Sunday , July 14 2024

The benefits of constitutional monarchy

The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, and has been credited with being the pioneering nation in this kind of government. It is a form of government that has developed over many hundreds of years and has faced many challenges, but through all these challenges has endured. A classical conservative sees the constitutional monarchy as part of the ordered liberty of British society. Every citizen – even the monarchy is free under the law, but at the same time there is an hierarchical structure of society which holds it together, and ensures that society remains stable (re: organic unity, each member of society leaning on each other etc.).

The reader would probably be able to infer by now that a classical conservative would support the monarchy, since the monarchy is a traditional institution of the United Kingdom, and we have already established that the conservative seeks to preserve traditional institutions. Although a monarchist need not be a conservative, it is very common for conservatives to be monarchist, and I would argue, is in fact a prerequisite of classical conservatism. The argument of tradition itself is in fact a common one among British monarchists. However, as much as the conservative extols tradition over all else, we must examine monarchy practically if we are to make a coherent modern case for it. Tradition alone is no longer good enough to defend such an institution, seeing as very little tradition now governs the practice of politics.


I mean, it’s such an antiquated system…right?

Common arguments against monarchy are seen regularly. Monarchy is often seen to contradict democracy, since in a democracy, it is the people that rule in the sense that they elect their governments, and the people are ultimately the ones to which the government should be accountable. In a monarchical system, the government is constitutionally accountable to the monarch. In the commonly held belief that equality is important in society – many object to the fact that monarchy demands subordination of the citizen to the monarch. Deference in terms of titles, respect and address is expected in a system where a monarch exists as head of state. It is also argued that since monarchy predetermines who will become head of state, it denies those who may be best suited to the role based on merit and intellect the chance of becoming head of state. Other worry about special powers granted to the monarch such as the royal prerogative, impartiality and most gloatingly: expense.

Examining these arguments at first glance, it cannot be denied that there is what appears to be a well-reasoned case against monarchy. But pause a moment, let us not be hasty, let us examine in detail each argument and then consider whether they are true or not, or whether they are practical. Monarchy may in principle be seen to contradict democracy, but I would argue that in fact, it is only in absolute monarchies that this is the case. The establishment of constitutional monarchy in the United Kingdom is direct evidence of the fact that monarchy can exist in tandem with democracy, and very effectively. Whilst the government is legally and nominally accountable to the reigning monarch, as exemplified in the title “His/Her Majesty;s Government”, since they are elected by the people it is accepted under British law that MPs are accountable to their constituents – the commons of Britain, who equate to the citizens of Britain. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that the government, supported by MPs, is accountable ultimately the people of Great Britain. As I have already argued, equality is not a natural state of society, and cannot be when people are born unequal. When human beings are born naturally unequal it is natural to assume in turn that institutions will eventually establish some form of hierarchy – in the case of monarchy, with the monarch at the top. However, once again we must consider reality as opposed to possibility. Whilst it is possible that a monarch may establish absolute power, the constitutional position of the United Kingdom acts as a barrier to this. This ties in with the argument against the royal prerogative. Whilst the monarch nominally has these powers, the monarch does not use them out of convention. Any attempt by the monarch to use them – for instance to dissolve Parliament at will or veto legislation passed by Parliament would trigger a constitutional crisis which would ultimately lead to the abolition of the monarchy anyway. Therefore, it is neither in the people’s nor the monarch’s interests to use their constitutional powers, and by extension the argument against them on these grounds is void.

But if the monarch never uses their power – what is the point of having one anyway? Well firstly, one should consider the role of a President (or equivalent) in a hypothetically republican Britain. Due to the historical role of Parliament in British politics, is would be extremely likely that Britain would become a Parliamentary republic on the abolition of the monarchy (meaning that Parliament would have the most power in the running of the state) such as by the example of Italy or Germany. One must realise that in these states, the President is little more than a figurehead anyway. Presidents are often not actually directly elected by the people, but by an electoral college of some kind, and is often an old, retirement-age politician, who exercises their powers sparingly. This kind of system would show very little difference to the system already in place with the British monarchy. What is more, such a President would in all likelihood be even less impartial than a monarch. Whilst the monarch is independent of the political system, unaffiliated to the party and obliged to follow the will of Parliament, a President would be a politician, and a part of the establishment. Any part of the establishment is liable to control by that establishment, and a Presidential system would in reality create an extra layer of bureaucracy and government to be controlled by British political parties, changing every couple of years to coincide with the constantly changing forces of public opinion. Therefore, it may in fact be more harmful to the state to abolish the monarchy, since the covert deals and secretive nature of political gambling and party politics would be extended to the head of state, which under a monarchy, is free from such corruption. Whilst it is also argued that monarchy is expensive, this is not actually all true: it costs roughly £40 million to sustain the monarchy, which seems like a lot of money. However, due to a deal struck with Parliament by King George III, which agreed that all revenue from Royally-owned lands would be passed to Parliament (or more strictly, the government) in return for upkeep paid to the monarch (the £40 million), the revenue made from Royal lands is in fact closer to £200 million, meaning a rough total profit of £160 million from the monarchy each year. Removing the monarch would not even pass 100% of the money to the government, since although the profits from Royal lands goes to Parliament, the lands are still officially owned by and administered by the Crown. Therefore, if the monarchy was abolished, since the law of United Kingdom respects private property, control of the lands and all revenues made form them would pass back to the monarch as a private citizen, meaning that the state would receive absolutely nothing. The effects of losing this money would be significant for the UK economy, and would in all likelihood lead to higher taxes – higher taxes in a country where the poor already struggle quite enough. One should not even need to mention the attraction to tourists that the monarchy adds to the UK economy every year.

Other arguments for the monarchy include the examples set by history. Britain has already tried and failed to abolish its monarchy in the past. Following the English Civil War, King Charles I was executed, and a “commonwealth” put in its place in 1649. All this resulted in was the dictatorship of one man: Oliver Cromwell, filling the power vacuum left by the monarch. All it resulted in was the re-establishment of the monarchy. When King James II began a Catholic absolutist rule against the will of Parliament and the religious trend of much of the country, Parliament elected to remove him and replace him with another monarch, but supported by a Bill of Rights – the first legal establishment of our current constitutional monarchy. It was indeed, seen best to safeguard British citizen’s rights with constitutional monarchy rather than with republic. If the ideological reasons are not enough, this sapient choice of our ancestors must be respected, as the best choice for the country at the time, and therefore must have been considered the best choice for posterity as well.

This post was originally published by the author 29 May 2016.

About Alex Illingworth

Alex Illingworth lives in Oxford where he pursues studies in philosophy and theology, having previously studied Classics. He has written extensively on conservatism, and on British politics, and is a co-founder of the conservative blog aimed at students: The Burkean. His debut book in political philosophy "Political Justice" is a forthcoming publication with Arktos Media.

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