Is America tipping toward a British system of government?
Sixty years ago in London, Queen Elizabeth was crowned in succession to her father, the now famously stammering chain-smoker George VI. For most Brits the queen’s Diamond Jubilee is a chance to celebrate her reign with street parties, fireworks, concerts, and pageants along the Thames. They will be toasting the woman who has so far presided over 12 prime ministers, including perhaps the greatest of them all, Winston Churchill.
It is a mark of Elizabeth’s benign demeanor and quiet charm that she will be celebrated not only in the 54 member states of the Commonwealth, the independent nations that were Britain’s former colonies and dominions, but around the world, too. Few countries do pomp as well as the Brits, as the weddings of Prince William to Kate and Prince Charles to Diana attest. But not all Americans, when they watch the Jubilee, will grasp the true role of the queen.
She is a constitutional monarch, which means she wields no political power. She personifies the state and opens sessions of Parliament by reading out the new legislative program her prime ministers have written, as if she herself had decided what the people need. She keeps her views strictly to herself and does as she is asked by elected officials, whether it is greeting fellow heads of state or dubbing new knights with a sword.
On the face of it, there is nothing much the American Republic can learn from the monarchy. In the Revolutionary War, we decided monarchy was not for us. George III, the king who lost America, was not only clinically mad. He was crazy to have let America go, but that’s another matter. America has steamed on without a monarch ever since and has never looked back.
One of George Washington’s most significant decisions was to decline a third term, saying the last thing America needed was another king. After Franklin Roosevelt came close to becoming an elected monarch by winning four terms, the Constitution was changed so no president should serve more than two. Our republic was founded instead upon democratic principles born of the French Revolution, dividing power between the executive (the president), the lawmakers (Congress), and the judiciary (the Supreme Court), on the principle no single arm of government should become too powerful.
There are, however, drawbacks. In Britain, the monarch is kept quite separate from the prime minister. This allows Brits to harshly criticize their prime minister without being thought unpatriotic. When an American president gets into trouble, he is inclined to wrap himself in the flag so that those who challenge him are accused of being un-American and unpatriotic. Imagine how much easier it would have been to censure Richard Nixon had he not also been our head of state.
In Britain, democratic rights were wrested from the monarch over time by members of parliament who defied the king by refusing to grant him tax revenues. In the English Revolution, a struggle between parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell and under Charles I, Parliament won the Civil War, and the king was beheaded. When Charles’s son Charles II was eventually restored to the throne, his powers were much diminished. In the Glorious Revolution, two Dutch nobles, William and Mary, were offered the throne on condition they became little more than figureheads, like Elizabeth today.
A similar revolution, or perhaps evolution, appears to be taking place in Washington right now. Congress is withholding tax-raising powers to force the president to do its bidding. There is an important issue at stake – whether the executive and his government is allowed to get anything done, or whether the Constitution has through the threat of gridlock and the use of super-majorities tacitly awarded sovereignty to Congress.
And there is a further aspect of government that suggests we may be moving back toward the sort of hereditary rule the Brits long ago abandoned: the untrammeled power of rich Americans to buy their way into government by spending their fortunes on influencing politicians and elections. There are few open advocates for a return to aristocracy here, though by stealth that appears to be what is happening as superrich families hand down their wealth from generation to generation and impose their will on the rest of us.
PHOTO: Carriage restorer David Evens cleans the 1902 State Landau carriage at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace, as the horses and carriages are prepared for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, May 28, 2012. REUTERS/Sean Dempsey/POOL