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On God Save the Queen and Modern Tradition in the UK

November 7, 2010

While Burke showed particular sympathy for Marie Antoinette and the French royal family in Reflections on the Revolution in France, his true concern was for the political future of Great Britain; fearing, quite accurately (as the volatile 19th century would attest), that revolutionary fervor would spread across the English Channel. Even on his deathbed, Burke requested a hidden burial out of fear for Jacobin desecration of his corpse. Though his pessimistic predictions satirized in the above cartoon never saw fruition, Burke’s vein of conservatism and emphasis on tradition has lost a good deal (though not all) of relevance in today’s British society.

Popular support for a hereditary aristocracy has undoubtedly been declining for decades; even so, a watershed moment for the British nobility came relatively recently. The House of Lords Act 1999 reformed the House of Lords and served primarily to “restrict membership of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage,” significantly reducing the influence of hereditary peers and their traditional presence in the parliamentary body. Although the House of Lords and hereditary peerage had long been significantly liberalized and marginalized by the House of Commons by 1999, the act represented a significant defeat for traditionalist C(c)onservatives and remaining successors to Burke’s ideology.

Religion, although certainly still a factor in British society, has likewise been liberalized. According to a 2010 British Social Attitudes survey, the percentage of atheists rose from 31% to 43%  between 1983 and 2008. Those who describe themselves as members of the Church of England number 23% of the population, 49% of whom never attend services and only 8% attend church weekly. Churches in the U.K. are used increasingly for community activities and less for religious purposes. Burke, clearly opposed to atheist sentiment, would have cringed at this shift in support for traditional religion.

Nevertheless, elements of tradition remain in British society. The traditional British monarchy remains popular and shows no signs of being abolished in a Jacobin bath of blood any time soon. The monarchy, as well as Britain’s vibrant history, often serves as a basis of pride and nationalism for the British people, materializing in such events as the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation (see below video). And the peaceful, prudent reform of Parliament, including Act 1999, could not have caused Burke to roll over in his hidden grave. Tradition lingers in Britain, and Burke’s message survives so long as cries of ‘God Save the Queen’ may be heard at Buckingham Palace!

  1. gustavusarborus permalink
    November 7, 2010 2:44 PM

    Part of what shapes the modern traditions of the English monarchy is how the role of the crown has decreased over time. The parliamentary system, which I have had the questionable pleasure of working in, is quite creative in how it separates the concept of the nation from the actual government.

    For England, the Queen is the symbol of the nation, a focus of patriotism and an important figure for foreign dignitaries to meet. Meanwhile, the offices of the Prime Minister runs the government, sets and pushes a legislative agenda and deals with foreign powers on a detailed basis. In America, the President is generally seen to set the agenda, is constitutionally empowered to deal with foreign governments and is generally the face of the nation. But as we have seen by the presidences of George Bush and Barack Obama, the perception of the President varies widely. After 9/11 in America, great leeway and trust was given to the Presidency, for good or ill, in the name of patriotism. Questioning Bush policies was frequently called “un-American”. Likewise, the difficulties and stalemate of the legislature has recently proven quite damaging to Barack Obama’s administration.

    In Great Britain, such patriotism tends to focus on the crown as the center of the national tradition. America is a nation of social compact and nothing else, forged by agreement and concensus. Great Britain, though a representative government now, began and endured as a kingdom. Even in the midst of modern terrorist scares, there is no doubt that it is both possible and responsible to question whether the government is acting correctly. And even if there is great contention in Parliament, it is known to the public that Parliament is the source of governmental troubles. The stability of Great Britain, the fact of it’s existence, is never questioned. Meanwhile in America, legislative stalemates and policy fights have created and empowered many people who espouse fears about whether America will be destroyed by a socialist Muslim conspiracy.

    In short, the continuing tradition is a far cry from what Burke would hope for, but by modifying that tradition, the crown is insulated from the stain of bad governance and thus probably immune from any regicidal movements.

    • arichnerjr permalink
      November 7, 2010 5:39 PM

      Well said, and thanks for the response. You might be exaggerating, ‘mate,’ the influence of loonies who really believe in “socialist Muslim conspiracies” to destroy America, but it’s also my opinion that a ceremonial British monarchy benefits British society through unity and the same sort of generational congruity or stability advocated by Burke. In comparison, it definitely amplifies the flaws of a partisan head of state!… though America’s politics fit well with its “Revolutionary” traditions, I think. In any case, I can imagine no reasonable justification for the current dismantlement of the British monarchy any more for than the establishment of an American one. So as it stands, God Save the Queen, God Bless America, etc…

  2. aaronyan1123 permalink
    November 7, 2010 5:28 PM

    In the modern United Kingdom, the Queen, or basically the crown, is just a tradition that British wants to preserve. The Queen and the royal family member do not have legislative and executive power of the nation. They are only representing the Imperial system that the United Kingdom used to have and proud of. There is no doubt that the royal family of United Kingdom is well respected by British. However, they are not the people who make the national decision anymore.

    • arichnerjr permalink
      November 7, 2010 9:16 PM

      Yes, the monarchy in Britain has been largely symbolic since Queen Victoria; something which, I believe, enabled it to outlive many of the more politically ambitious European monarchies (France, Germany, Russia, etc) which collapsed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Burke, a rational thinker, probably would have approved of the position of the monarchy in modern British society, even though the institution is basically politically negligible.

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