Whenever something of national importance occurs involving the Royal Family, calls for their abolition are never far away. And, on cue, the Observer in an editorial of 27th July began by suggesting the Royal Family ‘represents an outdated tradition.’ That’s one way of expressing it, I suppose; but monarchy is a little more than a mere tradition. Kingship has existed in Britain, in one form or another, for well over a millennium; it has provided a focal point for the country that generations a thousand years apart would recognise; and it is written into the supposedly unwritten British constitution. Monarchy is an institution that defines our political and cultural identity.
There is, however, an honourable, worthy and logical argument against monarchy. It posits that getting rid of kings and queens, despite their present ‘constitutional’ nature, is to advance democracy, liberty and the rights of citizens over subjects. It assumes that one is dependent on the other: that monarchs are incompatible with democracy, or at the very least inharmonious. This is the argument, anyway; but it really isn’t very convincing.
ComRes recently carried out a poll for the Sunday Telegraph, asking the question: ‘Do you believe Britain is better off as a monarchy or would be better off as a republic?’ 66% voted monarchy, 17% republic and 17% don’t know. Yet the Observer insists that the Royal Family is outdated. Is it not ironic that, in the name of democracy, the Observer rejects polling suggesting a democratic majority in favour of monarchy? Today, theirs is the minority opinion, and in democracies minority opinions are not carried. So, by all means disagree. We can do that sort of thing in a constitutional monarchy. But perhaps we should admit that it is the republicans who are outdated?
Yet anti-monarchists are persistent. Even when they – and by ‘they’ I mean the one(s) who wrote the Observer piece – admit there is little appetite in the country for an abandonment of monarchy, they too often feel the need to belittle those who want to keep it. Appreciation is portrayed as ‘sugary sycophancy,’ and reluctance to get rid of the Royals makes it ‘all the more urgent that an attempt at some corrective is made.’ God forbid we trust and respect the public’s sentiment!
They snipe away: It is women (The Queen Mother; The Queen; Diana, Princess of Wales; and now The Duchess of Cambridge) who are saving the monarchy, implying that it remains at heart a male, paternalistic, sexist and probably misogynistic institution, because somehow the bloody men have thwarted the progressive ideal by arranging three male heirs in a row. Supporters are duped by skilful presentation and PR, which is presumably nefarious, except when it supports progressive causes.
The sniping is often confused. On the one hand we are told that the Middletons – pleasant, middle class and non-royal – can do the job every bit as well as the Royals. Blue blood no longer required. President Kate, perhaps? ‘They actually appear to like each other,’ is the smug turn of phrase. But we are then told – lest the duped populous decide they want nice Kate as well as Queen Consort Kate – that she is ‘strangely out of step with the lives of the vast majority of women.’ What is it? Is she suitable as a non-royal ruler/president or not?
Royals, we are told, are ‘theoretically more elevated.’ This, it appears, is one of the key arguments against monarchy: that it is no longer appropriate to regard some people as intrinsically better than others; that it smacks too much of genetic supremacy; and that it patronises the public and diminishes our humanity.
Well, most of that is true, if you think that’s how most people view royalty today. But you try telling most loyal supporters of the Monarchy that someone with royal blood is intrinsically better and more worthy than they are. They’ll tell you, probably while laughing at you, to stop being such an idiot. They might point you to exhibit A, Prince Harry, and ask if you really think people warm to him because they believe their own blood, bones and brains are inferior to his. It’s no longer about notions of innate superiority: members of the Royal Family are simply members of the Royal Family. That’s it. Indeed, it is the anti-monarchists who seem fixated with notions of superiority.
It is unfortunate, if understandable, that the counter-argument begins by telling us that the Royals do not draw the tourists as much as we are led to believe. According to the campaigning group Republic, only Windsor Castle makes it into the top twenty attractions, coming in seventeenth. Understandable because monarchists often cite tourism as a reason to stay as we are, but unfortunate since tourism is not significantly important to the argument.
It is democratic rights that are important. This is true whether you are a monarchist of a republican. But to equate the ‘bloody battle to assert democratic rights’ in the Middle East and Africa with our acceptance of a constitutional monarchy is not to equate like with like. What modern republicans don’t seem to grasp is that, by definition, a constitutional monarchy is democratic. True, there is no election to the position, but the whole point of a constitutional monarchy is that the formerly-held political power, which is what needs to be subject to democratic control, has been divested from the institution.
Democracy does not have a role to play in everything. Politics? Yes. Which is why we elect our government. But to listen to some republicans is to learn that the Queen still governs. Vestiges of royal power remain, certainly: inviting the Prime Minister to form a government, weekly audiences, the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s speech. But vestiges is exactly what they are – traces of something disappearing or no longer in existence. The Queen’s role is largely ceremonial, and where she exercises her rights and roles, as outlined by Walter Bagehot – to be consulted, to encourage and to warn the Prime Minister, in private – it is clear who holds the political power, and it is not The Queen.
The democracy argument is the trump card of the anti-monarchists. If we are to live in a true democracy, we must first live in a republic. We must have an elected head of state rather than one appointed by the vagaries of birth. But this question was settled over three-hundred years ago when parliament wrested, once and for all, political power from the Monarch. 1688 should be a year to celebrate. Not because we became a republic in name, with an elected head of state, but because we found a way to reconcile monarchy with republicanism.
Despite protestations, the defining characteristic of republicanism is not the absence of kings and queens; it is the absence of arbitrary and authoritarian government. We tried violent revolution and civil war a generation earlier, but found the price too high. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 sought to end the debate between democracy and monarchy by, in true evolutionary style, retaining both systems but in modified form. It is this moment, and the memory of the Civil War, that set the conditions for a stable transition to full democracy. They knew it then and we should know it now, that democracy is not and never has been dependent on the absolute removal of monarchy from a political system.
It is, however, legitimate to ask if democracy is damaged in some way by the influence the Monarch undoubtedly retains today. Clearly it would be inaccurate to argue that the Monarch has no political role. She does, as I have just said. But so what? It isn’t real. Let’s also suppose we had a democratically elected head of state. Would that person’s democratic authority rival the Prime Minister’s democratic authority? Who, for example, governs Russia? The President, Vladimir Putin? Or the Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev? Do we want this tension, or doubt? At least with a constitutional monarchy we know that democratic authority lies with our elected representatives and not The Queen. There is no confusion.
‘We have no written constitution,’ says the Observer, as if this conveys a self-evident truth. It is true that we do not have one in the way the USA has one; but if the argument for a republic is democracy, then what has the existence or not of a written constitution got to do with anything? A democracy exists because of the way politics operates, not because of what might or might not be written on a bit of paper.
Yet written constitutions can sometimes work against democracy. The US Constitution, for instance, possesses a certain authority over and above the democratic process. That is, indeed, one of the reasons for having one – to restrain over-exuberant politicians. Just look at the reluctance of Congress to vote down the Second Amendment. Would Americans have charted a different course by now in relation to gun possession if the Constitution wasn’t there to restrain the actions of politicians?
And apparently, under a monarchy we have no right to call ourselves citizens. This is just false. The British Nationality Act of 1948 expressly referred to citizenship of the United Kingdom. To argue over the semantic difference between ‘subject’ and ‘citizen’ is irrelevant. We are citizens. Our status as subjects is more nostalgic than real, and the law has long recognised this point.
It is also hyperbolic to claim that the Royal Household is ‘at the apex of a pyramid of power from which ordinary people are excluded.’ Try telling that to Kate the commoner, or Gordon Brown the son of a church minister, or John Major the son of a music-hall performer, or Margaret Thatcher the daughter of a grocer. And while we’re at it, Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s chief minister, was reputedly the son of a butcher (this may have been untrue and an attempt to smear his name, but he was certainly not an aristocrat). OK, Wolsey lost favour and died on his way to face charges of treason, but he and people of humble origins were not excluded from power because they were low born.
Issues certainly exist today around social and professional mobility, but not because of the Monarchy. We do better to point the finger at poor state schooling, welfare dependency, family breakdown and drug addiction rather than the Monarchy and the fictional barrier it is supposed to represent.
The Observer, perhaps not unsurprisingly, invokes the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the German. Not that his nationality is a bar to his opinion; it’s strange, that’s all. If we must cite a philosopher, why not Roger Scruton? Anyway, elightened cultures, we are told of Kant, ‘do not rely on inherited traditions, authorities and social structures.’ Really? Does that include the inherited tradition of Parliament, I wonder? We are also told that ‘To be enlightened is to question and challenge aristocracies of wealth, church and politics.’ True, enlightenment is certainly about questioning things. But to question something is not to pre-determine the answer. That is not enlightenment; that is prejudice.
Monarchy is not the brick which stops that healthy process of questioning. In certain circumstances it might be, but not because of something inherent in the institution of monarchy. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award can hardly be described as something to keep people down. On the contrary, the award seeks to elevate and unleash human potential. As does the Prince’s Trust.
Privilege is harder to refute. Members of the Royal Family occupy palaces and enjoy great wealth. They are, indeed, privileged. But then so are the Beckham children, as are the Furnish-Johns, and many more families up and down the country. Privilege through wealth is a fact of prosperous and civilised societies, and we would be hard pressed to find any society, even those one might hold up as the perfect republic (which do not actually exist beyond the utopian ideal). It might be more pertinent to question the de jure privilege the Monarchy enjoys by dint of being royal; but presidents, prime ministers and any number of official officers are the beneficiaries of privilege. Privilege is not a criticism. Abuse of privilege, maybe, but not privilege itself.
And with privilege comes the expectation of deference, we are told. There may be some truth in this, but it would take a pretty convincing rhetorician to argue that modern society is weighed down with deference. Criticism and suspicion seem much more prevalent. Many of the great institutions of the country – Parliament, Church, Press, now even the NHS, and many more – have been regarded by the critical eye of the satirist and journalist; and all while the Monarchy has grown in popularity. Deference seems more dead than alive.
But even if deference endures, it doesn’t take much looking around to see that it can exist even where monarchy is absent. Do we suppose similar feelings do not grip some Americans when they meet the President? What about those meeting generals, popes and pop stars? If deference means obsequiousness, toadying and the currying of favour then, I’m afraid to say, these undesirable human traits are not confined to those meeting or thinking about royalty.
It is also probably worth reminding ourselves that Britain, arguably the only ‘proper’ monarchy left on the planet, is also the country and culture that spawned satire of such ferocity that the outside observer might have thought Britain was in fact the republic. From James Gillray to Spitting Image, the Monarchy has been lampooned quite mercilessly, as has much of ‘elevated’ society. If they are to be found sitting on a high chair, then the wet sponge has been hurled at them.
The presence of satire does not, however, mean the absence of deference. But deference is, in a sense, merely heightened politeness. The anti-monarchists tend to see the word as meaning something altogether more severe: serfdom, oppression or worse. But this understanding is itself outdated. We often complain of the growing coarseness in society, so perhaps a bit more politeness, a bit more deference, in the best sense of the word, would improve our lives and our politics?
We can end up going round in circles over the Monarchy. There are any number of easy criticisms that can be made, and numerous illogicalities to our present arrangements; but then human existence is more than mere rationality. We like to use our heads, to think and to reason, but we are also instinctive creatures, with a propensity for the spiritual; that is to say, for things we cannot always explain. Maybe the purpose of human existence is to increase rational knowledge and reduce spiritual superstition. Maybe this means adopting the rationality of republicanism and rejecting the irrationality of monarchism, albeit constitutional?
But then, perhaps we should simply content ourselves with living in the present. And for now, that present is royal. Anyway, it is not incumbent on monarchists to argue in favour of this centuries-old ‘tradition.’ It is the anti-monarchists who wish to change things. It is for them to explain why doing away with the institution that has served, shaped and defined our country, through peace and through war, adapting to the demands of the British people, is such a good idea. And from where I am sitting, they still have a long way to go.