Recently, some commentators have mused about whether the U.S. would be better off with a queen or king. These nostalgic murmurs were inspired by the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth in England this week. The Queen and her subjects are celebrating 60 years of rule. Most of the talk has been about whether “Yanks” are “missing out royally without a queen“.
May 12, 1937. Queen Elizabeth, second from left, and King George VI, second from right, are seen on the balcony of London’s Buckingham Palace following the coronation of King George VI.
What exactly does a queen or king do for a society besides rule? In most cases, modern royalty don’t make many decisions. They leave the day-to-day running of the state to elected government officials. That is the case in England too. The prime minister makes domestic and foreign policy. And yet the Queen is still the head of state.
Her contribution goes beyond having her face and name on the nation’s currency, armed forces, and on the taxes levied and the laws written and passed by Parliament. These are important symbols of her authority but they do not account for the most important function of royalty. While many believe that the Queen’s most important role is to serve as a unifying force in England, I think it has to do with gathering power for the state.
While unifying the nation is an important role, most seem to forget that queens and kings serve as heads of state. What this means goes beyond holding a title. A head of state has the awesome power to rightfully take life, liberty, and property. That power has to come from somewhere. Why would people willingly give the state that right to rule them? Modern humans lived the majority of time on this earth (35-40,000 years) without needing a state. It has only been in the last 5-6,000 years that humans began to accept the idea of Leviathan. Traditionally, many have argued that royalty’s right to power and rule was granted to queens and kings by God. The people needed to be ruled and God created royalty to do so. Later, political theorists, like Locke and Hobbes, made the argument that states were created by a contract with the people in exchange for peace or property protection. These make for a good stories and each story has been historically persuasive for many. But these stories are also just not true.
What is true is that it is the people being ruled who give a queen or a king or a president the power to rule. The state is a Leviathan as Thomas Hobbs once said, an artificial monster with enormous powers over its subjects. And yet that power comes to the state from the subjects themselves. We do so not through a contract. We give the monster life. Every minute and every single day, people give the state it’s power. They do so by BELIEVING in this abstract body, by RESPECTING it, by giving it CREDIBILITY, and by OBEYING it. This is, for the most part, not a conscious process. In fact, it is better if it is not conscious. Power flows a lot easier to the queen if subjects don’t have to plan or think about how they give the queen power. The power to take their life, their liberty, or their property is easier to accept and to give to the queen when subjects do so because of habit, faith, or love.
The British continue to support the institution of the Royal Family because it serves the vital function of siphoning power from the people in a way that does not create waves or jeopardize the continuity of state power. Unlike our president, who has to try to siphon power form the people while also governing them, the Queen’s job is much simpler. She can simply draw upon the adoration and love the people have for her. She never has to reject their pleas for help, impose burdensome new taxes, or pit one group against another.
As long as the people love the Queen, the British state can maintain a stable source of power for the Parliament and the Prime Minister to use in governing. This is what makes the Queen so important to British politics and to the British people. She represents a unique institution that solves in a gracious and effective manner the modern problem of how to gather power from the people into the state. If that siphoning of power does not occur, the state cannot embody the power necessary to permit government to rule.