Some Carry Flowers, Some Carry Pitchforks
The world is reeling from the death of Queen Elizabeth II; some carry flowers, others pitchforks. In this article, Joseph Slattery and Greta Scott offer their thoughts on the continued existence of the British monarchy.
The Monarchy Is A Problem For British Democracy -Joseph Slattery
On September 8th, 2022, Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom and 14 Commonwealth realms, passed away at the age of 96. She left behind four children, six grandchildren, countless corgis, and one united kingdom in crisis. As Britain reels at her passing, it is worth briefly examining the monarchy’s impact on British democracy, to attempt to separate the ‘Queen in people’s heads’ from the political figure at the head of British life for 70 years.
In the words of democratically elected, instead of hereditarily instated, head of state Emmanuel Macron, Elizabeth II was the ‘moral authority’ of Britain. But her authority was more than just moral. The British monarch exercises considerable influence over the passage of legislation, and as recent events across the UK have shown, acts of public dissent against it can result in repression and serious legal consequences.
The late Queen Elizabeth meeting fellow unelected Monarch and
headgear enthusiast Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The Mourning Period
The mourning period has witnessed harsh suppression of freedom of expression, with police and members of the public cracking down on republican and anti-monarchy dissent. Symon Hill was arrested on Sunday 11th after shouting ‘who elected him?’ at a reading of a document officially announcing Charles as King, while a 22-year-old woman was detained and faces charges simply for holding up a sign that protested imperialism and called for the abolition of the monarchy. Others have been threatened with arrest for protesting the new King. For example, in Edinburgh a man was physically assaulted by two men before being arrested for criticising Prince Andrew’s recent behaviour, which allegedly involves sex trafficking and paedophilia. Criticism of the head of state is a right that every citizen of a democracy should enjoy, no matter the timing. When we think of protestors being silenced, we tend to think of authoritarian regimes, not democracies. Recent draconian laws, like the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, have heavily restricted citizen’s right to protest, and it seems that the royal events are justification to employ them against protestors exercising their democratic right to freedom of expression and assembly.
Since her death, political life has ground to a halt both in the UK and throughout the Commonwealth. To mourn her passing, the UK parliament was promptly suspended until the 21st of September, save for two days devoted solely to tributes to the Queen’s memory. Similarly, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Welsh Senned have been suspended ‘until further notice’. Even the Australian parliament has closed for 15 days. With energy prices forcing millions into fuel poverty, an economy poised to tip into recession, and a brand new government, it is lunacy to shut down the legislative bodies that are in place to steer the country through crises like these. Furthermore, the ease in which these parliaments have been suspended exposes a fragility in the UK’s constitutional monarchy system. Do we really need to close parliament when a new head of state, King Charles, has already been anointed?
From a democratic perspective, it is troubling that the death of an unelected head of state can trigger political paralysis in a time of severe social and economic crisis. People are suffering and need representatives to enact legislation to steady the economy and ease the public’s difficulties. Instead, Parliament is focused solely on commemorating the one person in the country that they were not elected to represent.
Alongside Parliament, another cornerstone of British democracy has been halted. Petitioning, a democratic tradition in England that dates back to the 1270s, is suspended until further notice, with the official government website no longer accepting signatures or new petitions. While parliament may not be sitting to process petitions, there is no justification for curtailing the population’s democratic freedom to express grievances and policy suggestions through the submission of signatures and new petitions. The current cost of living crisis makes open communication between the public and its representatives more important than ever, but this suspension clearly deprioritized the interests of the public in favour of the Queen’s commemoration and her son’s accession. Although one might argue that this democratic backsliding is the responsibility of the government, not the monarchy itself, there are many examples of the Queen, and her son, overstepping their supposed remit to ‘remain strictly neutral with respect to political matters’, at the expense of British democracy.
Royal and Queen’s Consent
Most people are aware of ‘Royal Assent’. Once a bill has passed the two houses of parliament, it is brought to the monarch to be signed into law. It is the monarch’s prerogative to decide whether this bill should be signed into law. Now, it should be highlighted that this prerogative is viewed as a formality: the last time a bill was refused was 1708. But if it is just a formality, why continue with this practice? Why is Parliament not the highest authority when it comes to legislation? Royal assent, formality or not, should be dispensed with immediately in favour of a democratic process. Aside from symbolising a subjugation of parliament and the populace, royal assent raises real questions about the legitimacy of British democracy when the will of the people can be blocked on the whim of an unelected, hereditary monarch.
A more hidden, though perhaps more concerning mechanism at the Monarch’s disposal may explain why the Queen and her post-1708 predecessors never felt the need to actually refuse to sign a bill into law. Queen’s (now King’s) consent is a procedure that allows the monarch to manipulate the British legislative process to their advantage. It allows the monarch and his or her team of lawyers to access draft bills before they are seen by Parliament, and request changes to the draft before granting consent for Parliament to debate the bills. The monarch also has the right to refuse to consent to bills, which are then prevented from progressing into parliament for democratic scrutiny.
This process created direct conflicts of interest for the Queen, giving her the opportunity to mould draft bills to her personal advantage, despite her supposed duty to remain neutral. Unlike with royal assent, the Queen had no qualms employing Queen’s consent. Over 1000 draft bills were assessed by her lawyers before they could pass to Parliament, on topics ranging from social security, justice, race relations, food policy, pensions, Brexit, and even road safety laws. Buckingham Palace refuses to disclose how many bills were edited before consent was granted, so there is no way of measuring the Queen’s influence on our current laws.
A similar provision existed for the former Prince of Wales. Charles infamously never shied away from lobbying for his own personal gain, so it seems likely he will also use King’s consent, unless action is taken to eliminate this undemocratic process. While it remains, democracy in the UK can be distorted, with legislation dying in secret before it even reaches the legislator, simply because the King does not consent to its progression to Parliament. Supporters of the monarchy should be asked: what is the democratic justification for allowing the monarch to influence legislation in this way? In short, there is none. Moreover, it is naïve to trust that the King might act in the public interest rather than his own, particularly considering his chequered track record.
The Development of Democracy in the UK
Clearly the monarchy is not, and has never been, an asset to democracy. From the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, to the British Civil War, the Bill of Rights in 1689, and Great Britain’s eventual transition to a constitutional monarchy during the Victorian era, British democracy and the supremacy of Parliament have been strengthened by the curtailing of the monarchy’s power. People have struggled for centuries to wrest control from the monarch and redistribute power among elected representatives, as well as establishing strong, independent institutions that safeguard democratic, judicial, and economic processes. The monarch may serve as a figurehead for some of these (for example, the monarch is the symbolic head of the justice system in the UK), but their lack of direct involvement is arguably the reason why they have succeeded. Those who argue that a constitutional monarchy is strengthened by the monarch, rather than the constitution, uncodified as it may be, display a lack of understanding of the development of British democracy. Britain is not a democracy because of the monarchy, but in spite of it.
Following the Queen’s death, and the accession of a markedly less popular King, it is time to reassess the role of the monarchy in British society, and engage in a level-headed discussion about its abolition. For those who argue that the monarch’s role is simply a formality, does that not mean that dispensing with it would not harm British democracy or political life? The monarchy is a consistent roadblock to a fully democratic, egalitarian society. Without a democratic mandate, neither the monarch, nor anyone else, should have so much influence over life in the UK.
The Relevance of the Irrelevant: The Indispensability of the British Monarch- Greta Scott
In 2021, I wrote an article about why I felt that the British monarchy was worth keeping around. This piece will undoubtedly make several of the same points, but with the shift in perspective that the death of the UK’s longest reigning monarch brings.
This I will concede – it is fundamentally elitist that a single family can be born into the wealth and privilege that the royal family has. It is further unfair that these people are given a platform to use as they see fit, without ever having done anything to earn it. It is unjust that the most privileged family in Britain represent centuries of class warfare and racism, and ultimately cannot be seen to represent any group of British society.
However – and I recognize how uncomfortable “however” might sound following such a caveat – I am a monarchist. To be clear, monarchism differs from royalism in that it does not imply a support for one particular monarch. That said, I do limit my support for the monarchy to the case I know best: the British constitutional monarchy as it operates in the United Kingdom (and therefore not in the Commonwealth at large). Do not be under any illusions that I support the Saudi system of governance. With that said, here are a few thoughts on the British monarchy.
The monarch as the keystone of British constitutionalism
I feel that the British monarchy is an asset because it has evolved through time. In most countries where the sovereign was unwilling to move away from absolutism, I can understand why revolution was necessary to remove the yoke of absolute rule. However, the English (and then British) monarch’s powers have been restricted since 1215.
My support for the British monarchy is therefore a reflection of my understanding and appreciation for the British constitutional tradition. Although an international anomaly, our infamously uncodified constitution is, I would argue, a strong feature of our democracy (and I pray for the sake of our democracy that I will not be proved wrong, as political science is not known to be a discipline which teaches us to predict the future). I have many reasons for this belief, but I will limit my appraisal of the British constitution to what is relevant to this article: my strong sense that a constitutional rule entrenched in centuries of tradition is stronger than one which was written in a pocket-sized constitution. A constitutional custom can be both flexible and strong: it will be forgotten when irrelevant, adapt when times change, but remain steadfast when necessary. A written rule is, on the other hand, only worth a country’s faith in the paper it is written on. France, for example, has had fourteen constitutions – clearly a codified constitution can be torn up much more easily than a non-codified one.
There is nothing inherently democratic about having a codified constitution. It does not protect a regime from authoritarianism (only two countries in the world have uncodified constitutions, neither of which are part of the global majority of authoritarian and hybrid regimes).
If you can buy into that logic, then it follows that the monarchy is an inherent part of both the British constitutional tradition and democracy. First, it goes without saying that if we were to depose the monarchy, we would have to rewrite and codify our entire constitution. The strength of years of democratic practice would be lost in flimsy pages. Not to mention the fact that the writing of the constitution would be dominated by the governing party, and currently this is not a party which seems particularly interested in protecting democratic norms. Second, the monarchy is part and parcel of our democracy. There might be norms which state that the monarch has certain powers, but the custom that they do not exercise them weighs more than their technical ability to do so. The powers that the monarch has the right to exercise on paper do sound undemocratic. Yet in reality, it has been 400 years since the monarch refused to give a bill assent. The British system functions on convention, and so whilst I buy that technically the monarch could become a tyrant, I am personally of the opinion that we would not waste time removing the monarchy if it came to that.
It is for that reason that I was frustrated by the Swedish decision to update their constitution in 1975. Up until that point, the Swedish constitution had been largely irrelevant – they did have a written constitution, but no one ever cited it because its written provisions were broadly out of date and everyone was aware of the real customs governing Swedish politics. It was only when someone noticed that the Swedish constitution gave excessive powers to the monarch that they decided to update the constitution to demarcate the monarch’s new role. Some might argue that this was a judicious decision; for me it was a mistake to simplify years of democratic traditions into neat clauses which can be modified by a simple vote.
Facts speak louder than words
If, however, the British uncodified constitution has not seduced you, then let me make it plain that many of the most democratic countries in the world are constitutional monarchies (and not republics). Just as there is nothing inherently democratic about a codified constitution, there is also nothing inherently democratic about being a republic, as the tables below demonstrate.
Many of the issues that people cite about the British monarch’s powers can also be found in republics. It feels wrong that the British monarch is technically above the law. However, this does not overly concern me for two reasons. First, should King Charles break the law, I would like to believe that he would be forced to abdicate or that the monarchy itself would be done away with. Secondly, the leaders of many republics also cannot really be pursued in court – for example, this is the case of the French President and every Polish MP.
Moreover, those concerned that the British monarch has the right to exercise extensive powers should be aware that the same could also be said of many presidents. Any constitution that includes provisions for a State of Emergency are at risk of having those powers abused. One might argue that this is less problematic, as presidents are elected. To this I would respond that it will not matter whether they are elected or not if they abuse their powers to the detriment of democracy.
Source: Author’s table, information from the Economist Intelligence Unit
Back in 2021, I argued that when the monarch speaks, the United Kingdom actually feels united. Clearly, given the tensions surrounding whether we should have a monarchy at all, I cannot argue that here. Emotions are running incredibly high at the moment: many are weeping at the death of a monarch, others are angry that anyone should care. I will not defend the stories we have been hearing in the UK of republicans being arrested; clearly that goes against the mere principle of free speech. These arrests are, I feel, more closely connected to the Conservatives lackadaisical understanding of fair policing and the right to protest, which has been tested multiple times over diverse issues over the past few years.
I do, however, question some of the anger that people express over the mourning process. Republican or not, it is undeniable that the Queen represented a long period of British history, of massive transitions and significant progress. I think it is natural to want to mark that in some way. For a large portion of the British population, the Queen was truly beloved, someone who gave them strength in difficult times. The monarch provides a sense of stability in turbulent and confusing times. I recall tuning into the Queen’s speech in 2020, a time when I was unable to be with my family in England during the chaos and fears of the first lockdown, and how her speech helped me to feel somewhat connected to my home. I might not feel as strongly about the Queen’s passing as some, but ultimately I have no interest in attacking those who want to mark her death. I feel that many of these grievances are not a response to the existence of the monarchy per se, but to the society, the media and the government’s feverish obsession with it.
The very existence of a monarch is controversial, and I understand the grievances of those who argue that Britain should depose the monarchy. The pragmatist in me would argue that the ideals of abolitionists would be yet better defended by the continuation of the monarchy in Britain. I would prefer to focus my attention on the actual woodworm of British democracy: the Conservative Party.