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Artillery Row

The abdication of responsibility

A monarch quitting undercuts the point of the institution they represent

Stepping into the smoking room room at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London, one is met by portraits of British titans such as William Gladstone and Prince Philip. But on the right-hand corner of the innermost wall you will find a portrait of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark: since March 1997, the first Honorary Lady Member of the club. Between 1960 and 1961, the queen was  a student at Girton College, Cambridge, where she read Prehistoric Archeology. In addition to her membership of the Oxford and Cambridge Club, Queen Margrethe is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. However, from 14 January this year she will no longer be Queen of Denmark. 

During her New Year’s speech from Amalienborg Palace, Queen Margrethe announced that she would be abdicating on the 52nd anniversary of her accession to the throne, handing the Danish crown to her son, Crown Prince Frederik. The news was accompanied by an account of recent back injuries. Following surgery for these, the queen gave up a heavy smoking habit of some 66 years. Thankfully for Queen Margarethe, she will not find temptation to resume at the Oxford Cambridge Club. In the smoking room where her portrait hangs, smoking is strictly forbidden.

Illness forced Queen Margrethe to quit smoking. Now she steps down from her throne for the very same reason. Her health is not what it was. Speaking in her New Year’s address, the queen conceded that with age “you can no longer overcome the same things as you once could.” We can all quite understand the natural toll that comes with the years and the very good reasons given for Queen Margrethe’s abdication Still, a significant precedent is set by abdications of this kind, and one that threatens the very survival of monarchy.

Not long after Queen Margrethe announced her intention to abdicate, the first calls for more abdications began. In my native Sweden, calls for King Carl XVI Gustav to resign in favour of his more popular and stylish daughter, Crown Prince Victoria, have been heard. Others see the news of the Danish abdication as an opportunity to vent their deep-seated longings for a republic. Yet, although unpopular in some quarters, a monarch’s, typically, unelected position and life-long tenure  should be seen as a guarantor of the stability and continuity of the State. Indeed, it is its very embodiment. An abdication in favour of a younger, stronger, and, perhaps in some places, more popular, heir negates this very essence of the monarch’s role. 

The modern world that we inhabit is one filled with cries for democratisation and liberalisation, which castigate any semblance of hierarchy or elitism. Yet we let ourselves be ruled by elected officials who can impose restrictions on our liberties, and those same officials are often the object of public scorn. The abolition of the monarchy would not only fail to eradicate hierarchical divisions but would in fact shine an even starker light on the ineptitude of the hierarchies that would dominate in its wake. Monarchy is a more elevated form of government precisely because it stands above the scheming world of politicians, representing the pre-political loyalties of a shared home.

Republican cries to abolish the monarchy stem from a broader effort to disenchant the world

Republican cries to abolish the monarchy stem from a broader effort to disenchant the world. The mistaken assumption underlying this view is that political and social systems suffice to fulfill the longings of man. By using mere political means to establish justice, equality, and peace, the political sphere becomes a secular religion that labours under its own illusion of being able to establish a paradise on earth. The thought of the late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton provides a salutary antidote to such an erroneous view. Scruton described the monarchy as “the light above politics, which shines down on the human bustle from a calmer and more exalted sphere.” 

There are, in other words, real risks involved in wishing the downfall of established customs and institutions age-old. America was founded with the explicit intention to be a republic, as opposed to a monarchy, in order to ensure the just rule of the people. This sounds like a high-minded ideal, but I doubt that the Founding Fathers predicted the rise of a political class dominated by the Clintons, the Kennedys, the Bushes and so forth. Even the most ardent republican must surely see the problems with that. 

In the future, we may very well see the survival of monarchy in those countries that now retain it, albeit with many monarchs who no longer recognise their duty to carry out the role until the end of their earthly sojourn. Though the survival of monarchy would be positive, a monarchy with such an attitude would undermine the very essence of the office. In short, a monarchy with a conditional tenure would not really be a monarchy at all — rather like a smoking room in which it is forbidden to smoke.

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