What is power?

While in London, a few of us found ourselves in a pub, chatting over a few pints. We had a really interesting discussion about the British monarchy and the powers of the queen. (Many interesting discussions do seem to occur in pubs.)

(As an aside, the photo shows the Crown Jewels of Britain. The big red stone is known as the Black Prince’s Ruby. In reality, it is not a ruby but a spinel, a mineral we study because of its radiation tolerance and potential applications in nuclear reactors and fusion tokamaks.)

The main jist of the conversation was what powers the queen had. It seems that she is the ultimate authority in Britain, with powers that trump even those of the prime minister. At least, this is what is in the law and there is no disputing this.

What was in dispute, at least by me, is if these powers are “real”. I mean real in the sense of can the queen use these powers? In theory, the answer is definitely yes. But in practice, can she really? It seems to me that if she ever tried to use the more powerful of the powers she has (as, for example, commander in chief of the military), a number of things might happen. Most Brits, I believe, feel they live in a democracy. As such, I think they expect that their elected officials make the decisions that affect the country (even the foolish ones like supporting Bush in Iraq). I think that these people, who nominally support the existence of the queen, would be pretty irked if she used her powers to over turn any decision made by parliament. It might be the last straw for a lot of people who would then demand the end of the monarchy.

It thus seems to me that the queen, while in reality having such powers, can’t use them as they might lead to a “revolution” and/or the end of the monarchy. It thus strikes me that her powers are really useless and she has no power at all.

Of course, the Brits at the table argued the opposite, which I found somewhat amusing. They all seemed to feel that if the queen did such an act, did something completely against what parliament decided, that the people would merrily support her actions. They felt that the queen was a check against the parliament and the self-interest of elected officials. They thought the House of Lords served a similar purpose.

I can’t really understand this perspective. It seems that the basis for it is that the common man, and the people they elect to office, are dolts and need someone more enlightened to make sure they don’t get out of hand. This is where the nobility comes in. But, to me, these people have no authority other than the fact that their ancestors possibly hundreds of years earlier had gained power through either money or bravery on some battlefield. While this might have meant some of them were “worthy” of positions of influence, certainly their descendants have no such claims. I might see it as a decent idea if the people in these positions had gotten their based on merit, if they were the best scientists, business people, artists, etc that the country had to offer. But, they aren’t. They are just the ones that were born into some special office. I’ll never understand how the Brits can happily live in such a system.

In the end, we never reached any consensus or changed any minds. Maybe I got to understand their mind-set just a bit more, but I’m not sure. It is a bit too foreign to me. I prefer our system, even if it leads to a situation where someone like Bush is running amok in the world. While there is no check on him (other than Congress and the Supreme Court, though those have been less than willing to do their duties recently), the ultimate responsibility of his actions comes back to the people that elected him. Thus, we, the American people, have to bear that responsibility, learn from our mistakes, and do a better job in the future.

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