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Tested: Theresa May at last month’s Brussels summit (©Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)


The forthcoming state visit by President Ivanka Trump, which will start on Horse Guards Parade and end with the unveiling of the colossal gold obelisk erected at Turnberry in memory of her late father, is as good a time as any to contemplate the mysteries of leadership in a democracy. Her critics say with some bitterness that she got where she is today by being Donald Trump’s daughter. But then her host, King Charles III, got where he is today by being the son of Queen Elizabeth II. And the King’s unexpected popularity — unexpected at least by those who did not realise how thoroughly he would accept the necessary and proper limits of a constitutional monarch’s role — indicates a great advantage of the British system over the American.

The main function of the prime minister — one even the present incumbent, Jeremy Corbyn, cannot help performing with success — is to take the blame. His predecessor, Theresa May, took the blame for making a mess of the Brexit negotiations. Corbyn is now taking the blame for the collapse of the British economy. No British monarch since James II in 1688 has been made to answer for a political blunder (though in 1936 Edward VIII was forced to abdicate after marrying an unsuitable woman). Lord North, not George III, took the blame for losing the American colonies, and has gone down in history as an appallingly bad prime minister, even though he was in reality a highly capable and amiable figure, who spent a dozen years in power, from 1770-82, after five prime ministers had passed in rapid succession in the previous decade.

Neville Chamberlain, not George VI, took the blame for failing to deal with Hitler. In both cases, the monarch warmly approved of what the prime minister was doing, but remained in office. Appeasement, the policy pursued by the able, energetic and conscientious Chamberlain, was popular with the public too, for it appeared to offer the best hope of avoiding another terrible war. He was welcomed by cheering crowds when he got home from Munich after selling out the Czechs. In a democracy, the prime minister does what the people want, and takes the blame on their behalf when it goes wrong. Bertolt Brecht suggested, after the failed uprising on June 17, 1953 in East Berlin, that since the people had, in the words of some lackey of the regime, “forfeited the confidence of the government”, the government “should dissolve the people, and elect another”. But since it is even more inconvenient to dissolve a people than to depose a monarch, we have allowed the office of prime minister to come into existence, in order to have an individual scapegoat on hand whenever we require one.
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