President Obama

A forthcoming book by Vali Nasr, who is Dean of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, paints a tragic picture of President Obama and the Afghan debacle. Dr. Vasr worked closely with the late and unsuccessful envoy Richard Holbooke, summarised in Foreign Policy, where Mr Obama makes decisions almost in camera with only a few trusted associates, besieged by fratricidal bureaucracies undercutting one another for access and influence, money and power. This must happen a lot.

If only American leaders all took a nice relaxing holiday to London and went to the theatre, this problem could be solved or at least reduced. A popular new West End play shows how.

Of course American government is so big, and its bureaucracies overlap so much, that these turf wars hamstring policies domestic and foreign; nothing can be solved ultimately without deciding that government should grow smaller and do less. But problems could be reduced, one supposes, if any President could escape from his cocoon and take advice from someone whose practical experience is almost limitless, who stands little or nothing to gain from politics, who is a paragon of virtue and whose discretion can be relied upon completely. But from whom?

One doubts that even a President’s most trusted political allies would pass muster; they may be blindly obedient, cunningly self-interested or just myopic. Were Mister Obama so disposed, he could see a psychiatrist who would maintain professional discretion. Were he a Catholic he could go to Confession and his secrets could be even safer, but neither priest nor shrink may be able to proffer the statesmanlike advice that he must crave at least now and again. Happily, Britain may have found an answer.

Dame Helen Mirren in The Audience

Dame Helen Mirren in The Audience

London’s newest hit play “The Audience,” starring Dame Helen Mirren once more portraying Queen Elizabeth II, dramatises the weekly meetings held between monarch and serving Prime Minister when both are in London.

Nobody knows when the meetings began, but Dr. Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at King’s College, London, reports:

During the Second World War, George VI invited Winston Churchill to regular lunches at Buckingham Palace to monitor progress. Churchill sometimes took liberties with the monarch. In October 1942, worried about the campaign in North Africa, he left the lunch table to go to the telephone. His telephone conversation evidently pleased him, since, as the King’s private secretary has written, “he walked back along the passage singing Roll out the Barrel with gusto, but with little evidence of musical talent…”

George’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, began the formal weekly meetings soon after her coronation, and over more than sixty years she has consulted with twelve Prime Ministers. The play is speculative, relying on intentionally vague political memoirs and other asides: few state secrets are kept so scrupulously anywhere (even no minutes are taken), but by all estimates they are thorough-going and candid.

In her memoirs, Lady Thatcher wrote: “Anyone who imagines that they are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience.” While the Queen remains politically neutral as head of state, she wields considerable power informally and her advice is not wisely ignored.

Queen Elizabeth II & Winston Churchill

Queen Elizabeth II & Winston Churchill

These weekly royal audiences seem to have been welcomed by the UK’s elected leaders. Professor Bogdanor writes: “Edward Heath felt that one could speak with complete confidence to the Queen: ‘You can say things that you would not say even to your Number Two.’ James Callaghan used to say that the weekly audiences were like visits to a psychiatrist” due to the iron-clad secrecy.

America could do a service to herself, and to her lonely and overworked Presidents, by returning to monarchy.

This would not end bureaucratic turf wars, but it would provide America’s leader with a fairly neutral sounding board, especially were its monarch as wise and experienced as Britain’s queen. A royal head of state would enhance US national cohesion above politics, something sorely needed. An American monarch would command the ultimate loyalty of its armed forces, who in Britain obey elected politicians but who would side with crown and nation were there ever a conflict of loyalty (inspired, say, by politically-mandated drone-strikes against US citizens on American soil).

Not to repeat the many monarchical arguments of libertarian Hans-Herman Hoppe, but a multi-generational royal family has better incentives to preserve property rights and order than a pack of looters elected for four or eight short years. A more traditionalist monarchy than Britain’s, a medieval one, might have even more advantages. Jonathan Goodwin writes:

The king was not above the law, but equally subject to it. For law to be law, it must be both old and good. Each lord had a veto power over the king and over each other law (I will use the term “lord” for those landed free men). Even the serfs could not be denied their right without adjudication. Land was not held as a favor from the king..A man’s home truly was his castle.

Otto von Habsburg's funeral

Otto von Habsburg’s funeral

It is not just libertarians and reactionaries who are coming together (reluctantly no doubt) in support of monarchy. One hears few complaints from the Dutch, the Danes, Scandinavians, Thais and others. In democratic Kenya, today’s contest is between candidates named Odinga versus Kenyatta, descendants of their two leaders at independence. In China the new elites are children of the veterans of Mao’s Long March; a neo-feudal aristocracy from which a monarchy may emerge. At the recent funeral of Dr. Otto von Habsburg, even Austria’s innumerable and self-superior social-democrats turned out in force and adoringly, genuflecting in respect while tripping over their great-granddads’ medals, robes and uniforms.

In Britain we have long giggled quietly over America’s royalist “love that dare not speak its name,” whether those to-be-anointed are named Kennedy, Bush or something else. Face it, kids, you know you want it. Royal purple is “the new black,” tomorrow’s cutting-edge visionaries will be monarchists, and imaginative conservatives will have front-row seats. The questions are only who and how.

Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II

Ridding America of its Constitution will come as a relief, since it has been dead as a hammer for at least a century and a half: it employs the highest population-density of lawyers anywhere on earth and it is roundly ignored by politicians of every stamp. It is not going to be revivified anymore than Tinkerbelle can be cured by everyone chanting “I do believe in fairies!”

On holiday in Britain, forward-looking Americans can sample the civilised unwritten constitution, and investigate the ancient Common Law tradition that the modern UK too often ignores. Applying America’s vast ingenuity, you may abandon Enlightenment ideology altogether, and craft an organic (and maybe even regionally flexible) hybrid of local traditions and medieval-style (real) property rights. But copyright your work for the politician-weary world will rush to replicate it.

Choosing an American monarch may be the toughest task; lots will want Oprah or some similarly well-meaning celebrity lacking in experience. You might ask Queen Elizabeth II if America could be readmitted: she is a devout Christian probably far above holding petty grudges. If she is too busy to take on the extra work, she could offer some useful advice. And if it comes to that, Dame Helen Mirren is only booked through mid-June.

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Published: Mar 17, 2013
Stephen Masty (1954-2015) was a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He was a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he was a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.
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11 replies to this post
  1. In the modern age, real power is scattered, impersonal and hidden; it rests with the machinery of the state. The beauraeucrat and the regulatory regime rule. Monarchs are just as impotent as Presidents.

    Witness this:

    Queen Elizabeth was, in 1991, perfectly aware that the western democracies were bankrupt. She clearly had no power to change this situation when there was still time, prior to the economic catastrophe. President Reagan also notes that he was powerless to do anything.

    Another point: did anyone notice during the conclave that the Cardinals (from all over the world) functioned without any translators?

    Imagine the European Parliament without translators?

    And yet the clergy, who in fact have traveled the globe and know multiple languages, are considered backward and provincial, while Euro MPs are considered paragons of cosmopolitanism. In fact, your average democratic politician is the real “backwater rube”.

    Things like these do seem to speak in favor of monarchy. Still, I remain tied to the republican ideal.

    • Who considers Euro MPs to be paragons of cosmopolitanism? Are you referring to the political and media classes in Europe. Over 99% of Britons could not even name one of their Euro MPs (elected in groups by region). A majority (mainly Conservative and UK Independence Party supporters) would vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held tomorrow.

      The Catholic Church is a bizarre choice of alternative to offer. What did Pope Benedict do to tackle the sex abuse and misconduct? One of his last acts was to accept the resignation of the Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien when he was admitted “sexual misconduct” just before the conclave. Millions of dollars are being paid out in compensation to sex victims of Priests and Bishops. It’s not surprising that attendances are dropping all over Europe. Christopher Dawson would be appalled and disgusted.

      I just thank the Lord that the established Church of England is headed by the HM Queen and that most of its clergy are happily married men with families.

      • Ken, Dawson seems to write that the Catholic Church has worked best in parallel to governments (or for believers above it spiritually). As a populous and massive, 2,000-year-old institution with few immediate political pressures, it tackles its internal problems at a different pace than modern governments but maybe no less seriously; I don’t think the last pope was a slacker on pederasts but I cannot know for sure. It would still do a better job than faceless Eurocrats, but we can happily set aside both options! Were the Catholic Church writing European economic policy, the mind boggles.

  2. Mr. Masty: Talk about provocative–“Face it, kids, you know you want it. Royal purple is “the new black,” tomorrow’s cutting-edge visionaries will be monarchists, and imaginative conservatives will have front-row seats. The questions are only who and how.” Add to that your suggestion that Americans scrap our inconvenient and oft-ignored Constitution, and you’ve managed to offend Americans of all partisan stripes. I can’t decide if your piece is a Swiftian modest proposal or if you’re, sort of, serious; but in either case, it certainly is unusual to hear praise of Britain (forget about praise of monarchy) on a conservative website–Britain is usually the Right’s poster child for a dysfunctional welfare state plagued by troublesome immigrants (it’s also nice to hear some sympathy for Obama, devil or not as he may be). So should we copy Britain’s national health system while we go about copying its monarchy?

    • “it certainly is unusual to hear praise of Britain (forget about praise of monarchy) on a conservative website”. Where do you think America’s culture came from? Have you even bothered to read Russell Kirk? Perhaps you think that Adam Smith and Edmund Burke have no relevance to American conservatism.

      “So should we copy Britain’s national health system while we go about copying its monarchy?” It’s unlikely that any British conservative would recommend that course of action. The argument, of course, is ridiculous. Tony Blair “copied” Bush’s foreign policy. We are still paying the huge bills (soldiers’ lives and domestic terrorism as well as billions of pounds) for that stupidity.

  3. Choosing an American monarch is not a tough task. An obvious potential choice would be HM Queen Elizabeth II. America could also join the Commonwealth of Nations as other countries have done. Her Majesty is the Head of the Commonwealth but it includes Republics too.

    • John, I do not know her personally but I was being mischievous there; she looks good in the role, in no other respect would Dame Helen be recommended as a monarch.

  4. Being in the Commonwealth under Elizabeth II might not be intolerable, but having HRH Charles III nosing around in the business of these United States would be too much to bear!

    • Jason, HRH Charles is a curious figure. No doubt his cocoon, his courtiers and their flattery often keep him self-satisfied with odd ideas and his feet off terra firma. His father said it best, off camera but in an interview: Charles is a romantic and I am a pragmatist, he said, and romantics often think that pragmatists are cruel. Even so (and apart from Edward VIII) these Windsors tend to rise to the occasion after being crowned. Who’d have thought that George V would have made such a good wartime king, or that his playboy father would have made such a fine monarch?

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