The Real Reason Why Britain Still Has a Monarchy

If you were designing, or aiming to design, the perfect form of government from scratch, then the verdict on monarchy (in whatever form it came) would be, to cite an old Irish cliché, ‘I wouldn’t start from here.’  Whatever view you take of Meghangate, and its ongoing outworkings, there is no easy way to defend a system where the job of Head of State is reserved for just one family.  I don’t know the full details of what was said by whoever in the Firm to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and frankly I don’t particularly care.  It’s all a distraction, not only from the much bigger question about Prince Andrew’s links with the late Jeffrey Epstein, but also from the even bigger issue still of why these people are still there, in those publicly-funded palaces, continuing to wield power and influence way beyond their skills and talent.

Why are they still here? (pic: Carfax2)

I realise that this is an unpopular position to take, given that poll after poll, even in difficult times, has revealed a majority of Britain’s population are still happy to hold on to their monarchy.  If your idea of your country’s most important political office being the sole property of one family of dubiously talented individuals whose idea of hard work is to cut ribbons, pull curtains, ask strangers ‘What do you do?‘ and pretend to be genuinely interested in the answer, and then wave at people in a way that looks like they’re screwing and unscrewing an invisible light bulb, then good for you.  What can I say?  I guess I’m one of those party poopers who would much prefer a more grown-up system of government for the country I love.

The simple truth is that what are claimed by monarchists to be self-evident advantages about their beloved system are in fact myths, and ones that are fairly easy to demolish.  

“Having a monarch unites the people” – And having an elected head of state doesn’t?  The vast majority of the inhabitants of the Republic of Ireland are happy with their President: Michael D Higgins has won two straight presidential contests in the Republic of Ireland, the second one by a greatly increased majority.  He was preceded by two equally popular holders of the office: Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, and they enjoyed high approval ratings throughout their terms.  And just how naturally “unifying” is the idea of a monarchy, anyway?  Since the end of the Second World War there have been eight monarchy referendums in Europe (the most recent of them taking place in Albania in 1997), and five of those polls have supported either the abolition of the country’s monarchy or the continuation of its republic.  More recently, polls conducted in Brazil in 2019 and Russia in 2017 showed support for the restoration of those countries’ monarchies at 32% and 6% respectively.

“The Royal Family work very hard for the nation” – That depends on how you define the term “working hard”.  Most of us know what real hard work involves, as we have to get up early each morning, travel to work, do a diligent job, and then travel back home, go to bed and set our alarms to get ready for the next day’s work – and most of us would argue that we are not paid nearly enough for the hard work that we do.  What does royal “work” consist of?  A typical Engagement (or visit) to [insert location here] lasts about an hour, and consists of [insert Windsor family member here] meeting people, saying hello, shaking hands, cutting ribbons or opening curtains, and of course, waving in that weird way… Prince Charles, judged in one news release to be the hardest-working member of the Royal Family, did 521 engagements in 2019, which means he worked 521 hours across 12 months – the equivalent of working around 74.5 days, or four months of full-time work per year.  For that, Charles is paid £20 million a year, or £38,000 an hour.  And he’s the hardest-working member…

“The monarchy brings in a lot of tourists” – Presumably, then, this is why republics like the United States, France, and Switzerland never get any tourists… Of the UK’s ten most popular tourist attractions in 2019, just two of them were royal palaces (the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace).  In any case, it’s hardly as if the Windsor family are clambering over themselves to welcome tourists anyhow: before Lockdown, Buckingham Palace was open to the public only for ten weeks every year (and even then, most of the building was off-limits to visitors), and Clarence House was open for just one month per year.  Moreover, in 1981 and 1986, two years that saw the respective weddings of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew – two major royal events – the UK’s tourist revenue actually went down.  And even if the myth were true, it would hardly be the most logical way of running a country: four years ago the country’s top tourist attraction was the British Museum, so under that way of thinking the natural choice for head of state would have been the Museum’s Board Chairman, Sir Richard Lambert… which leads neatly on to the next myth…

“So, would you rather have President Johnson?  President Corbyn?  President Blair?” – The answer to this is pretty easy: Yes, if that is what a majority of eligible voters want!  That is how democracy works: a free and fair election is held, whoever wins a majority of valid votes wins, and everybody accepts the result.  Whenever you hear that alleged rhetorical question, the subtext always seems to be: the British voting public are too stupid to make an informed choice as to whom they want to represent them on the world stage.  Apart from anything else, it sounds very unpatriotic: monarchists like to imagine that only they are the true patriots, and yet by making the “President Boris” argument they are really doing Britain down.   We live in an amazing country, and there is a wealth of educated and informed talent here to choose from: anyone, whether political or not, should be able to stand for election as head of state, regardless of which womb they came out of – and who said that a president in a parliamentary republic (which we would become) had to be a party politician anyway?  By the by, on the patriotic point, many of England’s monarchs have arguably been guilty of treason or near-treason: Sweyn Forkbeard, Canute, William I, Henry IV, Edward IV, Henry VII, and William III all came to power through foreign invasions, while Charles II and James II tried to turn the kingdom into a client state of Louis XIV of France, and Edward VIII gave Hitler the green light to remilitarize the Rhineland – had he not been forced to abdicate later the same year, goodness only knows what other deals he would have done with the Nazi dictator.

“A monarchy is cheaper than a republic” – A contributor to the RoyalCentral blog wrote in 2014 that the British monarchy had, the previous year, cost £35.7 million – which, the writer had helpfully calculated, worked out as 56p per person in the UK (though why the writer imagined that every single one of the UK’s 63 million inhabitants – even newborn babies – pays tax is unclear).  The contributor contrasted this figure with those for the President of France, who cost his country’s taxpayers £91 million (or £1.43 per French person, even babies), and the President of Italy who cost his people £181.5 million (£3.08 per Italian, of all ages).  Except, of course, that the £35.7 million figure is not actually accurate.  The Republic campaign group’s 2017 Royal Finance Report put the annual figure at around £345 million – nearly ten times the figure claimed by that RoyalCentral writer (and confirmed by David McClure, author of The Queen’s True Worth).  This figure includes the official Sovereign Grant (£79 million), royal security (around £103 million per year – for protecting 19 royal residences, royal visits, personal private journeys, and overseas visits), maintenance of the Duchies of Lancaster (£69 million) and Cornwall (£25 million), local council spending on royal visits (around £22 million), Lords Lieutenants (£2.2 million), government departments and Crown estates spending (£3.8 million), the royal households’ pension scheme (£2.3 million), and the Royal Trust surplus (£2.6 million).  Suddenly an Italian- or French-style presidency seems quite cost-effective by contrast…  Republic’s CEO Graham Smith insists, though, that the figures do not, by themselves, tell the whole story:

The total cost of the Monarchy is not the problem – it is a symptom of the problem, and that problem is an unaccountable, secretive, hereditary institution that knows it can get away with spending our money like it’s their own… The Monarchy doesn’t live up to, or represent the values most of us believe in.  It doesn’t just cost us hundreds of millions of pounds that could be better spent on schools and hospitals, it also costs us the opportunity to celebrate those real values of equality and democracy, and to freely and fairly elect our own head of state.

Of course, both Mr Smith and myself know that we are in a minority: in the most recent poll, published by the Daily Mail six days ago, 29% of those questioned supported the idea of a British republic, compared to 50% of those surveyed wanting to keep the Monarchy.  What is more, I suspect that the reasons for this are nothing to do with the easily debunkable myths about the monarchy. 

Maybe the concepts of War and Peace have had something to do with it: the history of the last century shows that major military conflicts tend to be bad news for monarchies, especially if the countries in question end up losing the war.  The First World War put paid to the monarchies of Russia, Germany, the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire, while the Second World War did so for the monarchies of Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria.  Albania’s self-made monarch King Zog had fled for his life when Mussolini invaded his country in 1939, and when the communists under Enver Hoxha seized power in Tirana at the end of the War they saw no reason to restore him.  Though Italy had changed sides in the War, the Savoy family’s closeness to the Fascist dictatorship resulted in their ejection from the country in a referendum in 1946.  The UK had not only been on the winning side in both wars, but had also escaped military occupation both times.  The Dutch, Danish and Norwegian royal families identified themselves with their countries’ resistance movements during the German occupation, and so survived.  The Belgian royal family, on the other hand, were very lucky to keep their kingdom in the 1950 referendum – though King Leopold III’s near-treasonous defiance of his own government’s orders to join them in leaving the country when Hitler had invaded led to his government booting him off the throne in 1951.  

Another catalyst for a republican revolution can be a monarchy’s association with unpopular, overly oppressive government, as was the case with Portugal in 1910, Spain in 1931, Greece in 1974 and Nepal in 2008.  Maybe, then, republicans’ best hopes lie in the UK either losing a major war and/or the Windsor family attaching itself to an incredibly bad government.  To recycle an already overly-made point, ten years ago very few people could have predicted Brexit or Trump, so who knows what the next decade will have in store…

In the meantime, the Royal Family appear to be here to stay.  We know that they don’t work hard, they’re not worth our taxes, they’re not the Best of Britain, they are a drain on our resources, and they certainly haven’t earned the right to monopolize the role of Head of State.  Even monarchists like Stephen Fry concede that the monarchy is ‘absurd, unjust and outdated.’  Perhaps a better focus for those of us keen on proper political reform in our country might be to push for us to join the rest of the world (apart from that bastion of freedom and democracy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) in having a written constitution – though, with our present government seeking to distance itself from the rest of the world in just about every way, that isn’t looking particularly likely for quite a few years.

Finally, those who only last week were calling Meghangate the Monarchy’s Biggest Crisis Since The Abdication were, of course, going over the top.  Exactly the same thing was said about Princess Diana’s Panorama interview of 1995, and her sudden death two years later – and the institution survived both those episodes.  In both cases, the personal traumas of both Diana and Meghan were treated as entertainment rather than crises.  I suspect that more than a few monarchist news consumers feel at least a degree of schadenfreude whenever a royal scandal is hitting the headlines.  As long as the Windsors continue to provide useful copy and gossip for our journalists, and stay just the right side of unacceptable controversy, they will almost certainly remain safe.  There you have it, then: the real reason why, in the 21st Century, we still have a monarchy.  The Royal Family are still with us because, to paraphrase the late humorist Alan Coren, in news terms, they give us a lot of fun…