From THE RECIDIVIST Trent University December 1969
Thompson: Good morning Watson.
Watson: Good morning Thompson. What brings you to the Common Room? I don't normally expect to find company here at this hour.
Thompson: Nor I. I'm looking for an article on Prince Juan Carlos that I noticed in yesterday's paper. I didn't have time to read it before dinner last night and I hoped I might find it here this morning. That's not yesterday's paper you're sitting on, is it?
Watson: As it happens it is but the women's pages are missing, and it will be the women's pages you are wanting. Articles on royalty are always in the women's pages.
Thompson: Not in this instance. If I remember rightly the article I'm looking for was opposite the editorial page.
Watson: Here's the first section then. But I don't know why you bother to read such stuff. I looked at some of the commentary on Prince Charles' Investiture and found it extraordinarily unintelligent.
Thompson: So did I. It was very depressing. But I don't read newspapers for enlightenment.
Watson: What do you read them for then?
Thompson: I read them to keep track of current opinion. On monarchy current opinion is doubly depressing as it is both unintelligent and increasingly unfavourable. Such sympathetic commentary as there is is probably the more stupid.
Watson: I shouldn't like to have to judge. But how do you account for this unintelligence.
Thompson: I would say there are two reasons for it: in the first place, as you have suggested, reporting on monarchy is ordinarily confined to the women's pages and thus when something like the Investiture of Prince Charles receives broader coverage the reporters assigned to it are either uninformed or informed from a rather limited perspective. And secondly, though ostensibly a political institution neither political scientists nor sociologists for that matter devote much attention to monarchy, and though in the transfer from learned journal to popular press their ideas may suffer some decay the influence of these men on the quality of public debate is important.
Watson: I'm sure they will be happy to hear that. But isn't the fundamental explanation just that monarchy isn't very important? The newspapers have to cater to public interest so they publish articles on royalty from time to time, usually in the women's pages, but political scientists realize that monarchy is unimportant, and so they ignore it. Under the circumstances the lack of intelligence of the interested and the lack of interest of the intelligent may be allowed to stand.
Thompson: You're trying to carry the argument from a lack of intelligence to a lack of interest further back to a lack of importance and because of this lack of importance you are prepared to accept the current climate of opinion about monarchy which as we have seen is unfavourable.
Watson: I suppose so. Monarchy does no harm, but if trends are against it so be it.
Thompson: But I believe monarchy can do good and that its disappearance would be a loss.
Watson: Maybe, but I still don't see that it's very important.
Thompson: An institution which in some form or other provides the heads of state of about four hundred million people can't be quite so unimportant as you seem to think. It deserves at least some sort of intelligent assessment.
Watson: Four hundred million? I'd be interested to know how you arrived at that figure.
Thompson: Well, if you start with Japan that's a hundred million right away, then Britain makes a hundred and fifty million, Belgium and Holland at ten million each make a hundred and seventy million and Thailand and we're over two hundred.
Watson: Alright, I believe you. I suppose I never really thought about it. But, I think I hear Richardson and Fordyce arguing their way into the common room. They're sure to have something to say on this subject. Good morning Richardson. Good morning Fordyce.
Fordyce: Good morning.
Richardson: Good morning everyone. Don't let us interrupt you. Working on a world census were you.
Watson: No. Thompson was trying to show me how important monarchy is by adding up the number of people whose heads of state are monarchs. We had just reached two hundred million when you two came along.
Richardson: I don't see that that proves very much. Monarchy is unimportant because all monarchs are figureheads.
Fordyce: That's not true. Many of them are the effective rulers of their countries.
Richardson: Which ones?
Fordyce: You don't seem to be embarrassed by ignorance. The Shah of Iran., the Emperor of Ethiopia, the Kings of Afghanistan, Jordan, and Nepal. None of those are figureheads, and there are others.
Richardson: But you're not going to defend that bunch of reactionaries are you?
Fordyce: They're not very difficult to defend. They can hardly be compared unfavourably as a group with the governments of the other countries of the underdeveloped world.
Richardson: They're not very democratic though.
Fordyce: I thought it had been decided that liberal democracy was unsuited to underdeveloped countries. In any case, alongside the military coup or the rigged election heredity does not seem an extraordinarily irrational way of choosing a head of state.
Watson: This is all very interesting I'm sure, but the underdeveloped monarchies are a rather special case, as I think you'll agree. Thompson and I were working up to a discussion of constitutional monarchy in the advanced countries, I think.
Thompson: Yes, I quite agree, but what Fordyce has said is true and should not be forgotten. But Richardson, you must have something to say about the constitutional monarchies. Sit down and let us hear about them.
Richardson: Certainly. They are irrelevant anachronisms out of tune with the democratic and egalitarian spirit of our times.
Thompson: Now that's a nice précis of the sort of thing one reads in the newspapers. Don't you think?
Watson: Perhaps Richardson you will be so kind as to explain himself in a little more detail. What do you mean, for instance, by calling monarchy an anachronism?
Richardson: I shall be glad to explain. Monarchy is a medieval institution and most of the presently existing monarchies were founded in the middle ages. They have outlived their time. It's as simple as that.
Thompson: I don't think it's simple at all. Monarchy has changed radically over the centuries. Feudal monarchy was something very different from absolute monarchy and that again was something very different from constitutional monarchy. Constitutional monarchy is a phenomenon of the nineteenth century and it has itself developed considerably in the last hundred years. We might perhaps be wise to seek a new name to describe monarchy in its present form. All you have to say in fact is that monarchy is old and because your knowledge of and respect for history is slight you regard age as both an unpardonable sin and an incurable disease. If anything is shown by the great age of monarchy I should say it is the remarkable adaptability and vitality of the institution.
Richardson: But what about the twentieth century? I shouldn't want to have to count up the number of ancient thrones toppled since 1900. Are they a demonstration of the vitality and adaptability of monarchy?
Thompson: Of course not. I don't dispute the fact that things have been pretty bad for monarchy for the last fifty years or thereabouts, but, unlike you, I neither believe that all present trends are irreversible nor that they are good.
Watson: Come now. Attacking monarchy because it is old is just silly. It reminds me of those articles on the investiture of Prince Charles in which the reporters felt compelled to mention the wonderfully irrelevant fact that in the same month two Americans would set foot on the Moon. You must have something more to say Richardson. What about the democratic and egalitarian spirit of our times you mentioned.
Richardson: Of course I have something more to say. Monarchy stands in direct contradiction to the trends towards democracy and equality which have characterized our times. You're not going to condemn those trends now are you?
Thompson: That depends. Insofar as they run counter to monarchy, yes. There's no reason, however, why democracy and monarchy should be in conflict unless for you democracy is a dogmatically held faith whose mystic foundation is arithmetic. As for egalitarian objections, whether they come from the equal opportunity orthodoxy or a more puritan sect, I'm not inclined to take them very seriously. One exception can surely be made.
Fordyce: Richardson never bothers to consider the facts. The majority of the more successful democracies are monarchies including Sweden, which has always been held up as a model of social equality.
Watson: Yes, yes Fordyce. I'm sure that's true but have you nothing more subtle to offer in argument Richardson than a crude contempt for age and a naive democracy.
Thompson: I shouldn't think so. A republican's attack on monarchy is essentially negative as the republic he advocates can be many things. The attack is bound to be crude so long as he thinks the problem is not important enough to be worth careful consideration.
Richardson: One certainly doesn't feel inspired to develop very subtle arguments in face of the stupidity of the monarchists. It is in them that age and irrelevance are most likely to meet.
Watson: Now don't go away Fordyce. You will have to reply to that.
Fordyce: It's impossible to argue with Richardson. He has no appreciation of the value of tradition and sentiment.
Richardson: Tradition and sentiment: that's all the monarchist's have to offer.
Thompson: To put forward tradition as valuable in itself is as irrational as the attack on monarchy because of its age. As for sentiment, it's far too subjective to be used as an argument. But we haven't heard your views, Watson. Perhaps you'll be able to shed some light where the Young Liberal and the Old Tory have failed.
Watson: I'm afraid not as I haven't ever given the subject much thought. A few good things about monarchy occur to me, but I'm not sure they make much of a case for it and in any event they depend on a sort of afterglow from the days of monarchy's glory, which is fast fading away. Just going about their daily rounds, for instance, royalty are a tourist attraction. Opening their palaces to the public would not, I should think, compensate for the loss of interest that would result from their overthrow. In the same way royalty can attract support for charities and stimulate interest in trade fairs.
Thompson: Yes, but quite apart from whether royalty's effectiveness in these roles is diminishing they have a demeaning character which weakens monarchy in other areas. Much the same things could be claimed for film stars.
Watson: I suppose so. There are more worthy roles for royalty though that fall broadly within the same classification. They may work on conservation or take an interest in the arts for instance. Perhaps most obviously they may relieve the head of government of many ceremonial duties. These may be minor merits, but I think they are worth mentioning.
Thompson: Yes, I think they are. Members of royal families in which a tradition of service exists will always make themselves useful.
Richardson: As they have so little else to occupy their time it's not surprising they're such do-gooders.
Thompson: Maybe. In any case all the things Watson has mentioned are fundamentally by products. Except for the last one. In talking of the monarchy relieving the head of government of ceremonial duties Watson touched obliquely on the heart of the role of monarchy.
Richardson: Perhaps you'd like to explain this role then. You've been very critical of other people's opinions, but you haven't given us your own.
Thompson: I'll be glad to give you my opinion, but I'll have to ask you to be patient. At the beginning what I have to say may sound very abstract and even rather silly. As we proceed, however, I hope you will find it more sensible. The ceremonial duties Watson talked of are part of the role of a head of state as, opposed to a head of government. I hope you are familiar with the distinction between the state and the government. It is an important one. The state is the whole people looked on not as a sum of individuals, but as a unit. It is the people in right of those things which hold them together and are their common interests. The government is made up of individuals pledged to serve those interests, but individuals with their own ideas of how best they can be served They are individuals marked out from the people as a whole as forming the government. It is essential that the loyalty of the citizen be to the state and not to the government.
Watson: That certainly is rather abstract, but I think we understand. You were going to say something about the role of the head of state, I think.
Thompson: Yes. The role of the head of state is to speak and act for the state as opposed to the government. In ceremonies he personifies the state. He accepts the honour due to it from its citizens and honours its servants.
Richardson: A head of state then is an over-paid actor playing an abstraction in an elaborate political allegory.
Thompson: I asked you to be patient. I haven't finished yet. I think, though, you will at least agree that it is not a good thing to have the head of state and head of government united in one person as is the case with the president of the United States. There is a confusion in the roles for Americans who must cheer for him one moment because he is the president and curse him the next because he is that man in the White House. Presidents have often exploited their position as head of state for political advantage while politicians can be heard excusing their acquiescence to Presidential policy as if it were a matter of simple loyalty to the state. It is not, I think, entirely irrelevant that despite the constitutional checks and balances that surround him it has been felt necessary to limit the president to two terms.
Richardson: Well then, perhaps it would be better to abolish the position of head of state altogether. It's obviously useless and apparently dangerous.
Thompson: Only when it is confused with the role of head of government is it dangerous, and as every country in the world has a head of state it is not immediately obvious that the role is useless. Many republics elect so called figurehead presidents just to act as head of state.
Watson: As I suggested, these presidents can take on ceremonial duties that would be an unnecessary burden to the head of government, but I think you see a larger usefulness.
Thompson: Yes. To talk of relieving a head of government of ceremonial duties is misleading. The ceremonial duties concerned are not properly those of a head of government at all, though far from wishing to be relieved of them many heads of government are all too eager to assume such duties. They are of course publicity, and publicity of a special kind: publicity which tends to identify the government with the state. Heads of government have a natural tendency to assume parts of the role of a head of state, a tendency that can only be checked by the existence of a distinct office. Moreover, this tendency itself is a demonstration of the existence of a role, which must somehow be filled.
Watson: You don't think loyalty to the state can be centred on a flag or something similar and the head of state be done away with altogether?
Thompson: No. The government is always personified in its head. Ceremonies in which the public can participate both directly and indirectly play an important part in stimulating public consciousness of membership in the state and it is important that the principals in these ceremonies not be members of the government Even patriotic platitudes have their place but it is not in the mouths of politicians.
Richardson: You admit though that your head of state is going to have no power. No one will be interested in such a cypher.
Thompson: I don't know that your inference is correct but in any case I haven't admitted the premise. Here we touch on the second side of the head of state's role. On the one hand he represents to the public the supreme claims of the state over the government. On the other hand he is to represent those claims to the government from day to day. It is healthy that a head of government should be obliged to acknowledge his formal subservience to the head of state and thus be reminded of his obligations towards the state.
Watson: What does this mean in practical terms?
Thompson: It means in the first place that the head of state ought to be able to insist on carrying out his public role and keeping the head of government in his place. But more than that it means that the head of state should be able to insist on the rights to be consulted, to encourage and to warn described by Bagehot. Responsibility lies with the government and the head of state will have only as much influence as the strength of his ideas can give him, but his presence should be felt as a reminder of the claims of the state throughout the work of the government.
Watson: But do you leave any opening for the independent exercise of power by the head of state?
Thompson: Yes. I do. In a sense all power lies with the head of state. When a policy has been decided on by the government it is only by the authority of the head of state that it becomes an act of the state and has binding force. But the state has no policy bias. It does not exist that something in particular should be done to serve the common interests, but just that something should be done. Thus, whatever may be his personal view of the merit of a policy, as head of state he approves it because the state, the whole people, wish something to be done though as individuals they may be divided in their opinions as to exactly what should be done. But what you want to know, I presume, is whether there are times when the head of state may reject the policy of the government.
Thompson: The answer follows clearly from what I have said. When the head of state decides that a government policy is conceived in opposition to the interests of the state then he must reject it, and in doing so unless the government changes its mind he rejects the government.
Watson: What do you mean by conceived in opposition to the interests of the state? It might just mean that the head of state didn't like it.
Thompson: Not at all. By a policy conceived in opposition to the interests of the state I mean not just an interest of the government as opposed to the state. There is always a danger that a government will use its power to exploit the state rather than to serve it, and it will not always be easy to determine whether this is the case but in extreme cases of corruption or unconstitutional action the head of state will know and should act.
Watson: One gets the feeling you are talking about parliamentary government on the British model.
Thompson: Very roughly, yes. There are two broad classifications of constitutions. In the one, of which the U. S. Constitution is the best example, an elaborate system of checks and balances is employed to guard against the abuse of power. The trouble with this type of constitution is that it is not very dynamic and is subject to paralysis. The British parliamentary system of government is capable of great dynamism and is more flexible but it requires a head of state (monarch or president) to serve as a sort of catalyst of government which, without involving itself in the reaction, sets things going, and as a safeguard against the abuse of power.
Richardson: Perhaps then a head of state is a good thing but, as you just indicated, he can be a president in a republic. What I assume you are defending is hereditary monarchy and if so you haven't yet touched the crucial issue.
Thompson: Of course not. But just a little while ago you were claiming that a head of state was useless. I had to show you the head of state has a role to play before I could justify the method of his selection.
Richardson: All right then. Now you have only to justify the hereditary principle.
Thompson: That will not be as difficult as you seem to think. From what I have said it will be seen that a head of state must be above politics and yet involved in affairs of state. A republic must choose for its president either an ex-politician or a non-politician. In the case of an ex-politician the break with politics can never be complete. There always remains an unhealthy identification with government for the public, for the government and for the head of state himself. He cannot with full effectiveness represent to the public the state above politics; he is compromised in his dealings with the government; and lastly he may be tempted to unwarranted interference in the work of the government.
Watson: And what about the non-politician?
Thompson: In the case of the non-politician, a scientist or man of letters is being introduced late in life to affairs of state. He may lack the necessary confidence in dealing with the government, and they in turn may be inclined to ignore him. Such men moreover are sometimes ill at ease and maladroit in public.
Richardson: Why not compromise on a minor politician?
Thompson: A minor politician is no solution. Certainly the more prominent the politician the, closer his identification with the government and thus a minor politician may escape some of this identification. But by the same token a minor politician will be less experienced in affairs of state and more apt to be regarded as the creature of the politicians who chose him.
Richardson: The only solution to the problem then is to have the president popularly elected.
Thompson: But the dangers of popular election are far greater than any possible advantages. To begin with the whole people is divided into individuals over the one office on which they should not be divided. Beyond that the popularly elected president may assume, on the strength of his mandate, the right to intervene in the work of the government.
Fordyce: How does hereditary monarchy avoid these problems then? You can't expect perfection.
Thompson: Perhaps not. But a monarch is barred from birth from involvement in politics and yet is trained from birth to fill the role of head of state. He does not depend for his position on the favour of politicians but on a natural and automatic succession. These are the key advantages resulting from the hereditary principle.
Richardson: The hereditary principle can't guarantee intelligence.
Thompson: You are speaking under the influence of your meritocratic prejudices. Perhaps you would like to have the head of state chosen by an aptitude test. In fact the job requires only average intelligence combined with a certain training and a certain relationship to politics that hereditary monarchy is best able to secure. In the case of idiocy or lunacy a regency may be declared.
Richardson: All right then, maybe the hereditary principle can work, but it confines the office to one family. Shouldn't every citizen be able to aspire to be the head of state?
Thompson: Certainly not. It would be most unhealthy for any citizen to aspire to be head of state.
We have seen that the head of state is to be the centre of much ceremony. His position is a very exalted one, carrying properly much prestige and yet little power to shape policy. The desire to serve the state in government is laudable The desire to head the state is not.
Fordyce: But shouldn't a citizen at least be able to identify with the head of state, and how can he identify with someone who has such an extraordinary life as a monarch.
Thompson: No. The citizen must not identify with the head of state. The state must be felt as other: as something which the citizen serves and which serves in turn the citizen. The citizen in one of his aspects is a member of the state, but he is not the state. Identification of the citizen with the state is the road to totalitarianism.
Watson: So you don't think a head of state should represent the average man.
Thompson: As I have said he doesn't need more than average talents, but if you mean common man the answer is no. To put a common man in the midst of the panoply of state is a little silly and a little dangerous. For as monarch, however, it is nothing. That is why it is only in a monarchy that the full panoply of state can be employed.
Watson: After you defence of the hereditary principle it begins to look rather sensible and not just quaint.
Thompson: Thank you. There is just one thing I think is worth adding. Monarchy provides a concrete continuity in the state which republics cannot achieve. The long reigns of some monarchs along with the continuity of their families contrast sharply with the fleeting five year terms usual with presidents.
Richardson: I'm still not sure I've been convinced. But Fordyce, I've noticed you've been silent through all this. I should say your arguments look a little weak beside Thompson's. Or do you have something to add.
Fordyce: It's your arguments that look weak now Richardson. But I don't think monarchy should be dissected like this. It should be left a sort of mystery. It works. All the monarchs are doing a good job. That's enough for me.
Richardson: Oh, I don't want to criticize any of the monarchs. I'm sure they are all very fine people. I just have my doubts about the institution.
Thompson: I should hope you don't want to criticize any monarchs. One ought to believe in art before one ventures to criticize artists. The same holds true for monarchy. On the other hand, once we have arrived at an understanding of it, it is important for monarchy's sake that emperors, kings, princes etc. receive intelligent criticism. Without this there is a danger of decay. I think that is a bit the case now.
Fordyce: But the monarch should be above criticism.
Thompson: Not at all. Monarchism contains no doctrine of infallibility. In the past monarchs were subject to much more rigorous criticism than at the present and monarchy was the healthier for it.
Watson: All the same monarchs receive quite a lot of unsolicited advice from commentators etc. as to how they should carry out their role.
Thompson: Yes, but almost all of it is very bad advice. It comes either from people who fundamentally don't approve of monarchy or from sentimentalists who don't see its real value and seek a shaky accommodation with its opponents. In both cases the advice tends to encourage departures from the essentials of monarchy.
Watson: What do you mean?
Thompson: Both the latent republicans and the sentimentalists encourage monarchy to be what they call democratic. As in itself monarchy is undemocratic this must lead to a malformation of monarchy. They encourage for instance a democratic education for princes by which they apparently mean the education of the ordinary citizen. This would be all right if it weren't for the fact that princes if they are of any value do not lead lives like ordinary citizens, and thus may need a different education.
Watson: The same people do sometimes want royalty to live like ordinary citizens.
Thompson: Yes. The motive behind this, it would seem, is that if royalty live like ordinary citizens (in Scandinavia this apparently involves kings riding bicycles) then everyone will be able to say they live like a king. It makes monarchy useless, but the monarch has to be maintained and kept in the public eye for it to be effective.
Watson: Your talking of keeping the monarch in the public eye reminds me of a slightly different tendency which I think is much worse. Some people do not want royalty to live ordinary lives but to live very public very glamorous lives like film stars. To the extent that they can't think of anything else for royalty to do, some people can't look at them any other way.
Thompson: I am afraid that's so. Because it caters only to such interests the film on the Royal Family, however well-intentioned, is unwise.
Watson: There's one last point I'd like to raise. You seem to think of monarchy as a sort of guaranty of liberal democracy. So you think monarchy's usefulness is limited to the liberal democracies.
Thompson: No. For instance one can imagine (though to you the idea may seem rather silly) a communist monarchy, in which the king symbolized the (continuing) revolution and went around pronouncing Marxist-Leninist platitudes of the sort that Communists find it so necessary to repeat. Indeed monarchy might have a strong appeal to Communists as a means of avoiding the sort of personality cult which in the cases of Stalin, Mao, and Khrushchev has tainted the revolutionary purity of their leaders.
Watson: I see. Well, on that bizarre note perhaps we had better end. If I am not mistaken lunch is being served and some of us have not had any breakfast. Though our discussion has not been conclusive it has nonetheless been valuable. Monarchy is less likely to disappear because of any glaring faults it might have than because no one thinks it worth studying enough to discover its use, if it has any.
Thompson: Yes. I think our discussion has been quite profitable. As I had breakfast I will stay here and read this article which is as thought on page 7. Perhaps we could take the subject up again some time when I may hear some better republican arguments and when in any case we shall be able to go into monarchy's role and prospects in more detail.