Monarchy and its Political Pomp and Circumstance
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 implemented the constitutional monarchy of the UK that we know today, effectively limiting the political role of the Crown to mere pomp and circumstance. Yet, to this day, certain superfluous political liberties have remained. In practice, the sovereign still gives weekly counsel to the Prime Minister. In practice, the sovereign opens Parliament with their speech, albeit drafted by the Commons. In practice, the sovereign must approve all legislation before it can become an act of parliament, although the last bill to be refused in such a manner was vetoed in 1708. While the British political constitution has moved on considerably from its absolute-monarchical days, the monarch’s political role still retains an archaic air, where substance falls short of ceremony. The lack of majority dissent over this archaism can only be explained by the increasing celebrity of the monarchy, caused by the tabloid-frenzied consumption of their every move, from wedding dress to baby name. This infatuation with these winners of a ‘genetic lottery’ completely overlooks the fact that these political liberties are available to be used and abused. Even if they choose not to do so, that is irrelevant to the fact they still exist.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, as, ceremonial politics aside, the monarchy can also be utilised by the party in power when wanting to inspire confidence in their abilities. This was evident in the Queen’s recent coronavirus address where she spoke of the need for solidarity, harking back to the Second World War idea of ‘everyone doing their bit’ and quoting Vera Lynn’s song, ‘We’ll Meet Again’. For a more worrying influence we must look back only to August of last year where Boris Johnson used the Queen’s ability to prorogue parliament to prevent lawmakers from thwarting his Brexit plans. Though the Crown officially adopts an air of impartiality towards partisan politics, it seems the monarchy is still a political tool to be manipulated on a whim. Surely the best way to ensure sovereign impartiality is to remain aloof from the political world. But surely while this demands reform, the monarchy need not be abolished to take its fingers out from the political pie.
When also considering the royal finances, it seems there is certainly no harm in taking this next step either. With £82.2 million paid by taxpayers in 2019 to form the Sovereign Grant – not including security or ceremonial costs – is it really necessary to keep funding this archaic institution? Popular responses say yes, pointing to tourism revenues of £550 million, and ambassador-generated trade of £150 million. Yet the latter number barely makes a dent in the sum of UK exports (£543 billion), and as for tourism revenue, the abolition of the monarchy would not stop tourists from frequenting destinations such as Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. The question we the public should be asking is are the monarchy still relevant? The royal family can still exist in celebrity status and tabloid sensationalism without pulling on the drawstrings of the public purse and without being used as a political tool. The political role of the monarchy should be a thing of the past, celebrated and remembered perhaps, but fit for the vault of history.
A Defence of the Monarchy
A word that recalls the riches and privileges of fairy-tale princes and princesses, but one that also connotes the existential crisis faced by many kingdoms. The twentieth century saw a deadly trend for the end of monarchies: most famously, the tragic demise of the Romanovs. However, new monarchies were forged that have remained to this day, such as Bhutan’s Wangchucks, whose popularity in Thailand has even led to a sharp increase in Thai tourism to Bhutan.
Monarchies carry more influence than is recognised in modern society. In Britain, the House of Windsor encourages support for charitable causes. Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, has been outspoken about the importance of mental health services, describing his participation in counselling and advocating open discussion concerning mental health. Alongside the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry founded ‘Heads Together’; a campaign created to increase the visibility of mental health conditions. Using their royal status greatly, the Cambridges and Sussexes promoted ‘Heads Together’ through royal visits, social media presence and tailored events. It was highly successful, with the foundation announcing it had assisted “millions” in talking more about mental health. The British monarchy is still deeply entrenched within our society and culture, engaging with topical issues, and promoting causes that they believe in. The Windsors have become more personal than rulers of the past, and still engage with politics, albeit in different ways. Commentary on social issues is another valid way of engaging with the political constitution.
Neutrality is the most important characteristic of today’s monarchy, with the royal veto having been abandoned for over 300 years. The monarch is now idealised to be a leader that the public can stand behind, regardless of the political climate. Prime Ministers cannot command the support nor the majority, which the monarchy can. According to YouGov in 2018, 69% of people support the monarchy, with 21% opposing and 11% stating no preference. No Prime Minister has ever achieved such a high public majority. Theresa May was the second most popular Conservative leader ever, and still only commanded a positive opinion of 30%. In a turbulent modern society, the British monarchy has been a source of constancy.
In a politically chaotic decade, Britain has seen three Prime Ministers in three years under Conservative Party leadership, which has been deeply divisive. However, the popularity of the monarchy has been proven time and time again. For the wedding of the Cambridges, there were 60 million viewers (averaging at 22 million for whole coverage), and sales of the royal issue of the Hello! magazine rose by 25%. Globally, there were 29 million viewers of the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. Furthermore, the British monarchy unites 2.4 billion under the Commonwealth, from across five continents.
The grasp upon the monarchy has not been relinquished by the world, but especially not by British society. It has been steadfast for centuries and whether it is universally accepted, monarchy occupies a key part of politics, culture and society in modern Britain. It does not seem as if the world is ready for the monarchy to be a historic concept.