Among people of my generation and political proclivity, monarchism is generally viewed as a reactionary position. Many of my peers find the Royal Family a deeply embarrassing institution: an expensive, undemocratic relic of empire.
To many, a left-wing monarchist is a contradiction in terms and it’s easy to see why. As a leftist, I believe that the state should promote greater social equality and exert some control over corporations to prevent the exploitation of ordinary people. The monarch, on the other hand, is a person who has been elevated above everyone else—even above the democratically elected government and the people it serves, neither of whom have the power to choose who wears the crown. Indeed, the people are forced to financially support the monarch, whether they like it or not.
Whether the monarchy costs more than it generates in revenue is a contested issue. In 2022, the Sovereign Grant cost the UK taxpayer £102.4 million (approximately 1p per person per day)—money that could have gone towards public services like the NHS. However, some have argued that the monarchy is an asset, rather than a drain on UK finances. By some estimates, admission to the royal residences alone generates approximately £49.8 million per year. Brand Finance valued the monarchy’s total contribution to the country’s economy in 2017 at £1.766 billion.
Most people in Britain don’t seem to care about these calculations, anyway. As of May 2022, 62% of British people across all age groups supported the monarchy, while only 22% wanted an elected head of state. (Admittedly, this poll was taken before the death of Queen Elizabeth II, an exceptionally popular sovereign.)
But it is neither the popularity nor the profitability of monarchy that makes me a monarchist. I believe that the Crown—far from being an impediment to British democracy—is a vital component of it. Parliamentary monarchy is a highly stable model of government that ensures that supreme power can never be attained by political means.
In a 1944 article, George Orwell argues that the existence of a monarchy acts “as an escape-valve for dangerous emotions” and “may have an inoculating effect” against fascism. In a parliamentary monarchy, Orwell points out—unlike in a republic—political and symbolic power are separate. This means that political leaders can never attain any of the glory that a dictator might claim. Instead, any leader-worship is directed towards a figure whose power is largely symbolic.
In a republic, it is possible for a single political party or autocratic leader to take total control of a nation through democratic means and to then maintain that control indefinitely, through chicanery or force. Donald Trump’s attempt to lead an insurrection against American democracy in January 2021 only failed because of the strength of America’s governmental institutions. Had he been elected to a second term in office and been able to increase his influence, perhaps the White House could have become more like the Kremlin: the palace of a tyrant. Many republics have been hijacked by autocrats: all it requires is that the dictator obtain a majority of the vote in at least one election, or control of the electoral system.
It is difficult to imagine such a scenario happening in a constitutional monarchy like the UK, in which the government is subordinate to the monarch, over whom it is difficult to exert political influence. One cannot easily bribe someone who is already afforded every possible luxury, and who feels a personal responsibility to his or her nation. A king or queen is neither elected nor appointed but attains the position through birth (and therefore cannot be easily deposed). This makes it much harder for a demagogue to become head of state.
The power afforded to the monarch by royal prerogative is considerable—even though it is almost never used. The monarch can declare war, award honours, grant pardons and prorogue or dissolve parliament. In practice, the government and the judiciary make all the decisions pertaining to legislation and policy and the participation of the crown is merely symbolic—but the symbolism is important. King Charles III is involved in the process of approving parliamentary legislation, through a convention known as Royal Assent, which grants him a veto right. Although no monarch has refused assent to a government bill since the Scottish Militia Bill of 1708, the King’s ability to override legislation or dissolve government in a crisis has been historically important and remains a crucial bulwark against political extremism.
We saw this in action during the Second World War. It was Italy’s King Emmanuel III who dismissed Mussolini and ordered his arrest. King Christian X acted as a symbol of resistance to Nazism during the German occupation of Denmark, riding defiantly through the streets of Copenhagen without a guard. He also funded the evacuation of Denmark’s Jews to neighbouring Sweden, where they were safer from deportation to concentration camps.
It is no coincidence that many of the most successful nations are constitutional monarchies. Spain, Holland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden are all stable democracies, whose citizens enjoy high standards of living and transparent governments. It is unclear how these countries would benefit from becoming republics, given how well their governments function under their current systems.
Clement Attlee—probably the greatest Labour prime minister in the party’s history—argued that “the monarchy binds together men and women of peoples diverse in race, religion and environment.” The outpouring of grief at the death of Queen Elizabeth II was testament to the monarchy’s continuing power to provide a sense of civic pride and national unity. It is hard to imagine how a parliamentary republic could replicate this.
Of course, the British Royal Family is far from perfect. Prince Andrew has brought shame upon the Palace, and the Harry and Meghan debacle has raised questions about the family’s internal politics. But arguably these colourful scandals are part of the appeal. Rather than a faceless bureaucrat or a stern general, we have the head of a family at the head of our country. And what’s family without a healthy dose of dysfunction?
How do you feel about Spain becoming a constitutional monarchy after the death of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco?
The great freedom & great power Charles possessed/enjoyed as a prince is finished
Not only will Charles’s reign not even come close to the amount of time his mom ruled for but he will also never gain her level of popularity
Well said. Though it’s all been said many times before, people need reminding of why an institution that, on it’s face, is the opposite of democracy yet is the final guarantor of democracy.
William Fear’s is actually a fairly familiar pragmatic defense of constitutional monarchy as a helpful safeguard of liberal institutions.