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The strange paradox of the constitutional monarch

After 60 years seeing her face on the money, on the postage stamps, on the TV screen and in our strangest dreams, we have become so accustomed to her that we hardly ever stop to think just how singularly weird the Queen really is.

I don't mean that disrespectfully. As an individual, Elizabeth II is possibly the least peculiar person you'll ever meet. The secret of her considerable success, I'd argue, lies in her complete lack of regal affect, her almost middle-managerial air of calm professionalism.

And that is where the weirdness comes in. Elizabeth, more so than any other monarch before her or almost certainly after, has mastered and embodied the strange paradox of the constitutional monarch.

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We are living through the final great age of the constitutional monarchy, and her long reign may mark this institution's peak moment of success and credibility.

On the three occasions I've been invited to meet the Queen – we've chatted briefly about Canadian history, horse racing and newspapers – I have been struck by the way she carries out the day-to-day job of being the head of state: Not as a power to be reckoned with or as a symbol to be revered, but as a highly competent civil servant.

For that is exactly what she is: a civil servant, hired by Parliament to carry out a specific task. Her only remnant of absolute power is her right not to sign any piece of British legislation – but, then, if she did, Parliament could choose another family for the next-in-line. The constitutional monarchy is, paradoxically, a complete inversion of the old monarchy, where the kings and queens created a cabinet and a parliament to carry out their will.

Beginning with the English Bill of Rights of 1689, it flipped around: Now the monarchy exists at the behest of an elected Parliament, which, in turn, effectively "elects" the ruling monarch. "A Republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of a Monarchy," the great philosopher of constitutional monarchy Walter Bagehot exclaimed. It was a revolution without a guillotine.

I have no doubt that the Queen is a sufficiently well-read student of Mr. Bagehot to know that there is no longer any truth to his most famous line: "Above all things, our royalty is to be reverenced … Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic."

The notion of a monarchy revered for its magical powers, or even passively tolerated for its life of leisure and good connections, dissolved the moment Queen Elizabeth II stepped out in 1953 to a phalanx of TV cameras. To keep her job, and maintain it for her offspring, she has had to embody exactly the opposite qualities: transparency, humility, frugalness, ordinariness.

Those happen to be the qualities of a good elected president. For today's constitutional monarchs know the game is up: In a perfectly reasonable world, they would not exist. If we started from scratch, we would not choose a hereditary selected aristocrat from a randomly selected family as head of state in a modern, rights-based democracy. But we do, in 36 countries, including Canada.

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You may notice that these countries are not doing too badly. In fact, there's an even larger paradox here: When you look at modern monarchies, such as Sweden, Spain, Japan or the Netherlands, you see a lot more democracy taking place than you do in some republics.

As the Dutch historian Wim Roobol notes in his paper "Twilight of the European Monarchy," the main reason why the steady 300-year decline in proportion of monarchies has not reached zero is because countries like Canada are sometimes more democratic than some republics, and republics are capable of being more authoritarian than any modern monarchy. Remember, all the Arab dictatorships that saw democratic uprisings last year were republics.

This makes it tough for people like me who would prefer a system like those in Germany or Ireland, with ceremonial but elected presidents – like governors-general, but chosen by the people. It might be better for independence and national unity – for the first time, all Canadians would be voting to fill the same office – but nobody wants to change it as long as our popular Queen wears the crown.

It won't come to an end because people like me don't like it. Rather, Dr. Roobol notes, it will end because some latter-day royals will realize that their "glamorous but essentially politically empty function is not worth the troubled life in the spotlights of a partly affectionate, partly unctuous and very often cynical public opinion."

We used to behave ourselves because we thought the kings and queens were watching. Now they do because we are.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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