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Queen Elizabeth II presided for seventy years over the apotheosis of the British monarchy as the keystone of British democracy. As a figure quintessentially above politics, she could stand for the whole nation, as a grandmother to all, regardless of their political position. It will be difficult for her son, now Charles III, to achieve a similar standing.

The English (the largest nation in the United Kingdom) invented the modern constitutional monarchy, but they did it over centuries without ever really thinking it through. In the time of Elizabeth I, the monarch was an eminently political leader who had to manage shifting alliances in Parliament and the country. Her role was similar to that of an American president: she both represented the whole country in ceremonial, symbolic ways, and led her political supporters aa they struggled for power against her opponents. Her supporters tended to be Anglican, her opponents Catholic.

Elizabeth’s successors, the kings of the Stuart line (descendants of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth kept locked up until her death) tried to rule in the same way, but ran into increasing resistance from a House of Commons dominated by Puritan dissidents from the Anglican Church. Thus you had kings who were really Catholics presiding over the Anglican Church, and in conflict with Puritans who were really Anglicans, but wanted a more Calvinistic Church of England—and certainly not Papism.

This conflict led to a civil war, the beheading of Charles I, and a revolutionary Puritan dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell died in 1660, the monarchy was restored under Charles II, son of Charles I and equally crypto-Catholic. Charles II managed to reign until his death in 1685, when he was succeeded by his brother, the openly Catholic James II. James managed to provoke another crisis with Parliament, which in 1688 removed him from the throne and replaced him with his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, the monarch of the Netherlands. This coup was labeled by the victors as the Glorious Revolution.

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From William and Mary on, the supremacy of Parliament was established, and monarchs were to reign (not rule) within that structure. The government still acted in the name of the monarch, parliamentary bills became law upon the consent of the monarch, but the monarch actually had little remaining political weight.

Thus the American Founding Fathers had an antiquated image of the British monarchy when, in the Declaration of Independence, they blamed George III for all their grievances. And when they drafted a constitution with an elected monarch called a president, they were enacting an analogue to the Elizabethan constitution, not the one under which George III reigned.

The British and American democracies evolved on parallel tracks in the 19th and 20th centuries, the first with a ceremonial monarch as head of state and a prime minister as head of government, responsible to Parliament, not the monarch. The American model continued to merge, in the presidency, the roles of had of state and head of government. The British model of parliamentary democracy was commonly followed in Europe, whether with a constitutional monarch or an elected president. The major exception was France, which De Gaulle endowed with a strong presidency in 1958. The American presidential democracy was followed as the Latin American countries became independent in the 19th century.

Both the UK and the US find themselves today deeply divided politically. The British have their monarch as a symbol of their unity in spite of their differences. The Americans have nothing like that to hold them together. We sing “America” to the same tune as “God Save the King,” but its emotional weight just doesn’t compare. It is true that there are many Britons who are not monarchists (who are respectfully silent right now), but after Elizabeth’s long and successful reign, it’s not likely that the British will abandon the monarchy anytime soon.

Could the US have adopted a constitutional monarchy like the UK? The prospect seems unlikely, but it’s a worthwhile thought experiment.

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