Reflections on the Monarch's Death

by frankbeswick

The events surrounding Queen Elizabeth's death merit reflection on how we are governed.

Viewers outside the UK, seeing the fountain of genuine grief for the late, much but not universally loved, queen may be forgiven in thinking that all of Britain was monarchist, but this is not so. But a sociological account of British attitudes to the monarchy does not deal with the philosophical issues that are at stake in deciding who should be the head of state of a modern nation. There are various answers, but deciding how a people should be ruled is not a simple matter, and it is certainly a matter for a people's dialogue.

Image courtesy of ROverhate, of Pixabay

Stances

Even within a tight-knit extended family such as mine there are strong differences of opinion on the institution of monarchy. Some members are happily monarchist, but not fanatically so, whereas a significant group of younger members are ardent republicans who would abolish the institution. As for me, I am a benign, inactive republican who reckons that whatever the rights and wrongs of monarchy, the institution is the least of the problems facing the UK, and so I have better things to do with my time than campaign against it.But saying this does not make the questions go away.

The issue involves two main philosophical stances: liberalism and conservatism. Liberalism is an amorphous movement that has spread like a fungal network through modern societies. I am a liberal in the tradition of John Stuart  Mill, who respected the freedom of others to disagree with him, but I am not  anything like the totalitarian liberals who are responsible for the institutionalised bullying of wokery. Liberalism is a system that attempts to replace past systems with a supposedly rational alternative. It is a serious endeavour to discard the past, and liberal systems of government sometimes make a serious attempt to abolish the values, however treasured, of previous generations. Monarchy, in liberal terms,is not a rationally justifiable system, and there is no compelling rational ground for having one family in a privileged position of power. So the liberal says that the monarchy should be abolished.

But not so fast, Reformer! The Conservative says that we should respect the accumulated wisdom of centuries.Over a thousand years of  thinking, feeling and loyalty have accumulated in this institution of monarchy, and the modern generation is in dialogue with past generations. Some practices, such as slavery and the mistreatment of women, are best abandoned, the sooner the better, but we do not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater where monarchy is concerned. The past speaks to the present through tradition. Reform yes, but the larger the reform the more careful we ought to be.

Philosophers have become aware that there is not one exclusive system of rationality, for there are differing strands of it. Any discussion of monarchy must fully take into account all perspectives on the issue. So a single system of thought, however rational it claims to be, does not speak for everyone and so  any discussions must fully consider not only the perspectives of previous generations, but also the views of all groups in society.

One protestor recently was arrested [wrongly] for holding up a placard saying "who elected you?" He was quickly released when the policeman who arrested him was informed about freedom of speech, but the issue of a non-elected monarchy is a  serious arrow at the heart of monarchical systems. But ameliorating the weakness is the fact that not only is the monarch's inheritance confirmed by the Acccession Council, a body composed mainly of senior figures in British Society [not very democratic] the general public support for the monarchy can be expressed through a system more ancient than a poll, a system of acclaim. The massive public support for the monarchy, the late queen and the new king constitute a ground swell of acclaim for the new monarch. Republicans, ever vocal in expressing anti-monarchical sentiments,  have been  been shocked into silence by the strength of the surge..  In my view the massive public assent for the new monarch constitutes  election by acclaim. 

Who Should be Head of State

The selection of a head of state reflects the values that society thinks is important. In ancient times a ruler, generally a king, had to be adept at making war. Monarchy was a warlike task, but kings also had to enforce justice in their realms. The trouble with having a warlord as head of state is that the ability to fight is not always associated with wisdom,virtue or political competence. Some kings, many or most maybe, were greedy for power and wealth and were often cruel to their own people. Roman emperors,though they claimed to promote peace, were hardly paragons of justice and stood at the apex of a system of power at the bottom of which were slaves and women. 

Enlightened minds in ancient times saw the weaknesses of this system, and wise folk often tried to guide the king to rule justly. Plato, the Greek philosopher, attempted to design a society in which a set of philosophers  ruled by a philosopher king dominated society. Plato's  philosopher king model was never really tried, but its descendant is the one party state governed by a tight clique who share a common pilosophy. States like this are horrid places in which dissent is persecuted. 

The alternative solution is biblical. The monarch of Israel rulled under God, and was subject to God's law, as King David discovered when he had Uriah the Hittite killed to get his wife.He was taken to task by the prophet Nathan.The biblical ideal is expressed in the Christian ideal, that Christ is the true king of kings and that therefore political and religious leaders operate under God. This idea works well in a Christian society and was, I believe, the guiding principle that governed Elizabeth the Second's life, and it is still at the basis of the British politicalsystem, but it is hard to implement this in a modern secular society.

Other systems have their weaknesses. I once heard two engineers discussing why society should be ruled by engineers, oblivious to the fact that a narrow talent base among politicians would be a limitation on the competence of government. A  French philosopher, Comte, stated that society should be ruled by a committee of sociologists. No comment on that dream, sorry, nightmare! Theocracies, government by religious authorities, do not fare well, though the papal states were an example of generosity to the poor. But Iran is hardly a happy place, and Afghanistan has people trying to escape.

In truth, all systems are run by flawed human beings. Britain had a devoted, hard working monarch whose life was governed by a good value system and the new king will try his best. But hereditary monarchy is a lottery, and there can be unworthy successors. But elected presidents cannot be relied on to be virtuous, and they have had to rise up the greasy pole of politics with moral compromises in their past. The British public fell for the blandishments of Boris Johnson, who sold them the deception of Brexit, a disaster for Britain, but a way to the prime minister's role for himself. Electorates make mistakes. So who should be head of state?

The Spiritual Dimension

One great mistake is to treat society as purely secular entity. This view ignores the sacred,the spiritual dimension of the lives of individuals and communities, but there are times when the spiritual dimension comes to the fore,ignore it though we may. These are often times of birth and death,or times of great danger, when we are conscious of standing on a precipice at the edge of eternity. At times like these we are likely to discern the situation in which we find ourselves and we ponder on life,death and eternity. The ancient Celts had the concept of liminality, that certain places, times and occasions were "thin." At times and places like this the spiritual dimension of life shines through more clearly. Either coĺlectively or individually we encounter the sacred. This,I think has been happening in the United Kingdom with the death of the monarch. The queen's death has been a spiritual occasion.But this is linked to the fact that her life and role had a spiritual dimension to it.

There are monarchs and monarchs. Some are selfish,vain,cruel gangsters, but at the other extreme we can have a monarch who lives and rules virtuously. The death of such a monarch is a spiritual occasion. Elizabeth was regarded by her people as a virtuous monarch, hence their response to her death. People are coming together around the mourning for a dead leader. Few mourn a bad one.

Since early times people have gathered as communities around sacred places,times and events. Occasions like this,when a death,especially a leader's,  is involved,are times of mourning,but they can also be very positive times. I am too unwell to travel to London,so I have followed on the news,and by all accounts there is a friendly,though sombre attitude in the queuing throngs. But those who have entered the venerable confines of Westminster Hall speak of the awesome silence of the surroundings of the bier. The experience is said to be profound. The whispers of the infinite,so often drowned by noise,are heard, however faintly in silence.There is here the mystery of the spiritual manifest in a public space. 

 The answer to the question of who should be head of state now comes to us. No mere politician can ever qualify as head of state.Ideally a country should be headed by a person of superior moral and spiritual quality, someone who can inspire respect from a wide proportion of the populace,one ready to make sacrifices in the service of the nation. Ideally a head of state should be able to transcend political factionalism.  Every nation requires a leader who is a great person,but sadly greatness is in short supply.

 

 

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Updated: 09/15/2022, frankbeswick
 
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WriterArtist 1 day ago

I think countries who want to retain the monarchs are those who want glamour associated with the Royals and tourists. France broke away with the Royalty when it came to their knowledge the extravagant lives they led. In democracy, all people are considered equal at least in principle. However, I must say that Queen Elizabeth was a diplomatic person who knew her bounds and her actions did not raise eyebrows. Prince Charles's affair with Camilla and denial of Diana evokes in me the beautiful memories of Princess Diana. She was the princess of people, admired by them and so do I. It is up to the residents what they want to do with Royalty. Coming days will decide the future of Royals.

frankbeswick 14 days ago

You have made wise observations. The only true ruler of humankind is Jesus Christ, Christ the King. All other rulers and their systems of power and authority, including popes and bishops,, presidents and monarchs, are merely deputies who stand in for Christ, and so they and their political structures are always second best and prone to flaws.

We need radical change in the UK. If I were in charge I would convene a full constitutional convention of all the nations in the UK including not just English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, but other smaller entities, such as Cornwall, Isle of Man, Orkney and Shetland, Channel Isles, with the Irish Republic invited to have observer status, to thrash out new constitutional arrangements. But I am not in power..[My venture into national politics was my failure in the 1992 general election!]

blackspanielgallery 14 days ago

Frank, I have little understanding of the monarchy, but I have gotten the impression that it is subject to Parliament. I have the understanding, albeit not necessarily correct understanding, that the monarch is kept advised, acts as an ambassador, but does not write, nor is needed to approve, laws.
My view of the monarch is a leader of philanthropy, punctuated with state visits as a great ambassador. The main complaint is the waste in the methods, lavish lifestyle and expensive travels. I may be completely in error, but this is the conception that I have. Apparently queen Elizabeth II was well liked as a person. Her personality thus has made the monarchy more palatable than it would have been.
The question now comes to can Charles III command the same respect? In early actions I must say he appears to be trying, but can he maintain the institution.
I think of the admonishment of the Jewish people when they insisted on a king, the admonishment coming from God. As you pointed out, the king needed to be concerned with the military. Perhaps Solomon was the most endearing of the ancient kings.
The real challenge for Charles is whether the Commonwealth can be maintained. Certainly, small island nations need protection, so they may wish to keep status quo, but Canada, Australia, and New Zealand can handle their own affairs. Even worse than a dissolution of the Commonwealth, recall Scotland almost left the United Kingdom, and the fracturing of the U. K. itself could follow if Charles is not careful.
There is much to unfold, and the results need be understood before irreversible damage is done now that Elizabeth's personality is not the glue holding things together.
I hope you and your family do well in whatever comes. I suspect it will be different from what is.

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