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Is the Queen Post-Liberal?

July 2nd, 2020 | 10 min read

By Matthew Dal Santo

As any number of the modern political “pathologies” that so mystify our ruling classes, from Brexit to Trump and the EU’s slow-burn implosion, testify, liberalism is out of puff. Everywhere, the political, economic, and cultural establishments that have determined our societies direction for the past two generations are on the nose.

Except, that is, the Establishment.

Despite a second, so-called annus horribilis in 2019, the House of Windsor remains in its leading members (The Queen, Prince of Wales, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) exceedingly popular in Britain (and, albeit to a lesser extent, elsewhere in the Commonwealth, where local republican movements are, as in Australia, dormant).

Indeed, the monarchy’s legitimacy in people’s eyes seems to have inversely tracked the rise, rise, and fall of late modern Western liberalism, hitting rock bottom in the hyper-liberalism of the Blairite 1990s. Ever since, its popularity has increased in a way correlating with the public’s gradual perception of liberalism’s flaws.

Which raises the question:

Is the Queen post-liberal?

Certainly, as I have argued elsewhere, the Queen’s three national and Commonwealth messages during the Coronavirus pandemic have been striking for their profoundly Christian form and content. Her Majesty’s first-ever Easter message on Holy Saturday, for example, comprised not only a moving and profoundly kerygmatic evocation of the liturgy of the “holy fire” as a sign, the Queen said, of “how the good news of Christ’s resurrection has been passed on from the first Easter by every generation until now”, but also a forthright admonition that despite the lockdown of church buildings, “Easter isn’t cancelled”, that would have been strong even in the mouth of a (Anglican) bishop.

Flying in the face of the late liberal axiom of the necessary separation of the political and the sacred, of a public and civic world of politics and a private, mental one of religion, the Queen’s Coronavirus messages have been a reminder that while Britain is the home of Hobbes, Locke, and the Glorious Revolution, paradoxically Elizabeth II remains the last anointed monarch of Christendom: Elizabeth II can point her peoples towards the King of Kings without precipitating a constitutional crisis. Moreover, this Christian witness goes beyond the Queen’s private convictions; it touches on the purpose of her office, part of the essence of which is to unite the sacred and the political.

In his masterpiece of political theology, The King’s Two Bodies, the great German scholar Ernst Kantorowicz described what he called the original, “liturgical setting” of Christian kingship.

Of Europe’s modern monarchies, only Britain’s preserves it. The Danes last held a coronation in 1660, the Spanish in the fifteenth century. The Dutch and Belgian monarchies, being recent creations, have never had one.

By contrast, the display of feudal pageantry in which Elizabeth II was crowned at Westminster Abbey in 1953 was unchanged in essentials since the days of Catholic England: the first English monarch to have been anointed was the Anglo-Saxon king Edgar in 973. The unction itself – the coronation liturgy’s most solemn act – is even older, stemming from the Old Testament’s description of Samuel’s anointing of Israel’s King David (1 Sam. 16:13).

The early Western nation-state emerged out of this Judeo-Christian tradition. Even when transposed across the seas, the “liturgical monarchy” that couches the Crown of St Edward under which Britain and fourteen other Commonwealth “realms”, including Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, of which Elizabeth II is also queen, are constituted, reminds us not so much of these latter realms’ origins in England as Western civilization’s origins in the ancient Near East – an acknowledgement that public authority in our lands proceeds ultimately from the God of the Bible and, to be used properly, owes at least a passing regard for the Gospel.

Dieu et mon droit, read the Royal Arms on public buildings from Manchester to Melbourne. The Crown’s motto since the reign of Henry V (1413-22), it may go as far back as Richard I the Lionheart (1189-99).

Here, we already glimpse a measure of Britain’s constitutional incompatibility with the European Union, and its more natural partnership with another association of States (the Commonwealth realms). For whereas Britain’s constitutional structure is “liturgical”, residually biblical, and pre-modern, the constitution of every other European State is a product of the Enlightenment age of liberalism to which Britain’s stands in counterpoint.

How, logically, could the “thick” metaphysical order of Christendom, with its substantive conception of the Good, to which the British Crown still belongs symbolically and liturgically, subordinate itself, legally, to the purely positivistic, procedural authority of the EU without, in some unconscious sense, committing an “apostasy”? Other European States never faced this unspoken problem.

The EU’s founding fathers, to be sure, were often inspired by Catholic Social Teaching on the (originally Catholic) idea of “subsidiarity”. But the operating mode of the EU system they constructed has been to take such principles as they might have found there and transform them into morally agnostic rules and procedures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as first the Greek and now Italian crises have shown, these have failed to make the EU a moral community in the same way as the United Kingdom or even, residually, the Commonwealth, is. (For after all if the latter is anything, what else is it?)

As I have argued elsewhere, the Queen’s earlier Palm Sunday message was not a religious address. But it, too, derived its authority from the deeper conception of her office that Elizabeth II as a Christian monarch entertains. In it, the Queen returned the modern polities of which she is head to the principles of the pre-modern moral and political order of Christendom (namely, Oliver O’Donovan’s triad of power, right, and tradition) out of which they sprang, ensuring the continued perception of the legitimacy of public authority in these lands, even amid crisis.

Gently, respectfully, and moderately delivered, however, the Queen’s two speeches, on Palm Sunday and Holy Saturday, threatened the modern rights and liberties of no one, whatever their faith “or none”, as the Queen likes to put it. Indeed, the response her speech elicited seems to suggest that even as the number of Britons, Australians, and Canadians individually identifying as Christians continues (lamentably) to shrink, we remain, despite ourselves, “liturgically” formed peoples, steeped in a moral order we almost take for granted.

Having recently turned 94, however, Elizabeth II won’t be with us for ever. In a fit of misguided modernization, her successors may “slim down” the coronation – and perhaps even follow the rest of Europe in abandoning the unction.

This would be a tragedy, not only for Britain but for the world, reducing the monarchy to a kind of biological place-holding.

It would also be a major capitulation by the Royal Family to the narrative of secularization – to the idea that God is or should be irrelevant in a truly “modern” societies such as Britain’s and the other Commonwealth realms’.

As John Milbank and Adrian Pabst have argued in their remarkable, recent Politics of Virtue: Post-liberalism and the Human Future (2016), however, the opposite is true.

Liberalism has brought about an epochal expansion of liberty since the Enlightenment. But as a dogma, liberalism cannibalizes itself if not grounded in the older, pre-liberal deposit of morals and culture that it assumed in the period of its elaboration. The malaise of the modern liberal-technocratic regime flows from its increasingly strident unmooring from a moral order that it consumes but cannot reproduce.

In a regime of the British kind, however, the Crown in its liturgical aspect acts a “sacred anchor”. No longer de jure, but symbolically, its purpose is to prevent the drift going too far, tugging by its mere presence at the imaginations of the changing captains (ministers and prime ministers) at the helm of our nation’s politics not to drive the vessel of state too far from port.

Do so, and risk capsizing.

In one of the most important political events of our times, it has arguably already done so: Brexit (and this is where I disagree with Milbank and Pabst: Milbank particularly was passionately Remain). For what else is the latter, at bottom, about, if not a reassertion of the fundamentally biblical principles of good governance, namely, power, right, and tradition?

We have already seen the metaphysical conflict posed by the different conceptions of right in operation between Britain and the EU. But whatever the Queen’s (rightly unknown) private convictions on EU membership, the Crown as a symbol of the sovereign power of the Queen-in-Parliament always sat at odds with the EU’s right to regulate the flow of capital, goods, and migrants across Britain’s borders, while the very aspiration of “ever-closer union” among European countries seemed to foreshadow the dissolution of Britain as a moral community formed around its own distinct national memories and tradition.

Moreover, the exclusion of the peoples of those Commonwealth realms with whom so much of this tradition was shared (not least through the shedding of blood together on battlefields from the Boer War to Malaya via the Somme and Tobruk), not by lack of cultural affinity but by power-political calculation (largely by the French, who opposed the admission of the Commonwealth realms with Britain to the Customs Union in 1973), was another offense against the very substance of the tradition itself.

Is the Queen, then, post-liberal? No, quite obviously her office is pre-liberal. But the same is true of every philosophical and cultural tradition that the proponents of the various contemporary post-liberalisms have turned to for inspiration, from Aristotelian virtue politics (Alisdair MacIntyre) to the Tocquevillian ethos of New England Puritanism (Patrick Deneen) and Benedictine monasticism (Rod Dreher).

Now, all these sources of inspiration are civic, local, and certainly voluntary if not exactly voluntarist. Lacking so far has been a template for a post-liberal understanding of a form of authority that is both public, political, and in some sense coercive. Could the “liturgical kingship” of the Bible and Christendom that still animates Britain’s unwritten post-feudal constitution be one place to find it?

If so, this is Britain’s “gift”, not its monopoly.

The concrete propositions of a future post-liberalism (or post-liberalisms) will be for political philosophers to work out. But, for now, a return to “port” – to a healthy commonwealth, directed towards its proper ends – must also include a post-liberal vision for public political authority. Elizabeth II’s two Coronavirus speeches remind us that, to begin with, that might simply mean asking our leaders to address themselves to all the basic things – power, right, and tradition – expected of public authority by all the peoples formed in a Judeo-Christian tradition of government reaching back to the reign of King David.

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