The British royal family has had many reasons to celebrate since April 2011. Not only did it have, not one, but two royal weddings, in addition its popularity previously hit by the Diana crisis, seems to have been finally restored. Indeed, the wedding of Prince William and Miss Middleton has produced a happy end to the old feud between “The People’s Princess” and the royal establishment. It was this occasion that allowed the British public to make their peace with the past and indulge in this romantic celebration of a British fairy tale. Nevertheless, and even amidst the countdown to the royal wedding, concerns about the role of the institution of British monarchy continued to be heard. We are, therefore, going to try to deal with the question of whether such an institution is still relevant in the 21st century.
In order to answer this question, we shall first discuss the arguments disparaging the British royal family, then we shall look at the arguments appraising it, and last but not least we shall analyse the special status of the British monarch-not as a tyrant, but as the guardian of British constitutional democracy. Let us start with some of the major reasons for criticising the institution. First, within a democratic mind set, it is hard to conceive of hereditary titles or non-elected representatives. Second, while the British monarch is supposed to be non-partisan and above party influence, its mere existence reinforces conservative values. Third, the monarchy used to be considered as expensive, benefiting from a privileged lifestyle, not earned but inherited. While the same thing is true for any wealthy individual throughout the world, or even for the less wealthy ones; as not just money but also education, manners, knowledge and character are all transmitted by the family that we are being born to, royals in general are still being singled-out for the historical character and the origin of their wealth.
Moreover, the purely ceremonial character of the functions of the Queen in government as well as her prerogative to grant honours have been deemed absurd by those who assert that the Queen does not even write her own opening speech. While obviously this argument would see most politicians, chief executives and other-simply untalented people in writing off their position, it points to the fact that the Queen cannot control the content of what she is supposed to represent. Indeed, this raises the issue of the usurpation of the royal prerogative. It means that government in general and the British Prime Ministers in particular act in the name of the monarch.
Indeed, lending its moral weight for different governmental needs may result in a lack of accountability on the part of those acting in Her Majesty’s name. The example of the kitchens in the National Health Service is being given in order to show that even an obvious health hazard cannot be prosecuted in court as it is run by the crown in theory, though by the state in practice. However, this is only partially true, the whole of the NHS cannot be prosecuted, but a particular kitchen manager can be. Nevertheless, usurping the royal prerogative has been a common practice on the behalf of the executive and Prime Ministers in the UK. It has been argued, that Prime Ministers forget about the elected character of their power and instead, behave like kings or queens. This point brings us to the advantages of the British monarchy.
In order to deal with the positive aspects of British constitutional monarchy, it would be worthwhile noting that some of the arguments against it could also serve as its positive points. This is particularly true when it comes to the fact that the monarch is a long standing non-elected head of state. Indeed, one of the obvious outcomes of the separation between an elected head of the executive and a permanent nationally unifying symbol is that in moments of social unrest or civil strife, like during the 1980s, it would have been very difficult, for example, to some of the soldiers to swear the oath of allegiance to Margaret Thatcher, an elected yet a very controversial Prime Minister. The same argument goes for the various onerous functions of government. If one were to dislike the Prime Minister, how would one feel if all the aspects of government were carried out by the same person?
Moreover, according to British Politics Today, the British system offers an advantage over the US system in that it combines onerous chief executive functions with time consuming head of state duties. Queen Elisabeth the II performs hundreds of engagements abroad, thus leaving the elected head of state more time to actually deal with the business of running a country. Furthermore, as an ambassador of the UK and of all things British, the visits of the Queen generate a climate often favourable to business deals. Although money is important, the Queen as a historical symbol is also capable of soothing past wounds and making new bridges towards the future, as was the case with the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011.
As head of the commonwealth, she also continues to serve as a unifying thread to what would have otherwise been just another disbanded empire. The monarchy is also cost and public image conscious. It now pays taxes and has its finances in order. In addition, it generates money through tourism. As far as money is concerned, the monarchy is good value, as “said its defenders in the 1980’s”, spending by the NHS on appetite suppressors alone exceeded the cost of the Civil List”. Finally, the Civil List has been cut to only include the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Therefore, having first discussed the arguments against the British monarchy, then seen the arguments in favour of it, we are now going to analyse its special status as the guardian of constitutional monarchy and the British parliamentary system.
Paradoxically, it is out of an originally feudal system, that the first democratic parliamentary system evolved. Indeed, we must bear in mind that the form of constitutional monarchy that we are familiar with today in the UK was a result of a historical evolution. Nevertheless, while many other European royal families have been either executed or exiled from their kingdoms, in the UK the monarchy has managed to adopt to the changing times and therefore maintain its status as a leading and popular part of the nation. In fact, it is the ability of the British monarchy to adapt and sometimes to even encourage some of the changes in the ruling system, in particular since the late 18th century that make it so British. For instead of being set in its old ways it is flexible, practical and full of common sense and fair play.
In this it is representative of the character of their people. The British as a nation dislike revolutions and cataclysms. Instead, calm reasonable shifts without bloodsheds or disorder are generally preferred. Moreover, we should never forget that it is the British Parliamentary system that has exported the notion of democracy, the rule of the people, to America and then to the rest of the world. In the UK, the monarch is not an absolute ruler, on the contrary, he/she is the keeper of constitutional democracy and the parliamentary system. For indeed, the monarch derives the right to rule from different documents that make for the UK constitution and not vice versa.
To abolish constitutional democracy would mean to abolish the British constitutional monarchy as well. Therefore, the Queen and a democratic constitution depend on each other. Consequently, the official site of Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth the II states that: The queen is Head of State in the United Kingdom. As a constitutional monarch, Her Majesty does not ‘rule’ the country, but fulfils important ceremonial and formal roles with respect to Government.(…) In a monarchy, a king or queen is Head of State. The British monarchy is known as a constitutional monarchy. This means that, while The Sovereign is Head of State, the ability to make and pass legislation resides with an elected Parliament. Although the British Sovereign no longer has a political or an executive role, he or she continues to play an important part in the life of the nation.
To conclude, having discussed the arguments disparaging the British monarchy, then having looked at the arguments appraising it, to only finally deal with the analysis of the special status of this institution, let us now try to answer the question of whether the institution of the British monarchy is still relevant in the 21st century. It seems that in the reality that we now live in, with its quick pace, uncontrollable climate and demographic changes, the rise of new cultural boundaries and wars and the gradual retreat of a traditional, national way of life, a symbol of continuity that does not in any way threaten democracy, is a positive and even a desirable influence. Such things as history or art or tradition or even definitions of nationality are not empirical science.
They belong to the realm of emotions and are the intellectual wealth of humanity in general. Therefore, the institution of the British monarchy as a representative of all these things is relevant in the 21st century, not just for all the values that it stands for with full or relative success, but most importantly for its aspiration to be a better version of themselves.
[ 1 ]. Bill Jones, Dennis Kavanagh, British Politics Today, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003, pp 120-123. [ 2 ]. Bill Jones, Dennis Kavanagh, British Politics Today, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003, pp 120-123. [ 3 ]. Bill Jones, Dennis Kavanagh, British Politics Today, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003, pp 120-123. [ 4 ].
Bill Jones, Dennis Kavanagh, British Politics Today, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003, pp 120-123. [ 5 ]. http://www.royal.gov.uk/MonarchUK/TheMonarchyToday. Read on the 09.10.11.