At about the age of 15 I said one day at school in a sententious tone: “The great thing about democracy is that it allows for peaceful change.”
“So does monarchy,” my teacher, Jeff Abbott, retorted, for he could not hear a liberal platitude without wishing to explode it.
Abbott was correct. Monarchy does allow for peaceful change, which is what we are seeing now. The King is determined, quite naturally, to declare his debt to his mother, and to emulate her high standards of behaviour.
But he cannot be the same as her. He is of a different temperament, a different generation and a different sex.
The late Queen had a wonderful rapport with people, but this did not extend to allowing them to touch her.
When the new King arrived on Friday at Buckingham Palace, many were the hands he clasped as his greeted members of the crowd, and one woman not only asked if she could kiss him, but actually did so.
He and his advisers have spent years considering what changes it would be wise to institute at the start of his reign, and some of these, such as the televising of yesterday’s Accession Council, have at once been implemented.
Another factor has with equal swiftness become apparent. People want him to succeed. Just as we find we were even more attached to Queen Elizabeth than we realised, so we find ourselves even more loyal to her successor than we expected.
This is a point which liberal theorists find hard to grasp. It seems to them that we ought, as good liberals, to be republicans.
According to their theory of government, a hereditary monarchy is an anachronism, the splendid ceremonies in which it engages are an embarrassment, and to swear allegiance to a King or Queen is to grovel.
Why then has the British monarchy survived? This was a question I asked some years ago, at the end of a volume of brief lives of our last 40 Kings and Queens, from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II.
The answer, I contend, is that we the people want it to survive. We have a popular monarchy, created, maintained and modified by popular demand. In that sense, it is our most democratic institution.
As Eric Hobsbawm, a communist rather than a monarchist, observed in his essay on the mass production of traditions in Europe from 1870 to 1914:
“Glory and greatness, wealth and power, could be symbolically shared by the poor through royalty and its rituals.”
By magnifying the monarch, we magnify ourselves. This is why republics, even mighty ones such as the United States, so often find themselves apeing monarchical forms.
The President of the United States is an elective monarch, who at times acquires hereditary characteristics (the two Bush and two Adams Presidents, in each case father and son; more tenuously the two Roosevelts, who were fifth cousins, their common ancestor having landed on Manhattan Island in 1649).
The Americans threw out George III, but could not expunge their desire and even their need for a King.
Yesterday I glimpsed a commentator on one of the American networks who when asked why American viewers are so interested in the British monarchy, replied that there is
“a weakness in the American character that still yearns for that era of hereditary privilege which is the very thing we escaped from.”
In their blindness, American liberals are no more capable than their British counterparts of seeing that to the people, a constitutional monarch who is above politics acts as a guarantor of liberty.
The British monarchy has become one of the greatest, though least noticed, checks on arbitrary power we possess. It occupies the space a dictator would need to occupy.
The armed forces, the bishops, the judges, the politicians: all swear allegiance to and on state occasions must defer to the monarch. In uniforms which would not have looked out of place at Waterloo, our soldiers are decorative rather than oppressive.
Because it is unthinkable in Britain to push the monarch aside, tyranny itself becomes unthinkable. In countries where for understandable reasons the monarchy was overthrown – France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918 – tyranny was not unthinkable.
Many of us are delighted, on great royal occasions, to see our elected politicians, past and present, playing a relatively modest part, dressed in relatively modest clothes, reduced to the role of mere spectators.
That cuts them down to size, or at least stops them getting too big for their boots. Yesterday we saw no fewer than six former Prime Ministers – Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, May and Johnson – watch as the King played the leading role.
In their time, each of those PMs was the most powerful person in the country, and in due course, each of them became abhorrent to the people, and was chucked out.
It is by no means impossible to chuck an unsatisfactory monarch out: this last happened in 1936.
When Edward VIII decided, toward the end of that year, to marry Mrs Simpson, who had two former husbands still living, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, told him this was not possible, and insisted that “in the choice of a Queen the voice of the people must be heard”.
Since1688 we have had a parliamentary monarchy: Parliament opted for William and Mary, and then for the House of Hanover, who were Protestant, over various Roman Catholics with better hereditary claims to the throne.
A Protestant monarch was seen as the guarantor of freedom. Yesterday we heard the King promise to uphold “the true Protestant religion” in Scotland.
Gormless liberals, of the kind who write opinion pieces for The New York Times, mistake the outward show of monarchy for the reality of power.
The British people know that a King or Queen who plays with dedication the role of upholding our constitution is our ally, not our oppressor; the defender, not destroyer, of our ancient liberties.
Andrew Gimson is the author of Gimson’s Prime Ministers: brief lives from Walpole to Johnson.