America is a nation of laws, not least because one of the two self evident truths on which we were founded is that governments are created “to secure (the unalienable) rights … deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed.” Just to establish the justice of the powers of government is to subject it to justice, which takes living form in law.
A monarchy, even a constitutional monarchy, defines the nation by the monarch, a person. Britain, technically, remains a nation of the king, or queen. Of course a massive thicket of laws, procedures, and institutions binds the British monarch to an apolitical role.
But official expressions do still exist, naming the King as head of government, head of church, and font of legislative power. Further, in the grand sweep of history, constitutional constraints on monarch are new and time can make anything mutable. Japan’s emperors had served as figureheads for centuries but in the 1870s Emperor Meiji moved the nation to the path of industrial development. Even in Britain, Edward VIII, whose abdication made Princess Elizabeth the heir to the throne, entertained political interests. As Duke of Windsor he favored peace with Nazi Germany for the sake of opposing the Soviet Union, and dropped hints that he might help like-minded politicians further that goal.
To an indeterminate but real extent, the apolitical role of the British monarch rests on “custom,” which is nothing more than a generally accepted norm. It rests on a monarch who does not transgress those boundaries of politics, whether in emotional impulse or even a slip of the tongue. The trouble that a willfully meddling person on the throne could make is likely small, but unknowable. The monarch’s personal conduct is still formally the conduct of the sovereign.
When the pundits cite Queen Elizabeth as a rock of stability for 70 years, they may not recognize that she stabilized Britain, and British democracy, by more than just longevity. She conducted her sovereign self in a manner that never allowed doubt over an order that rested precisely on her political detachment.
Furthermore, she wielded her moral authority enthusiastically in some crucial ways. She was, by many documentary accounts, a pro-active booster of the Commonwealth, the association of former British colonies. As traced by Richard Overy’s history of World War II, that conflict marked the end of a norm, that great powers were measured by their imperial possessions. But the end of that idea was marked in many quarters by bitterness and violence, much of it in response to oppressions committed by colonizing nations. As the British Empire ended, a full scale anti-Western hostility across the global South might well have been expected. The instabilities in South Asia, Malaysia, parts of Africa, and Northern Ireland pale against the possibilities. If the violence of Indonesia, Algeria, Vietnam, Angola and Congo had occurred throughout the former British Empire, the world, for all its strife today, would be much the worse off. That it has developed as well as it has is tribute, to a real if hard to measure extent, to Elizabeth’s conduct in support of a deft British diplomacy of de-colonization.
This work followed naturally from Elizabeth’s oft-cited speech of 1947, committing her life to the service of the British and the “imperial family.” Following her father’s commitment to duty, and exercising firm judgment of how and when to carry the moral authority of the crown, Elizabeth II provided a beacon of value and ethos. In a world that had just been shaken by the most depraved ideologies and human conduct, this beacon offered a vision of peace and goodwill. It may be that this happy effect was simply a reflection of duty and the best British traditions. But it takes people to bear the burdens and exercise the discretion that duty and tradition call for. America could certainly use more leaders who understand the moral effects – so often debilitating – of their ambition and conduct. The world should celebrate the fact that we had Queen Elizabeth II for so long, exercising her authority in self-subordination to duty. All should mark her passing with sincere reverence.