Nobody does pageantry quite like the British. If this week’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations are anything to go by, the pomp and ceremony of a royal occasion has lost none of its appeal. The British public turned out in huge numbers to show their appreciation for the Queen’s 60 years of tireless public service. Yet, beyond appreciation for her impeccable sense of duty, the Queen’s record as Britain’s head of state also illustrates an important lesson — democracy is about so much more than elections. How else do we explain Britain’s unelected, hereditary and privileged monarch as a popular and unifying figurehead for the country regarded as the very cradle of modern democracy? It is a message that the world, and in particular an Arab world, which is still in flux, would do well to digest.
In many ways, the institution of the British monarchy represents the very antithesis of democracy. The crown is perhaps the ultimate reward for privilege, handing power to an entire family purely on the basis of birth and bloodline. Far from contributing toward a system of meritocracy, the monarchy is a pseudo-feudal hangover from an era long gone and outdated. Rather than have a head of state whose position is subject to the choice of the people, Britain employs a system where the public are in fact the Queen’s subjects. It would be a mistake to assume that Queen Elizabeth’s role is restricted to pure symbolism. She still grants her prime minister a weekly audience, at which she is duty-bound to express her views and advise on government matters.
And yet, despite the entirely undemocratic and inequitable nature of the monarchy, the Queen’s rule has come to represent stability, tolerance and rule of law. During the 60 years of her reign, she has seen 11 prime ministers come and go, the first being Winston Churchill. In many ways the Queen personifies the very reassuring and popular British dictum “Keep calm and carry on.” The country’s most popular newspaper, The Sun, this week praised Her Majesty’s “selfless devotion” and opined that pigs would fly over Buckingham Palace before the Queen is replaced with an elected head of state.
It is a sentiment shared by a whopping majority of Brits who fail to see how an elected politician or civil servant would act as a unifying figure in the top job. Yet, popular rejection of a ballot to decide who sits at the apex of Britain does not compromise the country’s healthy democracy. In fact, 61% of British citizens believe that the monarchy is an important part of the country’s democratic system, playing a significant, if unelected role in the country’s constitutional affairs. Of course, elections are crucial in establishing and maintaining democracy. However, it is the core values of liberty and essential freedoms that are responsible for its health. Democracy must be a reality of everyday life; not a one-time event that occurs every few years.
This is a maxim we must not lose sight of, especially as the fallout from the Arab Spring continues to be felt. Much has rightly been made of the significance of the first-ever free presidential elections in Egypt. Indeed, the choice between Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq is truly historic. However, if Morsi is victorious, there are concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood that he represents will shape the country’s new constitution to restrict various freedoms. Then there is the question of whether the generals who have dominated Egyptian politics for the last 60 years will demand a continuing degree of power. The establishment of a robust Egyptian democracy depends on much more than the presidential vote later this month.
Meanwhile, Libya’s bumpy transition from dictatorship to democracy shows few signs of turning into a smooth ride. 80% of Libyans have reportedly registered to vote in parliamentary elections scheduled later this month. However, with militia groups still disrupting public order, even briefly controlling Tripoli airport this week, few can possibly imagine that the vote on 19 June will instantly herald a future of safety and freedom for the country.
Next door in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, freedom is still in question, despite a comparatively bloodless transition to an elected parliamentary system. Just this week, the country’s minister for human rights outright rejected a UN Human Rights Council recommendation to de-criminalize same-sex acts. There have also been concerns of late over freedom of expression, with authorities clamping down on an anti-government demonstration while a TV executive was found guilty of violating public morals for airing a show deemed offensive to strict religious sensibilities.
We must not be fooled by the honey-trap of elections. It is not the poll itself that makes or breaks a democracy, but the kind of system that follows. Regime change must come to mean the intense pursuit of fundamental freedoms and equality of religion, sex and race, rather than a simple changing of the guard. In the end, it is these liberties, not just elections, which safeguard democracy. So long as they continue to be respected, the undemocratic nature of a head of state such as the Queen matters little. She is indeed an incongruously unelected figurehead to democracy. However, the infinitely more worrying contradiction is the flagship elections that far too often prove to be a facade for continued repression.