Time was when the cost to maintain the dignity of the monarch was one and the same with that of administering government. Today there is a much sharper distinction, but there is still a blur in parts – endemic of the inability to fully separate the monarch from the person – the Queen, after all, can never retire, and can never truly take a break from the role.
Much of the struggles of the Seventeenth century were about Parliament gaining control over royal expenditure. This control was made almost complete by 1760, as is detailed below. It’s a broad approximation of a rather complex system, which really ought to be clarified and updated.
The monarchy is financed from six sources.
The Civil List
Firstly – and best known – is the Civil List. The name derives from the list of officials who received royal money for services to the government (the civil service, in other words). This was in contrast to a military list and a naval list, presumably. In 1760, on the Accession to the throne of George III, major reforms were made, in which Parliament provided the monarch with the Civil List as a lump sum payment. In return, the monarch surrendered the hereditary revenues from the Crown Estate, except for the revenues of the Duchy of Lancaster. In 1830, on the Accession of William IV, the Civil List was defined as designed purely to pay for the costs incurred through the duties carried out by the monarch as Head of State.
This remains the same function for the Civil List today. In return for £200 million per annum in Crown Estate revenues (revenues which are produced from a range of sources, such as rents, commerce, trade, parkland and forestry, minerals and fishing – in fact, the second largest shopping centre in the UK is partly on Crown Land) supplied to HM Treasury (as of 2006/7), Parliament votes each decade an annual sum as the Civil List.
In 1990 this sum was set at £7.9 million per annum. An advantageous economic environment in the 1990s allowed the Crown to amass a substantial surplus, so that in 2000 there was no need to adjust the figure (Parliament is forbidden from actually reducing the List), and in 2010 the figure again stayed static. This reserve is now running low, and the Government recently confirmed it would revisit royal finances in 2012. In real terms, the cost of the Civil List has actually fallen by £4.5 million.
This is not ‘pay’ for the Sovereign, as the Sovereign cannot use the money for personal use. In fact the Queen doesn’t get paid at all. About 70% of this is used primarily to fund staff salaries in the Royal Household. The remainder goes towards official receptions, garden parties and official entertainment during State Visits. The full report can be found here.
The Civil List is nowadays set every ten years. There was a period of very high inflation in the 1970s which required much more frequent revisits to royal finances, but this proved impractical as it endangered the necessary space the monarchy needs to be independent of the government and of Parliament. Given that the Queen is monarch to another fifteen realms, and is Head of the Commonwealth, to place the monarchy fully under such control would endanger the monarchy’s capacity to carry out these functions independently of British institutions.
The Privy Purse
In addition to the Civil List, there is the Privy Purse, the revenue the monarch receives from the Duchy of Lancaster, that remainder of the Crown Estate which remains to the Crown for their use. It is kept apart from the Crown Estate as it is not held in trust to the nation but possessed by the Queen in person, in her right as Duke (yes, Duke) of Lancaster, a title held since 1413. In 2009, this amounted to £13.3 million.
The Privy Purse finances other Head of State functions, such as pensions for present and past employers, staff welfare, parts of the cost of Sandringham and Balmoral, and charity subscriptions and donations. The revenue from the Privy Purse is accountable to Parliament through the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The Privy Purse’s annual report for 2009 can be found here.
In addition, grant-in-aid, provided by Parliament, is supplied to members of the Royal Family for the 3,000 public engagements the royal family undertake each year. For example, the Department of Transport helps the royals to get from place to place (broken down here). I should emphasise: this is costs for official duties; costs for personal jollies and private engagements are not on this bill.
A separate grant is provided by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to go toward the maintenance of royal residences. This particular grant (which is broken down here) accounts for about 75% of grant-in-aid. In 2009, grants-in-aid was £22.6 million.
All such grants are, of course, subject to Parliament. This, and Parliamentary annuities, is the only money which royals other than the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh can receive. Not even the Prince of Wales gets a penny of state funds unless he is specifically carrying out a representative role on behalf of the monarch.
Parliamentary annuities are grants to members of the Royal Family by Parliament to carry out representative roles on behalf of the monarch. In 2009, £400,000 was provided as an annuity to the Duke of Edinburgh. In the case of royals who are not the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen reimburses the Treasury the cost of the annuities.
This field is for other miscellaneous costs, including the cost to create medals and other honours, other ceremonials, State Visits, maintenance of Holyroodhouse (the Queen’s official residence in Scotland), maintenance of the Home Park at Windsor Castle, and equerries on secondment from the Armed Forces. In 2009, this was £4.6 million.
Finally, there is the Queen’s personal income as a private individual. This is sourced from her private investment portfolio and revenue from lands held in her own right (such as Sandringham and Balmoral). This source of funding is used, understandably, for the Queen’s own private expenses.
This does not include the Crown Jewels, the Royal Art Collection, or Royal Palaces – these are held by the Crown, not the Queen. It’s the same as the difference between former President George Bush Jr. having resided in the White House but owning Crawford Ranch in Texas.
The Sovereign is forbidden from generating new wealth, in terms of earnings or business activities. Being unable to retire, the monarch also cannot bypass Inheritance Tax by passing assets on at an early stage to the Heir.
Since 1992, the Queen has voluntarily paid tax on her personal income and the Privy Purse. This isn’t actually much of an innovation – Queen Victoria did the same from 1842 upon Sir Robert Peel’s introduction of income tax, as did Edward VII. In 1910, however, George V managed to get out of it – in return for forking up the cost of entertaining visiting Heads of State. The Prince of Wales, incidentally, voluntarily pays tax on his revenues from the Duchy of Cornwall. All other royals are taxed like any other citizen.
All of this is, of course, a great simplification of an extremely complex form of financing. It clearly needs clarification and updating. Note also that nowhere in this list of sources of revenue has the Queen received any direct pay.
So, to recap – staff salaries and garden parties are from the Civil List; staff pensions and charity subscriptions are from the Privy Purse; Duke of Edinburgh functions are from Parliamentary Annuities; travel is from grants-in-aid; building maintenance is jointly from grants-in-aid and government funds; and State Visit entertainments are jointly from the Civil List and government funds.
The total cost then, would be Civil List plus grant-in-aid, plus Parliamentary annuities plus government funds. The Privy Purse is not a burden on the taxpayer, and nor is the Queen’s private expenditure. Many critics have attempted to criticise the monarchy by pointing to their apparent spend-happy private life, but it’s frankly irrelevant.
In total, we’re looking, as of 2009, at £41.5 million, as can be seen in this annual summary.
This total does not include the costs incurred to the protection of the royal family to the police and the Armed Forces; these are not disclosed.
Is this good value for money? All estimates seem to indicate to the monarchy not being all too expensive. Per taxpayer, this equates more or less to two pints of milk, or 61 pence. As Robert Hardman noted in the Daily Mail on July 10, 2010, if MPs’ salaries were pegged to the Civil List, they would still be paid £26,701 instead of the present £63,291.
(Incidentally I’m most certainly not a fan of the Daily Mail, but I guess even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day.)
The Republic website erroneously claims that the cost of monarchy is significantly higher – a remarkable £184.8 million. However, this tally is disingenuous in a number of ways. It counts the charges I list above, but they throw in an addition £100 million ‘as an estimate’ for security, which they readily admit to be biased towards the highest possible figure. They also count upkeep of the Palaces as a separate charge even though they are accounted for in the charges I list above.
While they are correct in stating that the Crown Estate is held in trust to the Crown and hence the country, they also take it upon themselves to proclaim that the Queen and the Prince of Wales have no right to have the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall as their personal possessions. I know of no lawful authority that could seize a person’s property in such a way. Sorry, Republic.
They also criticise the fact that we don’t know how much the Queen pays in tax – but then, isn’t such information supposed to be covered by Data Protection laws, anyway? It is rightly kept private.
The most important question however is this: if Britain were to abolish the monarchy, would these costs go away? Answer: no.
The security bill (even if it were £100 million!) would remain pretty much the same. Equally, the cost of maintaining the palaces would remain the same – the German Bundespräsident has a number of official residences too, after all. The staffing costs, the pensions, the full range of duties a Head of State carries out will still have to be carried out by whatever replaces the monarchy. State Visits would continue. Garden parties would continue. Visits to local councils, receptions and the granting of honours would continue. The Head of State’s functions as constitutional umpire would continue. And of course, the new Head of State would require a salary.
What’s more, out of all the G8 countries – France, Italy, Russia, Germany, Japan, the United States and Canada (okay, Canada shares our Queen, but the flight carries the Governor-General), the Queen doesn’t have her own plane, despite increasing terror concerns since 9/11.
I have done my best to find an English language translation of the German federal budget to ascertain the cost of the Bundespräsident; alas, it is not forthcoming, so you’ll have to trust me on this; the Budget seems to indicate that in 2009 the Presidency, which is close in approximation to the role of the British monarchy, cost £20 million. However, this is purely for the dignity of the president, much like our Civil List. Therefore, while at first glance it appears to be half the cost of the monarchy, in truth half the cost is simply moved elsewhere, into a generic building maintenance fund in the Budget. In the end, it works out broadly the same then.
So the cost of the monarch is not all that burdensome; nor can it be made sufficiently cheaper to be worth ditching. At best, you can argue that a republic would save us, what? £5 million? Half a Mars Bar for everyone, then. But then we’d lose the bulk of the £13.3 million the monarch provides from the Privy Purse.
Also, thanks to Gallia Watch, a French politics blog, we can see in action the great contradiction of republics that mean they can accumulate bloated salaries and huge personal budgets without any outcry from the public. At least here the monarchy has to make sure every penny is well-spent before it goes cap-in-hand to Parliament.
I have also heard rumour that the expenses for the President of the Italian Republic is currently around £200 million. However I have not been able to verify this as of yet.
Most importantly though, if we became a republic, we’d be losing a whole lot more that can’t be quantified in money. You cannot put a price on magnificence.
Bogdanor, V (1997) The Monarchy and the Constitution, Oxford University Press
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.
— King Albert I of the Belgians
The Royal Prerogative is the powers of decree that the British monarch may use without consent of Parliament. They are wide ranging and used frequently.
This is, of course, in theory. In practice, the Royal Prerogative is exercised only on the advice of the Government, which is held to account to Parliament for the advice it gives to the monarch. The following will describe the established prerogative powers and I will attempt to explain why they are held by the Crown. I’ll start with the easiest ones first.
The monarch issues passports, creates royal charters, mints coinage, authorises the mining of precious metals, is the State guardian of orphans, awards the allocation of treasure, bestows copyrights and franchises, and other similar functions. The monarch also has the power of Mercy (pardoning of criminals), can requisition ships for State use, can prohibit aliens from leaving UK territory, and can permit hearings before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
Officially, these are done by the monarch without consent of Parliament. This is, however, only half the story. The Queen, in order keep her job, only exercises these prerogatives on the advice of her ministers. For example, the prerogatives relating to passports, Mercy, and restraining aliens are exercised on the advice of the Home Secretary (Britain’s Minister of the Interior), and decisions regarding the Judicial Committee would be under the remit of the Lord Chancellor. The Home Secretary, being an MP in the House of Commons, is accountable to Parliament – Parliament can express displeasure at the advice the Home Secretary gave the Queen and censure him as it sees fit.
The monarch grants Royal Assent to Bills before Parliament. Withholding Assent is essentially a legislative veto.
Theoretically powerful, this hasn’t actually been used in over three hundred years and is principally a formality. The last time was by Queen Anne in 1708, against the Scottish Militia Bill. It is highly unlikely the monarch would ever find cause to reactivate this prerogative, unless the government sought to pass a bill which would attack the democratic core of the constitution.
The monarch signs treaties, declares a state of emergency, and declares war and peace.
Again, half the story. Since the 1920s the Ponsonby Rule has meant that Parliament has seen all treaties before they are signed. It is utterly inconceivable that the monarch could exercise these particular prerogatives if Parliament were to object to them. As before, she can only use them on ministerial advice, who are subject to Parliament. One of the last acts of the Brown Ministry was to transform the Ponsonby Rule from a convention to an explicit legal requirement, and gives Parliament the express right to vote down treaties. This is a welcome development.
On war and peace powers, again, the monarch cannot use them without the government’s advice. And in turn, no government would dare go ahead with a military campaign in the face of Parliamentary opposition. Parliament’s absolute power here is obvious, even if it isn’t formally written. In 2003, Parliament debates and voted on whether British forces should participate in the invasion of Iraq. The House of Commons took a vote and narrowly approved the action.
Imagine that the vote had gone the other way. In theory, the government could have advised the Queen to declare war anyway, but in reality the most likely outcome if they had tried it would have been a successful no-confidence motion against the government.
The monarch appoints ministers, judges, peers, bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England.
The monarch only appoints them on the advice of her ministers. To do otherwise would have the government resign and the Queen unable to raise an alternative one from the House of Commons. Again, the government is accountable to Parliament and so must ensure it doesn’t take it for granted.
The monarch creates and confers knighthoods and other honours.
Honours are a mixture – the lower degrees of the orders of knighthood tend to be dispensed on the advice of the government, as a means of honouring people who do service for the country (and the breadth of fields honoured is, well, broad). The higher degrees however, including the most elite Orders – such as the Garter, Thistle and the Bath – are purely in the gift of the monarch without input from the government.
The monarch is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Crown.
This is chiefly a symbolic function, the deployment of troops decided by the government, but the Queen is known to take a deep personal interest in the welfare of servicemen and meets regularly with senior commanding officers. The servicemen in the Armed Forces all pledge allegiance to the monarch – not the government. A great many British servicemen take pride in this distinction and their direct connection to the Crown is taken seriously as a symbol of the Forces’ non-intervention in politics.
The monarch legislates by Order in Council/letters patent.
The refers to legislative decrees carried out by the Privy Council. Again, while in theory the Privy Council’s actions are not subject to Parliament, in reality the government’s control of the Council ensures that Parliament in turn holds its actions responsible.
The monarch summons, prorogues, and dissolves Parliament, and appoints the Prime Minister.
Here the importance of the monarch as impartial constitutional umpire starts to become more apparent.
In many ways the two-party system of the past 70 years has made the need for such impartiality less clear by limiting the need for royal oversight. But in the periods of multi-party tension the British monarch has often played a key role. Queen Victoria and George V sought to bring the parties together to discuss Irish Home Rule; Victoria again sought to bridge the divides over Irish disestablishment in 1869 and in 1884 over the Reform Act.
Ironically, reform of the electoral system in Westminster could see a resurgence in the monarch’s role. We can look to examples in Europe for the key role monarchies in Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium have in facilitating cross-party agreement.
For example, the Queen rarely refuses a dissolution of Parliament because the government, comprised of one party, governs alone. Refusing a dissolution would handicap the Queen’s government as the Opposition would not have sufficient seats in the Commons to sustain themselves. Opposition to a dissolution here would be lunacy.
Right now of course, Britain is experiencing its first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s. The negotiations between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat negotiating teams in May 2010 were carried out by and large without the monarch’s involvement.
There’s a lot of what-ifs about the coalition, though. What if the talks had collapsed, and Cameron was installed a PM of a minority government? What if Brown had refused to quit Downing Street? Theoretically, he could have asked the Queen for another dissolution immediately, but the Queen would have been duty-bound to refuse it even if Brown had even thought about it. The fact that the Queen has not had cause to use her Prerogatives much isn’t a sign that they’re defunct, but that Government and Opposition have tended to act constitutionally.
There are older examples and other theoretical cases the monarch would be crucial in deciding. For example, if the PM were to lose the support of their party or cabinet, then the PM would not be automatically granted a dissolution. An election requires political camps to close ranks in order to pursue votes; calling an election would in effect be used by the PM as a means of stifling parliamentary accountability. For example, Harold Wilson threatened to call an election in 1969 over highly controversial trade union reform, and Major did the same over rebels in his party opposed to the Maastricht Treaty. In 1990, having performed less than expected in her party’s leadership election, Thatcher considered going on to the second round and calling a General Election if she lost. The Queen would have had no choice but to disappoint her.
Bogdanor, V (1997) The Monarchy and the Constitution, Oxford University Press
“Parliamentary monarchy fulfils a role which an elected president never can. It formally limits the politicians’ thirst for power because with it the supreme office of the state is occupied once and for all.”
— Max Weber
The monarchy is most visibly a ceremonial, representative office, but the monarch carries out real day-to-day duties too. Above all, the monarch is meant to show impartiality in all she does, not only for symbolic purposes but also to ensure she can carry out her constitutional duties to the contentment of all political actors.
To borrow some of Walter Bagehot’s terminology, the British constitution is divided into ‘dignified’ and ‘efficient’ elements. The efficient side makes and enforces the decisions that affect the lives of the governed, that is, the Commons and the Executive. The dignified side expresses national identity and imparts the symbols of authority onto the efficient side. This can be enormously beneficial to, say, a reforming, radical government, as to cloak itself in the dignified element can help to reconcile some to its aims and to render legitimacy to its policies.
It would not be appropriate for the monarch to get involved in the ‘efficient’ element as it would not be tolerated and fly in the face of democratic principles. The monarch would cease to represent the country and start to be associated only with those whose interests it would start to promote.
The monarchy is at the heart of British identity, and it’s difficult to imagine what could ever replace it (there’s an ongoing debate in the UK right now about what ‘Britishness’ is, and thus far nobody can come up with anything much beyond the monarchy and woolly ideas about freedoms and so on).
So in the absence of anything like a revolution or a war of independence to act as Britain’s symbol and narrative, the monarch, a person, is that symbol. This brings some distinct advantages. A concept as a symbol can be misinterpreted or misunderstood, or disagreed with. A person is a concrete fact. Also, by making the ‘efficient’ element constitutionally subordinate to this symbol and making all its actions done in the name of the monarch, it serves to humanise power.
In the absence of a major historical, nation-forming event, Britain’s symbol is a person. This carries with it some distinct advantages. It’s much easier to have allegiance to a person than a concept. It also humanises power by stressing that political power is subordinate to the national symbol, and all government actions are done in that symbol’s name.
Electing the Head of State would not change the role much from what the monarch does already (assuming Britain would remain a parliamentary state, not presidential), and those who complain about the dinners, receptions, visits and openings that the monarch has to attend fail to explain what a President would do differently.
“Monarchy is often criticised for being a lottery, but so is an elected presidency. Britain last had to play the regal lottery in 1952, when it won handsomely. It has not had to gamble again since then. In the past 45 years Ireland has had to vote in seven presidents, few of them memorable, most of them just grazing.”
— William Shawcross
To claim that it’s a ‘democratic’ right of the people to elect their Head of State ignores two things. Firstly, presidential candidates would require huge resources to sustain a winning campaign, implying either great personal wealth (and hence, I would argue, not being of the type of ‘people’ that most republicans want to see as president) or being dependent upon political parties for their success. Secondly, it ignores the fact that almost all parliamentary republics do not elect their presidents directly – their parliaments choose them. The people have no direct involvement.
If we elected the Head of State, by and large, the winning candidate would represent a political party. Even if they renounce party labels upon winning office, like the German Bundespräsident does, their past records as private citizens and as politicians cannot be rubbed out, and there will always be question marks about their impartiality. The Queen, however, has no political history, and there is only the vaguest idea of what her political views are.
Inheritance also has an advantage in endowing upon the monarch a high degree of experience; serving for life, the Queen has seen many situations, met many people, encountered many similar problems and predicaments. Being the heir, the Prince of Wales has been the Queen’s understudy for many decades and is the most qualified to jump in and continue the role effectively upon the Demise of the Crown; and of course Prince William is ready to take his place when the time comes. A President, however, will be elected out of the blue and will be highly unlikely to have much experience of the role, regardless of the other positive qualities they may have. This will repeat itself every few years, just as the incumbent is getting to grips with the role; and some may use the time to focus on re-election than providing a service to the public.
This benefit extends to the Queen’s heirs – the Prince of Wales can be accused of ‘getting involved’ in some issues, but even the examples that can be found relate to the broadest of broad policy issues. Moreover, when he becomes King, he will be constitutionally bound to clamp up even further. He has also been heir to the Throne for over 60 years and is kept well involved with ministerial activities. When he becomes King, he’ll require little time to get to grips with it.
Over at The Lure, another WordPress Blog I stumbled upon, the poster has summed up better than I could why monarchy works out better as Head of State:
“First, in an hereditary monarchy, it is easy to train princes, from birth, to be kings. If the training is at all competent, they acquire both the habits of statesmanship and the requisite propositional knowledge to rule wisely. Maybe the training won’t be competent. But, in a representative system, no one even makes a serious attempt at such training. We are governed by amateurs.
The fact that kings are trained – even competently trained – to rule wisely doesn’t mean that they will do so. They might have all sorts of incentives to pursue policies detrimental to their subjects. Maybe. But (a) they aren’t as beholden to the people as representatives (and so needn’t succumb to rash popular pressures), (b) there is more of an opportunity to (from birth) inculcate in them a sense of civic duty and (c) they are materially secure. The second potential advantage of a hereditary monarchy, then, is that it is easier both to normalize an hereditary monarch into caring primarily about the good of his country, and to remove the main incentives – money and power – to govern poorly. (On the other hand, it is more difficult to counter another incentive – to be an historical figure of note – which might e.g. incline monarchs towards militarism.)
In short, it’s arguable that a monarch is more likely both to have the capacity to be a better ruler than a representative and to realize that capacity. So the two “potentially big advantages” monarchism has over representative systems imply that, potentially, monarchies are much better at promoting societal flourishing than their representative counterparts.”
As we all know, politicians spend half of their political life fighting for election, and then the other half of it fighting for re-election. They disparage the record of the predecessors and focus on putting their successors in impossible situations with scorched earth tactics. Admittedly I am being a bit cruel here. Politicians have their rightful place as supreme lawmakers in Parliament and representatives of the people, but their presence in the position of Head of State isn’t inherently desirable.
This is particularly imperative when we consider the actual powers normally conferred upon a Head of State. The function of the Head of State in a parliamentary state is to act as the final arbiter of constitutional questions in the last resort. In order to best serve democratic principles and to ensure the broadest possible consensus in what the constitution says and does, the Head of State is and ought to be held at one remove from the hustle and bustle of party politics. The monarchy is best placed to execute this role in Britain, not least for the Queen’s longevity on the Throne, but also because if she calls it wrong she could be without a job very quickly. The risk with a president is that they will make a political decision to benefit their party, knowing that they cannot be removed from power unless they are defeated in an election.
A good example would be the President of Portugal, Jorge Fernando Branco de Sampaio, who in 2004 not only refused to grant new elections following the resignation of the Prime Minister, but infuriated most of the country when he appointed Pedro Santana Lopes as Prime Minister – who was sacked within 5 months for being, well, the Portuguese equivalent of Dan Quayle. Sampaio was otherwise a popular President, but his handling of the situation tarnished the reputation of his office.
The monarch is also best placed to act as the final guarantor of the constitution. This happens only exceptionally, as ministers tend to act responsibly, but there have been occasions when it could theoretically have been put to the test. For example, if the government sought to bring in reforms that would subvert the democratic basis of the constitution, such as stipulating that ministers cease to be accountable to Parliament, or by gerrymandering the electoral system to benefit one party. Indeed, it could be said in many occasions unconstitutional acts don’t happen because the ministers realise that the monarch would be obliged to decline the request in the interests of impartiality.
This impartiality is borne of the monarchy being set above and apart from the day-to-day political actors. It’s for the same reason that most British people recoil in fear and suspicion at the proposal of elected judges or police officers – it flies in the face of our concept of impartial execution of power.
The monarch is bound to accept all other ministerial advice. If she didn’t, the likely consequence would be the resignation of the government. The monarch would then be unable to find an alternative government (as presumably the outgoing government had a majority) and would be forced to call an election. The politicisation of the monarchy in this way would likely see the return of a hostile Parliament highly critical of the monarch’s actions and likely lead to a swift abolition of the Crown.
Just because she’s bound to follow ministerial advice, however, doesn’t make the monarch a mere nonentity in this area. In Bagehot’s famous turn of phrase, the monarch has ‘the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn’. Outright opposition to the will of an elected government would never work, but the monarch has a more useful role in acting as a sounding board, a conscience for the minister when considering his pet projects. The monarch has the right to speak her mind to the minister in absolute confidentiality, but if the minister’s mind is made up, the monarch must concede.
The Queen’s life looks luxurious but it is certainly not idle. Her ‘red boxes’ are as plentiful as any minister. After all, her success as the government’s conscience, her success as Head of the Commonwealth, her success as constitutional umpire and her success as the national symbol requires her to be as on the ball as possible. She receives diplomatic communiqués and some reports on domestic security before the Prime Minister does. If you’re interested, check out the following link on the website of the British Monarchy.
Bogdanor, V (1997) The Monarchy and the Constitution, Oxford University Press
“The monarchy is a political referee, not a political player, and there is a lot of sense in choosing the referee by a different principle from the players. It lessens the danger that the referee might try to start playing.”
— The Rt Hon. Conrad Russell, 5th Earl Russell
People measure the origins of the monarchy in different ways. 1066, when the Norman King William I seized power; or 924, when King Aethelstan of Mercia became King of the English in name and in law; or 886, when Alfred the Great first claimed sovereignty over England, even if it wasn’t complete; genealogically, we could trace it to at least 519, when Cerdic founded Wessex (and who, incidentally, claimed inheritance through the ages directly from Odin himself). The monarchy’s roots of course are also Scottish, going back at least to Kenneth I, founder of the Kingdom of the Picts in 843, and tracing far back into Pictish and Irish origins. The monarchy, clearly, is old.
While other countries often have a major historical event, such as a revolution, unification or independence as their symbol, Britain has never had a nation-defining revolution and never had to seek independence from a foreign power. While a Union was formed in 1707, the Union has never caught the imagination of the people in the same way as, for example, the Risorgimento in Italy or Confederation in Canada. Britain’s monarchy, on the other hand, has been at the forefront of all the major nation-defining events in British history; the forging of England by Alfred the Great; the birth of Scotland under Kenneth MacAlpin; the first parliaments; the creation of the state churches; the Scottish Wars of Independence against England; the Union of the Crowns; the Civil Wars; the Glorious Revolution; the Act of Union, and tons more.
But what, historically, was a monarch for? In some instances a local tribal chief would seize control and become king by force; in other occasions the monarch was elected from among local tribal leaders to lead them all collectively. In England and Pict/Scotland for many centuries, the king would be elected from among powerful nobles to be entrusted with the safety of their subjects and to act as overseer of the laws. A monarch, then, doesn’t have to be hereditary. Normally, though, they are monarch for life (with the possible exceptions of the President of France and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia).
Ancient societies put great store in inheritance. In decaying Roman Britain, besieged military garrisons relied increasingly upon sons of veteran captains who would have been trained under their wing. For example, “Old King Cole” is at the head of many ancient Welsh royal genealogies, and appears to have been a Roman commander at Hadrian’s Wall called “Coel Hen”, or there’s Dumnagual, who appears to have governed in the Stratchclyde region at around the same time.
The enormous turmoil in the fall of Rome and the destruction of huge swathes of public and private property with successive waves of barbarian invasions uprooted many settled and wealthy peoples and focussed responsibilities for defence on the few figures of authority that remained. With the decline in stable government and property rights, the concepts of property and inheritance eventually transferred to politics and power.
Additionally, the spread of religion reinforced the notion of family in British societies. The idea of God the Father was coupled with the notion of the King being God’s national delegate and father of the nation. Ergo, the monarchy was head of the national ‘family’, and inheritance of the reigns of power made sense from this point of view.
The monarchy served a useful function in early Britain, as chief executive and source of state power and justice. The power of the monarchy ebbed and flowed during the Middle Ages, chiefly against the power of the nobility. The rise of the Tudor dynasty established England’s early modern centralised state. The rise of this modern state led some to question how appropriate it was for such enormous power to be held by one person, potentially threatening to the ancient rights of the people.
The brutal conflict of the 1640s, commonly known as the English Civil War, more accurately called the War of the Three Kingdoms, was fought throughout Britain to answer this question. The republican experiment proved it wasn’t simply its inherited status that was the problem, but a matter of effective accountability and checks to sovereign power. British society became nostalgic for the rights and freedoms monarchy had guaranteed, and the monarchy was restored in 1660.
The civil war and the republic that followed was still a fresh memory for many in Britain when the constitution again fell into the balance in 1688, and the framers of the Glorious Revolution wanted to avoid the concentration of power as happened with Oliver Cromwell. Rather than abolish the monarchy, Parliament brought the monarchy under its formal control, knowing that the Crown could still serve as a force for good in Britain. The monarchy remained an executive monarch for another few years, but by the mid 18th century the modern concept of parliamentary government was established and the monarch took on a new role, that of symbol and of watchdog.
Republicanism has peaked and troughed in fortunes throughout early modern British history; after the Civil Wars, in the midst of the French Revolution, during Queen Victoria’s years of mourning for Prince Albert, with the rise of communism, and now has become fashionable once again in the modern era, particularly in, for example, Australia. The fact that each period has been followed by a period of heightened loyalty to the institution shows a number of things. Firstly, there is nothing ‘inevitable’ about the abolition of the monarchy. The monarchy has survived countless threats to its position and there’s every cause to assume republicanism will diminish again in the future; secondly, that throughout the modern era monarchy has proven flexible to these challenges and has adapted to new roles as the constitution has grown and matured; and thirdly, that the monarchy needs to continue to adapt and to find a role to serve the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Nations if it is to survive.