Prince Phillip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh and consort to Queen Elizabeth II, died earlier today at Windsor Castle at 99 years of age and after more than 70 years of dutiful service to his country, the monarchy, and his wife.
The Duke will be sorely missed by many, but his death also opens up questions about the future of the British monarchy and its future after Queen Elizabeth’s long and successful reign: after her rule, does the monarchy still have a place in the 21st century?
Pageantry, ceremony, tradition, elitists, and useless waste of public money are just some of the adjectives used when people talk about the monarchy. From time to time there is always some kind of debate about the necessity of having a monarch as a head of state in this modern world, shaped by the liberal and republican ideals of the Enlightenment, some consider them an egregious waste of money, while others just see them as a necessary institution. After hundreds of years of political change, is the monarchy still relevant?
The usual points brought against the monarchy (a constitutional one, not the oppressive ones like Saudi Arabia) can be summarized as the following: it is archaic, expensive, incompatible with Democratic ideals, or that it gives the chance for unaccountable leaders to exercise political influence.
These arguments can be contested: the income received by the Royal family is part of the Sovereign Grant, an arrangement where the monarchy gives all the revenue from their estates in exchange of receiving 15% of all the revenue that comes from all of their properties. In 2020, the royal estate generated £329.4 million, receiving a £49.4 million core sovereign grant, according to the financial report of Buckingham Palace. Also, the monarchy creates many incentives for tourists to spend their money visiting their palaces and buying merchandise.
It would be ludicrous to claim that the UK is in the path of an authoritarian government ruled by the Queen, as the effective power is held by Parliament who holds entire sovereignty in the affairs of state and the UK is one of the oldest modern democracies in the world, with the King gradually surrendering power since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Finally, sure, the monarchy might not be the creation of the modern world and owe its existence to old traditions, but is that so bad?
What is a country if not the cumulation of its history, traditions and customs, tempered with the tides of change that time creates? In that sense, a well-founded constitutional monarchy is a vivid and direct nexus to the historical fabric of the nation, maintaining traditions where it should and changing where it must.
Monarchy and Democracy
The main function of a sovereign is to serve as the Head of State. While in presidential republics like the U.S and all of Latin America the president is both the head of state and the head of government, in most parliamentary democracies that is not the case. The Parliament elects a Prime Minister in charge of the daily affairs of the government, and the head of state holds the symbolic heft of the state and also playing a role in the formation of governments.
In order for a head of state to properly play its role, there must be no doubt that they are above any type of petty political squabbles that consume the day-to-day business of government. In parliamentary governments, all elected heads of state should also be considered to be above politics, and in some cases, there are presidents who achieve this.
However, this model contains a structural defect: elected presidents owe their position to the political process, they need to convince enough constituents to get one more vote than their rival and they, by definition, have a political interest. Modern monarchies, on the other hand, owe their survival on the general consensus that the sovereign is politically neutral.
While a president can govern if he or she has a simple majority of their electorate, monarchs have to maintain a higher threshold of public approval, hence, they do not have the luxury of alienating constituencies, if they want to continue to exist. This is vital when a government falls, as it is usually the legal responsibility of the head of state to decide what to do: if calling for new elections, replacing the PM, or designating a caretaker government.
In constitutional democracies the monarchs are expected to defer entirely to Parliament, in some countries like Italy, the supposedly apolitical president wields significant influence on the formation of governments. Even if elected presidents manage to do their job apolitically, the risk will always exist as their position is owed to some constituencies. Monarchs, on the other hand, not only have to follow the letter of the law but also the spirit of it, since they have no room to politically maneuver one misstep can destroy the apolitical image the monarchy maintains.
Another advantage of a monarchy is that it helps to keep elected government officials accountable. While presidents have the opportunity to use the majesty and pomposity associated with the head of state for their benefits, Prime Ministers do not have that same advantage. They are just another government official more with little ceremonial privileges. It makes it easy to criticize their actions as failures of the government, not the nation itself.
As British author Walter Bagehot brilliantly explained in a quote then popularized by The Crown, the monarchy holds the dignified parts of the constitution -the one that preserves the reverence of the public- while the government holds the efficient part -the one in charge of the mundane tasks of the government- and keeping these two roles apart is optimal if we want to keep our leaders accountable, as they will not hide behind the reverence and pomposity of the state.
There is no better example of this difference than the treatment the President of the U.S and the British Prime Minister receive when addressing the legislature. The President’s visit is filled with ceremony and the legislators are supposed to respect the majesty of the head of state and not even contest the message given by him. A Prime Minister, on the other hand, receives no ceremonial or pompous welcoming to Parliament (which is reserved to the Queen) and has the obligation to face his political opponents face to face and in real-time at least once a week.
In few words, modern Monarchies help at ensuring a smooth change of government and takes politicians off the pedestal.
The monarchy as a unifier
Another issue where the monarchy plays a far superior role to an elected head of state is in that of representing the whole nation. The survival of the Monarchy relies on the public perception that they are above the political fray, which is why they take heavy precautions to not voice any political opinion, the opposite of a president that half of the country did not vote for.
Countries are composed of people with many differences: social, economic, political, religious, and many others. However, it also has its shared history and traditions to bind them together, and the monarchy is the institution that has the sole objective of crafting an image that ties our present with our past, while also reminding the people what brings us together.
Some might say that this emphasis in rituals and symbols is archaic or pointless, but they are missing the fact that Republics have the same thing. Don’t Presidents follow ceremonial roles and pompous ceremonies that are supposed to illustrate the unity of the nation? The key difference is that presidents can use those symbols to pursue a political agenda, Monarchies do not.
At the end of the day, monarchs make better heads of state. Who do you think plays the role of head of state in a more dignified and unifying way, Queen Elizabeth II or Presidents Trump and Biden?
This is not to say that republics do not ensure the existence of democracy or that republican countries should do an about-face and embrace a monarch. No, far from that, successful modern monarchies are exclusive to countries with long-lasting monarchic traditions and where the general public agrees to it, it would be foolish to defend the system in a country where such tradition does not exist.
They might sound outdated and a relic of a time where aristocracy and lineage was the defining factor on who held power, however, they are more than that: they play a role in unifying nations to their histories and to themselves, epitomize a life destined to duty, and help us to keep elected officials out of a pedestal.
Monarchies are old and do hold a bunch of traditions that are centuries-old, that does not make them any less relevant today. It might actually make them more relevant, as it reminds us where we came from.