The vitality of British democracy: A view from France


Some people, even across the Channel, have expressed indignation at the “outrageous” cost of the coronation of King Charles III on last Saturday, in London. The expense, borne by the British government, is around 200 million euros.

For an exceptional event (the last one was held in 1953), which will have been watched, at least in part, by nearly a billion television viewers around the world (including 9 million in France); which will have nourished national pride; which will have reinforced the prestige of the British Crown in the world; which will have attracted tens of thousands of additional tourists to England; the price is not exorbitant.

It is less than a single day of the French “Whatever it costs”, whose total cost was 80 billion (excluding guaranteed loans to companies). By way of comparison, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics cost 12 billion euros, or 60 times more than this coronation.

The paradox on which the British political system is based is its strength. All the glory, all the pomp, all the pageantry goes to the sovereign, sumptuously housed in Buckingham Palace, while all the real power goes to the Prime Minister, a small person in a business suit, bourgeoisly housed in 10 Downing Street, who has to go out into the street to address journalists.

Magnificence is reserved for the king because he symbolises the seniority, unity and longevity of the British people. Modesty is for the Prime Minister, who is fallible because he makes decisions every day.

This system has the merit of preventing hubris among British politicians. The case of Ankara, where Erdogan has built a thousand-room presidential palace, would not be possible in Britain. Nor would the case of Paris, where any deputy minister has the right to blow his siren and run red lights.  

In fact, the pomp and circumstance of the monarchical celebration on May 6 was a testament to the incredible vitality of British democracy. Equality of opportunity seems to be a reality in the United Kingdom, especially for those from the territories of the former Empire, where the sun never set.

The five most important functions of the kingdom – the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, the head of the Scottish Government, the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary – are now held by people who are not native British, who have no English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish blood.

In Great Britain there is no separation of Church and State as in France. The King is also the head of the Anglican Church. But for the very pragmatic British, respect for tradition does not prevent flexibility and adaptation. We saw this in Westminster Abbey, where representatives of all religions were duly invited.

At the same time, the country is not ashamed of its Christian heritage, and it professes its tolerance of other religions, which structured the territories of Queen Victoria’s Empire.

At different moments of the coronation, we saw the guest personalities of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party exchanging serenely. In the United Kingdom, there is a greater tolerance for the ideas of others than in our country.

Unlike the Palais Bourbon today, there is no room for invective in the House of Commons, where all the members of the government sit and where the reality of British political power is concentrated. When they speak, MPs always address the Speaker, who ensures the serenity of democratic debate. More than in France, the principle of alternation is deeply rooted in British political culture, hence the existence of an opposition shadow cabinet, which has access to information from the administration.

Paradoxically, the voice of the people is heard more in the British monarchy than in the French republic. Major foreign policy decisions are always referred to the House of Commons (yes to intervene in Iraq in 2003, no to Syria in 2013). In France, there was no debate and no parliamentary approval in 2011 for the war against Libya, which had such catastrophic consequences for the Sahel. 

In my view, the British Conservative Party made a strategic mistake in 2016 by holding a new referendum on Europe. But once it was adopted by the people, Brexit was implemented. In France, the elites refused to accept the consequences of the 2005 referendum on the European constitution.

If the British are now complaining about the consequences of Brexit, they at least know who to blame. That is the great advantage of a democracy that has retained all its vitality.   

This article was first published in Le Figaro. 

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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