Issue 270: 2021 03 11: Prisoners

11 March 2021

Prisoners of the Republic

The elephant in the throne room.

By Neil Tidmarsh

The Rector’s Palace is the most magnificent building in Dubrovnik, a city of magnificent buildings.  “Rector” was the official title of the head of state of the wealthy and powerful maritime republic of Ragusa (as Dubrovnik was known in the Middle Ages).  The Rector was chosen by the city’s aristocrats from among their own; following his election, he entered the palace, the doors were shut behind him, and he didn’t set foot in the outside world for the duration of his term.  He lived there in luxurious isolation and idleness; his job was to be nothing more than a ceremonial figurehead.

The republic was governed collectively by Ragusa’s nobility.  The last thing they wanted was a head of state who could usurp their powers; the whole system was designed to prevent any one individual from amassing more power than anyone else.  The city’s moto was “Liberty is not sold for all the gold in the world” and the system served it well, preserving the freedom of nobles, citizens and plebs alike for five hundred years.  The Rector’s position, however empty, did serve a practical purpose; it protected the republic’s stability and prosperity by ensuring that the head of state was a mere cypher insulated from the temptations and dangers of ambition, power, tyranny and corruption.  And a life of luxury and splendid ceremony in a magnificent palace must have been some compensation.  Nevertheless he was no doubt relieved that the term of office was only two months; any longer and even that palace would have felt like a prison.

Those other two great and contemporary republics – Venice and Genoa – had similar systems, designed to keep tyrants out of the top job.  Genoa’s system wasn’t quite so successful or stable: initially the head of state – the Doge – was elected for life by popular suffrage, but power-play, corruption and rivalry meant that few lasted more than a couple of years and some lasted no more than a couple of days.  Eventually, in the sixteenth century, the ruling caste of mercantile nobles overhauled the system so that only they chose the Doge, from among their own, for a term of only two years, and restricted his wealth to a small budget and his power to a seat on an executive committee.

Venice was more successful; for more than five stable and prosperous centuries, the mercantile nobility elected their Doge for life, gave him a moderate official income, forbad him from possessing property in a foreign land and allowed him to open messages from foreign powers only if other officials were present.  After a Doge’s death, they launched an official enquiry into his affairs and levied fines on his estate if they found any misbehaviour.  The real business of government – signing treaties, making laws, etc – remained in the collective hands of the nobles.  They loved liberty and dreaded tyranny and denied their head of state anything which could develop into a cult of personality; the Doge was to be seen but not heard, was to have no opinions of his own and exercise no personal power or influence.  His role was essentially ceremonial and symbolic, leading state processions such as the Easter Monday procession from San Marco to San Zaccaria and conducting rituals such as the marriage of Venice to the sea each Ascension Day, ceremonies which were nevertheless important for the republic’s external image and for its internal cohesion.  Unlike the Rector of Ragusa, he wasn’t confined to his magnificent palace, and he had the use of a splendid official barge, the Bucentaur, to travel the canals of his city; but in spite of these luxuries of office he must at times have felt as much of a prisoner as the convicts who languished in the jail on the other side of the Bridge of Sighs from his palace.

How different were the kingdoms of Europe at that time, their heads of state – kings of England or France or Spain – wielding real power, making laws, engineering alliances, signing treaties, commanding armies and the wealth of nations, colourful and forceful personalities ruling by will-power and strength of character, individuals who single-handedly made history with their words and deeds!

And yet, anyone hoping to become a king or queen of Britain today – or a prince or princess or any other member of the British royal family – and enjoy all those royal powers and freedoms will, of course, be disappointed: instead, he or she will find themselves in the same position as those Doges and Rectors – a voiceless and powerless head of state, the servant not the master of the people.  The prisoners of the republic.  What?  Hang on, Britain is a kingdom, a monarchy, not a republic!  Isn’t it?

Britain – or England – was certainly a monarchy before parliament cut King Charles I’s head off in 1649.  Then it was certainly a republic until the Restoration in 1660.  But what has it been since then?   The restored King Charles II didn’t really care what it was, but in 1688 his brother James II was determined to act and live like a proper, traditional, old-fashioned king – yet found himself deposed and thrown out of the kingdom because of it.  And ever since then, our monarchs have been voiceless and powerless heads of state, the servants not the masters of their people, careful to leave actual government to an elected Parliament.  They’ve settled into a more or less purely ceremonial role, symbolic representatives of the nation as a whole, cyphers to occupy the office of head of state to ensure that it isn’t available to tyrants.  Apart from the fact that that office is hereditary, doesn’t this mean that our state has more in common with republics like Venice, Genoa and Ragusa, than with what a kingdom is traditionally understood to be?  Venice, Genoa and Ragusa didn’t have universal suffrage, of course; they were oligarchies, as was England after 1688 but before the introduction of universal suffrage, which itself is surely a republican trait.  (Interestingly, however, all three were great maritime powers, mercantile and naval; just what England was becoming when it dumped the idea of absolute monarchy in the seventeenth century, and what that other great democratic republic – classical Athens – was in the fifth century BC.)

So, is the United Kingdom in fact not a kingdom at all, but a republic, albeit with a hereditary head of state rather than an elected one?  That question must be the elephant in the throne room as far as our royal family is concerned.  They must be aware that the country shunted them into a siding in 1688 and that their continued existence depends on them quietly and unassumingly staying there, no matter what face-saving image might have been in circulation for the last three centuries.  The danger is that others joining them from outside might not be aware of it, and might expect the image to be the reality.

This sort of confusion isn’t that unusual in foggy, misty England, after all.  The Church of England has a similar paradox; it isn’t Catholic – it’s the product of the break with Rome and the Papacy – but is it Protestant?  It still has priests and bishops, and is such a broad church that it can even accommodate exorcism and confession.  So much of this country’s efficiency and success depends upon muddle and compromise and the willingness to accept things as they are, as they have evolved, without thinking too hard about the logic of it all or establishing definitions and labels.

And Britain’s organically-evolved solution to the universal problem of the head of state has indeed been efficient and successful.  Constitutional monarchy (or whatever you want to call it) has delivered almost five hundred years of stability, liberty and prosperity.  It seems that the cost has been high for the royal family – as much prisoners of the republic (or whatever you want to call it) as those Doges and Rectors – but their role has been crucial and remains so, even if it frustratingly involves little more than keeping quiet while they serve as the unifying symbol of the whole nation, and just existing to make sure that the office of head of state remains a power vacuum.  But it’s difficult to feel sorry for anyone born into a job where you’re paid a fortune for simply but necessarily filling a void, and given a palace to live in.



Cover page photo: Jimmy Harris (Creative Commons).


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