Has Monarchy Had its Day?
Shedding past light on recent royal scandal, four historians consider the future of an ancient institution.
With everything changing, what has stayed the same?
Kate Maltby, critic, columnist and final year PhD student in the English Department at University College London.
‘For things to stay as they are, everything must change’: the maxim of the aristocrat Tancredi in Lampedusa’s The Leopard and the rule to which most successful aristocracies owe their survival. In order to maintain its privileges, the British monarchy has over the last five centuries grudgingly absorbed: queens regnant; the doctrine of popular consent; the rise of Parliament; divorce and remarriage among its heirs; a mixed-race American bride; and, as of 2013, absolute primogeniture regardless of sex. The Queen’s role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England notwithstanding, the 2013 relaxation of prohibitions on marriage to a Roman Catholic may well usher in further religious reform and even a non-Anglican monarch.
The British monarchy has always excelled at making just enough change to keep up with the times. Each change, however, forces constitutional conservatives to reformulate the answer to a single problem: what quality of monarchy is it that are we preserving? With everything changing, what has stayed the same?
A system of political checks and balances, restraining political overreach? The crisis over the prorogation this year exposed that for the myth it is, especially given a Supreme Court ruling which noted that the monarch is obliged to act on the Prime Minister’s advice, even when it is misleading. The Queen has no political power, nor any moral authority to wield it.
Does monarchy give us a touch of the divine? Hardly, in an era when modern royals make waffly noises about a multitude of mantras and religions. (Diana relied on a psychic; Charles wants to be ‘defender of the faiths’; no one is ever going to ask Prince William to cure their scrofula.) Perhaps, as its defenders argue, the House of Windsor provides the Aristotelian virtue-education for a super-class of aristocratic public servants, groomed from birth for diplomacy at the highest level? Two words: Prince Andrew.
The British monarchy has one thing going for it today. The current political landscape is too febrile, too polarised, for all but the most interventionist Jacobin to think it a safe time to overthrow yet another key British institution. Then again, extraordinary things happen in extraordinary times.
Monarchy itself is likely to survive
Andrew Gimson, author of Gimson’s Kings and Queens: Brief Lives of the Forty Monarchs Since 1066 (Square Peg, 2015).
The monarchy is one of the British constitution’s greatest, though least noticed, checks on arbitrary power. The Queen occupies the space a dictator would need to occupy. Because it is largely unthinkable in Britain to push the monarch aside, tyranny itself becomes unthinkable. In countries where, for understandable reasons, the monarchy was overthrown – France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918 – tyranny ceased to be unthinkable.
Constitutional monarchs are usually more popular and respected than the politicians who have to fight elections and run the country. In those nations where the monarchy has survived, one may posit that, far from having had its day, it is likely to endure. When one talks to Americans or Germans, one generally finds them more respectful of the British monarchy than of British politicians. President Donald Trump, a man not known for his courtly manners, made the utmost effort to behave himself when he was guest of the Queen and was so delighted by this honour that he brought a considerable number of his family with him to share it.
Clement Attlee, prime minister of the great reforming Labour administration, said that ‘the greatest progress toward the democratic socialism in which I believe has been not in republics but in limited monarchies’. He offered Norway, Sweden and Denmark as examples. Constitutional monarchies can, if they choose, be thoroughly egalitarian.
Like any institution, a monarchy will from time to time find itself convulsed by some crisis which appears to threaten its very existence. In 1936 Edward VIII precipitated such a crisis by indicating that he was determined to marry Mrs Wallis Simpson. Some people objected to the king marrying a woman who had two former husbands still living, while others were more appalled that she was American. Edward was accordingly forced to abdicate, and replaced by his more conscientious brother George. Similar substitutions may prove necessary in future. But the monarchy itself is likely to survive, because voters would far rather have a king or queen as head of state than some clapped-out politician.
Republican arguments should echo in a renewed debate
John Rees, author of The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650 (Verso, 2017)
When the House of Lords was abolished in 1649 the motion to do so described their lordships as ‘useless and dangerous’. The republican MP Henry Marten moved an amendment arguing that the upper house was useless, but not really dangerous.
In the mid-17th century the original motion was probably nearer the truth, if less amusing. In the early 21st century the aristocracy as a whole, including the chief aristocrat, the monarch, lies closer to Marten’s amendment.
While the monarchy might be part of what Walter Bagehot described as the decorative part of the constitution, that’s not the whole story.
The monarch still retains some constitutional power, as we have been recently reminded when Prime Minister Boris Johnson required the Queen’s assent to prorogue Parliament. This was an action later found illegal by the Supreme Court. Constitutional monarchists might argue that the Queen had no choice. In which case we might wonder why we sustain an institution willing to lend its authority to a government acting illegally?
Then there is the remaining economic power of the monarchy. Enormous tracts of land, a large part of the coast and some of the most valuable real estate in central London are all in the hands of the royal family. Inherited wealth is one thing. Inherited wealth bolstered by taxpayers’ money is another.
Finally, there is the cultural and ideological power of the monarchy, bolstering wider notions that gross inequality, primogeniture, inherited positions of influence within the political establishment, are all acceptable, indeed normal, attributes of modern society. All this allows the monarchy to function as a bulwark against democratic accountability, meritocracy, equality before the law and social equity.
Today a quarter to a third of the British population favour a republic, still more when the Queen leaves the mortal realm. Now is the moment when republican arguments, born in England in the 1640s and 1650s, should echo in a renewed society-wide debate.
Is the monarchy outdated? For sure. Useless? Definitely. Dangerous? Politically, more than you might think.
The monarchy’s best chance of survival is the lack of a credible alternative
Anna Whitelock, Director of the London Centre for Public History and Heritage at Royal Holloway, University of London
In its current form, the monarchy might easily be said to have had its day. It is inherently anachronistic. The Queen is head of the established church in a now pluralistic and largely secular society; inheritance to the throne remains by birth not merit, albeit now, to the first born, regardless of gender but still precluding the accession of a Catholic; and ceremonies such as the coronation remain largely as they have been for centuries. Yet does that necessarily mean the monarchy has no place or purpose in modern Britain? The popularity of monarchies, albeit rather different, in modern liberal democracies such as Belgium, Denmark and Norway suggests otherwise.
The British monarchy has the ability to evolve and adapt and its survival to date is testament to its success in timely reinvention: the emergence of a ‘symbolic monarchy’ and a ‘royal family’ under Queen Victoria at a time of rising republican sentiment; or the renaming of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to House of Windsor during the First World War. Now, or at least when the Queen dies, change will be necessary if the monarchy is to survive. The notion of a ‘model’ royal family has been fatally undermined and many aspects of its Victorian symbolic role have become obsolete, or changed radically. The imperial role disappeared with empire and, while Charles has been accepted as the next head of the Commonwealth, there is no inevitability or requirement that thereafter it will remain in the British monarch’s hand.
The monarch’s role as head of the armed forces has also become less important in an extended period of peace and the monarch’s role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England seems unsustainable. For the monarchy to be seen as fit for a 21st-century purpose, it will need to appear more accountable, relevant and useful. There are signs that change is already under way or at least being discussed. Only time will tell if it proves to be enough. For now, the monarchy’s best chance of survival is the lack of a credible alternative.