Something that we knew was going to happen sooner rather than later, but hoped that it would be much later, has occurred. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, who has been our Sovereign for the entirety of my lifetime, who several years ago surpassed Queen Victoria’s record as the longest reigning monarch in our line of succession, who this year achieved her Platinum Jubilee, the seventieth anniversary of her accession to the throne, has passed from us. Since she was a devout, believing and practicing Christian of the Church of England, I can say without irony: Rest eternal grant unto her, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon her. May she rest in peace.
My condolences go out to our new Sovereign, His Majesty King Charles III, and, of course, to the rest of the Royal Family for the loss of his mother. In monarchy, the most ancient of state institutions, the pre-Modern idea that family and kin are more fundamental to human society than the contracts of the marketplace is retained, and so, traditionally, a king or a queen, stands in relation to the people of the realm(s) over which he or she reigns, as father or mother. Queen Elizabeth II exemplified this aspect of her office, although in her case we tended to think of the role as more grandmotherly than motherly. For this reason, the loss we feel on her death is closer akin to that of His Majesty and the Royal Family, than what we might feel upon the death of a good or at least passable elected politician should such a rara avis ever make an appearance again.
I have written much about the benefits and virtues of the institution of monarchy over the years. I have often made the point that the institution is good – better than any other state institution – and worth defending, regardless of who holds the office, but have always added that in the case of Queen Elizabeth II, the person holding the office was exemplary as well. Even in her death, this remains true. A few hours ago the Prime Minister addressed the Dominion of Canada. This is a man for whom in Catullan terms I admit to having far more of the odi than the amo. While I generally cringe every time he opens his mouth, and on most matters of controversy I could not imagine two views further removed from each other than his and my own, I could not fault what he had to say on the occasion of Her Majesty’s passing. It was only what was appropriate. As I have said many times in the past, one of the chief ways in which a hereditary monarch is superior to an elected head of state such as a president, is that the office is not filled by the representative of a faction winning the fundamentally divisive popularity contests we call elections. If the executive ministers of government who make the day to day decisions of government and exercise its powers are elected in such contests, as they are in our system, this makes it all the more important that at the head of state we have a hereditary monarch who is above the factionalism and division. While this capacity to unify is vested in the office of monarch itself, the person who holds the office can by their words and behaviour, either complement or detract from it. That Her Majesty in her death could put the Prime Minister and myself on something close to the same page for even a second demonstrates that she exemplified it par excellence.
Stephen Leacock once praised the wisdom of the way our system combined the “dignity of kings” with the “power of democracy”. Our institutions of monarchy and parliament complement each other in many other ways as well. One that I would like to briefly discuss is the balance between continuity and change. That both are necessary is an insight as old as Heraclitus. There is continuity as well as change in both institutions but as principles, continuity is primarily associated with monarchy and change with parliament. In parliament, that ancient institution in which the elected representatives of the different constituent elements of the realm debate legislation and policy, divisive factionalism is unavoidable. For this reason, it is good that parliament is associated with the principle of change. Earlier this year, when Queen Elizabeth II achieved seventy years on the throne, this was cause for celebration. It is highly unlikely that we would see a political party’s having held power in parliament for seventy years straight as a similar cause for celebration. A Platinum Jubilee for a reigning queen is a wonderful thing. A Platinum Jubilee for a sitting prime minister would not be. The principle of continuity is best exemplified in the institution of monarchy, and the principle of change in the institution of parliament. I only wish those we sent to parliament were more open to the kind of change that involves going back to something that has worked in the past when innovations prove not to be improvements but the opposite of such.
In terms of constitutional law, the principle of continuity is expressed in the phrase “the king never dies.” Obviously, “the king” in the expression is the office not the person, transferred immediately on the passing of the previous monarch to the next heir in succession. It is in accordance with this principle that we say:
The Queen is dead. Long live the King.
God Save the King.