Should Britain abolish the monarchy?
Economist writers present three different arguments for the role of the royal family.
On September 9th, Queen Elizabeth II will become the longest-serving monarch in Britain's history. Below, three Economist writers argue for different futures for the British crown.
The case against the monarchy
CEASE campaigning, Hillary Clinton; get back to business, Donald Trump: America’s 2016 election has been cancelled. The White House has announced that in the interests of political stability the next president and all future ones will be chosen using the British model. Barack Obama will remain in office until he dies, at which point Americans will welcome their next head of state: his daughter, Queen Malia.
Americans would not stand for this. Why do Britons? The case against hereditary appointments in public life is straightforward: they are incompatible with democracy and meritocracy, which are the least-bad ways to run countries. Royalists say this does not matter because the monarch no longer “runs”
Britain. Yet in theory, at least, she has considerable powers: to wage war, sign treaties, dissolve Parliament and more.
There is little danger of Queen Elizabeth II throwing her weight around (though her son Charles has a habit of bending ministers’ ears over trivial matters). But the trouble with hereditary succession is that you never know quite who you're going to get. The Windsors are no less likely than any other family to produce an heir who is mad or bad. What then?
The second pitfall is subtler: in the belief that the monarchy forms some kind of constitutional backstop against an overmighty Parliament, Britain is strangely relaxed about the lack of serious checks on its government. It has no written constitution; the current government has plans to repeal a law implementing the European Convention on Human Rights, which many Britons recklessly consider a nuisance rather than a safeguard. It is true that monarchs can, as a last resort, stand up for the nation: royalists cite the example of King Juan Carlos of Spain, whose televised address to the nation in 1981 helped prevent a coup. But the more one believes that the head of state’s role really matters, the more serious a problem it is that the monarch is chosen using a mechanism as dodgy as inheritance.
Opinion polls and healthy sales of commemorative junk suggest that Britons and foreigners alike love the Windsors. But the royals may not be entirely good for the country’s image abroad, or its view of itself. Britain still has a reputation as a snooty, class-obsessed place. Mrs Clinton’s advisers warned her of the “inbred arrogance” of Britain’s previous government; Britons themselves are gloomier than Americans about the prospects of talented poor people. The image is out of date: by some measures Britain is now more socially mobile than America. But it is hard to shake off the debilitating tag when the head of state and her hangers-on attain their positions not through popularity, talent or industry, but by the mere fact of their birth. Britain would be stronger if its head of state were elected. And if the winner were Elizabeth, then good for her.
The case for the monarchy
IPSOS-MORI has been tracking opinion on the monarchy for the past 20 years, and the responses have been remarkably consistent over that time. By a margin of well over three to one, respondents have favoured keeping the institution over turning Britain into a republic. It is hard, in fact, to find any political question on which the British people are more united, except perhaps their
dislike of politicians. That sets the bar for a change to an institution that commands a great deal of affection (think of the millions who celebrated the royal wedding or the Queen’s golden jubilee) pretty high.
Those who would like to scrap a popular monarchy need to be able to show that there is a significant demand for a change (which there is not) or that the institution does significant harm, which is just as hard to do. It is accused of being expensive, but offset against the few tens of millions of cost the fact that Britain’s royal heritage is a big part of its tourist appeal, not to mention the unquantifiable but surely substantial brand-management efforts that the Queen in effect performs on overseas trips. An alternative, elected head of state would not be cost-free either.
The monarchy is accused of entrenching elitism and the class system, but it is a fantasy to imagine that those things would vanish in a republic; they certainly have not in America, while the monarchies of Denmark, Sweden and Norway are among the most meritocratic and egalitarian in the world. It is accused of damaging democracy because (on paper) the Queen retains vast constitutional powers. But this ignores the fact that there is not the remotest chance that she or her successors would actually use them; if ever she or they did, then Britain could and indeed should consider becoming a republic.
On the other hand, it is just as plausible to assert that there are benefits to a monarchy, on top of the (hard to quantify) economic ones. At a time when most government institutions everywhere are unpopular and even hated, any part of the state which people still actually like is a rare plus, something not to be discarded lightly. And what would replace the monarch? An elected and therefore political head of state is sure to upset at least one large section of the electorate a lot more than an uncontroversial one who is above politics.
Admittedly, the value of continuity and tradition, and of a focus for Britain’s quiet brand of patriotism are difficult to assess. The reality is that the monarchy does not do much harm and does not do much good; but it is accepted and liked by most Britons. Getting rid of it simply isn’t worth the fuss.
And the case for modest reform
CRITICS of Britain’s monarchy will often say that if you were starting a 21st-century democracy from scratch you wouldn’t dream of having an hereditary head of state. Though this is undoubtedly true, it is also true that the history of the past 50 years ago shows that starting democracies from scratch is very hard. Successful democracies grow out of an historical experience that is specific to the nations involved, and British democracy has grown up entangled with the monarchy. It may be appealing, in various ways, to see the House of Windsor as something like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus—a ladder which, having been climbed to solid ground, can be kicked away—but it is not trivially or obviously true.
The fact that a monarchy is not intellectually justifiable does not mean that it does not have a stabilising role. This may be particularly true in Britain, a composite nation. The division of the currently United Kingdom is a goal that some value dearly, but for Britons who do not particularly identify with one of the kingdom’s constituent parts, the crown may seem a more binding element. And in the absence of a written constitution, it is probably a better focus for the loyalties of the armed forces than the prime minister would be.
Thus, despite its manifest absurdity and unpalatable associations with inherited wealth and status more broadly, the case for a British republic needs to be pretty strong to justify the uncertain but real risks of transition, and to offer not just a general liberation from oppressive symbolism but a clearly preferable alternative arrangement. And it is not obvious what that would be. An executive presidency on the American model is clearly ludicrous; all countries that have tried it other than America have experienced constitutional breakdowns on a timescale of about a century. A non-executive presidency in a parliamentary system works quite well in many places but few of them have chosen it peacefully over an established indigenous (as opposed to colonial) monarchy, so there is not a very good comparison base.
But to keep Britain’s monarchy does not entail keeping it in its current form. Its entangled history of democracy and monarchy has left Britain with a highly centralized constitution that locates the nation’s sovereignty in "the king in parliament"—a situation that gives the leader of the majority party in the legislature a disturbingly large part of the power that was once vested entirely in the monarchy. This situation could be remedied quite easily by keeping the crown but changing its constitutional basis to one along the lines of that most excellent of countries, Belgium. Belgium is a popular monarchy. Its constitution makes clear that sovereignty rests in the people; the King (or Queen, though it has yet to have one) - who is King of the Belgians, a people, not Belgium, a territory - becomes monarch not by right, but by taking an oath to uphold the people’s constitution.
A change to the British constitution which made the kingdom’s various peoples sovereign and the head of state the guardian of that sovereignty, not the source of it, would be a welcome plank in the more general programme of reform that the British state clearly needs. The British helped to give the Belgians their constitution in 1830. If the Belgians were to give some of it back 200 years on that would be a worthy return.