There’s been in the lot in the news over the past few days about the British royal family: whether or not they are consciously, deliberately racist or whether they are just racist in passing like some ancient uncle who comes to visit at Christmas. Why this is the case probably isn’t worth going into here; I don’t see the point of me just reciting the latest news headlines. What it’s got me thinking is: why do we have a monarchy at all any more? Why are people still happy to regurgitate the old lies about what they do for us?
You don’t have to go far in discussions about the monarchy before you hear claims like “they bring a lot of money in for us, like tourists.” That doesn’t sound very likely to me. Empirically, it can’t be the case that tourists choose to come specifically to the UK because we have a monarch. If it was, Paris, Dublin, and Berlin would be struggling to attract tourists, who would all flood to London, Amsterdam and Copenhagen instead. There’s no real evidence that tourists come because we have a monarch at all; and as the campaign group Republic has worked out even if some do it has a negligible effect on British tourism as a whole. So why, then, do they exist? Moreover, why is it taken essentially for granted that the right of who should be king or queen is set in stone, frozen and immutable?
This idea, the idea that at any one time there is one person who has the right to be king or queen, and that they will be followed by their closest blood relative as surely as night follows day, is an old idea but it’s not that old. Royal legitimacy is, by any practical measure, an utterly terrible idea. If the monarch has to be the closest blood relative of the previous one, then to have good, successful monarchs, you need to have an excellent run of luck. How many times can you look at a group of brothers and sisters and be sure that, automatically, the oldest one is the best leader or the best manager? Eventually, purely by the mechanical operation of statistics, you’re going to see the job going to somebody who is always going to be a bit of a failure in that sort of role; and that’s without thinking of the sort of health problems that frequently tend to crop up in royal lineages stuffed densely with cousin-to-cousin marriages.
“They don’t really have any power,” though, the monarchist will tell you. “They’re just figureheads.” So, if that is the case, why keep them? Why not replace them with a nicely-carved statue as a figurehead instead? It’s fair to say that in modern British law the Queen has very little freedom to act, in the sense of being able to make meaningful decisions. Sovereignty is in Parliament, and the Queen must always follow whatever convention is appropriate in any given situation: appointing the person who can guarantee the Commons will vote for them as her Prime Minister and suchlike. This doesn’t make her powerless, though; it means her power is all in the soft sphere. The power that comes from having that weekly confessional chat with the person actually in charge of things, for example. The relationship benefits both the monarch and the Prime Minister. Any sort of uncodified situation always tends to reinforce the side with the greatest power to begin with: the biggest winners in the British unwritten constitution are the monarch and the government, and the losers are the opposition and the greater mass of the populace.
Legitimacy wasn’t always the way these things were done. It would probably surprise a lot of people to learn that the rules on succession changed relatively recently. In part, we have forgotten that royal succession isn’t set in stone because very few British people have encountered it or can remember the Queen’s accession. A thousand years ago—when England was only a few hundred years old—the English monarchy was a semi-elective institution. After we experimented with a dictatorial republic for a few years in the seventeenth century, Parliament made clear that the monarch ruled only at Parliament’s pleasure. Within thirty years of the Restoration, politicians had invited a Dutchman to invade and take over as king; a few decades further on, Parliament skipped over a number of potential legitimate members of the royal family to appoint a German head of state as king here. Over time the monarch’s control over government, slippery enough in any case after 1688, faded away further and further. By the 19th century it was all but gone.
An aside at this point: legitimist ideas rarely take into account the fact that different countries have someone different ideas on legitimacy. When William IV, King of Great Britain and Hannover died, his niece Victoria became Queen in Britain but his younger brother and Tory poltician the Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale became King of Hannover, because Hanoverian law did not permit queens regnant. His son, King George V, had his kingdom flattened and squished away in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. If Victoria had still been ruler of a German state during the slow German unification process that concluded in 1871, later history would in some ways have been very different.
So why do we still have a monarchy, and why do we still sometimes behave as if it is implicit and inevitable that we always have one? Partly, I think, because it is what we are all used to; but largely because it brings huge benefits to all who are involved with it, to everyone touched by it.
One thing is certain, though. Within the next few years, within this decade, there will be big changes. The current reign is going to come to an end; that’s just the way things are. When it does, what will happen? Nothing, no doubt, initially. King Charles will be proclaimed, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he chooses a different name to rule by. It was at one time a standard royal tradition—the Queen’s father wasn’t actually called George—but it’s one that will be shocking and alien to most people if it were to be reintroduced. The shock of the change will, I suspect, startle people into finally considering that the monarchy don’t actually have to be a fixture in our world. It will be an interesting process to watch.