The British Monarchy: Why Even Bother?

It surely doesn’t take a Yes voter to notice that the British constitution is deeply odd, and in few ways more so than the monarchy. The UK’s Head of State is at once in a position of immense privilege but little power, both a person and an institution. It is a paradox made sustainable by British culture, but also by the incumbent’s inoffensive functionality, practiced with such dedication that it frequently borders on outright boring. This approach seems most likely a conscious choice by the Queen, intimately aware as she surely is of the precarity of this paradox on which her position, her legacy, and her entire family balances. 

I confess that, despite republican instincts, this is an approach to which I have in the past succumbed. That is not to say that I was ever tempted by pro-monarchism, but I was happy enough to ignore the status quo, knowing the considerable effort and energy – which always seemed more valuable expended elsewhere – that would be required to end it. I suspect that I was not alone in thinking that way. But for a number of reasons, I no longer feel that this is a sustainable – nor, perhaps more importantly, desirable – way of thinking any more, if it ever was. 

This change in my thinking came during the increasing moments in recent years when this royal paradox was exposed, seemingly in ever-more creative and ugly ways. Lack of accountability, unearned power, and an outdated worldview are all meaningful buzzwords on their own, but the growing weight of recent examples illustrates with particular brutality why they apply to the British monarchy. Netflix’s The Crown has hardly painted a rosy picture of their past, but even its unvarnished take can barely compare to the behaviour we’ve seen from British royals in those decades that The Crown has yet to reach. 

Reports have been made of racism – both systemic and shockingly personal – towards even members of the royal family itself. Prince Andrew has managed of late to transform himself into an international personification of sleaze and deeply disturbing accusations of criminality. And in the political world, it turns out that the monarch is not nearly the impartial figurehead it had been all-too-comfortable to assume she was. Across spans of years and changes in government, we now know the royal family have had legislation tweaked, loopholes created, and exceptions carved out to further their own interests and cater to their personal and institutional tastes. As the scandals continue to grow in both their gravity and frequency, it becomes more truthfully clear why the image of inoffensive functionality was ever necessary. 

This image was not prompted by the precarity of the paradox inherent in British royalty. At this point, I don’t believe there ever was such a paradox. The idea of this human-institution paradox besetting the Queen is an appealing one, certainly, for those whose perspective or privilege has allowed them to avoid dwelling on it (and I say that as someone who did not until recently dwell on it myself). It is an idea that rejects having a person as head of state, a person who will inevitably be or become a politician of some description; an agenda-driven person of ambition who cannot, despite any good intentions or spin, help but become part of the political melee in some shape or form. Instead, it proposes to have a monarch as head of state: not a person so much as an embodiment of the state itself, someone who rejects their personhood in favour of their duty and their country. 

But, as obvious as this may sound, the Queen is just a person. They all are. She could not suspend or reject her personhood any more than she could prove that God had genuinely chosen her and her alone to do so. Perhaps she is better than most at setting aside her own feelings and biases, and perhaps that is to her credit, but the scandals listed above are very much down to the flaws of human beings. It is the institution – a greater, cultural thing than just the Queen herself – that prevents those scandals from having consequences for the people involved.

And so if a monarch is not really an institution and a person at the same time, if that paradox is imaginary and the person of the monarch is distinct from the institution of the monarchy, then the problem is much deeper. To this way of thinking, the monarch can be changed easily enough, but the institution of the monarchy has roots that penetrate beyond palatial walls and into many of the core aspects of British culture. It is an institution that moulds royal children mercilessly into human branches of government and quashes those who will not fit. It pervades the British press who, convinced of this imaginary paradox, report family drama about baby names and obscure micro-breaches of protocol as national news. And it perpetuates the estates and traditions and privileges that continue to shield their beneficiaries from legal and political consequences. So long as these things are true, the monarchy will persist. 

So it is simply not possible to shrug or turn a blind, if well-meaning, eye to the issue of abolition of the monarchy just because of its incumbent’s apparent competence and neutrality. Whatever genuine qualities she may have, the fact is that the Queen herself is not the problem: the monarchy and all the vagaries of British culture that sustain it are. Indeed, in some ways, the royals themselves are more trapped by their status than the rest of us. But if you are horrified at the reported behaviour of some of the royal family’s members, if you are outraged by the impunity and exemptions they enjoy, and if you are eternally frustrated with the puerile and hysterical reporting of the British press on British royalty, then republicanism is an imperative. Nothing short of a republic will be sufficient to end these problems, and so for the sake of the whole country, its citizens, and the royal family themselves, the monarchy itself must end.