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Do We Really Need the Monarchy?

Posted: 03/07/2012 00:00

Cambridge University student George Danker assesses the advantages and disadvantages of the British Monarchy and questions whether its existence is ideologically acceptable in our modern democratic society.

Most people seem to be in favour of the UK remaining as a constitutional monarchy. Earlier this month, 1.2 million people defied the pouring rain to watch the Diamond Jubilee Pageant from the banks of the River Thames - that's around 15% of the population of London. A further 10million watched the Pageant on television, and the Diamond Jubilee Concert garnered the biggest television audience of the year so far. This is firmly in line with recent polls, which suggest that public support for the monarchy has never been higher; 80% of people want to keep the status quo, with only 13% saying they would rather abolish the Royal Family (Ipsos MORI).

Yet there are uncomfortable questions that remain. Why exactly are the vast majority in favour of the monarchy in this age of democracy? Has the Queen brainwashed the entire nation? Economically, there seems to be no need for a monarch. The Sovereign Grant, which will replace the Civil List from 2013, is expected to be in the region of £34 million per year, although the campaign group Republic claims that the total cost to the taxpayer is closer to £200 million. Many argue that this is merely an investment that reaps rewards for the tourism industry, but according to Visit England, none of the royal residences are in the list of England's top 20 tourist attractions. Indeed, England's most visited historic residence is the Tower of London, which is no longer run by the Crown. If the monarchy were abolished tomorrow, the economy would likely receive a boost from having Buckingham Palace and other residences fully open to fee-paying tourists.

If there is one word that the Diamond Jubilee commentators were keen to ram into the minds of the British public, then it is 'duty'. Of course, it is true that the Queen has rarely, if ever, taken a day off during her 60-year reign, and the same can be said of most of the other senior royals. Perhaps even the staunchest republicans would not deny her this accolade. Yet it is hard to understand why so many, especially those in the media, see this as a sufficient condition for holding the position of Head of State. Is the Queen the most hard-working British citizen? Unlikely. She does incredibly well for an 86-year-old with vast resources, but if Heads of State were appointed based on a sense of 'duty', my vote would go to the single mother of three who works 15 hours a day, every day, to give her children the best possible start in life without relying on government handouts. Or perhaps to the inspirational inner-city maths teacher who explains Pythagoras' Theorem by rapping about the hypotenuse.

A more subtle reason for arguing in favour of the status quo is that the alternative, becoming a republic nation, has few concrete advantages. We are already in an age of political apathy, with the most recent local election turnout percentages languishing in the low-30s. It is hard to imagine that a future president of the United Kingdom would be anyone other than a well-established mainstream politician representing one of the two major parties. This is certainly the case in many other western republics. In the end, politics would gain little from the inauguration of a President other than an extra layer of bureaucracy, and important decisions would still be made by today's political elite. The fact that the Queen is largely "irrelevant to the political process", as Republic points out, actually seems to be more of a positive than a negative - our Head of State represents the UK, not the ephemeral, often unpopular politics of the UK. She is, quite literally, the face of the nation.

However, the most common arguments for abolishing the monarchy are not economic or political - they are ideological. With an unelected Head of State, our democracy is incomplete, a notion that republicans simply cannot bear, and it is easy to understand why. It doesn't feel particularly fair that one family has privilege and millions of taxpayers' pounds thrust upon them, whilst being totally unaccountable to the outside world. Especially as the rest of us are struggling through the worst recession in living memory, it seems illogical that we might refuse the opportunity to decide which person, above all others, represents the nation. Ultimately though, the importance of full democracy is often overplayed. The world's democratically elected leaders, including presidents of republics, must be held at least partially responsible for the global downturn in standards of living. More democracy doesn't necessarily mean more prosperity. In fact, even abolishing the monarchy might not result in a truly democratic outcome (depending on your preferred definition of democracy), since around 35% of eligible voters refuse to have their say, even at General Elections.

Strangely, there seem to be few strong arguments on either side of this debate. We probably don't need to abolish the monarchy - it wouldn't really make much difference. Even if it did save £200 million per year, which seems unlikely, it would be a drop in the ocean compared to the government's cuts. Vacated royal residences would certainly attract the tourists, but many of them would have visited London anyway just to see the famous landmarks from the outside. According to Republic, the main problem with having a monarchy is that it grants "unchecked power to the central government". Well, if central government can't even place a tax on pasties without facing a major public backlash, we might not have to worry too much about that.

Perhaps the most important factor in the debate is actually the simplest one; the public feels good about the monarchy. It may well be the case that the Queen has brainwashed the entire nation - the Royal Family probably spends a lot of money on PR - but she is certainly a more revered leader than any of the current political elite. Following the lives of the royals offers a unique brand of escapism that cannot easily be replicated - it is akin to watching a real-life fairytale, or perhaps a very posh version of EastEnders. So do we really need the monarchy? Not really, but that's probably the wrong question. Whatever the reasons may be, we do like the monarchy, and that should be enough for now.

 

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