James T. Williams
Originally published in 1998/1999, Issue 1
In this article I intend to examine the question of whether the Monarchy has a role in Britain’s future. In order to answer this question it is first important to define what exactly is the role of the Monarch in Britain today and then to examine whether the existence of the Monarchy is essential for that role to be performed. In order to arrive at a more balanced view of the Head of State’s role I will also take a comparative analysis of the roles performed by the British Head of State and her counterparts in other advanced Western democracies. To conclude I will question the utility of the Monarchy by applying the test suggested by William Bagehot in his seminal work “The English Constitution” by trying to imagine a Britain without a Monarch.
In what is still considered one of the key texts on the unwritten British constitution William Bagehot describes the Monarchy as a “dignified part” of the constitution. Meaning that it “excite [s] and preserve [s] the reverence of the population in comparison to the “efficient parts” by whom it in fact works and rules”. Bagehot sets out four roles for the Monarchy: as an “intelligible part of the Constitution” for the average citizen, as a symbolic head of Britain, as a means of “strengthening Government with force of religion” and as “head of Britain’s morality.”
The role of the monarchy as an intelligible part of the constitution might on a superficial level at least have some merit. The Monarch’s function of signing into law Acts passed by Parliament is an integral part of the legislative process. The Monarch technically holds the right to veto any measure adopted by Parliament but this is a very rare occurrence and the last time it was used was in the eighteenth century by Queen Anne. The Monarch also receives newly appointed ambassadors to the United Kingdom who are accredited to her court rather than to the state, S/he is also the commander in chief of the Armed forces and new recruits have to swear allegiance to the Monarch rather than to Parliament or to the State. In this and many similar functions the Queen acts as a living personification of the British State, a type of shorthand by which people can swear allegiance to the state, which is a social construct, via a living person. Whilst the majority of the Monarch’s powers have been transferred to the Head of the Government for the Prime minister to use at her/his discretion; to suggest that the Monarch has no direct input into the decision making process in Britain would be inaccurate.
The active involvement during the nineteenth century of Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert as well as the active interest Elizabeth II has taken in Commonwealth relations point to the way that the Monarch can directly influence decisions made at Westminster at a much more sophisticated and direct way than an average British citizen. Equally to suggest that the Monarch is somehow seen as a spurious part of the constitutional structure of the United Kingdom would seem to be disproved by the millions of letters and petitions for help Buckingham palace receives each day from members of the public. The fact that so many people would seem to be more confident writing to an unelected hereditary Monarch with their problems rather than an elected representative would seem to point to the power of the Monarch in people’s imagination. The British Sovereign however is a constitutional Monarch; that is to say s/he does not directly rule but acts more as a symbolic head of State.
The symbolic role of the Monarch is perhaps its most effective role in the late twentieth Century. The majority of the Queen’s workload consists of representing the state at home and the Nation abroad. On state visits the Queen attracts interest from the foreign public and media who helps raise the profile of the Nation overseas. However one might argue that the image of an elderly aristocratic Monarch is not perhaps an accurate representation of the sophisticated multicultural and diverse state Britain is in the late 1990’s. It is often also argued that the Queen is an ideal figure to represent Britain as she is a neutral figure above the political arena and one who can represent the nation as a whole without carrying any political baggage. This is again a difficult argument to present with any degree of plausibility given that the Queen comes from such a narrow aristocratic background and has little practical knowledge of the lives and experiences of a great many of her subjects.
The role of the Monarch as strengthening Government with religion refers to the Monarch’s combined role as head of State and Governor of the established Church of England. This role signifies the importance of the Church to the British establishment and their core values and traditions. The Monarch has largely remained Head of the Church since the reformation of Henry VIII when Papal authority was abolished in England. This situation might appear anachronistic in a secular society and given the history of repression against the Catholic Church might seem to class the Head of state as a rather exclusive figure. In the Post war years Britain has become increasingly become a multi faith society where the religions practised in the former British Empire became increasingly popular within the United Kingdom herself. Having a Head of State as head of a certain branch of Christianity might therefore seems inappropriate and at worst divisive. In addition the marital troubles of the Governor’s four children, three of whom are divorced single parents whilst the other one is cohabiting has caused concern within the Church of England establishment. The impending prospect of a future Monarch, Prince Charles heading a Church which preaches the importance of marriage while he is a divorced Man who’s partner is a divorced Roman Catholic complicates matters somewhat leading to calls for the Anglican Communion to be disestablished.
The role of Head of state is an important and significant role in late twentieth Century Politics both at a domestic and international level. Although there are examples of executive Presidencies where the role is elected and combined with the Head of Government such as in the United States. The vast majority of Heads of State are elected as National figureheads while the everyday work of Government is undertaken by the Prime Minister or Head of Government. Monarchies still persist in countries such as Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands as well as in African states where the King may perform a tribal role as absolute ruler such as in Lesotho and Morocco. In Europe arguably one of the most dynamic and most interesting transformations concerning the office of Head of State is in the Irish Republic where the role was often seen as a retirement job for ageing Fianna Fail politicians was transformed by 46 year old Dublin lawyer Mary Robinson.
The Irish President is elected by universal, the present incumbent being Professor Mary McAleese a Belfast academic and Journalist. Whilst the British and Irish Heads of State perform similar roles such as signing Acts of Parliament into law and representing the Nation overseas, the Irish President is directly accountable via the ballot box and has certain direct powers as guardian of the Irish constitution. McAleese’s predecessor Mary Robinson saw her role as representing the minorities in Ireland who often felt marginalised and she often held receptions for these groups at her official residence the Aras an Uctarian in Dublin. On one such occasion Robinson hosted a reception for Gay rights activists at the Arras and allowed in the press to the garden parry directly afterwards; it is perhaps impossible to imagine Queen Elizabeth doing the same in London.
In 1998 the British Monarch and her ‘way forward’ group are discussing possible reforms of the Monarchy in an attempt to face up to the challenges of the public’s reaction to the death of the popular Diana, Princess of Wales in August 1997. The plans involve slimming down of the Monarchy and the entitlement to the title Royal Highness to be limited to the Monarch and her/his immediate successor. These plans are the first major changes planned for the Monarchy and do represent a genuine shift in emphasis.
To be able to imagine a Britain without a Monarch as Bagehot suggests would probably depend on one’s own personal bias. There is no doubt however that a Monarchy that costs so much public money is unsustainable when the remainder of State is facing severe financial shortages. The way forward groups recommendations go some way to alleviating the charges levelled at the Palace. There is at present no mechanism for removing an unsatisfactory Monarch. An intelligent elected Head of State can, as has been proved in Ireland represent the whole Society and can perform roles such as the signing into law of acts and maintaining good will for the nation abroad. Monarchists are oft to say when talk of a republic is mooted that they have one thought, which annuls all the arguments in favour that of President Thatcher. This argument is reactionary and invalid given that an elected Head of state would have to be subject to a vigorous campaign and election before taking up the role. There is no doubt that the British people despite its recent difficulties hold the British Monarchy with high esteem and fondness or that the Queen and her heir do an excellent job in difficult circumstances. It is important for Republicans to note that the decline in support for the institution; together with the steadily increasing yet small growth in support for republicanism was brought about not by the cogency of the republican case; but by the folly of a Royal family who felt they could behave excessively without regard to the public who pay the civil list. It is therefore evident that the case for a republic is not being argued effectively by the British republicans and that if a republic occurs it will be due to the fallings of the Windsor dynasty rather than any enthusiasm by the public for such a revolutionary constitutional change
 Bagehot, W. “The English Constitution” pub Sussex Academic Press (1997) p.5