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  • Writer's pictureSimon Vincent

The Power of the Monarchy

Updated: May 16, 2023

Queen Elizabeth II sits on her throne after the Coronation in Westminister Abbey. Photo from Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

"What exactly is the point of the Monarchy?" In the wake of the passing of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, many might have asked this question. Hundreds of millions tuned in to watch the Queen's funeral service and the myriads of archaic rituals that followed. It seems perplexing to the modern man that we still put so much effort into continuing an ancient form of government. Critics demand abolishment, claiming that taxpayers’ money could go to a much better cause than the privileged lives of the Royals. As King Charles III now assumes the throne, it becomes necessary to examine the question: what is the purpose of this monarchy?

We first need to examine the branches of Government:

1. The Executive.

2. The Legislative

3. The Judicial. But there is a fourth branch of Government that is often overlooked, though it is the Heart of the nation itself:

4. The Symbolic.

While the first three branches are tangible and functional, the fourth is usually less visible, yet equally present. It relates to the government's role as the beneficiary of all its citizens, regardless of race, gender, class, or - crucially - political affiliation. It is what ties the executive, legislative, and judicial together by a common purpose and vision. Thus, symbolic power is an absolute necessity to uphold the legitimacy of government and the unity of the nation.

So how is symbolic power managed, and why does it matter? We will answer this question by contrasting the United States - a proud Republic - and the United Kingdom - a Constitutional Monarchy.

The United States: Symbolic Power in Republics

In the United States, symbolic power is inherited from the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. Both these are venerated religiously, as they enshrine the American vision, and therefore, purpose. This symbolic power is, inevitably, represented by the Head of State - the President. Incidentally, however, the President is also the Chief Executive. The Office of President therefore wields both executive (political) power and symbolic power.

However, mixing both political and symbolic power in the Office of President has its downsides. An elected U.S. President is, first and foremost, a skilled politician with primary loyalty to his or her constituents. To expect a politician to "represent all the people" is therefore naive. How often do we hear the criticism “President so-and-so does not represent me!” Well – how could they? They are there to implement their party’s political agenda. This flawed expectation comes, however, from combining political and symbolic power, as the people expect symbolic representation from a political agent.

Furthermore, there is also a danger that this combination leads to excessive adoration of politicians at the expense of national unity. Take the cultish following of Donald Trump or Barack Obama. Career politicians suddenly take center stage as the "hope of the nation", and their spouses become the "First Ladies" of America. Combining these dimensions means that political polarisation very easily leads to national disunity. Elections seem to determine the "fate" of the nation itself. It creates a language of crisis, where voters believe they are fighting for the very "soul of the nation".

This is made no better by the fact that the President is replaced every 4 to 8 years. It means that the Symbolic power of the nation is, by definition, always in a state of flux.

In short, the Symbolic dimension of government is embroiled in the erratic, hostile world of politics. This, arguably, reinforces internal unrest, rather than countering it.

The United Kingdom: Symbolic Power in Monarchies

Queen Elizabeth II and U.S. President Jimmy Carter at Buckingham Palace, 1977. Photo from PA/ZUMA PRESS.

If we then look “across the pond” to the United Kingdom, we see a very different situation.

Here, the Symbolic and Executive branches are very clearly separated because the Head of State is the Monarch, not a politician. Since the Monarch is just as tangible and visible as the Executive branch, it makes this separation very robust.

This leads to several positive developments in society. Firstly, the Monarch holds only symbolic power, while the Prime Minister and the Cabinet hold political power. This allows Prime Ministers to be replaced as much as they need to without the expense of the symbolic image. Monarchs, as non-political actors, become immune to political division, which enables them to genuinely represent all People.

Secondly, the Monarchs are tasked to represent our highest good – the summit of what the nation believes in. Here, the nation’s vision is made visible, tangible and very much alive in real time to all its citizens. We refer here to the nation's history, traditions, culture, and faith - in other words, its expression of identity, "what makes us, us". Since this representation is performed by a living person from a valid lineage, it becomes very real, engaging the people in a much greater capacity than, say, a historical document or historical person ever could. The Monarch becomes the one thing that binds everyone and everything, together in unity.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, the famed Russian novelist and intellectual, phrased it this way: "Neither a person nor a nation can exist without some higher order to maintain itself and live, every society must respect someone or something." A cohesive society is dependent on a "north star" to stay united. We need the same vision for our future - and this is what the realm of symbolism establishes.

Jonathan Pageau, a Canadian iconographer and expert on symbolism, said on his God Save the King podcast: "(The Monarchy becomes) a visible point above multiplicity that is able to gather our attention and make us realise that we are One, we share a national identity, a home, a culture, and land...that therefore unites us despite our local differences."

The Queen opens the Parliament. Photo by Fox Photos.

Thirdly, making the Monarch the Head of State is a very healthy stabilizer to democracy. That is why all Ministers of Parliament, government agents, armed forces, and servicemen swear allegiance to the Queen or King not a politician. Every government document, all monies, are made valid in the name of the Monarch. It serves as a humbling reminder to the Prime Minister ("PM"). No matter how popular, the PM is always a servant to the Monarch. In addition, the Monarch outlives the politicians, making them sound advisors of long-term priorities to short-term politicians.

When Queen Elizabeth II died, Britain’s previous Prime Ministers – who have fought viciously with each other for power – stood shoulder to shoulder in the crowd and proclaimed God Save the King. For a moment, they set aside their differences to mourn the Queen they all loved and to swear allegiance to their new King. A powerful re-orientation of shared loyalty. Of unity and identity.

Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Theresa May, and John Major, as well as Opposition Leader Sir Keir Starmer, stand shoulder-by-shoulder to proclaim "God Save the King" in King Charles III proclamation. Photo by: Kirsty O’Connor/PA) (PA Wire)

Final comments

The recent Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit shows that nine out of the Top 15 democracies in the world are Monarchies. The same results are reported every year by the United Nations. This is a fascinating observation that clearly indicates that Constitutional Monarchies - rather than being redundant - have a very important place in the modern age as a force for stability, continuity, and unity.

As a disclaimer, this is not to say that a modern Republic is inherently flawed, or that a Constitutional Monarchy is flawless. For instance, a resentful and demotivated Monarch can do great damage as the Head of State. But then again, a selfless and gracious Monarch can do great good.

This is why Queen Elizabeth II was so beloved. Already at age 25, as Crown Princess, she declared: "my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service." And indeed, with elegance and grace, she spent her entire reign without a single personal scandal - a remarkable achievement and a testament to her unrelenting devotion to her duty. This made her, in particular, a beacon of stability and beauty for both the people and the government. Not only did she prove that the Monarchy can coexist in a modern world - she showed how it is absolutely necessary that it does.

I personally flew in to London to participate in the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. Read about the historic event here:


[1] The simultaneous concentration of political and symbolic power was, after all, what the West strived to separate when removing the absolute power of its traditional Monarchs.

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