Hereditas Historiae

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The Economist – 13 December 1901


The death of Queen Victoria

From the archives  - what we wrote on her passing, in 1901

There is a perceptible note of apprehension in the public mind, caused by the death of the Queen, which is a little exaggerated. Of the magnitude of that loss and its irreparable character there can, indeed, be no doubt whatever. The steady good sense of Queen Victoria, which latterly rose to sagacity; the unprecedented length of her reign, its marvellous good fortune scarcely broken by the catastrophe in Afghanistan or that unique disaster the great Mutiny in India, or the unexpected strain of the present war; and the remarkable relation as of a mother with sons which, after the Prince Consort's death, grew up between the Queen and her peoples, had evoked a warmth of loyalty, which acted throughout the Empire as a binding force, and immensely increased its prestige among the nations.

The crown on her head had really become "a golden link." That loyalty, moreover, was well justified. The Economist abstains always from those expressions of adulation which have recently been too common, but there can be little doubt that the political influence of the Queen was greater than was supposed, and that it was always exercised beneficially. She repeatedly intervened to re-establish harmony among the orders of the State, always with success - as, for example, in the marked case of the Irish Establishment; she, over and over again, by insisting on moderation, as in the Trent case and the case of Siam, made it more easy for opponents to preserve peace, and she did much to protect that continuity and consistence of our public policy which strikes foreigners with amazement, and which our system of party government is apt at intervals seriously to threaten. Her influence on the social life of the country, though not so great as it might have been had she not preferred seclusion, was altogether good, and it is believed - though the truth upon this point will not be known for years - that it extended far beyond these islands, the opinion of the Queen being reverenced and, in a sense, feared by the immense clan of highly-placed personages to whom she seemed in her later years to be the common ancestress. Of her personal virtues it has become tedious to speak, but the historian will declare that they rendered her unique among female sovereigns.

There have been but few good Queens Regnant in modern Europe, and of these few Isabella of Castile was a priest-ridden bigot, Elizabeth of England was often a tyrant, Queen Mary of the Revolution was false to her filial duty, Queen Anne was as much the slave of her ill-chosen friends as kings have often been of their mistresses, Maria Theresa nearly ruined Europe by her vindictiveness. Queen Victoria stands out alone without a blemish as a Sovereign, without a disqualification for reigning, the only one whom, for the last thirty years of her life, her millions of subjects, the conquerors and the conquered alike, would have chosen by plebiscite to occupy the throne. Their depth of sorrow at her death - a sorrow curiously increased by a sense of surprise, as if they had expected a lady of eighty-two to be some-how exempted from mortality - is amply justified. They will never see such a Sovereign again, and it is not a reign, but an era, which closes with her life.

Nevertheless, it is quite possible to be too apprehensive about the future. Great Monarchies survive great Sovereigns. The very affection which Queen Victoria justly inspired makes the devolution of the Crown more easy, and there is no sound reason for believing that after the shock of a great external change is over, the course of public affairs will not run smoothly. The Constitution is unchanged. The advisers whom the people have placed around the throne will retain their places. The same Ministry will conduct affairs, the same Parliament will control their general direction, the same people will be confronted by the same dangers and exposed to the same vicissitudes. The vague fears as to the personality of the new King rest upon no foundation. If in his earlier years His Majesty gave occasion for scandal - and it should be observed that nothing in his career, even as reported by malignant rumour, would have scandalised any foreign Court - the King is now a man of mature years, full of experience both of politics and men, and well accustomed to deal with that endless play of jarring forces which is involved in Constitutional Government.

He has been little known to the general public, though he has been much before them, having screened himself from criticism, as an Heir Apparent should, by a certain conventionality in his speeches; but those who know him best describe Edward VII. as a sagacious and kindly man of the world, singularly free from rancour, remarkably clear-sighted in his judgment of men, and with unusual power of arriving straight at the core of a matter. He gets his knowledge, it is true, from men rather than from books, but so do all diplomatists; and great Ministers have, it is said, now and again availed themselves of the Prince's diplomatic skill. This judgment is well borne out by his long record as Prince of Wales. Alone among the Princes who since the Revolution have occupied that most difficult of positions, the present King has never suffered himself to become the centre of a party, has never allied himself with any group of politicians, has never given reason for the fear or the hope that he would make political favourites. As a public man, though living under a sort of microscope, he has gone steadily on his way, performing without impatience or failure his infinitely tedious duties - never giving offence, never making of himself a cause of embarrassment to any Ministry. Can any man say at this moment which Premier the Prince of Wales liked best? Steady reticence of that kind displayed by one at the head of society, who knew everything, and who was aware that he must reign, indicates at once strength of character, insight into the Constitution, and, what is more unusual, perception of the true drift of popular feeling.

There is, therefore, solid reason for hope in the new King, and we do not doubt that in the end the temperate loyalty of Englishmen will accrete to the new Monarch. There will, we suppose, be the usual acrid discussion about the Civil List; but even that may not occur, for the huge prosperity of the last reign has altered men's thoughts as well as their ways in regard to money, and the extraordinary, and, indeed, still inexplicable insult passed upon the future Prince Consort when Parliament settled the arrangements for his marriage with the Queen would now excite a shiver of disgust. The hearts of the people are full of grief for the disappearance of a Sovereign for whom they had learned to feel more than conventional affection, but there is no solid reason for political fear.


The crown and constitutionalism

Politically speaking, the reign of Queen Victoria will probably be celebrated in the future on account of two facts - the growth of the British Empire, and the perfecting of the system of Constitutional Monarchy. Of the former we have nothing to say at present, but the latter is worth some consideration. The statement of the new King that he will rule strictly in accordance with the Constitution, as understood to-day, is taken by the public as a matter of course. Court changes there may doubtless be, but the political machine will continue as before. This is what we call Constitutional Monarchy; but it is scarcely realised how modern it is, and how largely it is due to the influence of the Queen. George III., George IV., and William IV. were scarcely Constitutional Sovereigns in the same sense as was Queen Victoria. It is just a century ago since Pitt was summarily dismissed by George III. on the question of the Catholic claims. We could not imagine such an event happening now. Queen Victoria throughout her long reign not only formed the design of governing entirely through her advisers, but developed the idea to the point of almost perfection, to which it may be said to have reached. This does not mean that the Sovereign is a cipher, without perceptible volition, without preferences, without influence - a mere idol set up to be adored by the multitude. But it does mean that the general course of government, the main lines of public policy are determined, not by the Crown, but by a body (not legally known to the Constitution), which, indirectly chosen, is supposed to represent the average opinion of the country for the time being, as indicated by a General Election.

Such is the British Constitution as we know it to-day. It is a very different thing from the legal Constitution as defined by Blackstone, and is far stronger, because presenting fewer contradictions. But it depends for its successful working on more subtle and delicate elements than existed in older times. There is the impalpable relation of the electors to their representatives, the relation of the latter to the Cabinet, and the relation of that body to the Crown. We say usually that the Cabinet depends on the vote of the House of Commons; but under our party system, with the majority pledged to support the Cabinet, it would be almost as true to say that the existing House was dependent on the existing Cabinet. The truth is that there is subtle inter-action. But there is just as subtle interaction between Cabinet and Crown, and the selective influence of the latter in the formation of the former is a vary real, albeit delicate and inpalpable, fact. It is evident, though, that successful Constitutional Monarchy calls for tact and strength of character on the part of the Sovereign in no small degree. So far from Constitutional Monarchy signifying merely a dignified puppet, it needs a person of much experience and wide knowledge, and one, moreover, without prejudices, except such prejudices as favour the public well-being. Any person who will analyse his own character to discover how far prejudice deflects his judgment will see how far from easy is the duty which a successful Constitutional Sovereign is called on to per-form. That Queen Victoria performed it with universally admitted success is the greatest tribute we can pay to her wisdom and vigorous common-sense.

It is a very significant fact that the century just passed saw the development of Constitutional Monarchy, not only in England, but elsewhere, and that the growth elsewhere was more or less a conscious imitation of English example. True, there are some important exceptions to this rule, notably in the case of Russia. But, taking Western Europe generally, with the exception of Switzerland, which is a Federal Republic, we may say that its political framework has been reconstructed during the nineteenth century on English lines. Italy avowedly made England her model under the guidance of Cavour. The French Republic has practically at its head a seven years' constitutional King, though, of course, he is elected instead of being an "apparent" heir. Spain overthrew Bourbon rule in 1868, and has settled down into a Constitutional Monarchy. Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, Portugal, Greece, all present practically the same type. Outside Europe, not only are the British colonies organised on the lines of Constitutional Monarchy, the Governor representing the Crown, but there is the singular fact of an Oriental country deliberately reorganising its institutions on English lines. It is not without significance that the last document signed by England's present King, in his capacity of Prince of Wales, was a reply of thanks to the latest of Constitutional Monarchs, the Emperor of Japan. This general adoption of a form of government based on a kind of arrangement between the different elements of society, and forming a strong guarantee of social order, is in a way, a testimony to its efficiency. That testimony is not weakened by the example of Austria, for there the problem of government is complicated by the most extraordinary medley of racial interests and sentiments known in the civilised world.

As a nation we are not greatly loved by the world at large; but it is clear that our sources of political strength are appreciated. It may be said, without hesitation, that the general adoption of the fundamental feature of the English system - the government of the King through Ministers having presumably the general confidence of the country as expressed at an election freely held - affords evidence not only of the strength of that system when properly administered, but the feeling of other countries that this is so. We all feel the stability and success of the system which, like so much in England, grew and was not made. But ever since the Revolution of 1688 it may be said that no one did more for the steady growth of this full-orbed system of Constitutional rule than our late Queen.