Seven in ten Britons support the monarchy. They shut their eyes in the face of the scandalous expenditure, prerogative influence over the legislative process, or the broader moral objection to inherited hierarchies. I must confess, though: I was one of them. I loved the Royal Family. The ceremony, the idealism, the palaces and castles – all of it was a source of national identity. But then I grew up. I re-evaluated where my priorities ought to be, where the money ought to go, and what exactly it means to be British.
So why do we have a Queen? Why does Britain cling on to this antiquated, undemocratic, unfair institution?
The regular hand-raise on the question of monarchy is the point that it doesn’t hold any real power anymore, that it’s merely ceremonial, that its pitfalls are offset by tourist attraction (and the associated income) and historical continuity. But this simply isn’t true.
Queen Elizabeth II can affect the passing of laws by abusing her power of assent . During Harold Wilson’s premiership the Queen’s advisors lobbied the Government to exempt her from following national road-safety laws. In 1982 the Queen withheld her consent from passing a bill that would establish a proto-National Heritage in fear that it would supplant her royal commission, effectively disabling Parliament from debating the proposed law at all. And a 1975 bill on the leasing of private land was threatened with the suspension of the Queen’s consent unless it was modified to be more profitable for royal estates.
Yes, the Queen can have an alarming influence on the operation of government. But nonetheless, the idea that a constitutional monarchy is a good thing because it handicaps the tyrannical capacity of the Government (as if an elected official couldn’t perform that function) is nonsense. Where was the refusal to consent to Appeasement? To Osborne’s austerity programme? The last time a queen refused royal assent on grounds that it could lead to despotism was in 1708!
And the monarchy is a huge strain on public finances. The irony of Elizabeth making a speech in 2016 urging that Britain ‘live within its means’ whilst sitting on a gold throne, wearing a diamond-emblazoned crown is not lost on me; and, after calling for financial self-denial, she left in a horse and carriage to a near-£1 billion house . This in a country where 4,266 people sleep on concrete despite 648,114 unoccupied homes being available. Public funding is taken from schools, hospitals and welfare services and given to such frivolities as royal weddings, palace renovation, and travel expenses.
More than anything else, the royal system of governance and the role of the royals within the British State does not work. Who would ever want to be a royal? A life confined to public service without hope of escape. (At least without hope of an escape that comes free of press bullying, as media attitudes towards Harry and Meghan have sadly shown). No one can expect a head of State to be imbued with that much personal significance – literal sanctification – or that much responsibility, and expect them not to also buckle under the pressure. George III went mad for a reason. We, the British, dehumanise and fetishise the Royal Family, reducing their personalities to fashion choices and sex; coverage of royal births always has an invasive, scrutinous air. Part of me feels sorry that Elizabeth was thrust into this role involuntarily; another part feels angry that this is where money that could be spent on running the country goes.
We see therefore that the existence of the Royal Family makes absolutely no rational sense. However, beyond practical, rational concerns, the monarchy taps into an ideal of Britishness. And it is this conceptual standard, this idea of royalty, that provides the reason for why Britain still has a queen.
Because some people benefit from a Britishness that is rooted in the past; maybe to make up for it, maybe to recreate it. Because the glimmer of the crown jewels reflects a desire to be close to power and to fame. This, I think, explains why the nation seems so infatuated with the externalities of the royal persona. They are celebrities, and proximity to them is proximity to repute.
The trouble is that this version of Britishness is constructed; it has no ontological existence. It is simply a means by which to internalise unfair social and power relations. The upset over Meghan Markle’s inclusion in the Royal Family is a convergence of the depersonalisation of princesses and a construction of Britishness that is tied to skin colour. Journalist Rachel Johnson, sister of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wrote that Markle could bring ‘exotic DNA’ to the Windsor bloodline.
Where do the material and political interests of the majority of the population lie? They lie in things like affordable housing, job creation, the funding of social services, the NHS and the wider welfare state – things common to British and non-British citizens alike. The monarchy is part of a system that is persuasive because of this false identity but is fundamentally antithetical to the common interests of most people.
Abolish the monarchy, abandon its prestige. The Queen serves a symbolic function, but that symbol is useless and empty today. If we are to progress, to fix Britain, to make it a kinder place, we cannot accept the extension of ancestral authority. The Queen must go.