in the tradition of the kings of Israel and England. She was given a sword, symbol of power, and an orb, symbol of her wide sphere of responsibility.
Her power consisted in her example of responsible behavior towards the duties she had inherited. His coronation came four days after one of his Commonwealth subjects, New Zealander Edmund Hillary, became, along with Tenzing Norgay, his Nepalese Sherpa, the first to summit Mount Everest. They were talking about a new Elizabethan age. Soon, however, Britain was the sick man of Europe. Its revival was propelled by another woman, the most important politician of the reign of Elizabeth II, the daughter of a grocer named Margaret.
* George F. Will is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. He can be contacted at [email protected]