It’s been just over two months since Queen Elizabeth II passed away, and while there were certainly many memorial services and ceremonies, the world’s focus, and even Britain’s, has moved on. But before we move on, it’s important to note the monarchy’s role in establishing and exporting government by consent, which is a more fundamental aspect of her reign.
Most countries in the world have a hard time creating governments that are both powerful and responsive to their citizens’ needs. Politicians frequently twist laws to advance their own agendas, and autocratic leaders frequently seek to rule without popular approval. In addition, politicians of all stripes frequently engage in corrupt behaviour for personal gain. Countries with many of the trappings of democracy, namely elections, often fail to do this, and this is true even in places as diverse as Russia, Venezuela, and Egypt.
Generally speaking, though, this is not the case. Europe and its offshoots, especially those descended from the United Kingdom, tend to have the best track records when it comes to government. This is largely attributable to the fact that the people in these nations are politically active and morally enlightened enough to demand better from their governments. Unfortunately, oligarchs are able to rule with little resistance in many non-Western countries because local cultures are often too passive toward their rulers.
The British laid the groundwork for this Western accomplishment. The British created the most effective system of government in history, one in which the government had unambiguous power but was also accountable to a political class that eventually included all residents. These institutions were exported to other continents, largely accounting for the success of the United States and other former British colonies in the area of governance. This was the most important thing Britain ever did; it’s the only reason good governments exist anywhere in the world at all.
This is something many Americans choose to ignore. After achieving victory over the British, we established what we consider to be our own functioning democracy. And of course, our system does differ from theirs in that the Founders fragmented power among different institutions, rather than centralising it as in Britain. Nevertheless, rule by consent and the rule of law, or the ideal that officials should act impartially, are both concepts that we inherited from Britain despite our differences.
Where does this extraordinary talent come from? The Germanic settlers of early mediaeval England don’t seem all that different from the Germanic settlers of the rest of Europe. Everywhere in Europe, mediaeval kings had accepted parliaments representing the political class. Nonetheless, Continental rulers mostly marginalised or abolished these bodies, conquered their own vassals, and ruled without consent in order to build up their personal power. The French, Spanish, Prussian, and Russian monarchs all followed this path to absolute power.
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However, mediaeval England’s Parliament survived. Strong kings developed a strong regime, including a formidable legal system. Yet they accepted the need for parliamentary consent. For their part, the aristocracy oversaw rulers, even removing some who governed poorly, but never opposing monarchy as such. The King exercised his authority over Parliament, but Parliament did not take the place of the King as the source of authority. As a result of their refusal to accept consent, the Stuarts were the only British monarchs to be deposed (1689). Nonetheless, the practise of joint monarchy had a long history that began long before the Stuarts and continued after they left.
The spread of modernization across Europe spelled doom for autocratic governments there. As economies expanded, new socioeconomic groups emerged, pressing for greater representation in government. Starting with the French Revolution in 1789 and continuing for the subsequent two centuries, autocrats were finally toppled from below. Only since World War II has most of Western Europe been securely democratic, and in much of Eastern Europe the struggle for consent goes on.
In Britain, however, the parliamentary regime was never contested after the Stuarts in the 17th century. Because of this stability, Britain was able to lead the industrialization process and become the world’s wealthiest country. The British approach to change was reform rather than revolution, with the existing electorate for Parliament being widened to include more and more men and then eventually women. This process continued until Britain became truly democratic.
In a democracy like Britain’s, the monarch must submit to the will of whichever political party holds the majority in Parliament. In her final act as monarch, Elizabeth extended an invitation to new Conservative party leader Liz Truss to form a government. There was no escape for the monarch. Throughout its history, particularly the last 250 years, the monarchy has ceded virtually all its powers and prerogatives to others. The ruler’s role shrank to one of primarily fulfilling obligations as these institutions expanded in scope and power. Elizabeth was bound endlessly to do whatever her ministers expected her to do. In the weeks after her death, a grateful nation remembered her for the 70 years she dedicated to that role.
A rare level of trust between the English aristocracy and their subjects was the foundation of the country’s political success. Even the most powerful kings, from the time the kingdom was founded in the ninth century, actively sought the support of common citizens. They never sought power for their own sake, with the exception of the Stuarts, who ruled for less than a century. Royal officials and judges enjoyed widespread public backing. In times of crisis, such as the wars against Spain in the 16th century, France in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and Germany in the 20th century, leaders drew strength from the confidence of the people.
Although God has raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown that I have ruled with your loves,” the first Queen Elizabeth declared to her subjects after she had successfully led England in its battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588. The second Elizabeth is more of a servant than a ruler, but she too reigned with the powerful love of her people as evidenced by the public outpouring of grief before and after her funeral. In addition, the legitimacy of the British government still rests in large part on this connection. The subjects of a hereditary monarch, the people also actively participate in a government that needs their approval.