A Leftist Defence of the Monarchy | Daniel Esson
2020 has been a tumultuous year, for the Royal Family and everyone else. With one prince effectively removing himself from the family, and another disgracing himself through a failed attempt to justify his unsavoury associations with a prolific sex trafficker, arguments about the point of the monarchy have been reopened.
Republicanism is an impulse that has been simmering under the surface of British political life for centuries, likely a consequence of the eleven-year Commonwealth experiment led by Oliver Cromwell. In the 21st century republicanism in Britain is almost exclusively the franchise of the left, but regardless of your views on the minutiae of economic policy, a constitutional monarchy has a myriad of benefits that we too often take for granted.
Many of my fellow travellers on the left are anti-monarchy on principle, as I once was, the common argument being that the Royal Family are, at the end of the day, just normal people wrongly venerated and that it is wrong to have an unelected head of state. Others, such as Jeremy Corbyn, decry their ceremonial presence at state events as a “ludicrous” bit of “18th century performance”, or despise the fact that “we pay them for doing nothing”. Whilst often well intentioned, these arguments are far from watertight.
First off, many who are anti-monarchy make the argument that the Royals are just normal people based on the assumption that those who support the monarchy view them as something other than that. Aside from the most hardcore of anachronistic Empire nostalgists, who only really exist on the fringes of the internet anyway, very few people are under illusions that the monarchy are anything other than ‘just people.’ It is the 21st century; the general public don’t believe in the Divine Right to rule anymore, in Britain or in any other constitutional monarchy, and to pretend that those who support the institution of the monarchy do think like this is a strawman argument. Over the last few decades, the spouts of family drama, and more recent catastrophic embarrassments in the media, which have dogged the Royals have shown to the public that the Monarchy are actually all rather human, warts and all.
Secondly, the argument that it is in some way transcendentally wrong to have an unelected head of state requires examination. This seems to be predicated on an unspoken confusion regarding the roles of head of state and head of government. The head of state has nearly no role in actual government here: in Britain the Monarch must give Royal Assent to bills passed by the legislature, but even the Parliament website points out that this is a ceremonial formality, and that no bill has been refused assent since 1707. This casts aspersions on the common republican argument that the need for Royal Assent is an anti-democratic anachronism; even Sweden, by no means a backwards-looking political relic, had cabinet meetings chaired by the monarch until this was abolished by the Social Democratic government with the 1974 Constitution Act. If the British monarchy had the real power to frustrate or block laws passed by an elected government, then there would be merit to the argument that they need to go, but they do not have this power, and any attempt to do such a thing would cause a constitutional crisis the likes of which could only be remedied through an abdication, solving the problem and thereby re-emphasising the constitutional element in our system of constitutional monarchy.
The argument regarding land ownership is the part of the republican case with the most merit, which is occasionally forcefully made in the press. The Crown Estate does own a huge amount of land, some of which is countryside, some of which is heavily developed. However, to construe this as meaning that the monarchy alone can exercise control over this land is incorrect. The Royals have almost no role in the managing of lands which technically belong to them, and they certainly couldn’t choose to evict people living on this land to turn it into a grouse shooting estate, or some other ridiculous strawman, as some republicans may presume they would like to. As per the Crown Estates Act of 1961, the management of property owned by the Crown is conducted via the Crown Estate statutory corporation, who run it on commercial lines. The Estate is rather profitable, with the proportion of net revenue allocated to the Monarch and the Treasury variable under the Sovereign Grant Act 2011, but set at 25% to the Monarch, and the rest to the Treasury for the last few years. Of course, one could argue that more of this money, perhaps all of it, should be treated as public funds and given to the Treasury, but this could be done through an act of Parliament reforming the governance of, and allocation of money generated by, the Crown Estate. Why move to abolish the monarchy on grounds of their vast wealth when the majority of revenue from this wealth is given to the Treasury anyway, and the elected government could easily reform this system and take even more of the money generated by the Crown Estate into public coffers?
Even if one concedes the merit of these arguments against the monarchy, the topic gets rather complicated when one thinks about what to have instead. Republic, the main anti-monarchy organisation in Britain, calls for an elected head of state, though they shy away from the term ‘President’ despite the fact that this is the term most befitting an elected head of state (unless of course they want to revive the title of Lord Protector to give this theoretical Presidency a more British flair). Whilst sound in principle, suggestions for an elected head of state are not the panacea that advocates may think it is.
Trust in politics and politicians is catastrophically low in this country thanks to the Iraq War, the MPs expenses scandal, and a myriad of other problems. So, adding in another layer of politicians – i.e. an elected head of state – is a dubious suggestion, with no certainty that the public wouldn’t come to hold this office in the contempt already reserved for the actual government. Furthermore, a genuinely politically neutral head of state like a monarch is a rare thing, not to be squandered. For any problem one may have with the monarchy, it is hard to argue that they are anything but impartial when it comes to politics. This means that the official representation of the British state and people around the world is, at the very least, consistent and, in the case of our current Queen, highly respected internationally. If we were to have an elected head of state, the consistency and stability in official international diplomacy given by a constitutional monarch would swiftly fade, opening up the official representation of our state and people to the impulses of yet another party-political figure.
The only realistic alternative to creating a new and elected office of head of state, in the event of the monarchy being abolished, would be fusing the roles of head of state and government. This idea is particularly suspect. Not only would this open up the representation of our state abroad to the kind of cynical politicking that people are not generally fond of, but it would severely Americanise our politics. A fused head of state and government is a dangerous game, conferring far too much power upon one individual, and making the threat of demagoguery, which Britain has done rather well to avoid in mainstream politics, all the more real and consequential.
Lastly, it deserves to be mentioned that there is majority support for maintaining the monarchy across all age groups (albeit slimmer at the lowest end). If any British government were to abolish such an old and ubiquitous symbol of our culture, only to replace it with a pale imitation of the American system of fusing the two central roles of state, the consequences would be, at best highly disappointing, and at worst catastrophic. The issue of abolishing the Monarchy gets even murkier when we consider that the British monarch is also the head of state of the sixteen other Commonwealth Realms, and if there were majority support for the abolition of the monarchy in Britain, that would have to be either treated as a mandate for abolition of the Commonwealth (a wholly different political can of worms), or our monarchy would have to carry on as the monarchy of every Commonwealth realm except Britain, a potentially quite bizarre state of affairs.
Whether you like it or not, across much of the world, the first thing people will think of when they think of Britain is the monarchy. Our constitutional monarchy is a key part of our very distinctive polity and political system, the criticisms of it are oft disposed to ignore the reality that the monarchy in no way frustrates democracy. If, one day, the majority of the public decide to do away with the system, then so be it. But until that unlikely day, is it worth opening a political Pandora’s Box, sacrificing a figure of neutral national unity and breaking with centuries of history, for the sake of being able to call ourselves a republic? Despite the allure of anti-monarchism, it is clearly not a battle worth fighting.