The monarchy - necessary or not?
Look at any British postage stamp. You will see the monarch’s head, but no mention of the name of the country. This is an indication of the place of “the crown” in British constitutional thinking: the crown stands for the state, and the king or queen personifies the crown. The government is officially “Her Majesty’s government” and the opposition is “Her Majesty’s Opposition”. But what exactly is the role of the monarch in Britain of the 21st century?
The monarchy is undoubtedly an important institution in British political life. We can see why by looking, first, at the monarch’s functions, and secondly at her symbolic role.
The formal functions of the monarch
She or he (but we shall here use “she”) has a role in the political life of the nation. She opens and dissolves parliament. She gives her assent to all legislation by signing parliamentary bills so they become law. She asks someone to be prime minister after a general election. She has a weekly audience with the prime minister.
This role is neutral. The monarch stands above politics and has to be careful to be non-partisan. She has, in fact, by law, the right to take a more active role – to refuse to sign new legislation, for example, but by convention she never makes use of this right. When the queen opens the new session of parliament each year she reads a speech saying what the government wants to do, but she has not written it – the prime minister has. She does not make her opinions known on political issues. Queen Elizabeth II has been very careful to tread a correct path here.
The only area where the monarch’s role could be unclear, and controversial, is when she has to decide who to send for to ask to be prime minister (see p. 173). Generally speaking, however, the monarch’s political functions today are formal and visible, but extremely weak. Indeed this very weakness puts her completely above party politics and is, many would say, a source of strength because it allows her to play a larger role as a national symbol. It is this role we shall now briefly examine.
The monarch’s symbolic role
The queen is head of state. She represents the United Kingdom at home and abroad in dozens of ways, from welcoming visiting heads of state and prime ministers to visiting small industrial redevelopment centres. The monarch is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the allegiance of Britain’s armed forces is to the monarch.
In times of crisis the monarch can be a focus of the nation’s energies. This was most clear during the Second World War, when the king and queen stayed in London throughout the blitz. Moreover, the royal family is careful to show it is as interested in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as in England, although visits to Northern Ireland have been infrequent in recent years because of security considerations. As Britain experiences devolution so the role of the monarch as a focus for the whole nation may become more important.
The royal family is also the most famous family in the country. In the 20th century it tried to set a good example of family life. This task proved impossible. The change in their attitude to divorce is the clearest sign of this. In the 1950s the queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, did not marry the man she loved because he was divorced. Later that same sister herself got divorced, as did three of the queen’s children. You could say that the norms of society changed and that the royal family simply changed with them; harsher critics would say that the royal family at times resembles a poorly directed soap opera.
The royal family is part of the social elite of England: their children go to exclusive boarding schools; the male adults play elitist minority sports like polo; some of them go fox-hunting; they go to expensive ski resorts in the Alps. On the other hand, members of this family work hard. In a single year it is not unusual for the royal family to have over 3,500 official engagements in Britain and abroad.
Critics and supporters
Critics of the monarchy want a republic. Why? They maintain that:
- The head of state should be elected in a democratic country.
- The royal family is elitist.
- It is a very expensive institution.
- Its functions are meaningless because they are formal and automatic. A robot could do them – perhaps less gracefully but just as effectively.
- The royal family has failed in its mission to set a good example in family life and private morals.
Not so, say the defenders of the monarchy. In their view:
- A non-elected head of state is above politics and represents everyone in a way an elected President could never match.
- The queen helps countless charities and good causes.
- The monarchy is cheap at its price, and, through its promotion of Britain abroad, actually earns the nation money.
- The monarchy’s popularity justifies its survival.