The Queen is dead
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
When, in 1882, Nietzsche declared that ‘God is dead’, a bolt of existential weight struck the changing public. The long-standing, stabilising, reassuring and, for many, unquestioned fabric of society had fallen away. Nietzsche referred to the enlightenment, which had removed the force of conventional morality and with it the comfort that it brought. Without a belief that God made sense of our place in the world, the poor, existentially burdened people of the day were left with an awful question: ‘how should we live now?’
We do not need to look too far to see the parallels experienced in recent weeks. A queue of mourners, at times trailing 10 miles long, was the fascination of the Great British nations, Commonwealth countries, and frankly – the world. British Politics stopped. For 12 days, the United Kingdom paused. The existential reflection on the new meaning of the United Kingdom, Great Britain, the Crown Dependencies, the Commonwealth and our familiar post box insignias was assuaged by the ritual-like unfolding of our Constitutional processes.
Who before, in honesty, could tell you the make-up and meaning of the Accession Council? Or explain at-will the difference between a Beefeater and a Queen’s Guard? Possibly with the exception of the unfortunate Australian news presenter who failed to recognise Prime Minister Liz Truss, you could be forgiven for not feeling familiar with the constitutional roles that underlie our national identity. The Elizabethan Era spanned more than twice my lifetime and these characters and intricacies have lain dormant the entire time.
This great pause, the long lag between actioning of the constitutional change associated with a changing monarch, may have made the archaic nature of our country’s rulebook even more stark. But yet, the United Kingdom and beyond have looked to these procedures to reaffirm their identity. A constitution, at its heart, is an underpinning of a culture. As Nietzsche showed us as long ago as 1882, when we face the loss of a higher meaning, there is a compulsion to jump to a stabilising explanation of who we are. But, Nietzsche is at pains to highlight that this reliance on ideas of the past can breed complacency about the world we live in.
To avoid complacency, and to find new meaning in the context of a changing era, there is merit in Nietzsche’s challenge: to re-evaluate our values.
There has been considerable recent strain on British values. Calls for devolution, and for regional levelling-up show that there are cultural and economic divides between us. Where might we look for answers as to what binds us? How can we make sense of Britishness now that the Queen is dead? The constitution is the first place we should look.
You could be forgiven for not knowing where to begin with this task. The British constitution is famously ‘unwritten’. Not knowing where, physically, to look is surely a hurdle. There are potential advantages to this. An unwritten constitution is in effect a ‘political constitution’. This means that laws which define and protect our values, together with the laws that specify the ‘rules of the game’ in our country, and those that justify the authority of those who enact these rules, can be changed at any time by Parliament. In theory, this makes the constitution remarkably dynamic.
Yet, to say we have this dynamic political framework, we live in a country with some of the most enduring institutions of anywhere in the world. Our monarchy to many onlookers is astounding for its grandeur, steeped in symbolism from a time-gone-by, somehow still carrying a sentimental and fundamental relevance to the British identity.
The strength, though, of these enduring institutions, has been their ability to adapt to changing values. We live not only under the dominium of the monarchy, but in a Parliamentary democracy. Our democratic values of (not limited to) freedom, pluralism, tolerance, citizen control, fundamental rights and equal consideration before the law have been crafted and defended in political challenges. We have a constantly contested equilibrium. On one of side of this, there is a stabilising conservatism toward our culture and on the other side, there is the fight for contemporary values and social progress. We have, as an active citizenry, crafted our framework of interaction, and a balance of powers and rights, that represents our culture.
A political constitution, that can be changed by any majority of the day, requires care, defence, engagement, crafting, modernising. Nietzsche calls us to arms in moments of great change. He says we have to define what we care about and that to live meaningfully is to take on the fights that will define us. We must, then, assess our constitution’s health. The Queen is dead, and we must not be complacent.
How well does our constitution reflect our modern democratic values? All over the United Kingdom, advanced from every end of the political spectrum, are calls for democracy and its defence. But what does this mean?
Let’s take democracy to require that citizens have a degree of influence and control over the laws that apply to them. This doesn’t only happen at the ballot box, but through constitutional procedures that limit the ability of an elected tyranny of the majority. No matter if Boris Johnson was elected with an 80-seat majority, he ought still to be bound by laws (hence the decrying calls of ‘one rule for them, and another for everyone else’ that drove him from office). Democracy requires that citizens have protections against the overreach of the government. Even with a majority, a government should not be able to traverse citizens’ rights, or escape the scrutiny of their opposition and the public, or question the independence of our judicial system. But this is only the case if we uphold the constitutional values that make it so.
We could see there being three pillars necessary for democracy: free and fair elections, civil and political rights and an independent judiciary.
Yet, in recent years, we have seen each of these pillars attacked and weakened. The Electoral Commission has lost its independence, and swathes of voters effectively disenfranchised owing to unfounded Voter ID requirements. The rights to protest have been diluted to the point of being undermined, the Human Rights Act questioned, the citizenship of some made revokable. Our judiciary has been challenged in the prorogation scandal, and powers of judges to review government decisions weakened.
As I have argued elsewhere, democracies do not only fall under the sudden conditions of a coup d’état. They can disappear slowly, from stealthy and piecemeal attacks. Our British constitution is not only going through significant turbulence but is at threat of backsliding out of democracy.
We have now, an important chance to reconceive of ourselves. The Elizabethan era has come to an end and we begin our lives under Charles III’s reign. The nature of the Carolean era is yet to be known. We know that we are in the throes of a technological revolution, on the cusp of a green revolution, and that we have modern understandings of equality, freedom, respect and dignity. We should also recognise that this era is ours to define. Our political constitution is founded on the principle of healthy democratic contestation and culture. It is that very culture we ought to seek to fight for and defend.
The Queen is dead. But we do not need to see this as a loss of our culture. Our culture will evolve and we are the political protagonists who define in which way. We share a constitution, and now is a moment to shape and defend it as the embodiment of values, and the underpinning of a cultural narrative, which make sense of our British identity. This is not only the change of an era, but if we take up Nietzsche’s challenge to make meaning of how we live, it can be an era of change.