A tale of two heads of state
Vanity Fair to the contrary, Joe Biden is the 12th (and not 13th) US President that Her Majesty the Queen has met in person. Since ascending to the throne at the death of her father George VI in February of 1952, Queen Elizabeth II has met every president but one, starting with Harry Truman. Somehow Lyndon Johnson never got around to it.
Most of you are like me, in that you have never known a day in your lives when Elizabeth II wasn’t the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But say what you will about the monarchy, and I must confess my feelings are mixed, it’s a rare thing for any public figure to go so long without screwing up badly. Second only to the President of the United States in fame and power, Britain’s monarchs occupy a rarified stratosphere of social and political clout.
The much-repeated notion that the Queen is a faint vestigial anachronism with little to no actual power is rubbish. The Royal Prerogative includes, among others, the power to appoint and dismiss ministers, declare war, make peace, and direct the actions of the military. In theory, anyway. There is little certainty who would come out on top were the theory ever put to the test. What’s more, Her Majesty has enormous personal power. In 2002 she halted the criminal trial of former royal butler Paul Burrell. Not even the President of the United States can do that.
And it’s important to remember that only when Joe Biden shakes hands with the Queen is he shaking hands with an equal. The Queen, not Boris Johnson, is Britain’s head of state.
All of which is to say that supreme governmental power can and will be abused if it’s ever in the wrong hands, and with the Queen we have been lucky. Her proclivity for keeping her opinions to herself and her weekly meetings with the Prime Minister private are legendary. With Elizabeth you have to look long and carefully to find the smallest crack between her priorities and her antipathies.
For example, Her willingness to come to the G7 and meet Joe Biden is one difference between her treatment of this President and the former one. When Trump came here the Queen was content to remain at home and go through the agonising formalities of entertaining him in situ. But she eagerly seeks out Biden. This is no accident.
Clearly the Queen disliked the Former Guy. But she was devoted to her duties and put aside her personal feelings in the interest of the nation. And it’s also clear she likes Biden. She will probably never come out and say as much expressly, but there is much evidence there if you look carefully at her public actions.
These subtleties don’t extend to the rest of the royal family. The Prince of Wales and his son William refused to meet Trump during his first United Kingdom visit. (Trump, of course, being who and what he is, “got even” with Charles during his next visit by being an hour late for tea.) Both are eagerly on hand to meet President Biden during his first visit.
Whatever impulses drive the Queen forward we have been lucky for them. So far America has similarly been lucky with 44 out of the 45 men who have occupied the presidency. Each of the 44, for the most part, believed in and respected the rule of law and the constraints that kept them from mingling their personal fortunes with their public duties. We have now learned that those constraints are as imaginary and impotent as the thin rope keeping an elephant in place.
We must use our own interval of power to ensure that the time-honoured protocols and traditions of the presidency become law, that the Department of Justice memo proclaiming that a sitting President cannot be indicted be repudiated and replaced and that no future president be permitted to abuse his or her power. Trump has provided the blueprint for future tyranny, and that blueprint must become irreproducible.
Right now there are no Trumps on the horizon in the immediate succession to the British monarchy. Unfortunately there are plenty of Trumps on America’s horizon. Once again we got lucky with Trump because he was too stupid and lazy to do what he really wanted to do, become President for Life with absolute power. We have to make sure that the law makes another Trump impossible while we have the power to do so. Because if we don’t the next one just might be smart enough to pull it off. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.