There’s a certain condescension in Britain towards Donald Trump. We look on at his outrageous comments, his capricious manner and the billion-dollar hamster wheel of presidential elections and stare like political rubberneckers.
Nowadays British premiers try to act as the restraining paterfamilias in the ‘special relationship’. They’re rewarded with bullying and humiliation, according to journalist Carl Bernstein. This is probably a far cry from what the older Harold Macmillan envisioned with the younger JFK: “These Americans represent the new Roman Empire – and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go.”
But this condescension is nothing new. For years ‘acting presidential’ has been a biting criticism of our prime ministers. Tony Blair was famous for his small coterie and sofa government that casually shunned the Cabinet system. Margaret Thatcher walked the world stage like an American empress but was felled by a very British constitutional coup.
And yet that system is under serious threat from a surprising source, and one which our American cousins might find ironic. The oft-overlooked brilliance of the British model of governance is what Walter Bagehot identified as the country’s double set of institutions – the ‘dignified’ and the ‘efficient’.
Here, the Prime Minister can never be more significant than the monarch. ‘First, among equals’ is the highest achievement.
Pomp and pageantry amid post-war woes
In theory, the Royal Family should be beyond political reproach and ‘dignified’ to maximise its utility. The current generation is not the first to have their fair share of scandals. Yet in an age of rampant social media and press coverage, it’s impossible to keep that mystery and idealism.
Winston Churchill predicted as much back in the 1950s. He didn’t want cameras at the Queen’s coronation in 1953 because he worried about its intrusiveness. He and senior members of the Cabinet were horrified. There are mixed reports of what the Queen initially thought, but she finally approved them.
In retrospect, it’s damning how Churchill of all people saw the problem of cameras and the change they represented. Churchill had a lifelong fascination with films (he was even hired to write two screenplays by Alexander Korda). A master of occasion, Churchill knew – at a time of fierce post-war economic strains – that the new monarch would be labelled absurd if people saw the pomp and pageantry as anything other than divine. Imperial reach was not worth the price.
Over 60 years later and the Queen remains mostly untarnished, but the personal lapses, divorces, scandals and cost-return perception of her family have done that. If the 1950s weren’t the death knell, they was undoubtedly the starting gun for future problems.
The family sincerely struggles to make good on Bagehot’s point that the head of state/royal family must be above the animosity of party politics so prime ministers can get on with ‘efficient’ government. It doesn’t seem kind to expect any individual to act flawlessly and uncontroversially in manner and choice for a lifetime. But that’s the system. The Markle exodus is a much more severe injury than many are realising. And how then is our system any better to the absurdity of Trump who can, at least, be replaced?
Bagehot’s ‘The English Constitution’ – serialised between 1865 and 1867 – was an effort to work backwards: Britain had escaped the revolutions of 1848, and his book was an attempt to explain why, in contrast to the American system. His conclusion, simply, was the checks and balances of Britain’s monarchical element, the aristocratic element, and the democratic element, created a peculiar excellence.
But this is predicated on a “mystic reverence... that no legislature can manufacture in any people”. Monarchy is suffering a perception crisis of the type Bagehot couldn’t have predicted. Inversely it now seems that Britain has lost its royal mystery, but America has accepted its worship of the dollar – of which Trump is a garish exemplar.
His doublespeak and moral unpleasantness do not change the fact that he can be replaced, or at least limited to two terms. Trump and his family might be acting more like a Royal Family, following the Adamses, the Roosevelts, the Bushes and the Clintons. But he can still be voted out.
The Queen remains impeccable, but her family are drawing precisely the kind of attention which undermines the entire constitutional point of the family. Churchill was right, and highly likely remembered the damage the Wallis Simpson scandal had caused.
Love the Queen, despite the Prime Minister
In our system, and very much in theory, politicians don’t need to be ubiquitously loved because our system allows for that manifestation of ‘Britishness’ to be in the monarch. You can despise Boris Johnson with no loss of patriotism. There is no democratic recourse against the Queen, but the problem is more acute. Increased media coverage means we know intimate details and the character of her heirs and successors – and we still have no choice but to hope they can curtail their thinking, feelings and opinions and be impossibly neutral.
In comparison, what Arthur M Schlesinger Jr calls the modern “imperial presidency” was never what America’s founders intended. Before the Civil War of 1861-65, the United States was referred to in the plural; now it’s the singular and its single personification is in the West Wing. They were disdainful of monarchical rule – a curious oddity given Mount Rushmore. Yet, they govern by dynasties.
In Britain, the Prime Minister is becoming more powerful with the monarchy as a plaything.
“The past,” wrote novelist LP Hartley, “is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Covid-19 has ably shown that impermanence is the only constant, and while Trump will not last forever, we can’t be so sure to say our system will, either.
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