Monday 17 January 2011

The Crown -- a force for unity and national identify

Republics are primarily the end product of political strife, upheaval, conflict, revolution, coups, civil wars, or acts of independence. It is the anniversary of these dramatic events which provides an annual occasion for national celebration, acts of patriotism and reaffirmation of founding principles (Bastille Day, July 4th etc.). Constitutional monarchies, in contrast, are notable for their stability; thus, in Britain, there is no national “birth of nation” myth. The Sovereign, as the personification of Crown, state and nation, has become not merely a constitutional mechanism, but the focal point for unity and national celebration. Our greatest occasions of state ceremonial, patriotism and national unity are focussed upon the Monarchy: the Coronation, jubilees, royal weddings, funerals and birthdays.

The symbolic and ceremonial role of Monarchy is one of its most important. American patriotic fervour is directed at its constitution and flag. In France it is the French Revolution which defines, but continues to divide, the nation (the failure to create a clear focus of national unity may in part explain the French Republic's turbulent political history). But, lacking a humanising aspect that makes the authority tangible, constitutions, flags and myths can never truly personify the nation. 

The distinction between the concepts is perhaps best illustrated through the national anthem. The British national anthem (which was the world's first, with the melody adopted by several other countries) may be distinguished from those of many other states because it is not addressed to a fatherland, flag or constitution but to God, and is focussed on the Sovereign rather than an intangible notion of “peoples” or “nation”.


Walter Bagheot divided the constitution into two elements: the “efficient” (administration, the work of Government, implementation of policy etc.) and the “dignified” (symbolic and ceremonial). Dignified elements include the monarchy and are essential to promoting national unity and providing legitimacy for government.
Nations require ritual and ceremonial; it is essential to our identity and exists in all cultures – the inauguration of an American President is a mediocre version of a Coronation. British state ceremonial is the greatest show on earth – its star role provided by royalty. Monarchy resonates with us and appeals to us in a deeply visceral way. We can debate political and constitutional niceties but it is the Monarchy’s emotional connection with the people that will ensure its survival.

Official ceremonies, tours and engagements enable the people to see the Sovereign and thereby connect with the nation. The Queen is probably the most recognisable figure in the world, as iconic as any brand logo. As a figure who has occupied the public stage for over 80 years, The Queen connects us with our collective memory. She is a reassuring presence and manages to symbolise both modern British popular history (through herself as a long-standing public figure) and the great totality of British history (as symbol of the Crown).
A national ceremony of celebration or commemoration without the presence of the Sovereign or a member of the Royal Family would strike the public as very odd and would diminish the impact of the event, making it appear somehow incomplete or unsatisfying.

The Queen as Head of State symbolises the state and government in the performance of various duties (receiving ambassadors, state visits, opening Parliament). The Queen as Head of the Nation symbolises national values and beliefs and serves as the focal point for national identity and unity – this is achieved through the conferral of honours (recognising achievement in a wide variety of sectors and at all levels of society), presence at historic national occasions, participation in great ceremonies of state, attendance at local events, the sending of letters and telegrams of congratulations, Christmas Day speeches, patronage of charities etc.

The unifying nature of Constitutional Monarchy has made it uniquely well-equipped to hold a democratic society together. That has particularly been the case in multinational entities. The Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy for example was held together largely by the person of the emperor, Franz Josef, and it is often said that the King of the Belgians is the only true Belgian, all others being Flemish or Walloon. 

The monarchy stands above class distinctions, beyond political ambitions and above factional interests. It is the pre-eminent symbol of patriotism, the centre of national celebration and the ultimate example of stability and continuity in a changing world.  As Britain faces a future filled with challenges and threats to national unity (globalisation, devolution, ghettoized and segmented communities, and increased participation in the European Union) the Crown could play a vital role as a cohesive element for British society.

This is of fundamental importance for, in my opinion, the single most important function of a constitutional monarchy, is the promotion of national unity and values and the cohesion of civil society through charitable endeavours and moral leadership.

No comments: