In 2004, Roger Scruton published a pamphlet entitled The Need for Nations. It was a short but thorough distillation of his thoughts on the nation state. The front cover of the document bore an illustration of the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament in Great Britain. The late Queen Elizabeth II is pictured on her throne as members of the Commons and Lords gaze upon their sovereign dressed in regal splendour. Why choose such an image for a treatise on nationhood? The answer is obvious when one understands that, for Scruton, the nation ought to be an object of loyalty and love. This is because, in its modern manifestation, the nation serves as a shared home to strangers, many of whom have little else in common. Seeing the nation as a home which commands our allegiance and affection—despite what may divide us at cultural, social, or religious levels—is the basis of membership.
As Scruton’s political hero Edmund Burke realised, however, societies do not consist of the living only, but of the living, the dead, and the unborn. Such persons also constitute the first-person plural, without which “we” would dissolve “into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary particles.” To silence ‘absent generations’ would be like seeking to make fateful decisions in a family without consulting elderly parents or considering the impact on our children and grandchildren.
By contrast, in Burke’s England, as he put it, “We have real hearts of flesh and blood beating in our bosoms. We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility.” We do so because such institutions have stood as the bedrock of our common home. They have allowed us to identify with a particular place as ‘ours’ over time, and notwithstanding the shifting currents of popular taste. As Scruton writes:
The French, Russian and Nazi revolutions were bold experiments; but in each case they led to the collapse of legal order, to mass murder at home and to belligerence abroad. The wise policy is to accept the arrangements, however imperfect, that have evolved through custom and inheritance, to improve them by small adjustments, but not to jeopardise them by large-scale alterations the consequences of which nobody can really envisage.
The most significant of those arrangements for Burke, Hegel, and Scruton is undoubtedly monarchy. In the absence of a sovereign, there would be no sense of continuity or historical memory. Neither would there be any sense that ‘we’ belong to something greater and more enduring than a loose collection of ‘elementary particles.’ There would be no sense of lasting identity that transcends, as Burke put it, the “paltry pelf of the moment.”
In his great requiem for old England, England: An Elegy, Scruton observes that, “Mention of the dead seems quaint to modern ears: after all, they are no longer with us, and therefore, you might suppose, have no interests which are affected by what we do.” However, the dead do, indeed, “have an enduring interest in our respect for them,” and that is because, for the conservative, the world is imbued with the consciousness of those who have predeceased us. We ascribe value and worth to things, not solely based on their market price, but because they are endowed with the spirit of what Burke described as “our canonised forefathers.” Art and culture provide the clearest examples of this, in that through painting or literature we are absorbed by a vision which directly engages us. Hegel believed that the aim of all education was to engage with an alien consciousness to the point where it becomes mine. Identity is, thus, a process of becoming one with the consciousness of our forebears. And this, according to Scruton, is why “we protect monuments, shrines and historic towns,” why we respect “graveyards and ancestors and ancient ceremonies.”
It is, of course, possible to look at such things with the eyes of the revolutionary, believing that they have no claim on the living. But that, to repeat, is to forget Burke’s correct assertion that society is not a partnership “in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature,” and that it is rather “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Consequently, in honouring the dead, “the living trustees are safeguarding the interests of their successors.” And as Scruton saw, “Remove the dead from the equation, and you remove the unborn.”
To understand that the living trustees are but the temporary guardians of the social, cultural, religious, and political capital, is to simultaneously recognize that democratic choice—if it is to be genuinely democratic—must, Scruton tells us, “take place in the context of institutions and procedures that give voice not merely to minorities, who would otherwise be vulnerable to oppression from majority opinion, but to past and future majorities.” Indeed, the English Constitution, Scruton asserts, “was an attempt to stand as a bulwark against the demands of living people, and to ensure that the voice that sounded through the legislature was the voice of the land, with all its burden of corpses and all its promise of future life.” Still, even when such institutions are strong, there remains the temptation, especially in contemporary egalitarian societies, to address the needs of the living at the expense of the dead and the unborn. Hence the need for monarchy which, as Scruton told me in our book of conversations, “is natural to human beings.” It is also “the most reasonable form of government” because, by “embodying the state in a fragile human person, it captures the arbitrariness and the givenness of political allegiance, and so transforms allegiance into affection.”
The monarch, being “a symbol of nationhood,” gives a human face to the “historical entity” of which his subjects are a part. That face is, so to speak, the nation’s personality, and its history can be traced by observing the monarch’s filial lineage. To view the monarch as such is to see that he is the ‘voice of history’—the voice that reminds the living that they owe a debt to the dead, and that this debt can only be paid when the unborn receive their ancient bequest. If the monarchy inspires patriotism, it is because patriotism is, unlike nationalism, an emotion founded on affection and love. Subjects and citizens might not always love their nation, but when that nation is embodied in the figure of a monarch, it assumes the form of a human person who can be loved. Moreover, in some mysterious way, the monarch connects his citizens with absent generations, so that they never lose sight of those who have fallen silent. That is why Scruton argues that attachment to the monarch is “patriotism in a pure form.”
This suggests, Scruton notes, that monarchs “owe their authority and their influence precisely to the fact that they speak for something other than the present desires of present voters.” They are the “light above politics, which shines down on the human bustle from a calmer and more exalted sphere.” Politicians come and go, but the monarch provides continuity in the life of a nation that looks beyond the moment. That explains the importance of a ‘royal family,’ which signifies a cross-generational link to past and future. Moreover, in a king or queen, we see what we value, not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. As a ‘symbol of the nation,’ the monarch rescues a people from the daily grind of politics to reveal where they came from and why they are the people they are. The monarch, argues Scruton, is an ordinary person, but one “transfigured by a peculiar enchantment” which represents “not political power but the mysterious authority of an ancient ‘law of the land.’”
For Scruton, the monarch is the living embodiment of the law by which the land is settled as a common home. As he writes in England: An Elegy:
This was the real reason for the English attachment to monarchy as a form of government. The king or queen symbolised the personhood of England—its unchanging and vigilant claim on our affection. The term ‘person’ comes to us from Roman law; its original meaning in Latin is mask—the persona worn by the actor in the theatre. And the monarch was the mask of England—the representation of something which lived longer and meant more than any individual. That was why the English regarded the monarch simultaneously as an ordinary human being, and as a manifestation of their own identity, the consecrated symbol of the land itself. The Queen could be both these things only because her office was inherited, and because she was moulded from childhood to its shape. When the English toasted ‘Queen and Country,’ therefore, they were commemorating not two things but one. And that one thing was England—the land construed as a person.
England has a face which is that of the monarch. Thus, the land is perceived as a person with which we may not only identify but whom we may also love. It is this fact which enables us to adopt “our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections.” As Scruton observes, the English “held the law to be part of what they loved—not something that would replace the charisma of monarchy and the magic of tradition, but a permanent condition that was intricately connected to both.” Hence, monarchy and the law are works of the imagination which attempt to “represent in the here and now all those mysterious ideas of authority and historical right without which no place on earth could be settled as a home.” Both monarchy and the law are factors which contributed to the “domestication of the English territory,” ways in which the world had been sanctified and imbued with a moral character. As such, the monarch belongs to the “surface of social affairs,” by which Scruton means “all those activities which endow the world with meaning so that it bears the mark of appropriate action and appropriate response.” Stated otherwise, the monarch “forms part of that surface of concepts and symbols whereby citizens can perceive society not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.”
If Queen Elizabeth derived her authority from being part of this “surface of concepts and symbols whereby citizens can perceive their social identity,” it is because she was “a symbol of nationhood… an incarnation of the historical entity of which the English are a part.” Hence, they respond to the monarch through concepts and images which “bear the mark of participation, and are intrinsically consoling, in the manner of a religious communion, or an act of worship.” As an institution—if not the foremost institution—of state, the monarchy has a personality of its own. Scruton asserts that institutions are “rational agents, with their own changing goals and their hopes and fears for the future.” This, he continues, is one reason why they are so important to us, “for they are the objective counterpart of our experience of membership, and can be loved as persons through every change in the persons who compose them.”
An institution, Scruton writes, “can be the object of praise, loyalty, pride, as well as of anger and resentment; it can possess habits of mind, virtues and vices.” We see this clearly in the case of the monarchy or the royal family, which is why Scruton states that “the legitimacy of monarchical rule arises ‘transcendentally,’ in the manner of the duties and obligations of family life.” To perceive something transcendentally is to see it as a subject with all the attributes of personality—even if, to the scientific mind, it possesses none of those characteristics. From one perspective, the institution of monarchy is something that has no rational foundation and is a throwback to an outdated past which has no claim on the present. From the intentional or transcendental perspective, however, we respond to the monarchy as we would any person. It is an encounter with the subject in the world of objects, which is why we can love or revere a royal family as though it were our own.
Scruton does not deny that, from this transcendental perspective, “the loyalty to the monarch is mysterious.” Then again, most of our cultural concepts and symbols which constitute the surface of our social affairs are similarly mysterious. It is a mystery that a face on a canvas can transform the lives of those who behold it. It is a mystery that a smile is both a contortion of the facial muscles and a revelation of the person mingled with her flesh. Yet, that is precisely how we must respond to both the painting and the smiling person if we are fully to belong to the human world. The concepts and symbols we inherit, which bind us to the surface of social affairs, are, insists Scruton, “indispensable to us, and the foundation of happiness in this or any other world.” That is because this encounter with the subject in a world of objects “is our ‘homecoming’: it is the overcoming of metaphysical isolation which is the lot of rational beings everywhere.” The rational and scientific worldviews, however, contain “a fatal temptation.” They invite us “to regard the subject as a myth, and to see the world under one aspect alone, as a world of objects. And this disenchanted world is also a world of alienation.” This is a world in which the appearances have been swept away, and one in which the deep mysteries upon which our happiness depends are deconstructed.
Following Burke, Scruton argues that “assault on institutions has been part of the revolutionary programme since 1789.” Wherever they came to power, he continues, “the Communist and Nazi Parties expropriated, infiltrated and abolished institutions, so as to destroy every trace of corporate personality.” They did so, at least in the case of the French revolutionaries and the Russian communists, by executing their monarchs. As a symbol of nationhood, and the “objective counterpart of our experience of membership,” the monarchy simply had to be abolished because, according to the revolutionaries, “the experience of membership is inherently degrading: it involves a surrender to rules, hierarchies, uniforms; it sets a value on obedience and conformity; it brings people into line with one another, and confers legitimacy on them.” Such an assault on monarchy was also necessary if the revolutionaries were to detach people from their past and silence the voice of history.
Scruton observes that, if revolution “leads to murder” it is because “it destroys the ideas and conceptions through which we endow the human world with personality.” Monarchy enables us to relate to the world as a home because it offers symbolic mediation with our past and our future. The Crown itself is the primary symbol of the weight of history and is that through which we catch a glimpse of a nation’s personality. Being part of the “thin topsoil of human discourse”—of the appearances—we are attracted to the regal insignia and paraphernalia because it tells the story of who we are and where we came from. Such things are cultural conceptions, but they are no less real in being so. That is because it is in the thin topsoil of human culture “that the seeds of human happiness are sown.” Even at the far less exalted level of ordinary human affairs, we mediate with each other and the world through appearances. Clothes, costumes, make-up, ornament, decoration, and personal style—all permit us to feel comfortable with one another and are how we domesticate the natural environment. Without the aesthetic, we could never fully identify with what is alien or distinct. We could never encounter personality, character, or subjectivity in and through objects.
That is why appearances are such an important facet of the institution of monarchy. The royal palaces, the regal clothing and ceremonial display, are all ways of domesticating the surrounding world in the spirit of absent generations. It is an example of what Hegel described as spirit (Geist) shining through the veil of sense-experience. These appearances inspire patriotism because they reconcile us to the larger family of which we are a part. They also ennoble us in as much as they signify the achievements of a nation to which we belong. Just as we decorate our individual homes with symbols of success—with our parchments, trophies, plaques and medals—the royal insignia are, for us, icons of our place in history, and are, thus, worthy of public display. They reveal the meaning of our country as something virtuous, admirable, and beautiful. In them, we encounter the face of the nation from a transcendental perspective.
To that, the liberator or the revolutionary or even the republican may say: Your institutions are human artefacts, creators and distributors of power. Through them you bind yourself, by making permanent what is transitory, and absolute what is merely relative to human interest. And that is why revolutionaries have, since the French Revolution, made it their objective to pull down “actual institutions, to uproot actual relations between people, to destroy all that is merely negotiated, compromised and half-convinced.” As such, argues Scruton, the “real reference to the transcendental, which is there in the humble forms of human life, is cancelled, on behalf of a transcendental freedom which cannot be obtained.” In this “reckless desire” to scrape away the thin topsoil, the appearances, the surface of social affairs, the world is “de-personalised.” Alienation conquers identity and what was once a home becomes instead a halfway house of forgotten dreams.
Through his coronation and anointing by the bishop, the monarch is surrounded with a “halo of sanctity,” thus conferring on the institution of monarchy an almost mystical status. Deprive it of that sacred sense and you drag the members of the royal family down into the world of objects. The degradation suffered by the French and Russian royal families following the French and Communist revolutions, was a vivid illustration of such desacralization for it changed what they essentially were in the eyes of their people. It did so by ‘erasing the appearance’ through which they relate to each other and through which we relate to them. In so doing, Scruton observes, it created “a new kind of creature, a depersonalised human being, in which subject and object drift apart, the first into a world of helpless dreams, the second to destruction.”
Why this has not happened in England is, according to Scruton, because the English people still “want a person upon whom they can focus their emotions, and they would like that person to be above politics—occupying a permanent office that doesn’t change as the political landscape changes.” Despite what he termed the “forbidding of England,” in which any “activity connected with the hierarchy and squirearchy of Old England is now likely to be persecuted or even criminalised,” the country remains firmly rooted in the monarchy. It is true, as he argues, that the “congregations and the little platoons” are gone. So too are the “peaceful folkways—the children’s games, parlour songs, proverbs and sayings—that depended on a still remembered religious community.” Gone, he laments, “are the habits—the stiff upper lip, the aloof sense of duty, the instant assistance to the stranger in distress—that went with imperial pride.” And gone also are “the institutions—the village shop, the market, the Saturday-night dance, the bandstand in the park—through which local communities renewed themselves.”
What has not gone, however, is the sense that, without the monarchy, what remains of the common home would be all but lost forever. Scruton asserts that it would be easy “for the English to renounce their loyalty to the crown, to forget their ancestors, to throw away the culture and inheritance of their country, and to become ‘citizens of Europe,’ were it not for the fact that, in doing so, they would lose the roots of their social membership.” Notwithstanding the momentous changes to its traditions and heritage, England remains a home to those who dwell there. At the centre of that home is the Crown, which is “an ancient product of the English imagination like some adamantine relic in the subsoil of our culture.” It is that unifying symbol without which no nation can be successfully sustained.
The “old forms of community” may have disappeared. The scientific and liberal picture of the human being may have replaced the theological. Both may have “demoralized the world by scrubbing out the mark of human freedom” and the conception of the sacred upon which it is founded. As Roger Scruton firmly insists, however, “the demoralised world is not the real one.” If monarchy has any meaning for us today, it is as a convincing vindication of why that is so.