Edwina Currie, Alex Salmond, Yann Martel and other public figures tell us whether the monarchy is good for Britainby Prospect / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Eric Hobsbawm, historian
Constitutional monarchy without executive power has proved a reliable framework for liberal-democratic regimes, such as in the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain and Spain. It is likely to remain useful, if only because it removes politics from the succession problem. (Imagine having to choose any member of the present and past governments as president.) It won’t do any harm for a monarch to practise a religion, but there is no case for identifying a multi or non-religious country with a monarch who is the head of a single faith. Monarchy has ceased to be of relevance to most inhabitants of the Commonwealth. This is likely to become clear after the death of the present Queen.
Bonnie Greer, playwright and critic
Despite accepting an award from the Queen and thinking the current royals do a good job, the monarchy no longer serves the nation’s best interests. It acts as a cover for the country’s real rulers: the oligarchy. The British end up echoing Hilaire Belloc’s refrain: “always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse.”
Andrew Adonis, former transport secretary
If one had to design a head of state for a parliamentary democracy, Elizabeth II is as good as it gets. A symbol of unity and continuity, she is non-partisan, judiciously encouraging of virtue and public spirit, and raises the tone and expectations for national life where few others, least of all the media, do. Her being head of the Church of England—a state church where belief in the 39 articles, or even God, is optional—helps. But the Commonwealth does not matter to modern Britain, and it surpasses understanding that Canada or Australia would still want a head of state from another country.
Edwina Currie, author and former politician
The prospects for the monarchy look good to me. If we didn’t have them, Tony Blair would stand for president. Anything’s better than that. The Queen is a Good Thing (or do I mean Good Egg?). She’s been bashing away at that thankless job for almost 60 years and is still trudging around inspecting guards of honour and being nice to medal-laden dictators. A jolly good example of an older female in action: BBC please note. If she lives to the same age as her mother, Charles won’t get a look-in, but Camilla doesn’t want it anyway so I think he should pass now. Then Kate would be Crown Princess Catherine, and my Disney-besotted granddaughter will be convinced that anybody can be a princess.
Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland
Her Majesty’s strong relationship with Scotland is valued by the Scottish people, and her service as head of the Commonwealth is unparalleled. The Scottish government supports a relationship of quality between an independent Scotland and England as “united kingdoms” with a shared monarchy symbolising the kinship and values we have in common.
Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister of Northern Ireland
Is the monarchy good for Britain? That is for the British people to decide. I am an Irish Republican, I do not believe in monarchies. Whether or not Prince William becomes the next king is similarly a matter for the British people. I believe in the total separation of church and state.
Richard Dowden, head of the Royal African Society
Monarchy is good for tourism but not society—it is divisive and expensive. But the Queen does a good job. I’d vote for her if she ran for president. She got a huge reception at the 2007 Kampala heads of government meeting. There is little interest in Africa for other royals, but when I taught in Uganda in 1971-72, most of the girls were called Elizabeth or Margaret.
Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics
I recommend the views of a philosopher friend, Peter Slezak, in Australia. A few years ago he surprised his left-liberal friends by voicing support for keeping the Queen. Royalty serves a useful purpose, he said: the pomp and ceremony helps undermine respect for state authority.
Sue Townsend, author of The Queen and I
In 2003 I wrote: “The monarchy is finished. It was finished a while ago but they are still making the corpses dance.” Now the corpse won’t allow the lid to be screwed down. It has lived a lie for centuries, was not ordained by God, did not have blue blood, has failed to be a good example of family life, and has more in common with the guests on The Jeremy Kyle Show than most of the population. It would be a kindness to sit on the lid of the coffin until the struggle is finally over.
Anthony Seldon, historian
Monarchy is good for Britain. The behaviour of royals, as throughout history, has often let the institution down. The Queen is a remarkable person, Charles has added to the gaiety of the nation and I am full of optimism for Will and Kate.
Bethan Jenkins, Plaid Cymru
Monarchy isn’t good for Britain or Wales. It is outdated and doesn’t reflect our identity. Prince Charles courts political controversy, even though he is not elected to any level of government. He and his family are unaccountable to the people of these Isles. I do not want Prince William—or William “Wales,” to use his patronising title—to be the next king. I want a republican Wales, where the monarchy is consigned to the past.
Michael Kirby, former justice of the High Court of Australia
In reality, Australia is already a kind of republic. The Queen never interferes, but she is there as a symbol of duty and service beyond self. We have no dukes, lords and ladies. Even knighthoods have disappeared since the 1980s. I like these egalitarian features of Australia. But the Queen, as head of state, puts a brake on nationalism, which today we can generally leave to the sporting field. She comes to Australia when invited: not too often, nor too rarely. Having her avoids the very awkward problem of keeping a powerful legislature and reconciling that with the federal system. We have more important constitutional issues to address, such as acknowledging our Aboriginal people and a bill of rights to give equal protection for all, including refugees, gays and unpopular minorities. I fully expect constitutional monarchy to see me out.
John Cassidy, New Yorker finance writer
One reason to preserve the monarchy is economic. It’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to sell the Chinese and Indians many cars or sitcoms, but as they get richer we should be able to show increasing numbers of them around Buckingham Palace, East India House and Westminster Abbey, where Palmerston, the prosecutor of the second opium war and other imperialistic endeavours, is buried.
Fiona Millar, former adviser to No 10
I am a republican at heart, but I respect the Queen’s skills in running her “firm.” The build-up to this wedding feels very different to that of Charles and Diana’s. I see little interest among young people. The monarchy will survive, but the deference and fascination is fading, which is good.
Yann Martel, Canadian, author of Life of Pi
People need a national narrative, a story that gives them a sense of who they are. Monarchy sustains that kind of narrative. Politicians come and go, promise and disappoint; but the monarch reigns. The President of the United Republic of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland sounds like a dystopian nightmare, so the idea of a constitutional monarchy, while archaic, has some attractive features. The pity in this case is that the reigning family is so mediocre. You can elect greatness, but it’s hard to pass it down genetically.
Mary Warnock, philosopher
The conjoined triplets—monarchy, church and state—are just what we need. The Commonwealth could make do with a president, but we couldn’t. The discipline and ceremony spills over into the Brigade of Guards and thus the army, which would suffer without these elitist regiments. Everyone needs a formally recognised, historically based Church, as a source of ritual not only for state occasions like the opening of parliament, but for collective expressions of thankfulness or mourning. One doesn’t have to believe in God to take part in such public and shared acts. They are necessary and beneficial.
Norman Lebrecht, critic and novelist
The monarchy is a representative device like a presidency, embassy, or national football team. On the whole, it functions better than any of the above, and more economically. The present holder of office is sensitive, hard-working, and a unifying national icon. That impression may change with the succession but, for the moment, what’s not to like? Stripped of myth and reduced to media imagery, the royal family are a mirror image of the rest of us. They provide fantastic material for our film industry, a global USP for tourism, and contribute to the gaiety of our nation. Constitutionally, it’s bonkers, but there is no better alternative.
Robin Ince, comedian
I am afraid that I find bowing to people who occasionally wear crowns rather odd. I’ll reserve my deference for achievement rather than bloodline. My lifetime has seen a hasty decline in monarchy worship, from the seemingly year long street parties of the Silver Jubilee to the glossed over Golden Jubilee. The ceremonies that surround it seem to help maintain the delusion of Britain’s grandeur.
John Campbell, biographer
With the Queen ageing the monarchy is drifting. The critical moment will be the next coronation. Will it be an elderly Charles and Camilla, or a young(ish) Will and Kate? The latter could relaunch the monarchy in the way the Queen’s coronation did in 1953. But the imperial pomp and pageantry may look absurd in 2020, while alternatives—a cheese-paring “economy” coronation, or Hello!-style showbiz kitsch—could equally undermine the essential glamour. The monarchy’s survival may depend on getting it right.
Quentin Letts, journalist
The monarchy provides stability, projects glamour, creates interest, distinguishes us from other countries and provides employment for numerous ghillies in the Balmoral area. the Queen’s interest in the Commonwealth serves as a reassurance to small Commonwealth countries that they are not without a friend in high places. If she didn’t turn up to those interminable Commonwealth meetings, I don’t suppose many others would bother. Commonwealth leaders like being photographed alongside the Queen in her tiara. Being insulted by Prince Philip is a high point in many of their lives.
Victoria Barnsley, CEO Harper Collins
Films about the Royal Family have proved to be enduringly great box office—as the recent triumph of The King’s Speech proved beyond doubt. I like a small British film taking on the Hollywood behemoths and winning; a kind of colonisation in reverse. However, it does bother me that the public purse continues to fund junior Royals such as the Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice. Business solution? Send them to Hollywood as advisers on all things regal. Two birds, one stone.
Andrew Roberts, historian
Thankfully, the Monarchy is at a post-Diana plateau of popularity, and looks set to remain there for the foreseeable future. The advantage of having a constitutional power above politicians has become even more obvious since the expenses scandal last year, and the inherent illogicality of having a family on a throne is something that Britons—except of course the intellectuals who read Prospect—can easily understand and in which they even take some delight. British republicans, except in Ireland, are rightly seen as slightly nutty faddists, like the devotees of Esperanto.
Ed Vaizey, Conservative MP
I love the Monarchy. The Queen is obviously brilliant and has never put a foot wrong. I have a huge admiration for Prince Charles and what he has achieved in the charitable field, through the Prince’s Trust and his passionate support for the arts. I hope he becomes King. The monarchy is unquestionably good for Britain and for the Commonwealth, admired across the world and allowing Britain to project a great image abroad.
Simon Blackburn, philosopher
It is excellent that we have a monarchy, for three reasons. First, it is not only children that need imaginary friends, and William and Kate will cheer up millions, just as the Queen and her Mum have done. Second, symbols matter. Nobody could want the likes of Mrs Thatcher or Blair having their portraits hanging in the Army mess or local police station, squelching the very notion of a loyal opposition. Third, since God is so often mysteriously, if adorably, absent, it is surely admirable that the Church of England is headed by someone recognizable, up to whom its members can look.
John-Luke Roberts, comedian
I’m refusing to give any critical thought to the monarchy until that lovely queen is dead, and possibly not even until the following king says something about buildings. At that point I imagine I’ll put the hours in and discover the whole shebang to be ridiculous and campaign for it to be replaced with an Architectarchy (a panel of unelected but smart-suited architects who will attend all ceremonial events carrying foot-high cardboard models of modern-looking buildings). That’s entirely speculative, mind.
Orlando Figes, historian
By temperament and (uncertain) conviction I am a republican but I can see the arguments for the monarchy as an element of constitutional continuity and as a focus of national identity provided it can change to represent diversity. However, I do not think that the monarch should be head of the Church of England.
An even closer union of Church and State would be bad for everybody else outside the CofE. I don’t think there should be an Established Church at all. All religions should be seen as equal by the state. In that sense the role of a British monarch (who must be CofE) is an anomaly.
Julian Baggini, editor-in-chief of The Philosophers’ Magazine
On a cost/benefit analysis, the monarchy might be good for Britain. But that’s not the point. The monarchy is absurd and its constitutional role has no legitimacy. When something is so manifestly wrong, it should be abolished, even if there are no clear, immediate benefits of doing so.
Linda Fabiani, Scottish National Party MSP
As a Scottish republican it’s interesting to be asked questions about the value of and the future of the monarchy in the UK. I’ve got no axe to grind with the current Royal incumbents—I’ve been impressed, for example, by the knowledge shown by Princess Anne and her commitment to particular causes that I’ve been involved in myself. I am a supporter of the Commonwealth as a forum of common cause in the world.
Robert Finch, head of Canadian monarchist society
Canada’s constitutional monarchy—with a non-partisan Queen as head of state—provides the country with a sound, stable system of good government; enables a society where democracy, the rule of law, and human rights flourish; and by separating politics from patriotism becomes a powerful force for national unity. No, the monarchy may not be perfect, but it sure is the least imperfect system around. Constitutional Monarchy vs. Republic? Monarchy wins hands down!
Also in Prospect’s monarchy special:
Simon Jenkins: What’s the point of the monarchy?
David Kershaw advises the royals on their brand management
Will Self argues it’s time to give the royals the boot
Vernon Bogdanor on crown and constitution
Prospect/YouGov poll reveals the nation’s feelings about the monarchy in 2011