For and Against: UK Monarchy
As featured in Edition 40, available here.
BY BEN MORLEY (2nd year - PAIS - Bedfordshire, UK) and WILLIAM ALLEN (2nd year - PPL - Oxford, UK)
FOR (by Ben Morley)
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne. It is a remarkable achievement of longevity. Not just in age, but also given the upheaval the world has seen in that time. The Monarch’s institution may be in chaos but, at its core, there is still light at the end of the tunnel.
As the Queen reaches this milestone, the organisation she has dedicated her life to, without doubt, is in complete crisis. The Queen’s son Prince Andrew is embroiled in a damaging civil case over sexual relations with a minor. This, combined with his enduring friendship with the convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, has left his reputation in tatters. Plus, there was ‘Megxit’, where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle departed from the official duties and public face of the royals to flee the pressure, racism, and savage press.
Despite these truly alarming episodes, the monarchy and Royal Family need not be abolished, but reformed. It must be watered down with only the monarch and their immediate family receiving any attention. That should somewhat reduce their entitlement and decrease the funds they are given. The rest can work for their living, much like Harry and Meghan, and many other Royals way down the line of succession.
The essence of the monarchy ought to be seen as its most important contribution. It allows the UK to have a separate Head of State to the leader of its Government. Critically, this means the Prime Minister is answerable to someone. Without bluster or politics, they must explain their actions to one individual. Be it Brexit, the breakup of the union, or partying in Number 10, they have to face questions. Each week, the PM enters a room where they are not in charge or most senior. That is rare globally and, for the sake of stability, invaluable.
The great thing about the UK monarch is they are at the top of the pile but have no power at all. Everybody is answerable to someone with no sway. It’s a check on the Prime Minister and Government, and a tool for stability; in a way, it prevents extremism and corruption. The Monarch always has the power to not grant laws Royal Assent. It has been over 300 years since the Crown invoked such a right. Yes it is undemocratic but, if facing a despotic government, it could be vital to prevent subjugation and uphold freedoms. Withholding Royal Assent is all about assurance. If it is ever desperately required, then we will all be thankful that that option is technically possible.
The longevity of the role, too, is comforting. A Prime Minister, in the annals of history, is gone in the blink of an eye. But the monarch remains a constant public presence. The Queen, for instance, has ruled through boom and bust, peace and war, and from Churchill to Johnson. Through all of that, she is a mainstay. Even if the world is crumbling, she will be there, every year, at 3pm to deliver her Christmas Day message.
A slimmed-down Royal Family can give us the constitutional stability and longevity we need without creating painful headlines. Plus, this would still maintain the enormous economic benefit generated by them. According to Forbes, the Royal household contributes just under £2 billion pounds to the economy each year. Most of that money comes from tourism, paying ordinary members of the public’s wages in hotels, airports, train stations, and at the palace itself.
The money that goes in is far less than the money that comes out for the wider economy. The Government paid the family over £80 million in 2020 to cover their official travel and palace maintenance costs. Admittedly, their catalogue of palaces is rather ridiculous considering the amount of relative poverty in the UK. Reform must also address this. Evidently, the state should not fund the upkeep of royal summer and winter palaces. Regardless, this economic and touristic contribution, emanating from the pull on the monarchy’s history and grandeur, is critical to so many people’s livelihoods and to the country at large.
The monarchy and Royal Family has always been slow to change. But it needs to. If it can slim down its public-facing role and reduce its intake of government funds, it has a long future ahead of it. Our economy will be bigger as a result. The monarchy will continue to provide a constitutional backstop and prevent Prime Ministers from becoming too greedy and corrupted by the intoxicating qualities of power. As there has always been, there will be a constant stable figure through all the joy, crises, and sorrow the country will face as the years tick by. And that is reassuring.
Image: Flickr (Brian Shamblen)
AGAINST (by William Allen)
The Queen has reigned for a commendable 70 years - so long that the country is about to hold the first platinum jubilee of its history.
Many in the country have only ever known one monarch: Queen Elizabeth II. Importantly, this will likely be the last major event before the death of the Queen and the subsequent ascension of King Charles III. A new phase is on the horizon, one where the monarchy will have to remake its image and relationship with the country – a perfect time to talk about change.
The country seriously needs to evaluate this institution, which holds such a central role in our democracy. This ideal is the monarchy’s biggest hurdle in its argument for continuation. Today, the monarchy sits increasingly awkwardly amongst our country’s parliamentary and electoral institutions. It is antiquated and forces the political system to bend to its shape – something that is increasingly stretching our democracy. Meanwhile, the country sees practical debate on the monarchy as an untouchable topic – we need to dispense with this feeling before the moment for change passes us by.
The rule of law and democratic norms have, in recent years, been stretched to breaking point by a monarchy awkwardly wedged in the democratic system. Government power, the legislative process, and the constitution all rely on the monarch in various ways. Prerogative powers are vested in the Prime Minister – this has given rise to an ever more powerful executive, who faces no checks and balances thanks to the constitutional arrangements involving the monarch’s position as head of state. In 2019, the Queen had to silently accept the PM’s unconstitutional behaviour, as it would be outrageous for her to wade into the matter. This intersection of monarch and democracy outright fails today – Boris Johnson has helped make the case for an elected head of state who is entrusted with checking a power-hungry PM willing to repeatedly run roughshod over the constitution.
Germany serves as a prime example – the country’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier
used an address to issue a rare but scathing rebuke of politicians who had brokered
payments for PPE deals… sound familiar? In the UK such dodgy practises went unchecked. This modern head of state can bring a democracy’s failings to light, and in doing so protects the rules governments and leaders must abide by. The need for change is all the more pressing as the UK backslides towards the status of a ‘flawed democracy’.
Today, the UK has radically changed since the last ascension. The monarchy has
periodically tried to keep peace, but attempts have fallen flat, providing evidence it’s past the point of mere reform. The country has become increasingly secular and multi-ethnic, whilst the monarchy remains a narrow hereditary selection of the country. At the next coronation, the monarch will continue the tradition of taking the sacral anointment, something that will juxtapose with the realities of a modern UK, with a multi-faithed population. For reference, all other monarchies have abandoned this tradition. Why shouldn’t the head of state have a covenant more in line with the country – even through election, giving rise to a head of state that looks more like the country? Ceremonial presidents provide such a template for a stable future head of state based on an electoral system.
Abolishing the monarchy should, of course, come as part of a larger package of constitutional reforms – electing parliaments second chamber, expanding and deepening fundamental rights, and the dispersing of political power to a more local level – reforms which a new head of state will be central to. A modern head of state would strengthen and renew our democracy, allowing the country to reassert itself on the world stage as a full- throated advocate for the fragile ideal of democracy. It would be refreshing to have a conversation about what kind of modern state we want to be. It would also benefit our
country to imagine what a leader’s contract to the nation should embody, and the background that individual has (one based on merit not privilege.) This all comes at a pertinent time, with the county questioning itself after years of upheaval through Brexit and a global pandemic.
Now is the time to lay out the evolution our democracy requires: to think seriously about replacing the monarchy with a dynamic future-facing system – an elected head of state can provide what our modern democracy needs.
Image: Unsplash (Annie Spratt)