Statue of Queen Elizabeth II in Ottawa, Ontario. Photo by Flickr user Cheryne.
As the partial shutdown of the U.S. government drags through its fourth week, news from across the Atlantic reminds us that the forces promoting political stasis over here are hardly unique to America.
In France, protesters aligned with the “yellow vest” movement are all but certain to take to the streets tomorrow for the 10th consecutive weekend, challenging a government they believe is out of touch with the concerns of the common citizen. Their feelings were hardly assuaged when French President Emmanuel Macron, whose domestic approval ratings make Donald Trump look like an A-list celebrity, asserted that some of his country’s poor are merely “screwing around” rather than striving to improve their fortunes.
Poland is reeling from the assassination of the politically moderate mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, who was frequently at odds with the country’s right-wing national government. The attack not only occurred in public, but was captured on video as well. Adamowicz was on stage at a charity event when he was attacked and fatally stabbed by a 27-year-old ex-convict. The assailant, who has been identified only as Stefan W, reportedly served five years in prison for armed robbery. After running onstage and assaulting the mayor, the assailant grabbed a microphone and declared that he blamed the mayor’s former party, Civic Platform, for imprisoning him.
Within days, Poland’s national government announced it had arrested three more men for advocating additional killings of unspecified politicians. Interior Minister Joachim Brudzinski said the three were internet trolls and “unbalanced,” but commentators lost little time blaming Poland’s vitriolic political debates for inciting violence. Poland and neighboring Hungary are already deeply at odds with fellow members of the European Union over actions taken by their elected administrations that countries in Western Europe see as undermining the independence of their courts and jeopardizing the rule of law.
But the biggest news came out of London, where Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a crushing rejection of her proposed Brexit agreement to govern Britain’s scheduled withdrawal from the EU on March 29. The 432-202 vote against her Brexit deal was by far the largest defeat suffered by a sitting government in modern times. May was abandoned by 118 MPs from her own Conservative Party, which is unheard-of in British politics; she also did not win a single vote from the small Northern Irish unionist party that gives her a majority in the House of Commons.
Yet the very next day, May survived a no-confidence motion by the opposition Labour Party, which would have forced her from office and most likely would have led to new elections. So the embattled prime minister remains in place, but she apparently has no real power when it comes to her country’s most important political issue. With her own party bitterly split between those who want less post-Brexit involvement with Europe than her deal provides and others who want no Brexit at all, May cannot seem to assemble enough votes to implement the EU withdrawal that Britons demanded in a close but decisive 2016 referendum. It has not been for lack of trying.
However, the United Kingdom has a political emergency exit that we do not have in the States, and which France, Poland and the EU also lack: the monarchy.
Like all modern British monarchs, Queen Elizabeth II reigns but she does not rule. While the 92-year-old queen undoubtedly has her own views about Brexit, she will never express them in public, because a British sovereign is not supposed to interfere in politics.
She is, however, expected to function as the embodiment of the British people, and as their advocate and representative when the situation calls for it. She is free to speak her mind in her weekly private audience with the prime minister. She is also free to call upon the British people and their elected representatives to come together and make sacrifices for the good of the nation. It will not come as a surprise if she quietly exerts her influence to try to break the logjam in Parliament. In fact, many observers have anticipated this for months. She may have already tried.
We have no idea what outcome the queen would like to see. She may feel, as May does, that it is Parliament’s duty to execute the decision that the people made in 2016 and withdraw from the EU under the best terms the government was able to negotiate – that would be May’s deal – or otherwise with no agreement at all. Or she may believe that, despite winning the no-confidence vote this week, May is duty-bound to resign as prime minister, which would be the traditional outcome of such a major defeat on a key piece of legislation. May stepping down would allow a new government to cobble together a coalition or call new elections so the public can again make its voice heard.
Or the queen may want something else entirely, perhaps including a reversal of the decision to withdraw from Europe altogether. I highly doubt she would allow the latter view to become public, however, because it would imply that she believes she has the right to judge the choices made by the voters in her democratic nation. In her annual Christmas address to the nation, the queen focused on the importance of unity and mutual respect. The topic was surely chosen with Brexit in mind, yet suggested no sympathy toward one position over another.
We Americans do not intuitively understand the value of a modern monarch. We get along just fine without one. But this does not mean a monarch has no value; we have seen repeated examples to the contrary.
Less than 40 years ago, then-King Juan Carlos I of Spain was credited with saving his country’s nascent democracy from a right-wing coup that sought to reinstate the dictatorship that expired with the late Francisco Franco. Despite scandals that subsequently affected the royal family, he remains a hero to many of his people. He abdicated in 2014 in favor of his son, current King Felipe VI.
In Japan, Emperor Akihito rallied his people in the wake of a disastrous 1995 earthquake and the far more devastating tsunami and nuclear power disaster in 2011. Akihito, the son of wartime Emperor Hirohito (and the first under Japan’s postwar constitution to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne as a man and not a god) has announced plans to abdicate in April, to be succeeded by his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito.
Queen Elizabeth II also has the example of her own father, King George VI, who famously addressed his people by radio in 1939 to rally them to serve and sacrifice at the outset of World War II. The king and queen remained in London throughout the aerial blitz and bombing of the city and for the duration of the war, though they could easily have retreated to the relative safety of remote Scotland or British possessions in the Western Hemisphere.
This legacy of service and courage may prove useful now, if the queen chooses to use her public and private influence to unite her people in the face of a much less lethal modern challenge. From all that we know of her, I would expect her to at least try.