Adapted from a speech I gave to a bunch of old people at a university who weren’t exactly about to man the barricades.
I’d like you to indulge me for a minute. Imagine, if you will, that you are part of a team writing the constitution for a fledgling nation. Some policy wonk suggests to the group that he’d like to see one family elevated to the top of society. They are to be lauded for the accident of their birth. They are to be showered with money for simply sitting and waving in a variety of contexts. Some of them may send bizzarely boring letters in an attempt to influence government policy. Some of them may be casually racist. And some may even do unspeakable things in Las Vegas, on the front cover of the Sun. Would you agree to that?
I’d suggest that most people probably wouldn’t, and yet here we are, saddled with the monolithic and regressive institution of the monarchy which, according to a 2012 ICM poll, 69% of British people think we would be actively worse off without. These people’s defence of this system cannot be due to some love of the principle of monarchy itself (as outlined above), but rather due to an interest in preserving the status quo, a sort of “if it ain’t broke” attitude towards social structure. So the question, rather than being merely “should we have a monarchy?” is actually more subtle – the question is, “is it broke?”
Simply put, yes, it is – and this can be proved by examining the role of the monarchy, some typical reasons given for the apparent neccesity of its maintenance, and thoroughly investigating the main alternative.
To begin, then – what is the modern role of the monarchy? In our days of liberal democracy it is limited, but if perhaps the monarchy is not constitutionally as important as it once was, it is still significant both financially and symbolically. Tax money goes to Mrs Windsor and her family (£36.1 million a year), so that they can keep their multitude of homes, and have a ceremony with some hats every once in a while. Furthermore, as a symbol, a hereditary monarchy is a potent one. To some (stereotypically, to Americans) it is a symbol of all that is quintessentially British – but even this favourable view has something patronising about it, as if we are adorably backward and undemocratic. To a republican, the British monarchy is a living relic of a far bygone time, and as such should be updated.
To dislike the construct of the monarchy is not, and this must be stressed, to hate individual members of the royal family. I see them as performing much the same role as actors in a soap opera, albeit on a much larger scale. We can externalise our own problems and grief onto these figureheads, when (for example), one of them dies – and we can share in their happiness when one of them has a baby or gets married. As much as the media encourage us to go along with this strange game, it is unhealthy, both for us, the public, and for the family who at certain points in our history seem to become the focal point for the collective emotion of British society (think of Lady Diana’s death, for instance). It has a damaging effect on them – how can a person expect to live a normal life when in their first moments of existence they are lifted up (as Rafiki lifted Simba), and presented to a baying crowd of paparazzi?
Now, to some of the arguments royalists often use to justify our monarchy. The first is that a living, breathing monarchy is a far better tourist magnet than a long-dead one. Let’s consider this for a second, though – are tourists more likely to want to come and see the royal standard from a distance, outside Buckingham Palace, or to have a guided tour of all the Palace’s rooms, gilt-edged lavatories and all? I’ve never heard anyone argue that Pompeii would attract more visitors if Vesuvius was still spitting deadly black ash. Another common argument is that the monarchy offers good value for money – but compare our monarchy to the Irish President, who costs 100 times less, and actually performs an important and active constitutional role. The final argument I’ll examine here is that “they’re nice people” – and I’m sure they are, however, I’m not proposing some sort of bloody coup. Indeed, we can even let them keep one castle. Windsor’s big enough for all of them, and living in close proximity, they might actually learn to get along with each other like normal adults.
The most important point, though – what should we put in place of the monarchy? I don’t believe we should mimic the American system, where the President is essentially an elected dictator – with a veto over Congress and little accountability. Nor should we allow the President to appoint the head of government – the current parliamentary party system works well in that regard. The head of our state should instead be elected primarily so that they can make decisions of constitutional importance, as many feared the Queen would have to do in the event of a hung parliament after this year’s election. This Presidential role can be a safe vehicle for the personality politics that is so out of place within parliamentary democracy, where it is issues, and not people, who should dominate. The President would ideally occupy an important but not actually all that powerful job.
So what is it, if you are a royalist, that you really like about the monarchy? It surely can’t be the undemocratic principles behind the idea. It can’t be the constitutional role they play – this could clearly be far better performed by a President, unrestricted by accusations of anti-democracy. And if you, like many, simply like the family themselves, consider the possibility that if the monarchy is abolished, you might get to meet some of the people you idolise, in person. How great would it be to see Prince William signing on at Jobcentre Plus, or have Harry scan your beers at Tesco?