“God Save the People” – Why Republics Matter

It’s probably drastically understating things to say September was a rough month for the United Kingdom. The nation welcomed its fourth prime minister in six years (and it’s third consecutive to assume power without a general election), whose first major policy act was to fight inflation by increasing the country’s purchasing power through tax cuts. This move was so widely condemned (when the IMF is concerned about your tax cut, you know something’s gone wrong) that the pound fell to its lowest value ever and sent British markets into a tailspin. On top of it all, Queen Elizabeth II died.

I can’t say I’m an avid royal watcher. In fact, I consider it not only my intrinsic right as an American to happily ignore British royalty, but something akin to civic duty to do so. Tens of thousands of my countrymen of a past generation died so the United States could exist without paying attention or homage or anything to the British Crown. But, for better or worse, the Queen commanded attention. Widely respected in her own country as the longest reigning monarch in British history, the Queen was the only point of stability for a country that has undergone incredible change since she took the throne, from major imperial power to the first nation to leave the European Union. Elizabeth’s reputation varied wildly across the world, of course — in particular, nations that were once part of the British Empire bear the Crown no affection — but she is of unquestionable historical importance. 

Of course, as monarchies go, the death of one monarch means the ascension of another, in this case King Charles III. Charles’ impending and surely phenomenally expensive coronation, though, raises the question of the continuation of the monarchy. (Here, it’s worth a historical note that the coronation of the last King Charles marked the end of the last serious attempt to form an English republic.) Why exactly does this institution still exist? Why in the world are people in Wellington, New Zealand, for example, still officially subjects of a monarch living a world away in London? Why is a country that counts as part of its intellectual heritage some of the foremost democratic theorists in history — John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Edmund Burke to name a few — still the world’s most recognizable monarchy?

I’m not sure I get a say as a citizen of a country that ditched the British monarchy long ago, but I’m an avid anti-monarchist. It’s not so much that the monarchy is archaic or antiquated — although, to be clear, it is — but that it rests on a fundamentally flawed principle. Simply put, the institution does not do what its defenders say it does. 

Most arguments for the monarchy’s persistence essentially boil down to “it’s cool.” The great Walter Bagehot, author of the closest thing the United Kingdom has to a constitution, described the monarchy as the central “dignified” element of the British system. Essentially, the monarchy’s function is to convey legitimacy and authority, engendering the trust of the public. For which, read “Everday people will think this is really awe-inspiring and neat.” The monarchy endows the British government with prestige; as head of state, the monarch is the state personified, the figurehead of a nation. Their elevated status endows the other parts of the British government with authority they would not otherwise have, Bagehot argues. Because the monarchy is cool, then, the British government can more effectively govern. 

Don’t know about you, but Bagehot looks to me like he could be the dignified element all by himself

In a sense it is cool that the monarchy is still active. It’s kinda nifty to walk through the streets of London and think of yourself as walking through a real-life royal city, seat of the kingdom, heart of an empire. But “coolness” does not equate to “a good idea.” The monarchy is cool nowadays precisely because it’s quaint, it’s outdated. It’s rustic. It’s like going for a horse-and-buggy ride or chopping down your own Christmas tree or using a BlackBerry. The attraction of the monarchy now is because it’s something out of another time. 

If the monarchy and all its trappings amounted to something like a 17th-century theme park (“Come and get your Queen bobblehead here! Only fifteen Queen bucks! Or free with your Royal Windsor pass!”), the monarchy might be able to persist in the background as a kind of harmless institution, only attracting occasional curiosity or being an amusing diversion. (It might end up like the British version of college football.) Rituals, however, mean something. They have a language, they signify, they proclaim. What, then, do the rituals of the monarchy proclaim?

If the British monarch is the state personified, the rituals of monarchy signify an attachment to nobility, tradition, and heritage over equality of persons. As some defenders claim, the royal family does tie the British state of the twenty-first century to its past, but that simple appeal to history glosses over whether or not that past is worth being elevated by royal ritual. Among many other undemocratic parts of British history, the monarchy encodes a deeply-rooted class division in British society. Landed gentry, hereditary nobility, and wealth inequality are all prominent parts of British history that are at odds with recognizing the basic moral equality of individuals needed for a democratic society. 

The monarchy of today reinforces this classist history. The royal family is elevated, but their elevated status is unattainable. If you don’t have royal blood, you never will. You can hope for a royal marriage (though these, uh, don’t exactly have great track records), but that’s about all. They are different than you. They are higher. They have authority over you. The people you vote for don’t rule in your name, but in theirs. 

The problem with Bagehot’s argument is he gets it precisely backwards. Political authority isn’t granted top-down, but rather bottom-up. In the British model, democracy is merely instrumentarian, a means by which the kingdom is governed. Governments are formed in the monarch’s name and oaths are sworn to them. Despite the monarch having no role in the process of selecting the Prime Minister, the head of government meets with them on a weekly basis. The Cabinet rules with the monarch’s authority. Analogized to the US context, this is akin to Congress passing its regulatory authority to executive agencies, with the key difference being the ultimate source of authority. In Britain, that source of authority is the royal family, whereas in the US, it is the electorate. At a constitutional level, the British system fails to recognize the most basic tenet of democracy — that political power derives from the people. A system that elevates and ritualizes the inverse of that basic truth is fundamentally undemocratic. 

That they have to open Parliament says it all

On the face of it, this may seem like a distinction without a difference. The UK functions democratically, so what does it matter whether or not they are one nominally? The issue with an instrumentarian democracy is that democracy is a fairly poor means of doing much at all. Democratic processes are slow, laborious, and inefficient. They may include more voices and in theory represent more slices of the electorate, but as the histories of many democracies reveal there are always huge segments of the population excluded. Perhaps democracy produces better policies than the alternative because of greater representation, but it’s equally plausible that democracy, if poorly structured or applied, actually leads to worse policies and outcomes than might an aristocratic or autocratic system where expertise carries the day. And in a time of crisis, such as war or a pandemic? Democratic rules and norms often snap because by the time normal processes would play out, the damage done would be irreparable. If we want “effective” governance in the sense of “well-functioning” governance, then we should look to any system but democracy. 

The argument for democratic governance rather rests on the intrinsic value of empowering the people to govern themselves. Democracy is a moral imperative rather than a political one. In exchange for the loss of expediency, democratic governments gain legitimacy and recognize the equality of the persons being governed. Democratic governments are only “effective” insofar as they bring people into the body of the nation, give them a voice and a share of responsibility, and empower them in the political structure that will shape their lives. And yes, they give whatever apparatus that democracy uses as an instrument for governance authority. That moral imperative for democracy is why the monarchy has to go — ruling in the name of the monarch is a substantive difference from ruling in the name of the people. 

A cynical reading of the current British political structure might come to the not all that far-fetched conclusion that democracy is the monarchy’s cover for its continued existence. It is how the masses are placated, the bread crumbs given to the British people in exchange for their continued toleration of the monarchy. By allowing the people a say in the running of the country, the British crown endures. All the practical power rests in the House of Commons, sure, but this is hardly an argument that the crown recognizes the intrinsic importance of democracy. Might it be that the reason for the existence of British democratic norms is that if the royal structure claimed any more power it would result in the end of the royal structure altogether? Leaving aside whether or not any given royal would be good at governing a nation, in theory it would be much more efficient to simply give the power to rule directly to one person, assisted by capable advisors. No debating, no voting, no elections — just decisions, swiftly and concisely. If, as Bagehot argues, the monarchy exists to empower the efficient methods of governing the country, one has to wonder why the monarchy bothers with democratic inefficiencies at all if it isn’t to maintain itself. 

Ironically, it might be Bagehot himself that, inadvertently, offers the best argument for abolishing the institution he defended so vocally over a century and a half ago. Bagehot writes with such bald-faced contempt for the British public that one wonders if he wasn’t secretly French by birth. Referring to his countrymen as “poor and stupid” and “the vacant many,” Bagehot argues that the monarchy is necessary because the British people cannot be trusted to function in a democracy. In his day, there were elections and representatives, but only the privileged could vote — the monarchy existed to invest the elected institutions that were run by the few with the authority conveyed by royalty. The monarchy was what most people saw as the institution that ran the country — it is almost explicitly a deceptive institution. The problem with applying Bagehot’s argument to today, though, is that no one has been deceived for a very long time. No one alive today, except perhaps the very young, believes that Queen Elizabeth or King Charles actually do any governing. The British political press rightly focuses on the prime minister, the cabinet, Parliament — where the real power lies. There’s no more “dignified” chicanery that keeps the uneducated masses in check. With the spread of the franchise and the greater availability of information, better education, and more direct access to the consequences of political decisions, the British public is far better equipped to govern in their own name today. 

If only Bagehot had heard of the BBC

Although class inequalities persist in Britain, they are nowhere near the formal class structure of centuries past. There is a basic equality among Britons now that was lacking in Bagehot’s day. It was still wrong to demean and disenfranchise the public when Bagehot wrote, but there was a practical case for the monarchy as a way to prevent a form of democracy with potentially disastrous consequences. To some extent, those potential consequences are still there, but their possibility is drastically reduced with an educated public and available information. With the practical case now clearly against the monarchy, there’s even less reason to persist with the institution’s immorality. Why not explicitly give ownership of the British state to the British public? Why not abolish the rituals that uphold the class system and undermine democratic equality?

States are public things whether we acknowledge them to be or not. But acknowledgement is itself an empowering act. When we all collectively say we have a stake in the running of a nation, and it’s not the responsibility of a monarch chosen through heredity, we are all empowered to act as more responsible citizens. And that’s important. 

Love live the republic. 

– EC

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