Democracy and equality under the law have increasingly come to be seen as the gold-standard for structuring societies ever since the enlightenment. it may therefore appear odd to some that the United Kingdom, the ‘mother of parliamentary democracy’, is still reigned over by a monarchy. Stranger still is that despite the drastic decline in the number of monarchies worldwide since the start of the 20th century, the British monarchy continues to sit in the heart of a proudly democratic nation and continues to enjoy significant popular support amongst the general public. Perhaps this will change with the passing of our current and longest serving monarch Queen Elizabeth II, perhaps the royal family will lose its purpose, or perhaps it will continue to hold steadfast as it has done in the face of major social transformations. But while there may be calls for the monarchy to be replaced by an elected head of state, we should ask ourselves what the monarchy both means to us and offers us, domestically and internationally, before we rush to any conclusions.
While certainly debatable, I would contend that in its history, structures, and character, Britain is fundamentally a conservative nation. Not conservative in the sense that it strictly aligns with today’s Conservative party, but more in the sense of Burke or Oakeshott; we sacrifice democratic purity on the altar of an electoral system that is more inclined to produce stable and commanding governments; we still retain a strong support for the principle of national sovereignty in a world of increasing interdependence and cooperation; we take pride in our institutions, such as parliamentary democracy and our common law; and as evidenced by our addiction to tea, we value tradition. So is it really surprising that monarchy, the oldest form of government in the United Kingdom, still not only exists but enjoys significant public support?
The monarchy is intended as a symbol of national identity, unity, pride, duty, and serves to provide a sense of stability and continuity across the lifespan of the nation (according to its website). Its whole existence is rooted in the conservative disposition towards traditions, historical continuity, and the notion of collective wisdom across the ages that should not be readily discarded by those in the present. The monarchy is also politically impartial, and so able to provide that described sense of unity as it is a symbol that should cut across factional lines. Finally, the royal family is not necessarily an obstacle to democracy anymore; we have a constitutional monarchy, whereby the politicians make the decisions without arbitrary sovereign rule. The Sovereign’s role is not to undemocratically dictate legislation, it is to embody the spirit of the nation and exemplify a life of service and duty to country.
Conversely, many may say with good reason that the monarchy is outdated, elitist, and a spanner in the works for democracy. Indeed monarchies are increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and in today’s world it may seem out of place to see a family of people living a life of unbounded riches and privileges simply by birth right. This is a view that is becoming increasingly popular among younger Britons. Additionally, one might contend that the monarchy has lost its magic; it no longer inspires the same awe and reverence it once did, and is unable to invoke the sense of service and duty to country that it once could.
While support for the British monarchy appears to be holding steady, even in the wake of the latest saga with Harry and Meghan, I believe that the monarchy is on thin ice. The age of deference has long since passed, and in an era of materialism and rationality, the ethereal touch of monarchy has arguably lost its draw. Perhaps this is a good thing, or perhaps now more than ever we need a symbol of unity and duty to do our best by our neighbour and country. What is worth pointing out though is that Queen Elizabeth II, our longest serving monarch, has led the country dutifully throughout her life, and it is worth considering deeply whether the alternative (President Boris Johnson?) is really a better option.
Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer