Home > Monarchy, UK Constitution > Monarchy is not undemocratic

Monarchy is not undemocratic


One final comment on the existence of the monarchy.

The United Kingdom is one of the world’s forty-four monarchies, and one of the oldest monarchies too.

Support for the monarchy among the British at least remains high. This is in part a sort of absent-minded sentiment and appreciation of history and tradition, and also from a fact realised by most politicians that they have little to gain from replacing it with a president, directly or indirectly elected.

There are benefits for the United Kingdom in maintaining its monarchy. But first, we should look at an oft-repeated claim by republicans – the claim that possession of a monarchy is somehow ‘undemocratic’. It really isn’t.

‘Monarch’ comes from the Greek, ‘rule by one’, and describes a supreme magistrate who inherits their position. The term has moved on from its strict Greek interpretation, and today, when we think of a monarch, we do not think of the Queen governing directly but as acting as the head of British civil and political society. The degree of power that a monarch possesses bears no relation to the title any more.

Equally, the fact that a country is a republic tells us nothing of the degree of liberties and control over the government, and they can be as savagely despotic and undemocratic as any absolute monarchy. Not only is monarchy not inconsistent with democracy, but a brief glance at the Economist’s democracy index suggests that constitutional monarchy is most likely to give sustenance to stable democratic government.

Abraham Lincoln famously described democracy as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’, and Britain’s constitutional monarchy ticks all these boxes. ‘Of the people’ and ‘by the people’ indicate responsibility to the people, as in, through an elected Parliament. Tick.

Government for the people, to be meaningful, means government for the entire people, not just those that elected the governing majority, but all minorities and non-voters too.

Therefore, monarchy is not in opposition to democracy, any more than republicanism is in any way inexorably bound to democracy. ‘Republic’ in its contemporary definition merely denotes that the Head of State does not inherit their position, and says nothing about democracy. Monarchy is not a system of government, but a mere type of government, a subset of parliamentarism.

Inheritance itself is neither democratic nor undemocratic when it comes to a ceremonial Head of State. It is simply a convenience which is adhered to in this particular case to avoid the drawbacks involved in electing it. Inheritance only becomes anti-democratic when the office-holder exercises meaningful power, as it is with government that democracy is concerned.

Some would probably at this point object that there’s therefore no purpose in a ceremonial Head of State at all, and there’s a worthy discussion to be had there – but the fact is that right now, almost every country in the world has a single person as Head of State, and the majority of those do not give any executive powers to the Head of State.

Parliamentary states choose to have a ceremonial Head of State in order to prevent certain key powers being exercised by the Head of Government – that is, the Prime Minister. It is better to separate these functions, and in Britain’s case, the inherited nature of the monarch provides additional benefits to this separation of powers.  It’s the same principle behind a court judge, who must not be partial to either side in a case and exercises powers it would not be appropriate to bestow on the prosecution or the defence.

The Head of State is first and foremost a symbol of the nation, and represents it to the public, to other countries, and other ‘players’ in the State. She represents first and foremost the deep rich historical heritage of the United Kingdom and the continuity of the State. The Queen in this capacity does not represent one single group, class, party, or anything else. She can be identified with, for example, all four nations of the United Kingdom collectively, but not with a single one of them in particular. A President however cannot help but be identified with a particular political philosophy, a particular region, or be identified with a particular incident, comment, scandal or otherwise.

Another often-overlooked attribute is Britain’s longstanding tradition of parliamentary government and constitutional monarchy. The monarch has little incentive to seek to regain the powers that were once wielded by them personally, because 1) Britain is a mature democracy and such power exercised by the monarch would not be tolerated by the vast majority of the populace, and 2) Britain’s historical zenith of power (i.e. that of 19th Century Empire) was at the time of the monarch’s final transformation into a ceremonial Head of State, meaning there is little nostalgia for a ‘golden age’ of monarchical rule.

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Categories: Monarchy, UK Constitution
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