Why We Should All Wish Charles III the Best - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Why We Should All Wish Charles III the Best
King George VI with U.S. bomber crews on Nov. 13, 1942. (United States Army Air Forces/Wikimedia Commons)

Before yesterday, a king was last crowned in Great Britain in May, 1938. 

It was not a good time for political freedom. America was dealing with the Depression that not only didn’t go away, but had even gained back some of its ferocity. France’s Third Republic was floundering and Britain, under Neville Chamberlain’s leadership, had given its okay to Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, had offered no effectual opposition to German rearmament, suffered international humiliation in its half-hearted opposition to Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia, and only two months prior, had watched with folded hands as Hitler gobbled up Austria into his Third Reich.

King George VI’s coronation was an attempt to tell another story in the face of the grim triumphalism of the ascendant dictatorships.

Totalitarians everywhere were on the ascendant. It was not only Hitler and Mussolini, but Franco in Spain was slowly crushing the Spanish Republic and in Japan, the militarists, having annexed Manchuria, had opened a broader war with China, and had eyes on an even greater empire that would encompass all of East Asia. And in Russia, Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago had opened all its doors wide, was swallowing millions into slavery and starvation, and was looking across its borders to swallow millions more.

The totalitarians had all to one degree or another found a hollowness in the heart of 20th century civilization. The triumph of materialist science and its resulting technologies went hand in hand with the relegation of religion to the intellectual and political sidelines. The shared narratives that had grounded civilization through the Middle Ages were gone. The successful dictators found new stories to tell that succeeded in galvanizing the imagination and filling the abyssal void left after the catastrophe of World War I. Now, in the Depression years, the dictators seemed to have the momentum. Emerging from darkness, touching the darkest part of the soul, theirs were the stories people were telling as their own.

Human life in the end is driven by stories. They are how we organize life most fundamentally. Absent a story, life turns into a meaningless sequence of random tasks and details. “This is the book of the toldot of Adam,” reads Genesis, with the Hebrew toldot meaning both “offspring” in the physical sense and “history” — the offspring of our interaction with others, the ongoing story which informs us of our purpose and the context of our lives.

King George VI’s coronation was an attempt to tell another story in the face of the grim triumphalism of the ascendant dictatorships. It was then and is now a story of a majestic continuity, speaking of the loyalties of all the diverse members of one nation to one person who embodies its spirit and of his dedication to them.

It tells the story of constitutionalism, how power harnesses itself to duty, and so enabled a monarchy to hold the people’s affection into and beyond the 20th century. After much trial and error and much pain and bloodshed, Britain’s constitutional mindset directed the king to a place as far beyond controversy as is possible, reserving political controversy entirely for overtly partisan parliamentary leaders. It has enabled Britain’s monarchs, when at their best, to be powerful unifiers, joining the nation through history as well as joining together all of its diverse members in the present.

I am proud to be a citizen of this American republic and will be prouder yet if we can keep it, meeting Franklin’s challenge as every generation must. Yet having lived through the magnificent reign of Elizabeth II, it is hard not to recognize that what she supplied is something that we today lack acutely.

First of all, the British monarch is, well, royal. Born to this job, he must constantly prove himself worthy of standing for everyone. Our political class here pretends that it has not coalesced into an aristocracy, a class with interests of its own. Its members pretend that they are of the people, and the people have not held them to much more than the pretense. When you are aristocracy and you are forthright about it, as in Britain, you must prove your excellence to the people every day, because they are not powerless under the British constitution. A great royal transgression today could end the monarchy very quickly.

But in our American system, we are stuck with a President who is both the symbol of our nation and a symbol of ongoing political controversy. We once managed that well enough. Franklin Roosevelt campaigned as a partisan, but in the light of the deadly crisis of Nazism, he sent a willing Wendell Willkie, the opponent he defeated in the 1940 election, across the ocean on crucial missions to Churchill. Eisenhower as president still carried with him the aura of the man who defeated the Nazis in Europe — everybody’s general. Americans generally had much more trust in our political institutions, that elections would be fair, campaigns would be fought squarely, and the losers had confidence that if they learned from their mistakes, they could get better results next time from a public who cared about the country first and the party only afterwards.

But as the national mood has soured, as we have lost confidence in our ability even to tell a coherent story about who we are as a people, we have no one working all day and every day to represent and exemplify the spirit that binds the country together. We are the worse for it. 

And as the partisanship has gotten more intractable, it has inserted itself more and more deeply into our lives. It infects even our friendships and family relationships, so that the richness of the community and of the family becomes, increasingly, merely another public space, its members to be cheered or booed rather than loved and engaged.

Yet our Republic has stood for the primacy of the citizen over the state, and for never giving any class or party the right to monopolize political power. It has worked. We committed our children and our treasure to stand up against the dictatorships and succeeded in destroying Nazism and Japanese militarism, and overcoming at last the imperial thrust of Soviet communism.

Yet if we cannot reimagine our national story again in a commanding way, beyond the fatal oversimplifications of life reduced to mere politicking, we can destroy ourselves where no enemy has ever succeeded.

Near the beginning of Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War, he mused about how the victorious democracies of the First War might have avoided the cataclysm of Hitlerism:

Wise policy would have crowned and fortified the Weimar Republic with a constitutional sovereign.… Instead, a gaping void was opened up in the national life of the German people. All the strong elements, military and feudal, which might have rallied to a constitutional monarchy and for its sake respected and sustained the new parliamentary and democratic processes, were for the time being unhinged. The Weimar Republic … could not hold the loyalties or the imagination of the German people.… Thereafter mighty forces were adrift; the void was open, and into that void after a pause strode a maniac of ferocious genius, the repository of the most virulent hatreds that have ever corroded the human breast.

When we pay attention to the story of political freedom in the world, told by a master storyteller, we can see what is at stake.

We might learn from the British example yet, and see how under a healthy constitution, even a role which has been used for oppression — for many of their kings were tyrants —  can become an indispensable player in the life of a nation, calling the people to a higher understanding of themselves and the great story in which they all play a part, beyond all partisanship. 

It’s not an idea foreign to our Republic. George Washington strove his utmost to unite the country, and John Adams sacrificed his own political career for the sake of the larger good. Perhaps the Britain they rebelled against can help us past the deadly danger that can befall a nation that loses hold of its story. I wish Charles the best.

Sign up to receive our latest updates! Register

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: The American Spectator, 122 S Royal Street, Alexandria, VA, 22314, http://spectator.org. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Be a Free Market Loving Patriot. Subscribe Today!