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Queen Elizabeth meets President George

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First Helen Mirren, now Elizabeth Windsor. Her Majesty's visit to Jamestown and - no doubt more to her taste - to the Kentucky Derby, have brought Americans face to face again with their most ancient taboo: monarchy.

During Queen Elizabeth II's state visit to the United States on 3-8 May 2007, the democratic citizens of the world's first geographically extensive republic have been confronted once again with the incarnation of the detested system from which the Founding Fathers freed them (with the crucial help of the Most Christian King of France) in the 1770s. The American papers have once again responded, as on previous royal occasions, with a curious mixture of principled contempt and anxiety to be invited.

There is something strikingly confused about American attitudes to monarchy. The Washington Post, for example, published a (rather offensive) cartoon of the queen which congratulated the United States on being saved from "the madness of King George".

Also in openDemocracy, a debate on "A world without monarchy? ", including:

Solana Larsen "Being royalist the Danish way"
(9 May 2002)

Adam Zamoyski, "Poland: royal memories in the heart of Europe"
(23 May 2002)

Misaki Kamouchi, "Japan: from the divine to the human"
(23 May 2002)

Dejan Djokic, "Serbia: monarchy and national identity"
(31 May 2002)

Shusha Guppy, "The spirit of Persian monarchy"
(25 June 2002)

Yet the White House, white-tie dinner for the queen on 7 May, the Washington Post reports, was "the hottest ticket in town". Like a good republican, the president is said not to care for such an undemocratic practice as the wearing of white bowties, but in this case he has brought himself to abandon strict republican practice to please his wife.

Absurdly, the press lectured the president - patrician scion of generations of millionaires and alumnus of Phillips Andover, Yale and Harvard, grandson of a senator and son of a president - on table manners. He has been told he should not drink water from a bottle or speak with his mouth full in the presence of majesty.

"We are Elizabeth's subjects and she our monarch for a day", editorialised the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in contrast. This was not, however, the universal response. Like the Virginia papers, the Washington Post was full of helpful advice about how to approach the descendant of George III. You address her, the readers were told, as "Your Majesty" the first time, then "Ma'am", which rhymes with ham. At the same time, the Post published a column by Marc Fisher to remind the readers of their republican duty. "The hype and hoopla over the royal visit has driven too many of us to forget who we are. No. We are no one's subjects. We do not bow to kings and queens. When we forget this, we sully ourselves."

Likewise the readers of the Louisville Courier-Journal were not all ready to be sullied. While the paper interviewed chef Gil Logan about how he was going to source the greens for the royal salad with good old Kentucky lettuce, a reader disapproved. "Frankly speaking", she wrote, "who cares what the Queen was wearing? It isn't as if she were a trendsetter, or even wears interesting clothes. And it isn't as if we were her subjects. (Thank God, say all my ancestors). At the same it's an honour to have her at the Kentucky Derby, and really gives the race the international prestige it deserves".

Ambivalence could hardly be clearer. It is well and good to use the visiting monarch to plug the local vegetables or the local horse-race, just so long as we don't sully ourselves by abandoning our republican principles.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969). Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); and More Equal Than Others (Princeton University Press, 2006)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles on American politics:

"Can America go modest?"
(October 2001)

"After Katrina, a government adrift"
(September 2005)

" Oil and American politics" (October 2005)

"The death of American politics" (October 2005)

"The next big issue: inequality in America" (13 September 2006)

"Washington: the earth moves"
(9 November 2006)

"America against itself" (19 February 2007)

"Democracy in America: the money trap"
(27 March 2007)

A sovereign confusion

For its own part, the British royal family, in its visits to the Great Republic, seems to be repeating the mistake it made when it decided, a generation ago, to emerge from the clouds of mystery and court the London tabloid press. The queen's aura has never quite recovered from the sight of her at a televised barbecue, frying sausages. If you convert majesty into celebrity, you must expect it, as they used to say, to wrap tomorrow's fish.

There are many things wrong with the institution of monarchy. It is a relic of barbarism. I well remember my Sunday Times colleague Nick Tomalin saying, after meeting Princess Margaret, that she was very amusing, but that he could never quite forget that her ancestors could have had him hanged, drawn and quartered.

The greatest single claim the United States can make to historical legitimacy may well be to have replaced the idea that sovereignty was conferred by centuries of descent and located it in the people. As Tom Paine memorably put it in Common Sense (1776): "a French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original".

That is how Americans have been taught to remember monarchy, and it would be unwise for William the Bastard's descendants to forget it.

Yet the American image of royalty has forgotten something else. Since long before the American republic was founded, "broadening down from precedent to precedent", and continuing through the two and a third centuries of American history, something new has been evolved, in Britain and elsewhere: constitutional monarchy. And if absolute monarchy, of the kind our British ancestors fought both at home and in wars against absolutist Spain and France, is theoretically indefensible, constitutional monarchy, at least in pragmatic terms, can be more than a little convenient.

It does not lend itself to the scorching invective of a Paine or the lapidary rhetoric of a Thomas Jefferson. But constitutional monarchy does work rather well. And in one respect it may even work - dare anyone say? - rather better than the American presidency.

Both in Britain and in America we tend to contrast republicanism with the British monarchy. That is to forget that Britain is by no means the only and not necessarily the most successful of constitutional monarchies. We tend to think of other monarchies, if we think of them at all, as curious polities defined by the enthusiasm of their monarchs for bicycling. In fact, though, a dozen or more of the most successful societies in the world, in countries with diverse traditions, are functioning constitutional monarchies.

In western Europe, there are Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and Spain; in Asia, Thailand and Japan. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are constitutional monarchies, sharing a crown with Britain. In the middle east, true, Saudi Arabia and Jordan more closely resemble the traditional, absolutist pattern of monarchy than the modern, constitutional one. But even in east-central Europe, after the fall of communism, there were countries (Bulgaria and Romania) which seriously discussed reinstalling deposed monarchies.

A protective cloak

The absurdities and the theoretical illegitimacy of hereditary monarchy are obvious. Yet the advantages are also not altogether inconsiderable, which is no doubt one of the reasons why the institution has survived for two centuries after the American and the French revolutions.

A monarchy can provide a symbol of national unity that even deeply divided nations can respect. It can be a source of stability in times of political crisis. Critically, a constitutional monarchy, so long as it is seen as respecting the law and seeking the best interests of all parties in a society, separates the symbolic and what Walter Bagehot called the "dignified" element in a system of government from the contingent, the partisan and the political.

At a time when the iconic and original republics, the American and the French, are struggling to deal with sharp political polarisation and social division, there is perhaps something to be said on behalf of a system that separates the functions of head of state and head of government.

After all, a constitutional head of state does not have to be hereditary. A non-executive head of state, for example on the German, the Irish or the Italian model, does at least have the merit of saving a polity from, shall we say, the hubris of a narrowly elected and divisive President George.

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