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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Lay Off the Royals!

        It seems like everyone in the conservative world has been trying to prove their bona fides as a democrat by competing as to who reviles the royal family most.  The latest entrant is Debbie Schussel, who I usually love, but who, like Jonathan Swift, seems to be at her most creative when raging against someone else.  Schussel likens the royal family to a dictatorship, a common mistake made by Americans.  The public school system in the United States apparently leaves many of its victims with the impression that monarchy is like a dictatorship.  The public schools don't really create graduates that understand the U.S. Constitution, so it should come as no big surprise when public school graduates have no understanding of the British Constitution.  I would strongly recommend Walter Bagehot's The English Constitution as a fast way to get up to speed on the British system, which could be profitably conjoined to a crash course on Edmund Burke.  Failing this investment in time, here is Estase's crash course on the British Constitution.

       The monarchy in England was joined by the evolution of the Parliament.  Algernon Sidney claimed the Parliament evolved from the Anglo/Saxon Witenagemat, while everyone admits that Parliament goes back at least as far as the Norman Invasion (1091).  The Parliament gained a new importance with the Magna Charta (1291), where the barons insisted that spending could only be approved by Parliament.  In fact, the Civil War (1642) was instigated by Charles I levying taxes without the approval of Parliament.  When Cromwell's protectorate ended, Parliament reinstated the monarchy with Charles II in 1660.  At this point, it becomes clear that Parliament was at least of equal power with the monarchy.  After James II was, depending on your perspective, deposed by William III (William of Orange), or abandoned the monarchy (abdication, the "official" version of events), Parliament established the monarchy on a new basis.  The new basis, constitutional monarchy, meant that Parliament (Commons and Lords) would make laws, which would then be approved by the King/Queen.  The monarch was now not only restrained by the common law, but obliged to follow all acts of Parliament.  His greatest power was now to name peers (members of the House of Lords), which meant that if the peerage stood in the way of the commons, the monarch could institute new, more sympathetic peers.  Policy was now made by whoever could cobble together the most votes in the commons, leading to the evolution of the Prime Minister in the reign of Queen Anne.  From 1688 on, the monarch was a figurehead, and the royal family was the only continuous institution of the British system.  Parliaments would come and go, but the monarch would be the living embodiment of the British polity.  So for the American conservative to act as though the King or Queen is like a dictator is a total misunderstanding of the British system, and a gross insult to the British Constitution.  Estase believes that American school textbooks contribute to this misapprehension by publishing 18th century cartoons which depict colonists as fighting a tug of war with George III.  These cartoons were not a fair representation of the situation at the time, since the policies that alienated the colonists were created by Charles Townshend, the Duke of Newcastle, and Lord North.  But the cartoons depicted George III as being the problem, not because he created policy, but because it was easier to draw one man than three.   The royal baby is a sign of Britain's continuity, the linkage between past and future.  When he ascends the throne, he becomes the sign of the polity, not the absolute monarch that a Louis XIV acted as.  So lay off the royals, guys!  Britain isn't any less democratic than we are, especially in the age of Obama.  The mother country deserves a bit of good news for once.

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