The Republican view
It is not an easy time to be a republican. With two of the most high-profile and lavish Royal ceremonies since the coronation of the Queen occurring in the last year or so, the Royal Family has been firmly and constantly in the spotlight. As the Crown Estate brings in record profits and support for a republic stays as constant (18%) in 2011 as in 1969, there seems little to no chance of the abolition of the Monarchy any time soon.
However, despite all of this, some of us still find the Monarchy to be anachronistic and based on indefensible premises. It is not harmless, in that it penetrates the psychology of all who grow up in Britain, promoting deference to authority, tradition and excessive wealth over democracy. Not only this, but it devalues all British people; it is true that we live in a democracy and that the Monarchy’s power is of little everyday importance, but the fact that we are subjects is still present and still relevant.
It is important to point out that disliking the institution of Monarchy is not the same as disliking the Queen. One of the most common objections to republicanism is that the Queen is a fine monarch, and seems like a lovely person. A cynical way of looking at this is to say that most people with the resources and state-sponsored PR that the Queen has will probably end up seeming pleasant. The Queen may well be a wonderful person (having not met her, I feel unqualified to state a view either way), but this is entirely irrelevant to the question of the legitimacy or appropriateness of the Monarchy as an institution.
The nature of Monarchy is indiscriminate; as long as you come from the right family, you will be royalty regardless of whether you are mad, bad or slightly eccentric. To defend Monarchy on the grounds of the Queen’s perceived niceness is both precarious and temporary – sooner or later, there will be a monarch who is far less pleasant.
Another common argument to keep the Monarchy is an economic one. Monarchists point to the money Britain makes from tourism due to the Queen, with thousands of foreign tourists coming to see the Royal houses and the family itself. Indeed, at the moment this would appear to be a particularly salient point, with Royal tourism boosted massively by the wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, and the Jubilee.
This argument appears to miss the point of the republican objection though. Whilst republican groups such as Republic often highlight excess expenditure on the Royal Family and the cost of their upkeep, this is not the crux of their problem with the Monarchy as an institution. Even if it were objectively possible to show that the monarchy had a significant economic impact which tangibly benefitted the nation, the reasons most republicans have for being republican would not be resolved.
The economic effect of the Monarchy is irrelevant, and to defend an unelected, hereditary head of state on the grounds that they are good for the economy is nonsense. For one thing, it assumes that what is economically beneficial is objectively and wholly worthwhile, that nothing transcends the power of sterling. Yet this is exactly what politics should do. On policy, it is crucial and substantive to discuss the economic merits of possible actions. But when we are discussing something so fundamental as our head of state, the debate should purely be about principles, the constitution and political practices.
However, whilst the points outlined above are often cited as reasons to keep the Royal Family, they do not seem to be at the heart of many people’s defence of the status quo. Most who believe the Monarchy is economically beneficial would not become republicans if the Royal Family started losing money. Those who obsess over the Queen would still line up on the Mall to see King Charles III.
It is lazy and patronising to suggest that support for the Monarchy is based on jingoistic nostalgia for the world of the empire, but it seems as though there is an aspect of monarchism which clings to the idea that Britain is in some way special. As well as this, it is true that the royal family has adapted in order to appeal to a wide variety of groups in different ways.
The case for republicanism is incredibly simple. It is based on a rejection of the notion that anyone should be a subject of another person, rather than a citizen of a nation. It is based on the belief that democracy should never be conditional, and should be given priority over tradition, that it is preferable for the head of state to be the worst politician in the land than to be unelected.
If all of this sounds a bit naive and idealistic, perhaps it is. But maybe idealism is something that is lacking from this deeply conservative debate. If we want Britain to embody the values of democracy, social justice and opportunity, we should abolish the Royal Family, who symbolise entrenched privilege and false hierarchy.
When quizzed on the monarchy, George W. Bush described the Royals as a ‘harmless, slightly odd little family’. It would be nice if a future President could one day describe a British head of state in a slightly different way.
You can read Louise Bond's defence of the monarchy here.