Outdated, expensive, undemocratic, classist. Powerful adjectives that you often hear from opponents of the monarchy, their arguments abounding with passion and commitment to the republican ideal. And what do we get as the defence? Apathy, largely. Arguments that the monarchy is ‘alright, I suppose’, acceptable, doesn’t do harm. We hear that it doesn’t matter that they’re not elected, because they don’t have power. That the expense of their lifestyle is offset by the tourism it brings in. Is that really the best case for the monarchy we can come up with? Reducing the tradition of a thousand years to a mere tourist trap? A way to earn a few million each year? Are there really no positives we can find, simply ways of making it acceptable, not a big deal, bearable?
Those of us in favour of retaining Britain’s monarchy have found ourselves trapped in the rut of rearguard action, overlooking the many advantages of our constitutional monarchy in the process of diffusing the arguments against it – arguing why monarchy isn’t undemocratic (which of course it is), instead of showing the advantages of having an unelected head of state. This I find to be a sad state of affairs, so I will try to set out what I believe to be a modern case for the monarchy; of why the monarchy is not just acceptable, but actively beneficial.
First and foremost must come the constitutional issue, namely why I believe an unelected monarch is preferable to an elected Head of State. Most states, especially European democracies, have a Head of Government (the PM, for us) and a Head of State (currently the King), in most cases both elected. The decision then becomes: which holds most power? Some nations, like France and Poland, have a very powerful Presidency and a weak PM; some like Portugal and Germany have powerful PMs and ceremonial Presidents. It is clear which camp we fall into, and should the monarchy be abolished the most likely scenario, and the most advocated for by republicans, is that the monarchy would be replaced by a directly elected President, with similar ceremonial powers (though maybe without the weird stuff like owning all the swans).
This does sound somewhat appealing – we can finally choose who represents us on the international stage, who gets to live in the luxurious palace; we finally become a democracy and the Head of State is held accountable. However, I believe that when you look more deeply into this scenario, it isn’t very appealing after all, nor very democratic.
Elections are always divisive, and adding another layer of political competition would make Presidential elections very closely fought. The major parties would put forward a candidate, or join in electoral alliances, and inevitably each Presidential result would end up within a few percentage points – Labour might win 52-48 one term, the next time maybe the Conservatives 53-47. It will never be clear cut. Congratulations! You’ve got yourself a President that actually represents barely over half of the population. In fact, assuming that turnout is similar to General elections, or probably even lower, you’ve ended up with a Head of State who represents well less than half of the actual population. Hardly the democratic paradise sold on the brochure…
But, you might counter, surely that is better than the King, who represents precisely 0 people. Neat argument, unfortunately untrue. For while the King is not actually elected, he nonetheless holds a great deal of popular support. Look at any poll on whether Britons support the monarchy. A poll from May 2022 (i.e. even before the inevitable post-death spike in popularity) found that 82% of those surveyed said that Queen Elizabeth had done a good job during her reign. Only 4% said she’d done a fairly bad job, even fewer a very bad job. One conducted just before the Platinum Jubilee: 62% of those surveyed believe that the UK should keep its monarchy, only 22% against. Right now those figures stand at 62 in favour, 25 against: in other words it wasn’t just the Queen as a person that was popular, it is the monarchy itself.
Nor is this just political – 48% of Labour voters would keep the monarchy, only 37% would abolish it. In every single age group, except 18-24, more people want to keep the monarchy than abolish it – even in that age group the result is essentially evenly split (36% pro-monarchy, 40% against). The Queen, far from being undemocratic, was by far and away the most popular ‘political’ figure in the country, and was far more universally popular across party lines and in the country as a whole than any viable alternative. According to YouGov, the political figure in the UK with the highest approval rating is Keir Starmer. 31% have a favourable opinion of him. Rishi is on 25%, and Boris is still the highest rated current Tory politician on 29%. The Queen, on the other hand, had an approval rating of 75%, higher than any other figure from any other field, including Barack Obama (68%) and Martin Luther King Jr (also 68%). Charles isn’t doing much worse: 59% think he’s doing a good job, still higher than any politician, while Prince William has an approval rating of 70%, so the monarchy is far from a terminal decline.
The argument that the monarchy does not represent the will of the people is ludicrous. It is the most popular part of the UK government. And that leaves us in the truly bizarre situation in which republicans, claiming to represent democracy, seek to abolish the one thing that actually unites the British people across political lines, and replace it with an alternative that unequivocally, empirically, objectively, would represent the views of fewer people. Undemocratic as in not elected? Sure. Undemocratic as in not representative of the popular will? You can’t be serious.
An unelected but popular Head of State is surely better than an elected but unpopular one. It also has a positive effect on our politics. There is no tension between two layers of government if the Head of Government and Head of State are of different parties, which would paralyse the political process and ensure that nothing gets done. For a perfect example of this, just look at America when the President and Congress are opposed. There is no manoeuvering behind the scenes from a President to subtly influence Parliament from above, to abuse a ceremonial position to gain political power. This is exactly why a Head of State totally separate from the political process is beneficial – ceremony should not be politicised. So we can watch The King’s Speech each Christmas knowing that it won’t be subtly trying to push a political agenda. So coronations and royal weddings can be times of national celebration and unity rather than partisan fighting.
These ceremonial occasions are observed the world over: the Christmas speech is broadcast across the Commonwealth on all seven continents, the world waits and watches each coronation and major wedding or funeral. It adds immensely to Britain’s reach and soft power abroad, it (momentarily) propels us to the very front of the world stage. And no, I’m not entirely gooey-eyed about this, it is genuinely beneficial for our diplomatic presence. World leaders angle for an invitation for a state visit, and when the Queen invites another leader to come, they don’t refuse. Some say the US President is the most powerful person in the world, but they always come hurrying over to London when their invitation arrives. This is not just some childish power-play though, funny as it is to lord it over the Americans. In between the banquets and the carriage rides vital diplomatic exchanges take place, important decisions are made. While they are taken away with the fairy-tale balls and palaces, we have the ear of whichever world leader is coming to stay. As silly as it sounds, a lot of our diplomatic power comes from the ability to draw leaders to our country, and state visits are a vital part of that.
This sort of power would not be possible with a President, a political figure. Think about it – can you even name the President of Italy, let alone imagine them having the star power to take Presidents and Prime Ministers away from their work for a week? Every other democratically elected, ceremonial Head of State is a nonentity, and so would ours be, since most countries have only one widely known political figure. Emmanuel Macron, for example, is obvious, but can you name his Prime Minister? Would you have known that he is on his third? Does it really matter outside of France?
In Germany, Angela Merkel, and now her successor as Chancellor Olaf Scholz, are titanic figures on the world stage. But the President – what are they called? Did you know that Germany had a President? It would be understandable if not, they are almost entirely invisible outside of Germany, and within too. The incumbent is Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He is surely the epitome of the ideal that anti-monarchists in this country want – a ceremonial President, elected by members from both the federal and state parliaments. His family get no special treatment, you do not have to call him Your Highness, and his salary of €254,000 is cheaper than maintaining the sprawling royal family in their multiple palaces.
Paradise? Not really. His ‘election’ was a mere formality after a shady backroom deal between the two main parties left him the only viable candidate, and he received 936/1260 votes. He still is referred to as ‘Your Excellency’ and has two palaces in which to reside. And just like the Queen, Herr Steinmeier can veto laws at will, a power often criticised by republicans. In fact, while the last time a British monarch vetoed a bill was in 1708, the last time a German President did so was in 2020. Two bills were vetoed in 2006. Vetoing a bill that has the backing of Parliament? Hardly a paragon of democracy. And to the question of whether a non-royal can still have the same diplomatic power on the world stage? In April 2022 Steinmeier was effectively refused entry to Ukraine because of his past friendliness with Russia. While the Queen has the leaders of the world coming to her, the German President can’t even visit them.
I haven’t even mentioned money, since I am trying to make the case for why the monarchy is beneficial, not just acceptable. I must mention though that taxpayers pay precisely £0 per year for the monarchy, since they live entirely off the proceeds from the Crown Estate. In fact, an agreement from the reign of George III means the Crown hands over all their income to the government, and receives only a fraction back for themselves. The government gained £202 million in 2021 from the monarchy. We pay nothing.
Monarchy makes us more stable internally, and more prominent on the world stage, for minimal cost. It is an institution that is astonishingly popular, and takes nothing away from our actual democratic processes, which happen in the Houses of Parliament. The only undemocratic thing to do would be to abolish the monarchy, and I have outlined several reasons why elected Presidents would fulfill the role far less well. The monarchy is far from perfect – there needs to be a way to remove Prince Andrew and ensure he is properly tried for the allegations against him. They need to find a way to move on from and repay the cost of their imperial past. But the British monarchy is not merely acceptable. It is beneficial, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.