Published on September 5th, 2013 |
by Liam Anderson
Republic’s Reason, Monarchy’s Treason
The monarchy can be considered as the remnants of a feudal class system, from an age when those who reigned wielded supreme authority, justified by divine right and balanced against the schemes and loyalties of other militarily powerful factions and lords. In centuries past, while the monarchist system was grossly unfair, it served a purpose: to provide a political leadership. With the development of parliamentary democracy, the rights of man, and universal suffrage, the role of the monarchy has dramatically changed and reduced; and it can surely be questioned if it is still useful, or even legitimate.
To be sure, the UK’s democracy is comparatively highly functional, and the days where this question would be considered treasonous are gone, but given the monarchy’s very visible place in British political life, it is a question surprisingly absent from debate.
National and democratic?
The inherently and ostentatiously unequal monarchy, and its hereditary position, appears to be inconsistent with a fair democracy. The monarchy is supposed to act as an apolitical, unifying national symbol. However, in Northern Ireland at least, and possibly elsewhere, it is hard to see how it is apolitical or unifying, given the deep rift between unionists and nationalists. Seamus Heaney is famously quoted: ‘(…) be advised/ My passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the queen.’
Among the rest of the population there are certainly significantly varied opinions. The figure quoted of 80% approval extrapolates from figures for the republican minority. However, while there are undoubtedly minorities strongly in favour or against, those not anti-monarchy are not necessarily all actively enthusiastic, but may lie within a spectrum of vague or occasional interest to indifference. There is also a marked difference in the popularity of the Queen and Prince Charles, implying that enthusiasm for the position is not independent from the person occupying it; this introduces an element of instability and inconsistency into the arrangement. There are undoubtedly examples of monarchs acting positively, for example, Spanish King Juan Carlos against a 1980s military coup, but there have been plenty of useless and poor monarchs; the unelected nature of the position means that the quality of the monarch’s influence only depends on their character, rather than popular legitimacy. It should further be noted that for something to act as an effective unifying force or symbol, citizens need to feel at least quite strongly about it. If people are simply not opposed to it, or do not feel strongly either way, the monarchy can hardly be argued to act as a strong, consistent unifying force.
The theoretical role of the monarchy can also be precarious. If it is to be totally neutral, it must apolitically play a political role, that is, provide a neutral ‘rallying point’ for a nation – particularly useful in times of political division – and as such it cannot be seen to have any political affiliation at all; there were famously problems with the suspected Nazi sympathies of abdicated King Edward VIII. Further, it is questionable how neutral the institution can ever be, as a monarchy’s very existence implies a rejection of some political systems, for example, socialism, anarchism, or republicanism, thus limiting the scope of partner parties with which it could be neutral.
If the monarchy does take any political role, as in Saudi Arabia for example, which admittedly is explicitly not democratic, then it immediately presents a problem for a representative democracy. The monarchy is unelected and thus cannot claim to fairly represent the interests of any group in a proportional manner. In a modern democracy, the monarchy must be an apolitical symbol, and there appears little reason why it could not be replaced with another system. Other very politically and economically similar states operate in much the same way and as well as the UK without a monarch, notably France, so it is evident that the monarchy is not an absolute necessity. There are other ways of producing an apolitical head of state, for example by election to a post with essentially ceremonial powers.
An important issue to consider, especially in the context of modern, diverse UK, is secularism. The concept has been implemented variously across the globe – in France there is an emphatic separation of church and state with ‘laïcité’; in India there is a more flexible approach where the government is variously involved with different faiths, largely as a result of the incredibly diverse population and tumultuous inter-group relations.
A common and fundamental feature of secular states, though, is that the government must be seen to be impartial to and give equal treatment to all religions. While the UK has provisions for minority rights, having a state church for England, or a head of state as head of the national church and in centuries past was supposedly divinely chosen, does not sit well with this principle. Added to other governmental features such as the reserved places for Anglican bishops in the House of Lords, this bias does not, at the least, help the country towards the image of an inclusive, diverse, representative democracy which it aspires to be.
The royal family are often argued to be an important source of tourist revenue. It is at least open for debate if such tourist revenues would not be essentially the same without the royals themselves, but simply with the palaces, grounds, and ceremonies which tourists actually visit. Figures quoted for tourism revenue generated by the royal family heavily rely on sites and events associated with the monarchy, including Buckingham Palace. These would not have to disappear just because the royalty did; it would be perfectly possible to maintain all of the popular attractions, if so desired. Ex-royal Versailles, for example, is one of the most visited tourist attractions in one of the world’s most visited countries: France, a country with a famously and emphatically republican past. It is thus questionable how much revenue is generated just by the royals.
Occasional events such as weddings are often pointed to for examples of raising tourist revenue, but these occasional events hardly seem to justify the entire system with all its problems, and other events could replace them; Notting Hill Carnival is one of many massively successful non-monarchist events, for example.
Even if it were true that the royal family bring back the money via tourism, this would not justify the amount spent on them. If the arrangement is considered positive due to a – debatable – balance sheet, it could be even more positive if less were spent on the royalty. This would further improve the claimed net profit.
Some have argued that the monarchy is part of the UK’s international ‘brand’. It is, though, hardly convincing that foreign citizens would suddenly find it significantly more difficult to recognize the UK as a state, power, or historical entity without the monarchy. It is also not clear that all foreign citizens associate positive images with the British monarchy. Many from republics may feel that it is anachronistic and a symbol of outdated Europe; a symbol of continuity perhaps, but continuity with the UK’s classist, vastly unequal past? Some from former British colonies may regard it as implying that the country has changed little since its imperial days, and further associate it with their country’s experience of colonial domination. Others may simply see it as ‘quaint’ in much the same way as a village fete, which is unlikely to be exactly the image that the British government, ostensibly one of the most powerful in the world, is aiming at.
Furthermore, it would hardly be more fulfilling to develop a kind of celebrity cult, mixed with outdated deference, around them; British political figures should surely avoid such Hollywood-style lives in order to be taken seriously.
Reform or republic?
Even if a monarchy is considered useful, there are numerous significantly ‘downscaled’ monarchies, for example in the Netherlands, which do not cost as much, own as much (the public lose revenues from the royally-owned duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster), and are not as involved in public life.
From a democratic and national perspective, the monarchy is an anachronism and seemingly undermines the values of a secular, representative, ‘fair’ politico-economic system, insofar as the UK could claim to be this. From a business perspective, it is not convincing that tourism would suddenly drop significantly if the sites and spectacles that tourists actually visit were maintained. From an international image perspective, it is true that many people around the world can quickly identify the monarch, but not necessarily in a positive light.
Even if the monarchy is to be kept, reform and ‘downscaling’ should at least be open for discussion, if not the fundamental question – what justifies the monarchy at all?