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The ceremonial head of state

| Wednesday, April 20, 2022

This Thursday, Her Majesty The Queen, Elizabeth II will welcome her 96th birthday. This summer, the United Kingdom and her other realms will commemorate her Platinum Jubilee, marking the 70th anniversary of her accession to the British throne. She has become the longest-reigning monarch in British history, a feat that will probably remain unparalleled for centuries to come. The Queen, one of the world’s most recognized individuals, is a landmark figure in the public imagination, as she has been at the forefront of the British Crown for the overwhelming majority of people’s lives. A survey in the UK found that less than 20% of the country’s population had been born before she succeeded her father to the throne. Throughout the length of her reign, she has consistently retained high levels of popularity, successfully managing to remain above the fray of her family’s eyebrow-raising scandals and squashing out occasional bumps of republican sentiment.  

Evidently, Queen Elizabeth II has been a good queen. For over seven decades, she has dutifully fulfilled the duties and responsibilities bestowed upon her by the Crown back in 1952. Throughout her years of devoted public service, she has completed thousands of engagements throughout her multiple realms. She has a deep understanding of the responsibilities she has to carry and has demonstrated her utmost desire to carry them out well. From the moment Queen Elizabeth II took on her coronation oath in the early 1950s she has been the living embodiment of the state, its unity and its legitimacy. As head of state, Queen Elizabeth II is supposed to be the United Kingdom’s national symbol that represents the unbroken continuity of government, responsible for guaranteeing the “united” part of her country’s name. Her role has been extraordinarily successful, having been able to preserve one of the world’s most traditional monarchies through tumultuous decades that wrote off hereditary monarchy as arcane and useless. 

What can we learn from a figure as universally respected as Queen Elizabeth II? Beyond the individual, her figure provides good insight into how a nation can essentially craft itself in a way that prevents too much division from being sown. Like most European nations, the United Kingdom has a differentiated head of state and head of government. Her Majesty The Queen is the UK’s head of state, which carries a large set of ceremonial powers and is meant to embody the spirit of the nation. On the other hand, the Prime Minister serves as the country’s head of government and is the one in charge of running the government and being embroiled in the never-ending shenanigans that come with contemporary politics. This creates an important distinction within the British public imagination, as the court of public opinion with regards to political affairs revolves squarely around the head of government, while the head of state, meant to be the symbol of national unity, remains virtually unscathed and respected by all sides of the political debate. This provides British citizens with a built-in unifying element within their government, that is able to make all corners of society feel represented.

In the United States, and most countries in the Americas, these roles are held by the same person, almost always a president. The President of the United States’ duties overlap with the duties The Queen and Boris Johnson both have to fulfill across the Atlantic, and the inherent political nature of the presidency in the United States prevents the country from having a similar scheme British counterparts do. This eliminates almost any opportunity for the president to embrace the role of the unifier the way it is easy for the British monarch to do, as every step they take, and every move they take, is scrutinized through political lenses and the object of criticism from those standing in opposition. 

Visiting a factory, touring an area hit by a natural disaster, celebrating holidays and related activities fall under a head of state’s portfolio, and should not be considered controversial in the slightest. When a ceremonial head of state conducts them, they are useful engagements that help build the state’s legitimacy and make society feel united under one banner. In the United States, and other countries with similar constitutional makeups, they are conducted by an inherently controversial head of state, which limits the effect these activities may come to have. 

Over the past few decades, the United States has given way to an unprecedentedly unhealthy degree of polarization that diminishes the ceremony and dignity of the country’s head of state. The respect and decorum one yields to the holder of the country’s highest office depends on whether or not they agree with whoever is in office’s agenda. Even in times of crisis, the president fails to act as a unifying force, as critiques from the other side pour in no matter the circumstances. This is highly unfortunate, as it destroys the head of state’s status as a symbol of national unity.

The American constitutional order is here to stay, and nothing is strong enough to fundamentally transform the way power is organized in this country. However, looking towards the British way of doing things provides some insight into how having a ceremonial, apolitical figure serve as the country’s head of state guarantees unity in a way the fusion of head of state and government fails to provide.

Pablo Lacayo is a junior majoring in finance with a minor in Chinese. Originally from Nicaragua, he is now a happy resident of Stanford Hall. Reach him at [email protected] over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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