Queen Elizabeth II is the world’s longest-reigning living monarch, and this month the UK will celebrate her Platinum Jubilee with a series of events to commemorate her accession to the throne 70 years ago.
As a person who has given her entire life to public service, she has earned widespread respect among a significant part of the population. Add to this the instinctive high regard which people naturally have for their elders (she is now an increasingly frail 95-year-old, but still working) and it is not difficult to see how she is admired for her devotion to duty.
She was just 25 when she became Queen automatically after the death of her father. At the same time, she became head of state for 54 countries that were formerly part of the British Empire. Even today some remain Commonwealth realms, an imperial hangover unique to former colonies or dependencies.
These realms range from the tiny palm-fringed South Pacific islands of Tuvalu, population below 12,000, to large states like Australia and Canada with total populations of more than 60 million. Their parliamentarians even take an oath of allegiance to the Queen, and not to the people they represent. Many of the royal ceremonial and constitutional duties are performed by viceroys and governors in her absence. Neocolonialism, anyone?
When she dies, it is possible that the goodwill surrounding the Queen will die with her. For many Britons – subjects, remember, not citizens – support for the Queen is unquestionably tied in with support for the monarchy. But will it remain the same after she dies?
Public feelings about the royals are less generous. Prince Charles was irreparably damaged by his adultery both during and after his marriage to Princess Diana. Prince Andrew has been ruined by association with the convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and the civil proceedings he faces for allegedly sexually abusing a minor. Prince William was damaged by falling out with his younger brother Harry, amid allegations of racism within the wider royal household.
In 2021, a YouGov poll found 81 percent of Britons over 65s want the monarchy to remain, but 41 percent of 18 to 24-year-old people in the UK want an elected head of state. People are less deferential than they used to be.
The monarchy of course is more than a dysfunctional family. It is an institution, that for many, defines Britishness around the globe. There is an argument which says the royals boost tourism in the UK and they are “value for money.” This is heavily disputed and difficult to prove. Moreover, the true cost of the monarchy is far beyond the Sovereign Grant – the money taken from public funds to supposedly pay for royal duties. Add the huge sums spent on security for the extended family, and that they live in palaces and castles actually owned by the public, and that they enjoy privileged tax breaks. One estimate puts the cost at £345 million ($467 million) a year. The Queen and Prince Charles also draw tens of millions from landholdings through the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster, archaic organizations whose ownership and dealings are obscure but whose income the royals claim only by virtue of their rank. It is money that belongs in the pockets of the British people.
The extent of the vast wealth of the House of Windsor is a mystery, but the Queen is regarded as one of the richest people on Earth.
Some see the role of the monarchy as purely ceremonial. In fact, there are sweeping and important constitutional powers. But these are exercised by royal prerogative – that is, they are carried out by the prime minister, supposedly in the Queen’s name. The monarch opens and dissolves parliament, appoints and dismisses prime ministers, agrees to legislation, appoints judges – but only on the advice of the prime minister. By retaining a monarchy, politicians retain the power – even the power to declare war without consulting parliament – which they are loathed to surrender. Similar powers are given to ministers to effect secondary legislation without consulting parliament.
When Boris Johnson fixed the suspension of parliament in 2019 it showed how he could exercise control over parliament, which is meant to be the sovereign power in the land. The suspension – which the Supreme Court later ruled unconstitutional – was approved by the Queen, but only after Johnson told her to do so.
So far from being only a feudal relic, with quaint traditions and practices, the monarchy is at the top of a carefully constructed and maintained institution, a mutually dependent ruling class hierarchy that preserves the status quo, the established order, the ruling elite. In return for power, the monarchy gets privilege like no other – wealth is hidden and protected, the Queen has the power to examine and veto proposed laws; royal wills are kept secret (unlike those of ordinary people which become public documents). The monarch is also head of the Church of England and gets to choose bishops – who then sit in the unelected House of Lords creating legislation. This also means preserving the capitalist system which underpins it all. That money for the Sovereign Grant? That comes from taxes, which come from workers’ pockets. It’s a very British kind of exploitation.
So perhaps it is time for a change – time for a referendum on abolishing the British monarchy. For an institution that attaches such great weight to the past, perhaps it is time for the ordinary people who pick up its bills to decide its future. Maybe the result of any referendum will show that the British public opinion is in favor of keeping the monarchy. However, that is no reason to deny people the opportunity of expressing that opinion in a transparent and democratic poll.
But there is a snag. The same archaic laws and conventions which bind the Commonwealth realms to Britain could actually serve as a veto on any decision to dispense with the royals: they dictate that any such change around the head of state requires the agreement of each and every one of the 14 realms. So even if the 67 million people of Britain decided to ditch the royals, could the 12,000 of Tuvalu decide to as well? And isn’t that a perfect illustration of how bonkers the situation is?
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