Monarchy v Republic
Alistair McConnachie debates on BBC Radio Shropshire. This article appeared originally in the February 2007 issue of Sovereignty.
One of this website's key tasks is to promote awareness and understanding of the British Constitution. On the 30 Jan 2007 - the 358th anniversary of the execution of Charles I - we appeared on the Jim Hawkins mid-morning phone-in show on BBC Radio Shropshire for 30 minutes to debate Monarchy v Republic with the "campaign manager" of anti-monarchist group "Republic" - who is, astonishingly, employed by the group on a full-time basis! We do this kind of thing for free and at our own expense! Here are the notes we made before going on the show. The republican "arguments" - which we've culled over the years from all sorts of sources - are in suitably grey emphases.
LAYING OUT OUR BROAD CASE
Politically Neutral Head of State
It's important to have a Head of State who is outside of everyday political turmoil and who is not tainted by party politics, or who only represents certain sections of society, or those who voted for him or her, or who owes favours or loyalty to vested interests.
Distinct National Icon: It is what separates us from America
In an era of globalisation, driven by the international financial system, there is a tendency for all countries to become the same. In these conditions, it's important for every country to emphasise that which makes itself special and different and interesting. In this regard, the monarchy is hugely significant - a cultural possession which makes Britain quite unique, colourful and distinct. It is a national icon which separates us from America. In an age of bland globalisation, the monarchy stands out.
Confers a Sense of Stable and Consistent National Identity
It gives Britain a sense of national identity, at a time when things like globalisation, and the EU, are eroding that sense of identity. Social problems increase when a sense of identity is eroded, in favour of profit or 'choice'. The monarchy helps to confer a sense of social stability. It represents a focal point for British identity. It is instantly recognisable, as British, across the world. In a changing nation and world, people are looking for symbols, icons of enduring identity, reassuring dignity, elevated character. In a changing world, people are looking for continuity and consistency, for something which is just always here, today, tomorrow, and the day after. The monarchy is that institution and represents a nation's sense of identity in a way that a here-today, gone-tomorrow politician simply cannot. When we think of Britain, we do not think of the Prime Minister. We tend mainly to think of the Queen and related institutions and symbols.
A Living Link to our National History
They are a historical link to our country's great and grand past and a great reflection of its relative historical stability. They symbolise our national identity and a sense of continuity over 1,000 years of our heritage - a living link with the past. Politicians cannot confer this sense of history. When we look at Tony Blair we don't see anything pre-1997!
The Royal Family is a Family
The idea that a family should be situated, and esteemed, at the centrality of British culture and life is a valuable fact in itself. Its existence esteems familyhood.
It's Great Value for Money!
The Royal Family is philanthropic, raising millions for charity. The Prince of Wales raises around £123m a year for charities with which he's involved (The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall Annual Review 2011 at www.princeofwales.gov.uk/mediacentre/annualreview or Clarence House, London, SW1A 1BA).
Republics are Drab, Boring and Colourless
Republics are grey, colourless, drab, boring, stale, sterile. When you have an elected President, the people are less likely to look to the Head of State with any kind of affection. To the extent that they look to the Head of State at all - as in the USA - many tend to be politically irritated by him or her! The republican alternative would be drab and grey, or politically compromised - or both.
THE TWO MAIN REPUBLICAN ARGUMENTS
1 - Monarchy is not "democratic"
They say it is not "democratic" to have an unelected Head of State. Well, of course a hereditary Head of State is not "democratic" - in the sense that the people don't get a chance to "choose". But, so what! There would only be a democratic concern if the monarchy was exercising political power over the law-making process - which it is not doing! Having an unelected Head of State may not be strictly "democratic", but that doesn't affect our individual lives in any way whatsoever.
2 - Monarchy breeds "inequality"
Let's examine the republican arguments based on these two grounds in more detail…
They say that if we have a republic, we are all going to enjoy the fruits of economic and political equality. Well, don't bet on it! Get rid of the Royal Family and you'll still have poverty, you'll still have inequality, you'll still have vast disparities of wealth…and car sickness and acne too! That is because the Royal Family is not standing in the way of the fight against financial inequality and, indeed, campaigns through charities, against poverty.
THE MONARCHY AND "DEMOCRACY"
A monarchy and democracy are diametrically opposed forces which cannot co-exist.
Our country has proven that they can and do co-exist very well. In any case if there were no Royal Family, how would democracy be improved? How does the Royal Family prevent democracy being improved right now? It doesn't! To ask these questions is to reveal the absurdity of the republican position! The USA is a republic. Are we really suggesting that "democracy" in the USA is better than in the UK? In some local areas it may be better, but in other respects, such as at the national level, it is poorer.
The existence of the monarchy is anti-democratic.
In any case, to the extent that we can gauge it through public opinion polls, the monarchy enjoys democratic support. In that sense, it is democratically legitimised in every poll which is taken. As the majority of British, who are polled, prefer having a monarchy over not having one then the monarchy is a democratic institution, in that sense - and it would be legitimised democratically in any referendum.
It is not "anti-democratic", it is not "against" democracy. As we have shown in this country, the monarchy can co-exist easily with democracy. What we can say, correctly, is that the method of choosing our Head of State, in this country, is not strictly "democratic". However, the answer has to be "So What!" The real question is: Does it work? And the answer is "Yes, it works well!" So why mess it up?
The monarchy is anti-democratic because the Queen can refuse to give Royal Assent.
Refuse, in theory, maybe, but the fact is that the Royal Assent has not been refused since 1707, when Queen Anne refused it for a Bill for settling the militia in Scotland! It is a convention of the British Constitution that the Queen will not refuse Royal Assent, and that is not likely to ever change.
The Royal Prerogative is anti-democratic.
Attacking the monarchy by claiming misuse of the Royal Prerogative, is a red herring. The "Royal" label of the Prerogative is a historical hangover. These powers today are exercised by the Prime Minister. There may be an argument for reforming his powers in this regard, but it is not connected with reforming the monarchy. Get rid of the monarchy and you would still have these residual powers vested in the Prime Minister, but they would instead be called the "Prime Minister's Prerogative".
THE MONARCHY AND "INEQUALITY"
Monarchy represents inequality.
The Queen is "the person of the Crown", which is a collective and essentially equalitarian concept, where all are equal before the law. In that sense, the monarchy is a vehicle for social equality. If you are trying to say that the existence of the Queen reminds you of the inequalities of wealth in the world, well, that is a different matter. However, it is absurd to pick on the Queen who is entirely innocent on these matters. Why not pick on those who are truly guilty of exploitation?
All should be equal before the law.
The individual members of the Royal Family are subject to the law, just like the rest of us. Even the Queen is not really above the law, although it has become a convention of the British Constitution that in her role as symbolic Fount of Justice, she is not going to do anything that is outside the law - and she has people around her who are responsible to ensure she does not do anything unintentionally in that regard. British sovereigns have not been involved in the direct administration of justice since The Claim of Right and The Bill of Rights (both 1689).
Monarchy represents class-based prejudice.
On the contrary it is the republicans who appear to have minds clouded by class prejudice. If one is able to see beyond simple class prejudice, it is evident that the Queen, representing all the people of the nation, through the offices of the Crown, is a social idea, and can be encouraged by anybody aiming to promote a sense of collective social consciousness.
The monarchy institutes inequality because it reminds us of the truth that people are not born equal in society.
It's not clear what kind of inequality you're referring to here. Inequality of opportunity? Inequality of financial resources? Inequality of genetic ability? I was not born equal with the inherent genetic ability of David Beckham, for example, or the mind or body of Stephen Hawking. Perhaps the existence of the monarchy does remind us of the truth of human "inequality". However, abolishing the monarchy won't remove that truth from human life!
Whilst being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Britain has older housing and more poverty than the majority of other European countries.
Yes, republicans will raise this sort of thing! Apparently the monarchy is responsible for the nation's poor housing stock!
If you think the monarchy is responsible for housing, or poverty, then you have no political sensibility whatsoever. How much total personal wealth does the entire Royal Family possess? Remember that much of the wealth is already owned by "the Crown" which is to say, the State. So we are looking at liquid assets - the sort which the Royal Family could convert to personal wealth. Take that off them and you may have a windfall bonus to the Exchequer, for one year, of a few hundred million pounds. A mere drop in the ocean. If you want to campaign against poverty, don't waste people's time on the monarchy!
Monarchy represents worth derived from birth. We should have worth derived from merit.
Obviously, the monarchy itself is not meritocratic! You can't become Queen through "merit". The monarchy is a hereditary institution. You get to the top through accident of birth. That's the point! However, we do have a meritorious society. Anyone who wants to go somewhere on his or her "merit" can attempt to do so. There is nothing which is forbidden to attempt through "merit" because of the existence of the monarchy! The monarchy is not depriving any meritorious person from doing anything meritoriously! Having said that, worth can be derived from birth - and there is nothing wrong with that! For example, a good footballer can become excellent as a consequence of his genetics - an "accident of birth" - in a way that someone less genetically fortunate will never be able to emulate, regardless of how hard they may practice.
We want every child to be able to dream of becoming President.
Any child in the UK can dream of being Prime Minister - although you may have to be a rather strange little child to do so!
What's the point of the Royal Family?
The point of the Royal Family is to be related to the Monarch, the Queen.
What's the point of the Queen?
The point of the Queen is to reign! Which is to say, to perform her function as Head of State, within the unique British Constitution. As such, we are lucky in this country to have a Head of State who does not owe her allegiance to any political party, or any particular group of people, or vested interest, but rather, because she is there simply by accident of birth, can owe allegiance to all the people, whether they choose to reciprocate that allegiance or not.
Monarchy is immoral because of its violent past. You condone the evil done in its name if you support it.
Yes, seriously, this is an argument we have encountered! Sure, monarchy has a grisly past. But it could more easily be argued that great evil has been done in the name of republics and republicans! Moreover, some people would argue that the leaders of modern democracies are heavily complicit in the horrors of present day wars.
Monarchy is about unearned privilege. Democracy is about earned privilege.
Earned or unearned, a "privilege" means "an advantage, right or favour granted to or enjoyed by an individual, or a few". We should judge a person by how they use that privilege, not by how they acquired it.
They contribute to the lack of change in British society.
The "lack of change"! British society is changing faster than many people would like! In our rapidly changing society, the monarchy is one of the few reassuring symbols of continuity and enduring identity, that people can hold onto, in order to help stand fast against those waves of change.
They are Germans, not British, and so shouldn't be here.
If you are going to play that game, are you suggesting we should repatriate every person in Britain who can't trace their ancestry back to Britain pre, well, you choose the date in the, what, 17th century! George II, who was born in 1683, was the last British monarch not to be born in this country. Such an argument, applied to any other person, in this day and age, would appear quite racist!
The Queen is "out of touch with society".
In what way? Her Royal engagements see her literally "in touch" with more people in a day than most of us meet in a year!
The Queen knows, as do other hard-working members of the Royal Family, just how people are living today, better than most of us! Look at the figures: Each year the Queen and other members of the Royal Family make nearly 3,000 visits throughout the UK. In [2010-2011], Prince Charles had 566 engagements in the UK and raised £123 million for charities in which he is involved. (The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall Annual Review 2011 at www.princeofwales.gov.uk/mediacentre/annualreview or Clarence House, London, SW1A 1BA) These figures demonstrate considerable commitment to "being in touch".
It's a living soap opera.
What's wrong with that! As soap operas go, the Royal Family is good value for money! We pay £145.50 [in 2012] a year for a TV licence to watch Coronation Street. We pay 54p a year to support the Head of State who actually got crowned! In other words, it's 269 times more expensive to watch the fictional Coronation Street than to watch the real-live Monarchy! And the good thing about the Royals is that it is a real life soap opera in which more people are interested than the fictional!
The Monarchy is costly…blah blah blah.
There we find that in [2010-11], total Head of State expenditure was £32.1 million, or around 54p per person, per year (if we say 60m people). In the financial year to 31 March 2011, the revenue surplus from the Crown Estate paid to the Treasury amounted to £210 million - over 6 and a half times what the Monarchy itself cost to run! Republicans will argue that this revenue would, under a republic, still go to the state. However, we respond by pointing out that it would still be necessary to fund the cost of an elected Head of State.
We don't get involved in arguing about the cost because that really is to argue on the petty, penny-pinching grounds in which republicans love to wallow, and we like to rise above that sort of small-mindedness. However, since it's been brought up, we can point out that full details of the Royal Finances can be found at the official website of the British Monarchy at www.royal.gov.uk/TheRoyalHousehold/Royalfinances/AnnualFinancialReports/Annualfinancialreports.aspx