It’s hard to think of a concept more incompatible with libertarianism than monarchy. To have a king or queen is to have the head of government given limitless authority by God; and to have a head of state that inspires loyalty and adoration. For people sceptical of government’s intentions and competence, alarms bells should be ringing. However, the United Kingdom presents an example of political theory coming into conflict with practical reality.
To be clear, I don’t advocate monarchy generally. If I were to design a country from scratch, there would be no royal family; and I certainly don’t suggest that modern republics move to reinstate aristocrats and silly headgear. However, constitutional monarchies have unique advantages which libertarians ought to recognise. The most important of which is that by having a restrained, apolitical queen occupying the role of head of state, you prevent politicians from being the figurative leader of an entire nation. It sounds abstract, but this has concrete impacts on the way a society is governed.
There’s no better example of this than the contrast between politicians in the UK and the United States. Politicians in Britain are universally reviled. The very idea of an elected official, slithering about in posh suits and flicking their forked-tongues to and fro, is repulsive to the vast majority of Brits: It’s almost impossible to overstate. Following the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead from the Wizard of Oz soundtrack was pushed to the top of the UK Singles Chart. Erstwhile Prime Minister Tony Blair is behind only Vladimir Putin in the unpopularity rankings of world leaders. Ed Miliband, the former leader of the Labour Party, was subject to intense abuse by a ravenous press after a picture of him emerged looking funny while eating a sandwich.
The British public does not take well to politicians encroaching on their lives (Thatcher closed British coalmines, Blair led the country into Iraq). Yet, in America, the outgoing administration has encroached on the people plenty of times and rarely has this been met with so much as a batted eyelid. There was that time when the administration sold firearms to drug cartels fully aware of the fact that they’d be used to kill American civilians. Or the time when the Internal Revenue Service carried out politically-motivated harassment of small government Tea Party groups. Then there’s the small matter of the Libya shambles that led to the deaths of four Americans, and innumerable innocent Libyan civilians.
It would be difficult to fault Obama for that, certainly not to the extent that he and his administration is deserving of it – because he is the symbol of America. He is, made flesh, the person who unites the entire country behind him. The person holding the highest office in the land. Whether it is what the Constitution implores or not, whether you think it is right or not, the fact remains that the President is a type of king. An elected one, with limited power, but a king nonetheless. In the UK, the Crown prevents the head of state from being a political actor, and prevents them from being able to undertake (and foul up) policy agendas. In so doing, the country’s unifying figure becomes nondescript and inoffensive. A side effect of this, is that politicians become much easier to distrust, which can only be a good thing for liberty and freedom.
If you still aren’t convinced, that’s totally understandable. Even if you’re committed to the idea that kings and queens are an antiquity worth throwing to the funeral pyre of history, there’s one more reason that British libertarians should hesitate to do away with them entirely. The republican movement in the UK is inextricably tied up in a grander plan to democratise the country’s byzantine systems of government. This includes plans to fundamentally change the House of Lords from an unelected oversight body to an elected, powerful secondary force in government. Where now we have major figures from the arts, sciences and industry giving sensible input to the political process – and holding the unremarkable, vapid creatures of the Commons to account for their ineptitude – we may in the future have even more of those creatures, with even more power, to work in tandem with their colleagues in the lower chamber.
The United States worked so well for so long, as a guarantor for liberty, precisely because Alexander Hamilton and company saw that the only way to preserve freedom was to limit the reach of pure democracy. The Senate’s transformation into an elected body was a major loss to the American political landscape. We in the United Kingdom would do well not to make the same mistake. And if that means that I have to sing “God Save the Queen” a few times a year, I can’t help but feel it’s a worthwhile trade.
* James is a journalism student currently living in London. An admirer of Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell, he intends on embarking on a career in writing and public policy to promote free expression and free markets worldwide.