The British monarchy is an antique institution, peopled by eccentrics and governed by arcane rules and customs. But it works—and we would struggle to find a better alternative
The Queen opens parliament in 2010. As a constitutional form, the monarchy has proved astonishingly robust, argues Simon Jenkins
Best not to think about it. Best to block the mind, sink back in a chair and enjoy a ceremony well-staged, a dress well-chosen, and the heart-warming spectacle of Prince William and Kate Middleton in their matrimonial bliss. The British do national ritual with panache. Revel in that. Otherwise you will start asking why the classiest internship in the land, second in line to the throne, should go to the elder son of the elder son of the elder daughter of a man who got the job because his elder brother married the wrong woman. These entitlements, as Bentham said of all such rights, must be “nonsense on stilts.”
On the other hand, monarchy is an institution of state. Democracy expects such institutions to put in an appearance at the bar of common sense and public opinion. When one of them, based on heredity, offends what democracy supposedly holds dear—equality of opportunity—it has a case to answer. And so, as the future head of state prepares to wed, it’s worth asking why we have a monarchy, and what we want from it—if indeed we want one at all.
The hereditable principle has always vexed philosophers. It is an offence against fair play: vesting office, property and preferment in blood, when they should be vested in merit. Yet heredity is rife in every society. While most people exclude it as a basis for public office, in other respects they behave as if all strictures do not apply to themselves. There is hardly a parent in the land for whom heredity (albeit not primogeniture) is not the touchstone of family management and concern. Nor is this just personal. In Britain, “parental rights” permeate schools policy, housing allocation, property and probate law, and—unfair as it may be—access to internships and thus jobs. To fight for one’s child is a human instinct, as prevalent as ever.
For rulers things should be different. The days are past when a king needed a strong sword-arm and a succession based on inheritance to avert anarchy on his death and maintain the stability of the state. A childless ruler no longer bequeaths his realm to his sister’s son, as medieval rulers did, on the grounds that this son is the only person he can be sure is of his own bloodline. Even in those days, a king’s death tended to be open season for bastards, pretenders and frauds. The hundred years war was triggered by the question of whether a woman, Edward III’s mother, could inherit the crown of France. Other random justifications for heredity are similarly archaic. It is said that heredity used to be more certain in its succession and thus more stable than electors, doges, consuls, presidents and other republican forms. To Burke it ensured a “permanent and competent ruling class, united by bonds of family across generations.” The French chopped off their king’s head in 1793 and spent two centuries and 16 constitutions trying to do better. Today, of course, such arguments are dead. Who cares, or knows, that Spain is a monarchy and Portugal not, or Sweden but not Finland?
What is clearly true is that Britons are satisfied with their version of monarchy. The high point of opposition was in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, although even then barely a third of respondents to opinion polls wanted the monarchy abolished. Today, as the Prospect/YouGov poll shows, this figure is only 13 per cent. The last vote on a republican motion in the House of Commons was after the abdication crisis of 1936. Abolition attracted just five votes. There is more questioning of the cost of the monarch, though the calculation of the civil list and the blurring between the Queen’s disposable and inalienable assets makes any consideration of “value for money” difficult. Properties such as Windsor Castle and treasures like the royal art collection are owned by the state, and the Queen herself is not nearly as rich as, say, the King of Thailand, numerous Arab rulers or President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan. But despite recent cost-cutting measures, Britain’s monarchy is still the most expensive to maintain in Europe.
Republicans object to heredity being the basis of any power in the state, and understandably so. Such monarchical powers are listed sonorously in textbooks—yet they are, as Walter Bagehot, author of The English Constitution (1867), said, a matter of form rather than reality. The supposed power of a constitutional monarch to “summon” parliament and “appoint” a prime minister or member of parliament (by ennobling him or her) is a mechanical device that treats the monarch merely as the state anthropomorphised. Were the Queen to behave as if the implied discretion were real, her office would instantly crumble. The last time a prime minister was chosen by the monarch against the wish of parliament was in 1832, at the height of the reform crisis. When William IV asked the Duke of Wellington to form a government, the old soldier, reactionary as he was, eventually had to concede that those days were over. Later crises have all been resolved by constitutional protocols and the arithmetic of parliament. When Asquith’s first bill to curtail the power of the House of Lords failed in 1910, George V knew his duty was to promise to ennoble hundreds of Liberal peers if the lords did not submit to the will of the Commons.
Hung parliaments are much enjoyed by political historians, when the will of the Commons, and thus of the electorate, is not necessarily clear-cut, and so a superior office is needed as referee. What happens, for example, when the largest party cannot win Commons support under its current leader, but might do so under an alternative? Had one of the Milibands plotted to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats last May, should the Queen have asked him to form a government, or should she have summoned David Cameron? What if Gordon Brown had demanded another election? The answer in all these cases lies in the huddle of crown officers, constitutional lawyers and parliamentary leaders that gathers at such times. It does not lie in the untrammelled discretion of a hereditary monarch.
Another objection to a monarchy lies in its privileged access to the prime minister to “advise and warn,” and in the royals’ use of their position to advance personal views. Allowing Prince Andrew to become a British trade ambassador was clearly a mistake, to the embarrassment of most who have to deal with him. Prince Charles’s wilder crusades are vulnerable to criticism and even ridicule, but the system is robust enough to handle the occasional eccentricity. As for access to the prime minister, this is a privilege enjoyed by a motley crew of tycoons, party donors, elder statesmen and newspaper editors. The British establishment is riddled with such networks, and while the monarch is in a unique position, there is no obligation on a prime minister to listen. It is not as though Margaret Thatcher took many lectures on economic policy from the Queen.
These arguments are responses to traditional objections about the monarchy. They rank with such pragmatic claims that it “has served Britain well.” It is not broken and needs no mending. It is cheap and popular. There is much else wrong with the constitution, so let this sleeping dog lie. They amount to saying that since hereditary monarchy exists, we may as well leave them to it.
Such thinking is reasonable but untidy. It applies to many of our institutions hallowed by time, such as the Anglican episcopy, Oxford University, British summer time, City liveried companies and wearing wigs in court. Like many ostensible assets, they may contain lurking costs and liabilities, and occasionally need to be taken down and given a mildly sceptical spring clean.
What does such an exercise reveal? For a start, it’s clear that most relics of heredity in British life are vulnerable to some degree of meritocracy. For all the ingenuity of tax lawyers, great estates rarely survive generations intact. The bankruptcy courts, like the drugs laws, are no respecters of nobility. The path from inherited riches to rags is familiar. In the case of the monarch, the holder of office may not be above the law, although he or she enjoys security of tenure and a comfortable income for life. The succession is embedded in the Act of Settlement of 1701, fashioned in the aftermath of the crises into which one Stuart monarch after another plunged the British constitution. Under the act, bloodline was qualified by various incapacities, including adherence to the Roman Catholic faith. On the death of Queen Anne in 1714, it was said that 50 European persons had a prior claim to the British throne over George of Hanover, but the will of parliament triumphed. Obey the Act of Settlement, and the monarch is safe.
This security is said to depend on the monarch behaving with dignity appropriate to the “magic” of the office. Many have tested that principle close to destruction. But the throne survived the madness of George III, the obscenities of George IV, the infidelities of Edward VII and the marriage woes of Edward VIII. It survived the constitutional challenges of 1832 and 1910. The only wobble in the reign of the present Queen came with an apparent failure to share fully in the public’s grief over the death of Diana in August, 1997. The prime minister, Tony Blair, and various courtiers gathered round and the wobble was swiftly rectified. The present royal family has, over the decades, overcome various embarrassments. The truth is that, as a constitutional form, it has proved astonishingly robust.
There is no reason why the House of Windsor could not be replaced by a president chosen either by the electorate or by parliament. There are stable democratic republics such as the US, Germany, Ireland and India, who choose their head of state by other means than heredity and get by perfectly well. At the same time, constitutional monarchies such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium are equally stable—though they are not stable because they are monarchies but rather monarchies because they are stable. Like Britain, they have never seen any cause to change. There are, however, distinctions that can be drawn. As the historian Vernon Bogdanor has written in the most sustained study of the subject, The Monarchy and the Constitution, heredity “settles beyond argument the crucial question of who is to be the head of state, and places the position beyond political competition.” It is a chunk of the body politic removed from partisanship. Since the monarch, by convention, does not even indulge in controversy, Bogdanor argues that he or she “can represent the whole nation in an emotionally satisfying way… to interpret the nation to itself.” It is assumed, for instance, that the Prince of Wales would eschew his more controversial declarations (and his reputed one-time support for the SDP) as and when he ascends the throne.
This argument requires careful handling. It is manifestly the case that heredity today prevents conflict over who should succeed, the more so in an age of paternity tests. It lifts the head of state out of party controversy and saves the nation from being embodied in some exhausted elder statesman or party hack—a sort of chancellor of Oxford or chairman of the BBC. By reigning for life, an inheritor saves the nation the bore of periodic election. But a monarch has advantages over and above these. By being nothing other than a hereditary claimant, the British monarch lacks any legitimacy that might come from election, while at the same time embodying the history and continuity of the state to a degree impossible in an appointed or elected headship. The palaces, ceremonies and dignities of an Italian, French, Russian or American president may carry pomp and celebrity, but they rarely possess the Arthurian magic, sometimes the real popular affection, of a hereditary holder of the office.
Yet a modern monarch, just like any other head of state, is also expected to work. De Gaulle might have derided the job as being about “blessing chrysanthemums,” but the reality of a nation state is that someone must bless them, and it is a waste of time for a chief executive. The strain is well-known on the French and American presidencies, which combine party leadership and executive office with headship of state. The American president is estimated to spend at least half his time on ceremonial and related duties which in Britain are delegated to the monarch. This is not just a matter of a constant, often tedious, round of celebrating, rewarding, consoling, receiving and entertaining as much as a thousand times a year by some member of the royal family. It is a matter of those tasks being done by someone who represents the nation as a whole.
Two things go without saying. One is that the hereditary principle will always be subject to performance, as it was in the 17th century. It would not survive an idiot or a criminal, or a holder who blatantly abused the “dignified” status of monarchy. The solution of such a crisis is hard to script, but a solution there would be. Nor can monarchy hope to be proof against reform. The steamroller of human rights law is already bearing down on it. In 1998, a private members bill questioning the principle of male succession led the Labour government to agree “to take the matter forward.” What would happen, for instance, if Prince William’s first child was a girl or he married a Catholic? Would the Act of Settlement be vulnerable to challenge? The second has not yet happened and Tony Blair shied away from the subject when prime minister. But if a girl were to be equally entitled to succeed, why not a better qualified cousin or brother? Once crack the sacred carapace of monarchy, and anything might leap out.
All nations have elements of magic, myth and ceremony to their processes. These may reside in palaces and churches, museums and galleries, rituals and traditions. Hereditary monarchy is a spectacular embellishment, but in the same category. We would not invent it if it did not exist, if only because its essence lies in encapsulating a nation’s continuity over time, which a family is uniquely positioned to do. I would not try to “justify” this. But politics is about more than reason. Where monarchy exists, as in Britain, it carries advantages. Just as a monarch is lucky in inheriting a throne, so a nation is sometimes lucky in inheriting a monarch.
Also in Prospect’s monarchy special:
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
Edwina Currie, Alex Salmond, Bonnie Greer, Yann Martel and other public figures say whether the monarchy is good for Britain