If one were to devise a political system from scratch, knowing something of history and a great deal about human nature, the sort of person that one would chiefly want, if possible, to exclude from power would be the sort of person who most desires it, and who is most willing to make a great effort to acquire it. By all means, drag a reluctant Cincinnatus from his fields when the Volscians are at the gates, but then permit him to retreat again to his arable exile when the crisis has passed; for God’s sake, though, never surrender the fasces to anyone who eagerly reaches out his hand to take them.
Yet our system obliges us to elevate to office precisely those persons who have the ego-besotted effrontery to ask us to do so; it is rather like being compelled to cede the steering wheel to the drunkard in the back seat loudly proclaiming that he knows how to get us there in half the time. More to the point, since our perpetual electoral cycle is now largely a matter of product recognition, advertising, and marketing strategies, we must be content often to vote for persons willing to lie to us with some regularity or, if not that, at least to speak to us evasively and insincerely. In a better, purer world—the world that cannot be—ambition would be an absolute disqualification for political authority.
One can at least sympathize, then, with Tolkien’s view of monarchy. There is, after all, something degrading about deferring to a politician, or going through the silly charade of pretending that “public service” is a particularly honorable occupation, or being forced to choose which band of brigands, mediocrities, wealthy lawyers, and (God spare us) idealists will control our destinies for the next few years.
But a king—a king without any real power, that is—is such an ennoblingly arbitrary, such a tender and organically human institution. It is easy to give our loyalty to someone whose only claim on it is an accident of heredity, because then it is a free gesture of spontaneous affection that requires no element of self-deception, and that does not involve the humiliation of having to ask to be ruled.
The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole game. There is something positively sacramental about its strategic impotence. And there is something blessedly gallant about giving one’s wholehearted allegiance to some poor inbred ditherer whose chief passions are Dresden china and the history of fly-fishing, but who nonetheless, quite ex opere operato, is also the bearer of the dignity of the nation, the anointed embodiment of the genius gentis—a kind of totem or, better, mascot. – David Hart
When thinking about American presidential elections from the other side of the Atlantic, it is also noteworthy that the president is not merely the head of government, but also the head of state. He is an immensely important person on the national and world stage, the most influential and powerful of all. Given the concentration of so much power in the one figure, it may not be surprising that American presidential elections are fraught affairs.
In this context, one possible contributing factor to the decreased acrimony surrounding UK general elections may have to do with the fact that constitutional monarchy serves the purpose of preserving the key symbolic role of the head of state from dangerous contenders, while vesting it with little actual power. America seems far more susceptible to certain forms of rebranding and disorienting and radical change in national identity than a constitutional monarchy like the UK does. While Americans have decisively turned their backs on such a form of government, there may perhaps be occasions when reflection on what they are missing out on could prove illuminating. As a monarchy, the UK also can enjoy more moments of largely non-partisan national celebration and share a national identity across political divides, recent examples being the Royal Wedding and the celebrations of HM the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I realize that I may be venturing out on the skinny branches of my American readers’ charity at this point, so I will move on!- Alastair Roberts