Monarchy and Democracy in Perspective

In his critical biography of Queen Elizabeth I (1942), Hilaire Belloc writes

Monarchy is the normal, permanent form of human government. Democracy, the attempted control of the country by the country itself, is obviously impossible save in small societies. When you are dealing with larger units there is no possible effective machinery for putting the governed in command of those who govern them….

Belloc adds that all forms of polity (except, presumably, the most despotic totalitarian states) are subject to the indirect but powerful “check” of popular consensus – this is true even of monarchy. That is why, for example, the attempted expansion of kingly power under the Catholic James II failed. “Monarchy would not work [notes Belloc] where the monarch was of a religion and morals hostile to his or her subjects. It would break down quite quickly were it to attempt novelties shocking to the public habit of mind.” Yet all things being equal, Belloc believes that “the executive must and will be centralised; the helm must normally remain in the grasp of one hand.”

This does seem to be the trend in any political system: the consolidation of power. For that power to be exercised most “efficiently” it will in the hands of an executive. But human polity being less than perfect, this consolidation will always be thwarted to some degree. And that is probably for the best. As Belloc astutely pointed out in another work (The House of Commons and Monarchy, 1922), no form of government is purely monarchical, aristocratic or democratic, but will evince some combination of all three.

Kingship reached its apex in Europe at the time of Elizabeth. Yet in England the reign of arbitrary and unchecked monarchy was its undoing. The ruling classes who had enriched themselves with the loot of the monasteries during the Reformation went on to assert their newly won power at the expense of the crown. Paradoxically they won their new status by manipulating the executive power of kings and queens in a way that would not be possible at a later time when checks were put in place, against both hereditary monarchs and pseudo-monarchs like Cromwell. The result was the “English aristocratic state” which reached its culmination in Belloc’s youth. He calls such a government “the strongest” and most cohesive system possible, it being “conducted by a small highly organised wealthy class” which in modern times (he notes with irony) is often referred to as a “democracy.”

However, I think that the move from the old oligarchy to this so-called “democracy” represented an entirely new phase. The liberal gentry of the nineteenth century undermined their own hegemony and made way for progressivist elites who, as it turns out, are just as jealous of their power but far less united and self-sacrificing in their leadership… and far less honest about their real power over the demos (people).

See related comments on this topic.

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