Is the monarchy still relevant in the 21st century?

May 12, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Britain’s King Charles III and Queen Camilla with members of the working royal family.

Britain’s King Charles III and Queen Camilla with members of the working royal family. | Photo Credit: AFP

The coronation of King Charles III of the U.K. has led to critical questions on the relevance of the monarchy in the 21st century, in the context of tectonic shifts in society, politics and culture in the U.K. and across the Commonwealth realms. In a conversation moderated by Narayan Lakshman, Priyamvada Gopal and Philip Murphy discuss what these changes imply for the future of monarchies in the U.K. and across the world:

The U.K. monarchy is unique because it has a local and global relevance; the monarch is the Head of State in the U.K. and Head of the Commonwealth. Do you think this means that some immutable elements of the U.K. monarchy will survive the major societal, political, and cultural changes of the 21st century, and if so, what are they?

Philp Murphy: European monarchies in general are quite difficult to dislodge short of war and revolution and regime change. Look at relatively recent cases. In Greece in 1974, it was the fall of the colonels; Italy in 1946 was defeated in war. It takes a lot to get rid of them. What we are going to see in the near future is that most of the non-U.K. realms will become republics. We saw movement towards that even before the Queen died. It was a combination of things, including the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of the reparations movement, and Barbados transitioning to a republic relatively easily, without a referendum, in 2021. That started a race amongst the remaining Caribbean realms, who were saying that they intend to become republics. If you look at the situation in the U.K., particularly in England, only around 22%, according to the last poll, said that they would vote to become a republic if there was a referendum tomorrow. So, I don’t think you’re going to see change in the U.K. But in Scotland, and particularly in Northern Ireland, there are growing proportions of republican supporters. In Northern Ireland, 46% of the population now say that they would favour a republic. And of course, that reflects the sort of sectarian nature of Northern Irish politics. But there is a movement there. So, you’re not just seeing a fracturing of the realms, but potentially a fracturing of the U.K. as well.

Priyamvada Gopal: I agree with most of that, and I don’t think there’s any clear sense that a republic might emerge in the near future. Brexit and its effects and the possible breaking apart of the U.K. as we know it will have consequences. But I was struck by the demographics of who was interested in the coronation, [which is] important because demographic change may have serious consequences for the monarchy. About 70% of people [aged] below 50 said that they were either hostile or indifferent to the coronation. Only 9% of the population said that they were fully invested in celebrating the occasion.

We also must, in addition to the [issue of the] current [Commonwealth] realms becoming republics, pay attention to pushback against inequality in Britain. It isn’t currently happening, but inequality is growing. I don’t think that is going down too well, in terms of the monarchy’s ostentation and costs, as well as what it represents, which is the privilege of a very small number of people living very well as greater numbers of people are falling into deprivation.

I’m someone who has never seen the monarchy as an anachronism. Obviously, in terms of style, it is — wearing 18th century garb and velvet robes and floating around. But actually, the monarchy sits at the top of the plutocracy, the rich people who rule Britain and call the shots. In that sense, they are no more or no less anachronistic than any other place where there is tremendous inequality: you can be a republic and have tremendous inequality and have a small number of rich people calling the shots. We need to wait and see — it’s not clear that a republic will emerge, but change may well be in the air, certainly in the kind of monarchy that we might have in about 20 years.

PM: Monarchy does matter very much to the British establishment. You saw that across the board in corporate London, [where] everyone was told to be on their best behaviour and the Metropolitan Police came down heavily on peaceful protesters from the pressure group, Republic. It matters because the honours system still matters to the people who run this country, and there’s a growing gap between that elite and the mass of the population. But the thing that really struck me about polling ahead of the coronation was that even older people who you would imagine to be very enthusiastic towards the royal family were relatively unenthusiastic about the coronation. There was a sense that in 1953, you had this young monarch, and it was all very glamorous. It was a very different world, and a very different imperial nexus that the monarchy was the head of. But now you’re crowning a king well into his 70s, about 20 years older than his grandfather was when he died in 1952. You sense a general lack of enthusiasm. Even if we skip a generation and go to those glamorous younger royals, William and Kate, they had a rather unsuccessful visit to the Caribbean last year. And the glamour didn’t really seem to wash in quite the same way that it did [with Queen Elizabeth].

Although the monarchy looks immutable, it’s constantly having to reinvent itself. After 70 years of a monarch on the throne, there isn’t a kind of a modern playbook to go back to even though the nature of the media, the nature of British society, and the Commonwealth have changed so much. [The royal family] are going back to trial and error to cope with the change of monarch and the expectations from the monarchy.

A key challenge to the idea of monarchy is the notion that all human beings are created equal. Yet even in democratic, capitalist societies, elites exist, and are often required to justify their position. Are monarchies under fire mainly because their hereditary nature makes it harder to justify their continuance?

PG: Yes, there are capitalist, formally democratic and republican societies where there are elites, and you even have celebrities and elites who are monarchical figures. There is nothing unique about Britain as an unequal monarchy. Its hereditary nature does bother people. Capitalism’s rhetoric is that it is meritocratic, and that talent will rise to the top and that you get where you are because of hard work. Clearly, that is not true in the case of the monarchy. There is discomfort around the contradiction of Britain being formally democratic and capitalist on the one hand and having people right at the very top because of bloodline on the other. And that is the point at which the monarchy stumbles, not necessarily [because of] inequality in itself.

PM: It’s a challenge for the republican movement to make a convincing argument about how it would transform British society. There are monarchies in some European countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden, which are much more equal than the U.K. Indeed, under Elizabeth II, the U.K. itself became a much less class-bound society, and it’s sometimes difficult to impress on younger people today just how rigid those class divisions were in 1952. Even though we live in an unequal society, it’s unequal in slightly different ways. The big question that the republican movement has to answer is, would becoming a republic in itself change very much of that? That’s quite a hard question to answer.

PG: I would go so far as to say that there is actually no programme that a group like Republic has put forward that will address fundamental inequality. For instance, would people who own large chunks of London stop doing so? They wouldn’t. The plutocratic nature of a republic might not change at all, so you might have an elected head of state and still have tremendous inequality. I’ve always found groups such as Republic quite limited in their political vision of change because they envision nothing more than having elections for a symbolic head of state.

It’s quite interesting that the Australian Indigenous leader, Lidia Thorpe, who co-signed the letter to King Charles III asking him to make reparations and acknowledge the gravity of dispossession and enslavement, has said that Australia needs to become a republic, but that alone is not going to sort anything out without other kinds of social and economic transformation.

PM: The Republic of Ireland is a bit of a poster child for republicanism at the moment, because the last three presidents — Michael Higgins and Mary McAleese, and Mary Robinson — have been outstanding unifying figures, and seem to represent Ireland far better than the House of Windsor represents the U.K. in terms of its values and how it sees itself as a modern state. But then, the Republic [of Ireland] has always been a different sort of society from England.

There’s an interesting contrast between what’s happening in the U.K. and what’s happening in the Commonwealth realms [regarding changing views on the monarchy]. [If the realms need a reason] to become republics, [then that’s the fact that] it’s always been a bit of an anomaly to have a head of state based in London. The trouble that [the realms] often got into was that [if] you make the change as part of a bigger constitutional reform, there’s a danger that you get bogged down in broader questions about what the constitution will look like. That’s really what happened in Australia in 1999, [where] voters on the whole were sympathetic towards republicanism but didn’t like the form of republic that was an offer.

Or you do what Barbados did, and make the change in the simplest possible way, which was to give all the powers of the President to the Governor General. In fact, the Governor General became the President. But then the question is, what’s the point of that? What has really changed? In the case of the Caribbean, the rise of the reparations movement has been a game changer, because logically, it seemed ludicrous that a Caribbean country should effectively be making a claim against the country where its own head of state still resides. That’s why you’re likely to see much more rapid change in in the Caribbean, even given the sort of constitutional hurdles there are to it in most of the remaining Caribbean realms.

To situate the debate in the context of the economic upheavals caused by COVID-19 and lockdowns and then the cost-of-living crisis in many countries linked to trade disruptions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, does the continuance of monarchical power appear more untenable in light of the economic distress of the middle class?

PG: : I have seen a lack of enthusiasm around the coronation, the muted-ness of even people who are otherwise likely to celebrate. I read an interview with a woman who is a sort of working-class royalist and she said she’s not really in the mood to celebrate and that although she respects the royals, they had “failed to read the room”. If Britain continues in the disastrous economic direction it’s heading in, which is growing impoverishment and a kind of return of colonialism, it is going to be untenable for people at the top of society to become richer. The number of billionaires in Britain has increased since before the pandemic, and their share of wealth has increased to a staggering £653 billion. Charles himself is worth a couple of billions and the monarchy is worth $28 billion. Of course, it’s hard to assess what they have and don’t have partly because of the secrecy laws that Queen Elizabeth II was able to garner to protect herself and her family. But increasingly, people are certainly unenthusiastic about celebrating ostentation. A lot of people were very disturbed at the £250 million that was spent on the coronation, which is exactly the amount that the government has just taken out of the social care budget. It’s not just the middle class, but the middle class and below – as people become poorer and poorer, it becomes harder to celebrate people at the top being very wealthy and garnering even more wealth and power.

PM: It is always dangerous for the monarchy, as with other parts of the permanent British state, when British society seems divided. You saw that in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, when the Queen’s Press Secretary got into trouble for blurting out that the Queen was worried about Mrs. Thatcher’s policies. You then tend to find that opinion towards the monarchy tends to divide along those lines. That’s why Brexit was a particularly dangerous moment for the monarchy, in that it left Britain very divided. We’re now seeing the economic consequences of that in terms of the impoverishment that’s come on the back of that exacerbating those divisions. The danger always was that the younger parts of the population, who on the whole were more enthusiastic Europeans, felt that their future had been betrayed and that they were going to kind of take out their anger on issues such as the monarchy. Opinion, luckily, now seems to be shifting a little bit, so maybe that crisis is starting to pass. But it’s certainly been a very dangerous time for the British monarchy. You’ve seen an increasing number of journalists doing difficult investigative reporting work of trying to expose the hidden wealth of the House of Windsor. That’s playing very well amongst younger voters.

PG: Philip, you’re quite right about a small number of journalists doing this work. But we also have to acknowledge the extent to which the billionaire-owned media, which is a large chunk of the British media, has been ferocious in shoring up defence of the monarchy and suppressing criticism of the monarchy. There is a gap between the young people and their interest in investigative journalism and the vast majority of the billionaire-owned British media which clearly has a stake in entrenching the monarchical system and entrenching inequality and does what it does to manufacture consent around the monarchy.

PM: There’s an interesting thing happening with the new populist right – they cling to monarchy, as they cling to other parts of the British establishment, but they don’t always like the people or the institutions involved. So, the right-wing press have gone [after] the judges when the judges weren’t helpful over Brexit. One of the interesting stories that’s appeared in the news over the last couple of days was that Charles was very critical of the government scheme to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. There was a bust up between the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Charles over that. So, they liked the symbol of the monarchy, but they don’t always like the opinions of the people involved.

Does a monarchy grind away at the moral foundations of a democracy? The 1975 Australian constitutional crisis is a case in point (in a Commonwealth realm context). Could the monarch thus exceed their powers, which in the U.K. include appointing and removing the Prime Minister, dissolving or proroguing Parliament, and so forth?

PM: One of the big problems is that we don’t know enough about how the monarchy works in relation to democracy and that’s because of excessive official secrecy over the release of papers. You can make a case for the need for members of the royal family to protect their privacy. But there’s a whole class of correspondence of documentation about how the palace relates to the British government on constitutional matters like proroguing Parliament. We don’t know enough about how that has worked under Queen Elizabeth II because of excessive official secrecy, and that’s something I’ve been pushing at. In the case of Gough Whitlam in Australia in 1975, where the Governor General John Kerr dismissed a radical Labour Prime Minister, there was speculation about what role the palace had played in that. When the papers were eventually released, the role of the palace was less sinister than a lot of people had thought it was. In a way, official secrecy from the point of view of the palace becomes counterproductive because people imagine that far more anti-democratic actions might be taking place. My point is that we actually need to know what the role of the palace has been over the last 70 years on the basis of proper documentation. Then we’ll be more able to answer the question about how compatible the U.K.’s form of constitutional monarchy is with modern democracy.

PG: The threats to democracy, whether in Britain or in India, are not actually coming from institutions such as the monarchy, [but] from billionaire class, the plutocracies. We have rising authoritarianism in many contexts, and it rarely comes from an institution like the monarchy. In fact, I would have wished that as the Tory government whittles away at British democracy through the Public Order Bill and the proroguing of Parliament, that monarchy might have exercised a staying hand of some kind. But of course, constitutionally, there’s secrecy around this – exactly what was said and to whom we won’t know. But to me the great danger to democracy comes from vested economic interests and rising ethno-nationalism, racism, and communalism. My anxiety around democracies is around those forces rather than the monarchy per se.

PM: Indeed, the far bigger problem is that the U.K. in the modern era has never had to sit down and write a constitution, and actually have a proper debate about the balance of rights and powers within the system of government. As we’ve seen recently through the crisis around the prorogation of Parliament, the U.K. Prime Minister effectively has extensive prerogative powers using the powers of the crown in ways that could be absolutely authoritarian under certain forms of leadership. There have been some significant warning bells recently about the broader dangers of that, never mind the role of individual members of the royal family or the palace.

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