Amid the ongoing Brexit soliloquy, one of the stories that has scared many in the Westminster bubble is the idea that the Queen could take a role in deciding whether to prorogue Parliament to force through a no-deal. It is another sign of the large constitutional power that our unelected head of state has at her disposal. This begs the question: why does Britain, a liberal, democratic country, still adhere to the absurd idea of a hereditary monarchy that has the power to covertly change the nation’s institutions?
There are a number of popular myths about the royal family that go by unchallenged by the celebrity-hungry mainstream media. Firstly, that if Britain changed to have an elected head of state, the country’s economy would suffer. All of those little shiny tourist things, you see. More important to us than the principles of democracy, of course.
This argument that the monarchy is the only reason for the success of British tourism is dumbfounded. In fact, the opposite is true. The Tower of London, historically used by royalty, is number nine on the list of the UK’s most visited attractions. Windsor Castle, currently in use by the House of Windsor, would languish at number twenty-four if included on the list. Buckingham Palace is far behind, with much of the building locked up for the private residences of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, undergoing renovations of £370 million at the taxpayer’s expense.
If the whole of Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace were opened for public tours, their history and palatial splendour could be seen in full. Would the numbers going through the entrances fall then?
The Tower of London used to be used by the royal family – and yet millions of tourists visit it every year. If the same were true of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, the idea that numbers would fall is ludicrous. Research shows that there are many more reasons for people visiting Britain than the slight chance of seeing Prince Edward’s smile. But the question still remains: should the wishes of tourists determine how Britain is governed?
The issue of money is often used against republicans. The monarchy is good for the economy, or so the story goes. Having established that the effect on tourism would be minimal, then the idea that abolishing the monarchy would have a seriously negative effect on the British economy is surely fanciful, given the many opportunities that a republic would bring. The royal family is estimated to cost the government £345 million every year, through the gargantuan grant of over £80 million added to the costs of trips, banquets and royal occasions. That works out as over one hundred times more than the budget for the Irish president. The argument that abolishing the monarchy would decimate the economy is plainly mistaken as well. Tourists visit Britain for its enriching cultural heritage and incredible landscape. The royal family would never be wiped from the history books, but rather added to them as a former dynasty.
The royal family exerts real influence over British politics. Many will remember the ‘black spider memos’ sent by Prince Charles to government ministers over a long period. The prince holds some opinions which would be politely called wacky, and the idea that he will keep them to himself when on the throne is evidently dubious. The Queen holds a weekly audience with the Prime Minister, and her advice is always taken seriously. She recently told Boris Johnson that she did not see why anyone would want to take up his new job. Such comments may well be the least worrying of her political statements. With the sceptre of a no-deal crash-out and the potential proroguing of Parliament, the monarch’s archaic status as a head of state must be called into question.
Although modern monarchs in this country do not have the authority to take decisions that they once held, this means that they can pass them on to a Prime Minister, who can then go ahead with any cause of action without needing Parliamentary consent. A republic would make sure that parliament is truly sovereign, and that no monarch has any political powers under the law.
The monarchy is the true outlier is British politics. Whilst the main institutions of Parliament and Whitehall have gradually reformed, the monarch has remained largely unchanged since the Bill of Rights in 1688. They hold less power, but only because of public pressure. The ability of royal family members to lobby silently and veto laws has remained intact. For a purportedly liberal, progressive country such as Britain this is surely wrong. The democratic right of many citizens of republics across the world to choose their head of state is not exercised in this country. The deeply conservative ideal of a hereditary monarchy, based on the principles of a Tudor court, is what prevails in Britain, not the basis of an elected, accountable monarch.
If Britain is to open to the world and not become an isolated, nostalgic nation, then getting rid of the most reactionary system in the book would be a good start. There is no need for a drastic, bloody revolution, or a period of prolonged strife. Just a bit of much needed democracy would do.
This article originally appeared on Backbench on 7 August. You can view it in its proper splendour here.