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1. In Defence of the Traditional Monarchy
q The Monarch reigns but does not rule
q The Monarch acts as a constitutional umpire
q The Monarch has the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn
q The Monarch plays an important symbolic role in achieving national unity and its prestige is important in international affairs and trade
q Overall: a constitutional monarchy is a better Head of State than an elected President
A. The Monarch Reigns but does not Rule
o A hereditary monarchy appears to contradict democratic principles and aspirations of 'social democracy'
o Defenders say that the British monarchy has no day-to-day political power and that this enables it to play important roles in Britain - much better than any elected president could.
o The monarch 'reigns but does not rule’, in the sense that the prerogative powers of the Crown are exercised on her behalf by elected politicians or automatically through the democratic process.
o For example, in theory the monarch appoints the Prime Minister but in practice the Prime Minister is the elected leader of the majority party in the House of Commons.
B. The Monarch acts as a Constitutional Umpire
o In Britain, the Monarchy serves as constitutional umpire. For example, if there was a hung Parliament -the Monarch the Monarch's role would be to consult party leaders in turn and to establish the strongest possible government.
o The Monarch is very rarely called upon to act as a constitutional umpire - hardly half-a-dozen times in the last century century. But traditionalists argue that the general characteristics of the Crown - its historical, social and symbolic importance; its political neutrality - all make the Monarch a much more effective umpire than any elected President could be.
o The Monarch's prestige is an incentive for politicians to act constructively to resolve any crises and not to embarrass the Monarch.
C. The Right to be Consulted
o Royal influence is exercised by the Queen's right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. Copies of all important government papers are sent round daily to Buckingham Palace, or wherever the Queen is staying, in red boxes. The Queen has private interviews with a daily stream of important people. Every Tuesday evening when she is in London, the Prime Minister of the day calls at Buckingham Palace for a talk. The present Monarch is conscientiousness and knowledgeable.
o The Monarch may subject her Prime Minister to rigorous questioning and, in certain circumstances make her displeasure known. In 1986, for example, it was reported that the Queen was distressed at the strain which Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to endorse sanctions against South Africa was placing on the Commonwealth.
o On the other hand there are advantages to the Prime Minister. First, the Queen provides a unique source of advice. She has extensive experience, not least of the Commonwealth. She is well read in terms of government papers and she provides the premier with a private opportunity to discuss issues with someone who has no political axe to grind. Secondly, the monarch relieves the head of government of many ceremonial duties. The head of government is thus enabled to get on with the work of government; the head of state is able to be closer to the people.’
D. The Symbolic Role
o Separating the roles of head of state and head of government, coupled with the absence of election, avoids the tainting of the monarch with partisanship or bias. Citizens' loyalties may thus flow to the Crown without being hindered by political considerations.
o The British monarchy has a heavy symbolic burden helping national unity and its defenders argue that it must be a 'grand' ceremonial institution because it can’t be a 'citizen' and retain its importance and status.
o The ways the monarchy performs this role include ceremonial functions at home and abroad, being the ‘fountain of honour’, acting as chief diplomat, head of the Church of England and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and setting a moral example. The various events to celebrate the Golden Jubilee illustrate this symbolic role.
o The Queen in particular is expected to lead by example in maintaining standards of citizenship and family life. She applies herself assiduously to her duties; even her most ardent critics concede that she is diligent. She lends her name to charities and voluntary organizations, as do other members of the Royal Family.
o The monarch symbolizes the unity of the nation - for example on British postage stamps. They are unique: British stamps alone carry the monarch's head.
o At least two practical benefits are also believed to derive from this symbolic role. By virtue of the number of years the Queen has spent on the throne and her neutral position, she is accorded a significant degree of international respect. This respect constitutes a bonus for Britain on the international stage, and especially in the context of the Commonwealth.
o Economically, the Queen and other leading members of the Royal Family are often judged to be good for British trade. The symbolism, the history and the pageantry that surrounds the monarchy serves to make the Queen and her immediate family a potent source of media and public interest abroad. Royal visits are often geared to export promotions, media interest being used to focus on particular British goods. ‘ (Norton)
o Defenders say that the monarchy must be a ‘grand’ monarch because it symbolises British history and greatness - to scale down the monarchy would indicate that Britain is in decline.
o The monarchy is also good value for money, although costly by European standards (approximately £60 million annually) but £80 million a year is received from Crown Estates and the monarchy brings in revenue from trade and tourism.
2. The Reform Perspective
There are two broad reform themes:
q first that the prerogative powers give the government of the day too much power, unchecked by parliament;
q second that the monarchy should be scaled down and become a citizen monarchy much more in touch with modem society
q Overall: Some reformers are sympathetic to, and supporters of the monarchy, who want to ensure its survival through modernisation. Other reformers would ideally like to see the monarchy abolished but believe that this is either unlikely (because it lacks public support) or they reluctantly admit that replacing the monarch with something else – like an elected president – has major difficulties.
A. The Royal Prerogatives Weaken Democracy
o Many reformers argue that Britain is not a genuine constitutional monarchy because the Monarch’s prerogative powers are exercised by the government of the day and this weakens democracy.
o The executive has powers to act without parliamentary approval (for example to ratify treaties and re-organise government departments); it gains political advantage (for example, the Prime Minister can choose the date of the general election) and parliamentary scrutiny is restricted (for example, honours cannot be discussed in parliament nor royal issues). Reformers propose that powers should be transferred to parliament (especially to the Speaker) and, for example, there should be fixed election dates.
B. A Citizen Monarchy
o Second, reformers want a 'citizen monarchy’. There are many reasons why this view has arisen - some long-term, some short-term. It is simplistic to blame the Windsors without looking at the wider context. Since 1945, there has been enormous social change, for example, the British people are less religious; society is more multi-racial; moral codes are 'permissive'; the class system is much more fluid; people are less deferential. Media intrusiveness is a major factor in de-mystifying the monarchy - media attention has turned the royals into a soap opera, reflecting long term trends in public attitudes towards sexual matters and international competition for sales, seemingly justifying any methods.
o Historical and political change has undermined the position of the monarchy. A 'grand' monarchy suited an enormous, world-wide, Empire but Britain’s Empire has disappeared since the 1950s. In the 1980s Thatcherism praised 'enterprise' and attacked many institutions which appeared inefficient. Monarchy suffered in this atmosphere; it was made to look archaic.
o The Windsors have been in disarray and have undoubtedly contributed to their own demise, for example, Princess Diana and Prince Charles engaged in public 'debate' by working with biographers and making TV programmes.
o Four categories of reform have been put forward:
o Symbolic reform might include the royals opening parliament in ordinary clothes and the dropping of curtseying.
o Practical reforms of royal status might include the reduction of royal residences, the reduction of royals with titles, constitutional reform to allow a first born girl to succeed, reduction of expenditure on, for example, the royal train/yacht.
o Organisational change might include more varied royal advisers, a greater role for the Prime Minister in advising the royals, changes in royal timetable because too much time is spent at Balmoral and Sandringham and change in the nature of royal visits/events, for example, to incorporate more ordinary people.
o Stylistic change embraces one of Princess Diana's great influences - greater informality in dress and protocol.
o The prospects for reform are very high and some reforms have already occurred; in fact there has been twenty years of change. The Queen now pays tax on her personal wealth; many 'royals' do not have titles (e.g. Princess Ann's children); the royal yacht has been dropped; the royals, including Prince Charles, are associated with causes helping the poorer sections of society (for example, the Prince's Trust); the number of royals receiving money from the civil list has been reduced to three. Prince William has become a major asset to the royal family, getting to university on merit and choosing St Andrews rather than Oxbridge.
o Wider changes are likely, for example, ending the prohibition on Catholic marriages and primogeniture (inheritance through the male line). But some more radical proposals, like the abdication of Elizabeth and/or the ‘skipping’ Charles are not likely. The Queen’s Golden Jubilee has seemed to show that the monarchy has become somewhat rejuvenated – the death of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret has produced considerable sympathy for the Queen.
3. Abolition : The Republican View
q Republicans argue that the monarchy is the ‘cement’ of an unequal society, which is not meritocratic at all because birth still matters enormously to 'life chances'. Britain is a caste society.
q Republicans suggest that abolishing the monarchy is necessary to establish a genuine democray, that the necessary steps are easy (currency and stamps could be phased out, a new nationalanthem written etc) and that other society’s have perfectly successful elected presidents.
q Republicans believe that the monarchy is supported by myths – the Royal Family don’t work hard, they don’t set high moral standards, they are extravagant and wasteful etc.
A. Influential Support
o Many newspapers - even the conservative Economist magazine, hold republican views, 'the monarchy is a symbol of feudal honours, of baseless deference' (The Economist). The Financial Times said that the monarchy 'puts the lid on a glass jar inside which sit all the suffocating elements of a Britain that should be long past'. The Independent said, 'The Crown’s survival reinforces the impression that Britain is shaped like a pyramid and that, at its apex, birth counts for more than merit’.
B. The Practicalities
o Republicans suggest that the practicalities of abolishing the monarchy are relatively straightforward - the royals could be given a pension and become ordinary citizens; property (like the Duchy of Cornwall) would become state property as would Windsor and Buckingham Palace; jewels and paintings in the royal collection would also revert to the state (although disputes are likely); coinage, stamps, the royal pre-fix - all are easily resolved; honours, ceremonial and the national anthem can also be replaced. The key issue is who would be Head of State - perhaps the Speaker, or someone elected by the Commons and a reformed House of Lords. Republicans do not want a powerful US style president.
C. Is abolition likely?
o The introduction of a republic is unlikely. Only around 10% of the public support a republic and none of the parties are in favour. Also the argument that the monarchy 'cements' an unequal society might be challenged - the USA, France, Germany are perhaps more unequal and racist. Japan, on the other hand, is a vibrant economy but has a god-Emperor.
4. One Evaluation - Preservation, Reform or Abolition?
This is one person’s evaluation – do you agree or disagree?
‘The 'grand' symbolic monarchy, mysterious and aloof, is largely a thing of the past and the royal family have themselves been reformers for twenty or thirty years. It is most likely that, had their marriage worked, Charles and Diana would have taken the 'style' of the royal family towards a more informal and modern approach. As it is, reform will no doubt continue, given impetus by Princess Diana's death and public response to it. Reform will be cautious and gradual but the monarchy is not in danger of abolition, unless there is a further crisis induced by royal misbehaviour or scandal.’