BY BLUE-JAE WHITTON
As everyone is constantly reminded, 2016 continues to be a tumultuous year – especially in terms of politics, it seems to be a train-wreck which has somehow managed to remain on the tracks. Obviously, the two biggest events which I am referring to that seem to have shaken the world (for better or worse) is firstly Brexit, and now Trump’s election – both unexpected and both divisive. Now, this article is not going to be analysing the cause and effect relationships of either of these two events. However, it will be taking interest in what is popularly seen as the biggest reason that both of these events took the turns that they did: dissatisfaction with conventional politics. I use these two cases of anti-establishment rhetoric to plead with those both on the right and left to now direct this same dissatisfaction towards the monarchy.
The monarchy in Britain is one of our oldest institutions and yet it always has been (and always will be) an institution which seems to uphold values which contradict current sentiments surrounding political debates. The monarchy is the pinnacle of ‘the establishment’ and of the elitist, exclusionary attitudes which Brexit and the US seems to be fighting against.
With this aside, it is the moral implications of the monarchy that calls the loudest for its abolition. Without giving too much of a history lesson, as we all know, the monarchy was justified on the grounds of the “divine right of kings”, meaning that royalty was selected by God himself and therefore they cannot be judged by any earthly being. This has two implications which don’t sit well with me. Firstly, I object to the idea that a single person (or family) can be born and be seen as inherently superior to both myself and all other members of this nation. This completely contradicts any value of equality, meritocracy, rule of law or equality of opportunity that we may hold. Simply by luck of birth, the royal family enjoys certain immunities, privileges and powers which would be forbidden to be given to any other individual based on the same grounds – what’s worse is that this moral inequality is sustained and funded by the very people that it is undermining: the people of the Commonwealth. Now don’t get me wrong, I personally feel that the Queen is a respectable and honest person – I also think that a lot of the Royal Family are genuinely good people (excluding certain members) – but this is not a sign from God that they are destined to be above us all.
What I have been arguing so far has mainly been based on principle. In practice, the Royal Family may not be seen as so much of a threat – the modern day form of monarchy in the UK is not the same as it was in the time of Henry VII; the power of the monarch is largely seen as ‘ceremonial’ rather than ‘effective’ and surely we give our consent for the Queen to be the head of state (for economic reasons of course). Also, the structure of our society allows many to be born into affluent families who enjoy vast privileges which aren’t available to most, so why target the monarchy?
To firstly tackle the issue of the powers of the monarch, despite them being used as an act of ceremony, they are still very real powers with very real implications. For instance, laws and governments can only be formed with her consent, this is a power which is exercised continually and -although no monarch has resisted the will of the people in 300 years- it is still overriding the will of the people. Furthermore, if one was to argue that this power is worthless in practice, why bestow it to the monarch in the first place? In other words, if the monarch uses their power of Royal Assent to consistently agree with the people, what is its need in practice?
The monarch is also not supposed to present any outward political preferences or influence the decisions of government in any way; and while the Queen has done a fantastic job of upholding this duty, it’s a shame the same cannot be said about Prince Charles. Of all examples, his ‘Black Spider’ memos present a clear breach of this obligation as he attempted to influence the decisions of several governmental departments. There is a clear clash between the powers of the monarch and Parliamentary sovereignty, however it is a clash which seems to be brushed under the carpet.
The reason why I am targeting the privileges seen by the monarchy over the (not too distant) privileges of other aristocratic families within the Commonwealth comes down to one simple point: it is easier to dismantle the monarchy than it is to dismantle the deep-rooted social and economic inequalities which exist between the other members of society; the monarchy is an institution which can be cut and removed in the same way that it is possible to remove Trident or the NHS. As much as I would love to solve issues of inequality between the other members in society, it is unfortunately a much more complex issue.
As this article would probably indicate, I am quite vocal about my distaste towards the institution of the monarchy (please remember I actually think that the Queen as a person is lovely) and this usually leads supporters of the monarchy to quote the economic benefits that the monarchy brings. Looking at the numbers, I cannot personally deny that it does seem that a sizeable chunk of the UK’s tourism comes from the sites which belong to the Crown Estate (which is both owned and not owned by the monarchy itself) and this cannot be denied as an economically good thing. Even with the monarchy itself claiming a nice share of the profit, the perceived gains are still larger than the perceived losses. However, under the hypothetical situation that the institution of the monarchy was to be abolished, this does not then mean that Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace will vanish into thin air – the Queen may be gone but the historical landmarks which she occupied will still remain and this is what people pay to see; nobody travels to Crown properties with the expectation to actually see Liz herself. In the same way that those who travel to Rome do not expect to see Caesar and those who travel to Greece don’t expect to see Plato, the Queen does not need to inhabit their properties in order for them to attract tourists.
With this economic argument considered, however, even if the abolition of the monarchy were to give the UK a net economic loss (there are other sources of income which have not been mentioned in this article), I personally feel that it would be a worthy sacrifice to regain our dignity as a democratic nation. The pure economic gains of an institution should not be the sole justification of its existence.
As I have tried to make clear throughout this article, in practical terms, the monarchy generally isn’t too much of a threat. However, on principle, the arguments in favour of the abolition of the monarchy far outweigh those which defend it and I cannot see how a self-respecting person can support such an institution on principle. Elizabeth II is probably the best we could have hoped for in terms of a monarch not overstepping their boundaries, however, with no accountability, the same cannot be said about future monarchs. With Charles already presenting worrying signs of breaking convention, if his past actions are anything to go by, may God save democracy when he ascends the throne.