The case for a constitutional monarchy: a response

6 Sep 2017

The hardiest of all political perennials is the debate about abolishing Britain’s monarchy.


We political junkies have to wade into the swamp of this debate so frequently that we keep a pair of wellington boots specifically for it. Contrary to the claim made by Cameron McIntosh in his article (which, it must be said, is highly readable), Britain is much better off under a monarchy.


Those of us who believe Britain should remain a constitutional monarchy are often accused of being excessively reverential of tradition. Mr McIntosh describes this as ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ school of thought. Yet, in a country with a common law legal system and unwritten constitution, tradition must be recognised as the most powerful argument against seismic, revolutionary political change.


As Roger Scruton writes, ‘In discussing tradition, we are not discussing arbitrary rules and conventions. We are discussing answers that have been discovered to enduring questions... Though the stock of reason in each individual is small, there is an accumulation of reason in society that we question and reject at our peril.’ Generations of Britons asked, ‘How do we structure our political system so that we preserve stability, guarantee prosperity, and allow the voice of the people to be heard?’ A constitutional monarchy was the answer. Though imperfect, the British constitution currently manages to fulfil all of those requirements.


Our constitutional monarchy was not dictated from above; it evolved from below, as a result of incremental change over centuries.  A Republican constitution for Britain, however, would necessarily have to be imposed from above. When this has been tried by new regimes, the results are never good. Too often, the creation of a new constitution is a power-grab; it is unfailingly the imposition of a too-inflexible system on an unwilling population.


The author of the piece even suggests elevating the Prime Minister to a new presidential position. This is massively flawed. Walter Bagehot famously divided the constitution into the ‘dignified’ and the ‘efficient’, which operate as two discrete hemispheres of government; one being regal, the other conducting day-to-day business. To make a president of the PM would smudge the dividing line between the dignified and the efficient, thus erasing the veneer of stately authority cultivated by the monarch.


I could write another piece called ‘The case against a British Republic’. The whole article would be precisely two words long: ‘President Blair.’


The author of the article in question is also concerned about the extensive powers belonging to the sovereign, writing, ‘Despite the relative inactivity of the monarchy as an instrument of government, the crown continues to hold substantial powers… including the ability to make treaties and deploy armed forces.’ This is quite true: theoretically, the monarch can employ a vast arsenal of executive powers as part of the Royal Prerogative. In practice, however, the Queen scarcely uses these powers as the Royal Prerogative is exercised by ministers.


A scenario in which the monarch refuses to give Royal Assent to an Act of Parliament is practically inconceivable. The Queen could only do so a) on the advice of ministers, or b) delaying Royal Assent by using reserve powers, which would only occur in extremis.  In short, although the monarch possesses impressive executive powers, these are exercised by ministers who are accountable to Parliament, not by the Queen herself. Fears of royal tyranny are decidedly overblown.


Pointing to the £370 million refurbishment of Buckingham Palace, and a research paper conducted by the British republican campaign, the author claims that the monarchy is poor value for money. It seems somewhat lacklustre to assess our constitution by its contribution to the Inland Revenue; nevertheless, even on this minor issue, a constitutional monarchy comes out on top. Each taxpayer pays £1.33 per year to the upkeep of the monarchy. When profits from the Crown Estates and intangible revenue generated by tourism are taken into consideration, the monarchy more than pays its way.


‘A country which professes to believe in democratic values has its head of state decided not by merit, but by the lottery of birth,’ writes the author of ‘The unpopular case for a British Republic’. It’s worth pointing out that Britain is a representative democracy – the population does not decide every issue – from finance to the armed forces – via referendum. We elect MPs to vote on our behalf, whilst supporting or opposing a government. With that in mind, we must ask: is there a contradiction between a representative democracy and a constitutional monarchy? I do not think so. I’ve mentioned that the monarch cannot prevent bills becoming laws; since the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the monarch cannot even dissolve Parliament and call a fresh election. There’s nothing contradictory about believing in both monarchy and democracy.


The inexorable pursuit of total democracy at full throttle, whilst born of decent intentions, would do immeasurable, irremediable damage to the stability of Britain, especially when it leads to us pulling out every constitutional lynchpin standing in the way of the tyranny of the majority.


Like an ancient oak, the British constitution has grown over centuries – imperfectly, with many gnarled and twisted branches –into an impressive structure; many tumultuous storms have broken against its unyielding branches and mighty trunk. To go inexpertly hacking at this tree, even for the best of intentions, would be a terrible mistake.

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