I’ve always considered myself a monarchist. The response to the recent death of Prince Phillip—an exceptional public servant in spite of his many and notorious gaffes—highlights the enduring popularity of the institution, and its centrality to British life. The history of the monarchy in the UK is so intrinsically bound up with that of the country itself that it can be hard to imagine how one might excise it. The Scrutonian sentiment that a good thing created with great difficulty should not be hastily destroyed springs to mind. And, in many ways, the monarchy is a very good thing.
The Crown embodies the nation in a way that no other person or institution could. The Queen is a peerless figurehead, a soothing permanence in the face of loss or difficulty and a standard bearer in victory. While they serve a similar purpose, heads of government—like the US president or the German chancellor—carry political, often partisan, baggage. As impossibly unrepresentative as she is as an individual, as the personification of the Crown, the Queen represents her constituents in a way that a politically elected officeholder does not. Whatever your political stripes, the Crown is always there to represent you.
For many, the ceremonial functions of the monarchy are a compelling reason for its perpetuation. I’m less convinced. Bastille Day, for example, lacks no pomp and ceremony for want of a monarch. Rather more important is the Crown’s role in UK government, and its embodiment of the power of the state. Our unwritten constitution, much like common law, has gradually evolved into its present state over centuries. There is much to criticise and to improve there. But the comparative stability and efficacy it has delivered are evidence that it works and works well—better than any alternative form of government. One doesn’t have to be of a conservative mindset to accept that one ought to be very careful about making fundamental changes to it.
But in spite of the monarchy’s status and strengths and the love and goodwill it engenders, there is a moral poison at its heart, which endangers its survival. Contemporary liberal principles of justice and fairness allow no room for the elevation of one family over others as a matter of birth right. This is an arbitrary way of selecting a head of state. It was tenuous even in the sixteenth century. It is wholly incompatible with modern values. So long as we remain a liberal people—and it seems likely that we shall—the Crown is existentially threatened: all it will take is a single unpopular monarch to bring the entire institution down, potentially taking a wrecking ball to our system of government at the same time.
This is where battle lines are normally drawn between monarchists and republicans. The former have no shortage of ingenious arguments in favour of the status quo, but those arguments are unable to gain any purchase against the single, overriding injustice of heredity. But there is a simple solution that doesn’t require throwing out the baby with the bathwater: a monarchy doesn’t have to be hereditary.
Prince William would make a popular monarch. So let’s elect him, or set up a commission answerable to the government to appoint him. The appointment could be for five years or ten, for a fixed term or renewable—we can sort out the specifics another day. Or we could appoint Sir David Attenborough or Stephen Fry. Any of them could perform the duties of a monarch with aplomb, serve as a figurehead, represent all the subjects of the country and Commonwealth, and epitomise our most dearly held values.
Or we could go one better, and appoint a monarch from somewhere in the Commonwealth. Imagine how thrilled Canadians would be if Wayne Gretzky or Celine Dion were appointed to the role, or Australians if we elected Hugh Jackman or Kylie Minogue. The possibilities for strengthening the Commonwealth and promoting its shared values globally are enormous.
You’ll note that none of these suggested monarchs are politicians. The ardent monarchist always recoils at the suggestion of an elected head of state because such figures seem so grey and soulless compared to royalty. This goes to the crux of what two thirds of Britons want to avoid when they tell pollsters that they would rather keep the monarchy than elect a head of state. Your average man on the street has no idea that Germany has a president, let alone who he is or what he does. But this is because ceremonial heads of state are professional politicians, not because they are elected. Given a very carefully curated shortlist of the right people, you could ensure a perpetual succession of monarchs who continue to inspire and impress in the way that Queen Elizabeth has.
Some monarchists argue that the magic is in the family itself—that it’s because the monarchy is hereditary, one family above all others, that the Crown is adored at home and abroad. This is not supported by history. The precedent for an elective monarchy in the UK goes all the way back to King John, who was elected by a council of nobles in 1199. Parliament elected a number of monarchs over the subsequent five centuries, famously culminating with the 1689 election of William of Orange. The monarchy survived all these transitions: what makes them materially different from a modern democratic transition?
The idea that tourists line up to see Buckingham Palace because the incumbent is the daughter of George VI is true only in its most literal sense. It would be a very straightforward matter for us to have all the things we love most about the monarchy, without its biggest drawback. Trading our hereditary monarchy for an elective one would allow us to retain all the monarchy’s historical and symbolic value, without any of the underlying injustice of the hereditary principle.