Beyond England's pomp glows the value of dignity
May 23, 2018 09:58 AM
The card-carrying Anglophiles at our house feasted on the recent royal wedding at Windsor, its pageantry and testimony to the flexibility that marks British statecraft. It was a bonus to hear the colorful homily of the former Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina and, not least, to witness a public ritual free of the snarling and brawling that Trump has brought to our own public affairs.
Everyone is aware that the Thirteen English Colonies bade farewell to royal rule 242 years ago. Not all, however, have noted the fine print in the Declaration of Independence’s otherwise exalted pronouncements on natural rights. That historic document makes a target of Her Majesty’s ancestor King George III. My favorite charge alleges that “he hath sent hither swarms of officials to harass us and eat out our substance” — rhetoric of an impressive vagueness. Thomas Jefferson, one of its three draftsmen (and the owner of more than 200 slaves) proposed to lay the whole blame for slavery on the king; but even as it fashioned a tissue of fanciful propaganda the continental Congress laid that one aside.
The prejudicial indictment of the King is easily explained. Political expediency dictated that the Colonies avoid offending their many sympathizers in Parliament. So the unfortunate George III (whose personal reputation has risen a bit in recent decades) was blamed for follies committed by the legislative branch.
In any case, colonial rebelliousness faded long ago; and aside from rumors from within the constitutional convention of 1787 that the colonies might adopt George’s younger son as their new king, that wrote finis to royalty on these shores. Prince Harry’s choice of an American consort sets a new seal on the cordial “special relationship” between the Republic and the United Kingdom that has replaced colonial status.
The American public, rather oddly, seems as usual as enthusiastic about the monarchy as the British public. It may be mainly the show-biz aspects — bespoke morning suits and military uniforms, spectacular hats, tiaras and crowns and gowns and horse-drawn carriages -— that mainly capture the televised attention.
But there is a more serious and substantive aspect.
The monarchy has evolved since America rejected the imaginary “tyranny” of George III; and that evolution is a story best told in classics like Walter Bagheot’s book "The English Constitution." In Queen Victoria’s day, Bagheot undertook to explain the the Crown’s remnant powers and duties. He stressed its “dignified” or ceremonial functions and in so doing put his finger on an essential attribute of sound government, democratic or monarchical. Fashionable smart alecks are scornful of government these days, sometimes with reason; but that scorn is ultimately destructive; and it is an indulgence the British avoid.
Friends who know that the present writer spent several richly beneficial years in the UK are rarely surprised by sentiments which, while not literally royalist, are intensely sympathetic and frankly confessed. Queen Elizabeth II has been a steady presence in the English-speaking world. She speaks from an unparalleled experience of government that stretches back to 1952. Beyond doubt the most valuable aspect of her rule today is that as head of state she is wholly free of partisanship. With her vast experience in matters of state, she doubtless has personal views; and she must share them occasionally, discreetly, with her prime ministers. But she stays out of daily politics.
What she offer her subjects instead is the force of example: a tradition of dedication and good manners bequeathed by her admirable parents, George VI and Queen Elizabeth. And what an example! In the worst early days of the 1939 European War, when an isolated London was under relentless Nazi bombing, no one would have questioned a royal decision to flee to a safer place. But the King and Queen stayed in Buckingham Palace to face the perils of their people and capital. That alone showed the worth of a “dignified” institution whose meaning is more than ceremonial.
Like the royal wedding that sense of duty and dignity offers a haunting contrast to the terrible manners and perpetual brawling that has lately disgraced George Washington’s office — and in far less perilous times.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington, D.C.