By Charles King-Tenison
If we were to create a state tomorrow, no one would dream of starting with making the Head of State a hereditary figure chosen by the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ and who can claim descent from Woden (the Anglo-Saxon version of Oden, the King of the Norse Gods). It all sounds a bit ridiculous and nothing for the 21st century. However, we are not creating a state tomorrow, although the day may come when we can perfect this aspect of our society and eliminate a defunct part of our political system that day is not today.
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Currently, we face too many crises in our politics, society and economy to focus on what would be a controversial and very superficial change. Any attempt to replace the monarchy would be highly contentious and make Brexit look like a light shower compared to the storm of drafting a constitution and dealing with the aftermath of abolishing the monarchy. Whilst all this would come at the non-substantial benefits of the monarchy.
Firstly, the political benefits of having an apolitical head of state cannot be understated. Whilst these exist outside of monarchy, they are less common, and there is no guarantee that we would get one. But the domestic political advantage of having one is that parliament becomes the de-facto executive.
Thus absolute power is not invested in one person. Take the highly partisan example of President Trump and Boris Johnson MP being figures brought to the forefront by the same rise of popularism. A hypothetical with Jeremy Corbyn and President Lula (of Brazil) would be the left-wing populist equivalents. If you are opposed to their politics, from either example, then you are less fearful of the British Prime Minister than the American/Brazilian Presidents as a Prime Minister is less powerful.
The President has powers over the armed forces and can pass some legislation by degree and a huge amount of discretion in foreign policy. Whereas the British Prime Minister is highly limited by his cabinet; most things cannot be done without the consent of some if not all of his cabinet. Accordingly, one of the big critiques of Boris Johnson MP was that he filled his cabinet with MPs based on loyalty over competency.
But in essence, a very strong hedge against popularism is a balance of power including an apolitical head of state, which is quite uncommon outside of constitutional monarchies like ours. Furthermore having an apolitical head of state gives the opportunity for all British people to unite behind a single person without risk of political division. This train of thought led Clement Attlee to say the British people were lucky “in having as head of state a person who is not the choice of one section of the people but is the common possession, so to speak, of them all”.
In addition, the soft power that the royal family gives us is immense, and any quick skim through any set of political biographies on modern international relations will have some mention of the British royal family if the British are mentioned at all. The royal family, and especially her late majesty, are a political icon popular worldwide only comparable to incredibly successful US Presidents, like Obama or Kennedy or the Pope.
I have been very lucky to live in South East Asia and New Zealand most of my life, and the variety of places you find little signs of the royal family is intense, from face masks (Halloween not Covid types!) in markets to prints of Andy Warhol’s icon of the late Queen in art galleries.
This kind of soft power is impossible to create new, and with a voluntary commonwealth of 56 countries still growing, with King Charles III at its helm, it would be crazy to think of throwing away this kind of soft power. So unless you intend to undermine Britain’s position on the world stage, even the inevitable uncertainty in the future of the Commonwealth, there would be no reason to remove our strongest asset in soft power.
Whilst finally, the economics of the royal family are highly contested, and there is no room here to explain them. Instead, a greater breakdown, albeit slightly outdated as based on Queen Elizabeth II, can be found here. But in short, it is irrefutable the royal family and the institution of the British monarchy is one of the most widely recognised and influential brands in the world.
Although they do not monetise it the value of royal licenses given to various brands will strongly aid British exports by providing an authentic touch of British class that may otherwise be harder to come by. Meanwhile, if you look at the income from royal estates which goes to the treasury, not to the royal family, you can see that quite simply give us more rent than we give them in spending money.
In short, getting rid of the monarchy now would only destabilise a stumbling Britain further and needlessly throw away a few unique advantages whilst gaining nothing greater than symbolism. The economic argument against the royal family is mixed as a worse possible indictment. Whereas the soft power that the King now affords Britain is immeasurable, I don’t believe anybody would be excited for our Prime Ministers to gain the powers and prestige of presidents to further polarise our politics.
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