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The world’s democracies, including the United States, owe Britain a great debt for its slow but steady development of government by consent
By Lawrence Mead
It has been a little more than two months since Queen Elizabeth II died and, after weeks of tributes and pageantry, the attention of the world—and even Britain—has shifted elsewhere. But before we move on, it is worth pointing out a deeper significance of her reign: the monarchy’s role in establishing and exporting government by consent.
Worldwide, most nations struggle to form systems of government that are strong enough to govern yet accountable to their societies. Rulers often seek to rule without consent, while legislators commonly pervert policy to serve their own interests. Furthermore, politicians of all stripes are often corrupt, enriching themselves at public expense. Supposedly, democracy gives the public power to check these abuses, but as we’ve seen in places as diverse as Russia, Venezuela and Egypt, countries with many of the trappings of democracy, namely elections, often fail to do this.
The West is the main exception. Most well-governed countries are in Europe or are its offshoots, particularly its British offshoots. That is mostly because the publics in these countries are assertive and moralistic enough to insist on good behavior by the government. In many non-Western countries, local cultures are often too passive with regard to their rulers, and therefore oligarchs operate without a serious check.
This Western achievement largely has a British foundation. The British developed the world’s strongest governing system—with clear authority to govern and yet answerable to a political class that grew over time to encompass all the country’s citizens. They also exported these institutions to other continents, which is chiefly why the United States and other former British colonies became well-governed too. Indeed, of Britain’s many achievements, this was the most crucial, the greatest single reason why good government exists at all in the world today.
Many Americans are in denial about this. We think we achieved our own democracy after winning a battle for independence against the British. And of course, our system does differ from theirs in that the Founders fragmented power among different institutions, rather than centralizing it as in Britain. Yet despite these differences, we still inherited from Britain the central principles of good government: rule by consent and also the rule of law, or the ideal that officials should act impartially.
What explains this extraordinary gift? Germanic tribes that settled England in the early medieval period appear no different from those in the rest of Europe. Everywhere in Europe, medieval kings had accepted parliaments representing the political class. Yet to build up their personal power, Continental rulers mostly marginalized or abolished these bodies, conquered their own vassals, and ruled without consent. This was how monarchs in France, Spain, Prussia and Russia became autocrats.
But in England, the medieval Parliament endured. Strong kings developed a strong regime, including a formidable legal system. Yet they accepted the need for parliamentary consent. For their part, the aristocracy oversaw rulers, even removing some who governed poorly, but never opposing monarchy as such. Sovereignty came to be vested in the king ruling through the Parliament, not in place of it. The only British monarchs who resisted consent were the Stuarts, leading to their overthrow in 1689. But the tradition of shared rule was well established before the Stuarts and resumed after them.
On the Continent, autocratic regimes could not survive modernization. The growth of economies threw up new classes who demanded more say in politics. Autocrats were finally overthrown from below—starting with the French Revolution in 1789 and lasting for the next two centuries. Only since World War II has most of Western Europe been securely democratic, and in much of Eastern Europe the struggle for consent goes on.
In Britain, however, the parliamentary regime was never contested after the Stuarts in the 17th century. This provided a stability that helped Britain take the lead economically, helping it become the first country to industrialize and, for a time, the world’s richest nation. The British response to change was not revolution but reform—widening the existing electorate for Parliament to include more and more men and then eventually women, until the country became genuinely democratic.
British democracy meant that the monarch had to accept rule by whichever party controlled Parliament. Elizabeth’s last official act was to invite Liz Truss to form a government because Truss had just been elected leader of the majority party, the Conservatives. The queen had no choice. Throughout its history, particularly the last 250 years, the monarchy has ceded virtually all its powers and prerogatives to others. As those institutions gained more power, the ruler retained less, until his or her role shriveled to consist almost entirely of obligations. Elizabeth was bound endlessly to do whatever her ministers expected her to do. Her dutiful fidelity to that task, for 70 years, is what a grateful nation honored in the weeks following her death.
Proto-Democrat. Queen Elizabeth I, painted just after England's victory against Spain in 1588. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The English gift for politics ultimately rested on an unusual trust between rulers and ruled. From the formation of the kingdom in the ninth century, even the strongest kings actively sought the support of ordinary citizens. Except for the Stuarts, who held the throne for less than 100 years, they never sought merely personal power. The public reciprocated with strong support for royal officials and judges. That trust was the resource rulers drew on when they mobilized the nation to face its greatest trials—namely struggles against Spain in the 16th century, France in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and finally Germany in the 20th century.
After leading England against the Spanish Armada in 1588, the first Queen Elizabeth told her people, “Although God has raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown that I have ruled with your loves.” The second Elizabeth is the servant of her people much more than the leader, yet she too reigned with the forceful love of her people behind her, as the public outpouring of grief both before and during her funeral showed. And from that bond, the British government still draws much of its legitimacy. The same people who honor their queen who, after all is a hereditary monarch, are also the active participants in a government that requires their consent.