How She Did It
Elizabeth II made the U.K.’s constitution work. America could learn a thing or two.
It’s a crazy system.
The symbol of the state, the theoretical supreme executive of the country, is chosen by birth order within a single family. If that system produces an extreme dud, he or she may be maneuvered off the throne, as the late Queen Elizabeth’s uncle David—who reigned as Edward VIII—was maneuvered off in 1936. But Edward was recklessly irresponsible and weak-willed. The normal rule is: Next in line gets the job.
In a world that otherwise values competition, effort, and merit, the British have allowed their state to be governed by the purest chance. It seems like a formula for disaster. Instead, it has produced 350 years of constitutional stability.
Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, under the Constitution written by the greatest assembly of political talent ever gathered in a single room, we’re debating whether it’s okay for the serving president to condemn his predecessor’s attempt to seize power by violence.
The British stumbled upon an unexpectedly powerful idea: Sever the symbolism of the state from the political power of the state, and bestow those two different governing roles on two different people. Power has little majesty in the British system. Prime ministers reside in an apartment over their office. People are rude to them all the time. Their colleagues can give them the boot, as they just did to Boris Johnson.
Meanwhile, the person who gets the palaces, the bowing and scraping, the bands and the guards, gets nothing else. The British monarch is both the head of state and that state’s most closely watched prisoner, forbidden to say or do anything remotely human, let alone political. That’s why Queen Elizabeth II was admired and loved: She submerged every aspect of her individuality to a discipline so remorseless that it invited insanity—or mutiny.
“How many years have you been a corn husker?”
“You must find corn husking very interesting.”
“Are these the corns you husk?”
“This husking is lovely; was it very difficult?”
Multiply times eleventy billion.
Almost anybody else on Earth would have, sooner or later, rebelled. Queen Elizabeth II never did. Maybe duty became a kind of performance art for her. What preposterous ritual must I perform today? Maybe she envied her American counterparts: the powerful Eisenhower, the brutal Johnson, the conniving Nixon, the indifferent Reagan, the self-indulgent Clinton, the piggish Trump. Or maybe she didn’t allow herself to think about the comparison. She had another corn husker to greet politely.
The American system of government is based in large part on that of 18th-century Britain. The powers of the American presidency look a lot like those of the British monarchy before the American Revolution—the power to propose and veto legislation, to pardon crimes and commute sentences—powers that no British monarch has wielded for ages. Because the U.S. Constitution is formalized in writing, and is so difficult to amend, the institutions of the former colonies are in many ways more conservative than those of the former colonizer. The British genius is the ability to wrap institutional innovations in fake antiquity. The American struggle is to wrestle outdated institutions into the modern age.
But now, possibly, it’s America’s turn to teach. In the Trump era, Americans painfully learned that there are no institutions, only people. Institutions work, if they work, because they are served by people who do their duty with competence and integrity.
In an 1888 address, the poet James Russell Lowell warned against the idea that the Constitution was a machine “that would go of itself.” Lowell could also have advised that the British monarchy is not a machine that will go of itself. It must be made to go, by the exercise of self-control in support of larger ideals.
What Americans can also teach is that if self-control lapses, if the ideals lose their hold, even the best-designed systems will crash.
America’s old republic was born of rebellion against Britain’s more ancient monarchy. Yet, by strange fate, the passage of time has only joined America and Britain more closely together in war and peace. The constitutional transfer of power from Elizabeth II to Charles III forces a sad reflection on the violence by which America’s 45th president tried to thwart the transfer to his lawfully elected successor. If the test of a constitutional order is stability and success, then once again the United States and the United Kingdom are being tested together.