Liberty Matters

The Complicated History of Liberalism and Monarchy

The essays in this forum all complement each other and in doing so cast light on several interrelated questions. The first concerns the historical and contemporary relationship between monarchy as a regime or type of political order. The second concerns both liberty and a range of social values and practices commonly described as ‘progressive’ that are often associated with contemporary liberalism. As Elena Woodacre says, these are nowadays strongly connected with monarchies but this is surprising for some because monarchy has historically been associated with the contrasting opposite practice of tyranny and arbitrary rule, by a succession of authors and movements from the early modern period onwards. Her key point is that this is incorrect – tyranny is a quality of governance and practice that can be found in any kind of political order, and monarchy is not especially susceptible to it. Tyrannical government often takes the form of personal rule as in Putin’s Russia, but this is not always the same as monarchy (North Korea is a case where it is) and, more importantly, personal rule is only one kind of tyranny, as examples like Iran and the post-Stalin Soviet Union demonstrate.
A central question arises from the four essays: the nature of the connection between historical liberalism and the ideal of self-government, whether individual or collective. As Woodacre says, this is often seen as embodied in the republican form of political order as articulated by a succession of authors from Cicero to the civic humanists of the Renaissance and later. Liberalism, I would argue, can find either monarchy or classical republicanism a congenial regime – there is no inherent incompatibility in either case - so the question becomes the empirical one of which regime has proved to be most congenial historically and in practice. The empirical evidence is not decisive but leans towards monarchy – the challenge is in distinguishing the impact of a regime from that of its specific or contingent factors. One major question that has exercised republican theorists is that of the longevity or otherwise of republican institutions – here monarchy generally has the upper hand despite examples of long-lived republics such as Venice and the United States. One question we might ask is how far any of the extant regimes that claim to be republican actually are, in the sense that people such as Machiavelli or Harrington used the term. Maybe they are more forms of either oligarchy or democracy, to use the classical categories. 
This brings us to the point made in Helen Dale’s essay, where she drew attention to the connection of the British monarchy to a certain kind of legal order and the way that this was clearly misunderstood and misinterpreted in the churlish reaction of much American media, and above all the New York Times, to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. This response, which as she says provoked scathing reactions from people in several Commonwealth countries, was in marked contrast to that of the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, and the Northern Ireland leader of Sinn Fein, Michelle O’Neill. Their reactions were dignified and respectful rather than childish and petulant. Neither Macron or O’Neill compromised their own republican convictions, but their reaction reflected republican traditions that have a historical sense and awareness. This means being conscious of the persistence and development of institutions and identities through time and their embodiment in customs, rituals, and practices – the legal order being an instance of this. Both this kind of historically rooted and constituted republicanism, and monarchy, are clearly distinct from the kind of present-minded outlook expressed by the New York Times in which only the current instant matters and the past has no weight, whether in sentiment or, more significantly, in law. The nature of monarchy and its usual connection to family and descent mean that as a regime it is more likely to have this historical sense than most contemporary soi-disant republics. This has major implications for the law in contemporary polities.
Carolyn Harris meanwhile poses another question both theoretical and historical, the relationship between monarchy and imperialism. The New York Times article that Dale referenced argued that in the British case at least there was a deep connection between monarchy as a regime and the theory and reality of imperialism. Harris’s account of the evolution of the British Empire into the Commonwealth and the part played by the late Queen in that process suggests a different take, to put it mildly. One point is that historically imperialism is as much associated with republics as with monarchies, from Athens and Rome onwards (we could also mention Venice and even the contemporary United States). The more significant matter, which Harris sets out, is the way that monarchy can be a key element in the emergence of a different kind of international order to either empire or the Westphalian world of separate sovereign states. The latter now takes the form of systems of pooled or qualified sovereignty, as in the EU or the many UN conventions and other international institutions. The Commonwealth suggests a different model, one that does not require surrender of self-governance but is held together by a monarchy (even when many of the constituent states are republics). In some ways this is a revival of the old late medieval and early modern phenomenon of multiple kingdoms, where a single person would be simultaneously monarch of several distinct kingdoms, wearing a different crown in each. Spain was one example of this as was the Habsburg monarchy. The problems of combining nationalism and the sovereign nation with democracy and pluralism, and the dysfunctionality and fragility of the existing international order suggests that this is also an area where the forms of monarchical government are worth thinking about, as a way of resolving what are otherwise difficult challenges for liberalism.