James P. Pinkerton
The reaction to the death of Queen Elizabeth underscores the impact of her seven-decade reign: She provided her country with a sense of poise and unity — and that’s powerful.
Outside of the United Kingdom, people observed and admired: President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump agree, just this once, on her virtues. Indeed, as Americans think about Biden, Trump, and the role American presidents play these days, we might think harder about the lessons of the British model.
In the U.K. the queen (now king) fulfills the important constitutional function of embodying the state; he or she delivers cheery but bland speeches, cuts ribbons, receives flowers, consoles the bereaved. And while those missions might seem trivial to some, the popularity of the House of Windsor is proof that people appreciate that there’s someone on high seeking to keep the country together.
This division of labor — the hereditary crown for ceremonies, elected officials for actual governance — has served Britain well. Indeed, when the royals lost their “hard” power in the 18th century, they gained “soft” power: their ability to shape manners and morals. Most notably, Queen Victoria, reigning from 1837 to 1901, gave her name to an era — an era of uplift at home and of striving, seeking, finding, and not yielding everywhere else.
In the pre-electronic era, Victoria had no direct communication with the public, although she did speak at the opening and closing of Parliament, reading words written for her by the prime minister. As for her great-great grand-daughter, Elizabeth, she spoke on radio and television many times, always about duties and virtues — and she gave no interviews.
But that was just as well. As one grateful Briton wrote of her, “She was inscrutable about her own opinions; she just wanted the best for her country. It was so refreshing.”
Yet at the same time, the British royals have been active patriots. The future King George VI — father of Elizabeth — was a turret officer on a dreadnought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, during which more than 6,000 Britons died. In World War Two, the king’s brother was killed flying for the Royal Air Force.
In 1944, when Princess Elizabeth turned 18, she started as a second subaltern in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s division of the army. In his youth, the new King Charles III was a navy helicopter pilot, as was his son William.
Okay, so what lessons might Americans glean from the mother country? Under our Constitution, the function of head of state and chief political executive are combined in one post: the presidency. In earlier times, presidents, once elected, strove to at least appear as being above politics, following the model of George Washington — who is rightfully remembered as the Father of His Country.
Compare that to more recent presidents: Can Democrats think of Trump and not get angry? And can Republicans think of Biden and not get angry? So much for unity. And oh yes: it’s worth noting that neither man served in the armed forces. Indeed, the last president to serve on a full-time basis was George H.W. Bush.
Nobody is going to change the Constitution so that we can have what the British have: One person as unifying head of state and another as the partisan-politicking chief of government.
But maybe we could have presidents more like George Washington, who was content to let others make the sausage. And, of course, another Washington quality: The willingness to don a uniform and put oneself in harm’s way for the sake of the nation.
We can learn from the British, but it’s even better if we learn from ourselves.
James P. Pinkerton, a former White House domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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