The Prospect editorial—recasting the Crown

The monarchy—and its role in our democracy—must change
May 6, 2021

Every one of England’s monarchs since 1066 is said to be descended from William the Conqueror, weaving an indispensable thread through Our Island Story. This, of course, is tosh. The Conqueror’s own nickname, William the Bastard, prompts one set of doubts about what may have happened to the royal bloodline over the dozens of generations since. And there have been so many brotherly blood feuds, cousinly coups and dead branches on the family tree that the residual connection is nothing special. Indeed, some genealogists have ventured that a quarter of the English may now be related to the old brute.

The first thing to flow from all this is that the way we tend to think about our monarchy is wrong: what’s taught as a great tale of continuity could just as well be understood as a story of change. From shipping in new and more suitable personnel for the throne in the 17th century to taking to the airwaves in the 20th, the institution has had to adapt to survive. And, as the first generational shift in 70 years beckons after the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, I argue that it will soon be necessary for it to change again.

The second, and more disruptive, observation to emerge from the reality of royal history is just how brutally arbitrary it is. Snatched crowns were transformed into divine rights, and well into modern times the mystique of majesty shielded government power from the reach of the law. More recently, increasing assertiveness on the part of the courts had appeared to be dragging our governance out of the dark ages. But looking back over the Brexit crisis, what strikes me is how close we came to a constitutional explosion, courtesy of the gaming of ancient prerogatives and elaborate requirements for different forms of monarchical consent and assent. And part of the reason we just squeaked through was near-universal trust in a Queen who has just turned 95. As we scan the horizon beyond her, it’s plain that serious reforms will be required. From a legal point of view, David Allen Green underlines that it is now urgent to disentangle concepts of the Crown and the state, because Brexit reduces the bite of European ideas about the latter, and leaves nothing in their place.

Looking at European monarchies provides a host of options for “less Crown”: less waste, less special treatment, less involvement in legislative processes. That might turn out to be the most realistic path ahead. But, ideally, we would go further, and plump for a figurehead chosen by suitability rather than by accident. Admittedly, agreeing on how to do so is fraught: no option is problem-free. But in principle, if we have any real interest in any of the notions of equal opportunity that Daniel Markovits and Adrian Wooldridge debate, then we should try. And in practice, as Westminster and Whitehall become mired in sleaze (Jill Rutter tells us how to fix it) whatever role nobility is imagined to play in our governance does not seem to be keeping it clean.

The argument for overhauling the monarchy, like anything else, involves weighing the dangers of stasis against the perils of a leap in the dark. In the context of Brexit and Scottish independence, Anne McElvoy makes a spirited defence of “Project Fear.” Seductive slogans, she warns, can carry the day towards ruin, unless someone is prepared to point out everything that could get lost along the way. It is an insight to give us pause before ripping up the constitution and starting again.

“Whatever role nobility is imagined to play in our governance does not seem to be keeping it clean”

But in the other corner is Julian Baggini, who on reappraises David Hume, and explores how his great, sceptical philosophy led him to dismal, do-nothing politics. “What works” pragmatism is, Baggini argues, the best way to go in the realm of ideas but, when it comes to politics, settling for “things as they are” overlooks the warping power of vested interests, and lands you where Hume so often ended up—on the wrong side of history.

That is also, surely, where special royal exemptions and obscure Crown powers will one day be consigned. And unless every last lingering potential for abuse is closed down, the monarchy itself may join them.