God save the queen
November 9, 2005 9:05 AM   Subscribe

In this day and age, why do England and other democracies continue with this whole monarchy thing? Seems a rather costly form of national pride.

And why do you suppose (some) Americans like to hold up certain public figures as "our" royalty?
posted by punkfloyd to Grab Bag (34 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm probably going to get flamed to hell for saying it, but the system works well - why change? I realise that a lot of people object to the ideology of a monarchy - but in practical terms it works well. The Queen preforms well as a figurehead internationally, with absolutely no involvement in party politics. The costs and upset of a change would be massive and leave us with another pointless politician to fund/ elect.

Equally, the royalty is, under certain arguments, self funding. Back in the mid 1700s the monarch agreed to hand over their lands in exchange for a stipend from the state (the civil list). Given that the civil list costs less than £10m pa and the crown estates bring in £100m+pa this isn't a bad deal for Britain (source).
posted by prentiz at 9:18 AM on November 9, 2005

Because (in the UK):
a) Someone would actually have to stand up to do it, and there just isn't the political will to do it.
b) Because having a non-political person (the Queen) be head of state and represent the country, and a separate political person (Tony Blair) be in charge of making decisions, actually works pretty well. You don't get into the situation Americans do where opposing the President's policies means opposing the figurehead of the country.
posted by cillit bang at 9:23 AM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Isn't the British monarcy pretty much an empty, symbolic thing nowadays? More some sort of celebrity fluff position, and nothing of real political substance?
posted by xmutex at 9:27 AM on November 9, 2005

Not a direct answer, but I read that it costs the average UK taxpayer about 11p per year to support the royal family. And like it or not, the Windsors (and the whole "royal" thing) are a big tourist draw. Get rid of that and I don't think England would fare quite as well tourist-wise. Or, as prentiz said so well - Britain makes money on the royals.
posted by deborah at 9:33 AM on November 9, 2005

You may ask equally why democracies such as the US and France continue with a pseudo-monarchical system such as a President with very strong executive powers and an unelected court. Very 19th century. Most modern democracies feature a reduced or titular role for a President and more of a role for a parliamentary prime minister surrounded by elected representatives within a cabinet structure.

In shorter form, one argument I heard in Britain in rthe 90s against replacing the monarch with a President was simple:

"President Thatcher".
posted by meehawl at 9:34 AM on November 9, 2005

I'm not sure pride has anything to do with it.
I actually broadly agree with what prentiz says there (and on preview pretty much everyone else). If we had a blank canvas, I wouldn't go for a monarchy, but it would cost a huge amount of time and money to replace it now, for little gain that I can see, so why not just get on with it and make the best of it?
What would we actually gain as a nation by getting rid of them?
posted by chill at 9:41 AM on November 9, 2005

As punkfloyd notes, even in the US the general public has a predeliction for monarchy and its trappings, or substitutes for monarchy. Hollywood stars are venerated like royalty; we have political dynasties (Kennedys, Bushes); we build unnecessary pomp and pageantry into all kinds of public events. Monarchy seems to fill a general psychological need by providing at least the illusion of a leader and a symbol for one's tribe.
posted by beagle at 9:46 AM on November 9, 2005

Isn't the British monarcy pretty much an empty, symbolic thing nowadays? More some sort of celebrity fluff position, and nothing of real political substance? - xmutex

In Canada, yes - for the most part. There are a bunch of things the Queens representative does (summoning & dissolving Parliament, sign bills into law, appointing Supreme Court Justices,) that are normally done under the advisement of the Prime Minister. It's very rare (like you could count on one hand the number of times) that the GG uses their own judgement in their parts of the democratic process.

It keeps the cermonial Head of State stuff separate from the political running the country stuff. Those are two separate jobs.
posted by raedyn at 9:48 AM on November 9, 2005

A practical example: John Harrison developed the innovations that helped mechanical watches become accurate enough to let sailors find their longitude, a story recounted at length in Longitude by Dava Sobel. It literally took an act of parliament to inspire people to solve the issue, but the system was so biased towards a celestial solution (lunar in this case) that Harrison's son actually had to appeal to the King to have his father paid the prize after the man had worked on it for 40+ years and was on the cusp of dying. The King spoke with parliament, they paid him, and even then he didn't actually win the award, parliament just paid him the same amount of money to right the wrong.

Think of last week when Prince Charles visited the US: he spent quite a lot of time basically nipping at Bush's feet, trying to kick him in line with the environmental concerns that the rest of the planet is rather very worried about. Governments do a very good job of managing things but often times they go off in a direction and it takes a counterbalance to right the wrong, else the government just carries on and takes the people with it. Historically that hasn't been the role of monarchies but that is part of what they do now, and it does seem to work sometimes, at least in this regard.

Historically the media and academia have had this role within the US, but things seem to be a bit off at the moment, probably because people took sides rather than supporting both, which only reinforces the problem.
posted by jwells at 9:50 AM on November 9, 2005

Excellent and enlightening reponses all!
posted by punkfloyd at 9:53 AM on November 9, 2005

Here's a long and rather dense speech in defense of monarchy. One point made is that a monarchy often seems to have the ability to maintain unity in countries that might otherwise see ethnic or other political divisions -- Spain and Belgium are mentioned as examples.
posted by beagle at 9:55 AM on November 9, 2005

One other thing - the British Armed Forces declare loyalty to the Crown (the institution that the Queen embodies) rather than the Government.

And my history teacher at school pointed out (this was twenty-five years ago) that the Queen has had private meetings with every Commonwealth leader and every world leader of any importance since about 1950. I don't know if she met Stalin, but pretty much everybody else. I think as an individual she has a lot of influence, but no personal power. That continuity counts for a lot in terms of Britain's status in the world. All US presidents (for example) are upstarts by comparison.
posted by Grangousier at 10:10 AM on November 9, 2005

From my class notes on Congress & the Presidency, taught by David Prindle:

Head of State v. Head of Government

Two functions of a national chief executive: 1) head of state symbolizes the country. We love this person as we love our country. Often called the father-figure. Talk about him in family terms. 2) Head of government: down in the dirty trenches of politics – the deal maker – the policy pusher. Takes sides to pursue policy that goes against others. // Head of state symbolizes what we all share; head of government acts on those things that divide us.

In other countries like England, Japan, Israel different people perform the functions of Head of State and Head of Government. But in the US, the President serves as both. Almost every other democracy divides those functions to two people. Thus if you are British or Japanese you can despise the Head of Government – the Prime Minister – and still love the Head of State.

Americans are in perpetual confliction … we feel guilty for despising a President who is the Head of Government … who is also the Head of State, whom despising would be unpatriotic. Presidents use this to their advantage.

Ex) President Carter – Iran Contra – Carter was being challenged for the nomination of his own party by Ted Kennedy. Carter refused to go out and campaign for the renomination – he gave the impression that it was too important to work on the hostage crisis for him to be bothered. But he sent his aides out to the states in which Kennedy campaigned. The aide would always suggest that by attacking President Carter during this national crisis, Kennedy was committing treason. / A cartoon where Carter has wrapped himself in a flag and Kennedy through a brick at him and Carter says to the people, “did you see what he just did to the flag?” / Heads of State wrap themselves in the flag so that when you criticize them it appears you are unpatriotic. In a time of national crisis, such as now, that tactic is all that much more effective.

The President’s office is weak in terms of getting things done. As Head of Government, the President is weak in domestic policy (not foreign). Therefore, the presidents always try to use their majesty and prestige as Head of State to get people to do the things they want them to because as Head of Government they do not have the power to compel them to.
posted by fourstar at 10:29 AM on November 9, 2005

fourstar - Excellent explanation.
posted by raedyn at 10:46 AM on November 9, 2005

Not a direct answer, but I read that it costs the average UK taxpayer about 11p per year to support the royal family. And like it or not, the Windsors (and the whole "royal" thing) are a big tourist draw. Get rid of that and I don't think England would fare quite as well tourist-wise. Or, as prentiz said so well - Britain makes money on the royals.

Though as Mark Steel pointed out on Have I Got News For You this week, (weakly paraphrased), you don't hear people going up the Eiffel Tower and saying "lovely view, but it was totally spoiled for me by the lack of a monarch"...
posted by patricio at 11:31 AM on November 9, 2005

And like it or not, the Windsors (and the whole "royal" thing) are a big tourist draw.
I don't understand how the Windsors are perceived as a tourist draw. Certainly their infrastructure, in terms of the castles and houses, are attractions, but the people themselves? I've lived here for 44 years, and not once has any of 'em crossed my transom, nor is one ever likely to. The Queen doesn't wander down Oxford Street glad-handing tourists on a regular basis you know. Keep the pretty buildings, kick out the freeloaders and I promise I'll put my 11p tax rebate to very good use.
posted by punilux at 11:35 AM on November 9, 2005

Canada's Governor General costs $35 million a year. However, this includes RCMP, Department of National Defence allocation, the official residence in Ottawa, the fortess in Quebec City, parties for visiting heads of state, travel, funding for cultural and sports programs, etc. In return, we have a seemingly apolitical representative who can go to state funerals, overseas events and what-not, while our prime minister can focus on the business of governing. We also get fringe benefits of the monarchy and the Commonwealth of Nations, which doesn't cost us anything.
posted by acoutu at 12:01 PM on November 9, 2005

I don't understand how the Windsors are perceived as a tourist draw.

Yer? Do you think alot of people would stand outside Buckingham Pallace having their pictures taken if there were definitely not a Queen inside? To make an American analogy, how many people visit Monticello, where a president used to live, vs. how many visit the White House where the President does live? And that's just one example. The royal family in its various forms makes hundreds of public appearances a year, and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that more people show up because they are there. Thus more full hotel rooms, more concession sales, more resturaunt patronage, more ticket sales, more flights on BA, and on and on.

Also, I was under the impression that the royal family is funded mainly by its land holdings - the Duchy of Cornwall - and as such, even without its stipend, is fantastically, and independantly, wealthy.
posted by ChasFile at 12:03 PM on November 9, 2005

And like it or not, the Windsors (and the whole "royal" thing) are a big tourist draw. Get rid of that and I don't think England would fare quite as well tourist-wise. Or, as prentiz said so well - Britain makes money on the royals.

Last time I went to Versailles it was very busy.

How many tourists see the royals? Not many. How many come because of the historical richness that can be seen? Most of them, I would guess. And fair enough, it is just a guess. But would the tourists who didn't come because there were no live royals be counterbalanced by all the tourists who would come because they could look round the whole of Windsor Castle, the whole of Buckingham Palace, see the whole of the art collection which is currently mostly kept private?

I'm probably going to get flamed to hell for saying it, but the system works well - why change?

Well, no flames, but my personal opinion is that in the 21st century, having a head of state who is chosen by random ejaculatory chance and the intermarriage of a small set of people chosen by similar random ejaculatory chance is a poor way to carry on. Why privilege one family above all others? Because they happened to marry right and fuck right and fight right in their particular societal niche? Because of historical accident? Doesn't strike me as a great justification for demanding allegiance or respect, let alone deference.

I don't want the government of my country to be 'Her Majesty's Government' - it may only be symbolic, but it's demeaning, in my view, to the people who elect that government. It debases democracy. It's not her government. It's ours. It may work well in practical terms. So might government by a benevolent dictatorship. Doesn't mean it's the sort of thing we should be aspiring to.

They don't represent or unite the country - depending on what opinion poll you read, maybe a fifth to a third of the country would be happy to see the back of them.

They don't set a compelling example to their subjects - I'm not impressed, for example, by Prince Charles lecturing the country on how to bring up children.

It's discriminatory. Imagine a newly formed country writing a constitution and declaring that no black people can stand for President. Or no white people. Or no Protestants. Or in our case, no Catholics.

And yes, the President Thatcher idea is a spine-chilling one, but get a bad President and you can get rid in four years. Or eight, sadly. Get a bad monarch and you're stuck with them for life. You say imagine President Thatcher, President Blair? Well, imagine King George W the First.

Oh, and I stood for fucking hours in the rain and waved my little flag and the stony-faced cow didn't even wave back as she was driven past. And so are nine year old republicans born.
posted by reynir at 12:19 PM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Seems a rather costly form of national pride

On a sidenote to the excellent material on relative costs and benefits of monarchy, I think the flipside of this is that most of the outward trappings of national pride have a cost too. Why do armies bother to maintain ceremonial functions? Why maintain state residences for heads of state? Why have glitzy state attentions? Because the outward expressions of power structures are really important in affirming their legitimacy. Putting it very, very crudely, the US has the White House, the UK has Buckingham Palace, the Vatican has St Peter's. They are all fulfilling the same function even if what they represent are vastly different.

It's not just the army who swear loyalty to the Crown, too. Police officers and MPs do as well. Civil servants are technically employees of the Crown. if you add together the collection of laws, traditions and conventions that would collectively make up a UK constitution, the monarchy would feature quite heavily - they're not just a ceremonial bolt-on figurehead. So changing the system would be an administrator's nightmare; the best comparison I can give you is when Downing Street decided a couple of years ago to abolish overnight the position of Lord Chancellor and replace it with a Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. Although there are some sound arguments for this - is it appropriate for a senior law lord/judge to be a member of the Government? - there was also a strong presentational element to the decisions - let's be young and progressive by abolishing this crusty old position. They then realised that the Lord Chancellor features in loads of pieces of legislation and that to abolish the position, new legislation would be needed!

See the following links for a very condensed summary of the nightmare that became the Constitutional Reform Bill: summary and list of references to the Lord Chancellor in UK law.

I would love to see a United Kingdom (Republic) Bill 2005, though - just to imagine the hours of work the lawyers would have to put into drafting it...
posted by greycap at 12:25 PM on November 9, 2005

Yer? Do you think alot of people would stand outside Buckingham Pallace having their pictures taken if there were definitely not a Queen inside? To make an American analogy, how many people visit Monticello, where a president used to live, vs. how many visit the White House where the President does live? And that's just one example.

Here's another:

Annual visitors to Windsor Castle (pop: monarchs): around 900,000

Annual visitors to the Palace of Versailles (pop: ghosts): around 3,000,000
posted by reynir at 12:26 PM on November 9, 2005

"state attentions" - was supposed to read "state occasions". Oops.
posted by greycap at 12:29 PM on November 9, 2005

it's a depressing reflection on the uk that this argument generally boils down to whether the royals make or lose money for the country.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:10 PM on November 9, 2005

why do England and other democracies

There's also a troubling conflation implicit in this sentence that asserts that "England" is the entirety of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In fact, of all the constituent nations of the UK, only England has no real, functioning national government. Scotland and Wales got their own legislatures recently, while Northern Ireland's pops in and out of existence depending on levels of testosterone prevailing there. It's interesting to note that unlike the UK's national legislature in Westminster, Scotland and Wales' devolved legislatures are elected using a vaguely proportional voting system, while Northern Ireland's use an even more proportional voting system similar to that used in the Republic of Ireland.

The UK's Crown Dependencies/tax dodge islands (Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey) also have their own legislatures. The Isle of Man's legislature, in fact, predates all other governments within the UK by several hundred years. I'm anticipating Cornwall getting its own legislature sooner rather than later, because devolution is all the rage in the UK at the moment.

All the nations and dependencies of the UK do though, of course, acknowledge Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor as Head of State by virtue of her direct legal descent from Electress Sophia, Princess Palatine of the Rhine (1630-1714).

The Act of Settlement (1701) defines who can be Head of State of the UK. Basically, you can be any religion but Roman Catholic and can not have married a Roman Catholic or be descended from any union where a Catholic was involved. This Catholic exclusion defines the legal descendents of the above-mentioned Sophia, the ancestor of William and Anne of Orange, the victors of the last successful military coup within the UK (1688).

It's a curious and discriminatory historical accident that Catholics are excluded from possibly becoming the UK's Head of State. When written, the Act seems to have assumed there could only be "Protestants" and "Catholics", and so the definitions are very strict about what constitutes a Roman Catholic, but very loose about what constitutes a "Protestant".
posted by meehawl at 3:07 PM on November 9, 2005

Ooops, for Sophia, Pfalzgräfin von Simmern mentioned above, please use "relative" of Anne, not ancestor. I was thinking of Egbert of Wessex, who is the ancestor of them all, but is not part of the legal claim to the Monarchy of the UK.
posted by meehawl at 3:15 PM on November 9, 2005

It's traditional. They're an important part of the heritage and identity of Great Britain. And sappy and untrue as it may sound, they're good for national morale and unity. She's not just the queen of the UK, she is the Queen. She's an international symbol of moral authority and she is from Great Britain.
But there are lots of more practical reasons for keeping them:
1) No politician could possibly gather the clout to remove them. People just like them too much.
2) Even supposing the UK parliament voted to become a republic, she is still the Queen of Canada, the Barbados, Saint Lucia, Australia, New Zealand, Belize and a whole pile of other places. It would certainly be a strange situation, but you can be damn sure that many colonies wouldn't follow suit. So she wouldn't just go away. And that would be a thorn in the side.
3) They may not actually make much money, but I'll betcha they come pretty close to breaking even, what with all their investments, the combined tourism dollars, etc. So why fix what ain't broke?
4) The removal of your own symbolic monarchy, to save the UK 11p per person would be an international embarrassment.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 3:17 PM on November 9, 2005

Because people are frequently morally lazy and thoughtless to the point that they'll turn a blind eye to the biggest immoralities whilst wringing their hands about relatively trivial ones.

This is why a cabinet minister will get immense flak for having an affair, whilst Iraq burns; people will witter on about outlawing hoodies whilst "I support our troops" stickers are ubiquitous; people work themselves into a lather about teenage sex whilst obscene, wholly hereditary privilege is not only permitted to flourish but is actively celebrated. "Oh, but it's traditional". Shut up. So was cockfighting and foxhunting.

Monarchists disgust me. Especially those who have the appalling and hypocritical audacity to claim to be on the political left. Don't get me started on them...
posted by Decani at 3:31 PM on November 9, 2005

A constitutional monarchy is the worst possible form of hierarchy...except for all the others. (After Churchill)

What does it give me?
A cause. An itch. Something guaranteed to make me laugh. Something to make me feel superior (to all those who unquestionably are monarchist). Something to connect me to English history for about 1300 years. Something to resent after what has been done by English monarchs to the land of my forebears.

Ultimately, as my teenage radicalism fades and blurs, I realise that imperfect structures can persist, can shelter, can focus and collect the disconnected in one place. Even as I analyse the institutes absurdity and frailty, I note: it's still here. And it doesn't hurt me.
posted by dash_slot- at 3:41 PM on November 9, 2005

ChasFile answered for me better than I could.


Every time a royal shows up at some sort of shindig there are lots of people there just because a royal is there. People come for miles to get a peek at the Queen and her brood. These people buy local things (even if just a snack), support local charities, etc. There's even the cost of getting to somewhere a royal is going to show up (trains, buses, petrol, etc.). If nothing else, they keep the enconomy going in (small) ways that wouldn't happen if a royal didn't show up.

And yes, there would still be a lot of tourists in the UK without the "royal draw" (such as Versailles). I didn't intend to infer that there wouldn't be. People will still want to visit Windsor Castle. And hey, if there's an off chance to see QEII, all the better.

It is interesting that with the lack of royalty, that Americans (of which I am one) have made their own version (Camelot/Kennedy). I have no idea why that happens. Do we have some sort of an intrinsic need to look up to someone?

I visited England and Scotland a few years ago. I saw Prince Philip leave Holyroodhouse. Yeah, silly me, it gave me a wee thrill to see a royal. I also missed seeing St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle because the Queen was in residence and I visited on a Sunday.
/unrepentant anglophile

posted by deborah at 5:15 PM on November 9, 2005

Plus, there's always the elephant in the middle of the room - the Queen is one of the last vestiges of the good old days, back when sun didn't set on British soil.
posted by afroblanca at 5:50 PM on November 9, 2005

I think Count Ziggurat came closest -- it's considered a part of national identity. This is why even the watered-down monarchies of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium continue.

Nevertheless, it surprises me that with the way that the monarchy embodies national identity, the long string of fuckups in the British edition -- the Queen herself excepted, other than in a root cause sense -- hasn't brought more of a groundswell of perfunctory throw-em-out calls. Wills looks like he'll be solid enough, but his dad -- whoa. Of course half that could have been avoided if Liz hadn't taken her "duty" so seriously and let the fool marry whom he wanted in the first place. See, it's something like the way Clinton's or Bush's scandals hampered their effectiveness -- doesn't looking silly to the world matter? Or does this come down to having the government look good by comparison? ;-)
posted by dhartung at 11:00 PM on November 9, 2005

What everyone else has said, but just to add that the Queen owns an enormous amount of property in the UK, both regular estates, houses and farms and obscure things like seashores, mineral rights, forests etc. If the Royal Family is to have no special status, then the state either robs them Castro style, or makes some kind of payment. The sum would be breathtaking, the calculation byzantine, the difficulties immense.

Easier not to bother and gloss the whole thing with tradition or whatever else works.
posted by grahamwell at 3:21 AM on November 10, 2005

people need something bigger than themselves, usually so they are distracted from the fact their individual lives have been reduced to pointless production and consumpton.

i imagine monarchies also give a sense of timelesness, or at least something to anchor oneself (or one's chosen amalgam) to a sense of history in a glib and overly-consumptive postmodern age.

ps. please define "democracies," as i believe we are working from different lexicons.
posted by poweredbybeard at 12:41 PM on November 10, 2005

Punkflyod, by your term "this day and age" I assume you favour a meritocracy over a monarchy. Most people (including me) would agree with you: a society where status obtained by merit rather than birthright is a fair society. It also seems that such a situation would be a natural extension of our liberal democracy.

However abolishing the monarchy would be to overlook a subtle yet profound flaw in meritocratic systems. namely, the horror of actually living in a fair society. Imagine, you live in a meritocracy, you look at your president and you have to belive that he has achieved his position by virtue of his own abilities. He, like everyone else in a meritocracy, is the author of his own destiny. You then take a look at the beggar on the street, by the same logic you must concede that he too is the author of his own destiny, so must deserve to be homeless.

How would you feel about your own life if you knew the status you have is all you deserve? In England the idea that citizens are oppressed by the monarchy is risible, yet the royal families presence pervades many areas of our lives, ie our coins, stamps, national events, coffee mugs etc. The consequence of this is the perception that we are born into a certain level of a predetermined hierarchy, therefore the status we achieve is not necessarily a reflection of our own personal worth.

Juxtapose this perception with the reality. England and the USA are both liberal democracies. In England there is the perception that you have to be born in to the right family to succeed, yet the reality is one where a council estate kid can become foreign secretory and its not even a big deal. America, on the other hand, has the perception of a meritocracy, yet the reality maintains the traditionAL European bias towards white males and also an almost universal distaste for the less fortunate.

Of course in reality there isn't much to chose between the two. But least the homeless Brit can look at his 2p coin and take solace in the importance of luck. This is the gist of an argument I heard in a documentary a while back-- I thought it might interest you.
posted by verisimilitude at 4:53 PM on November 12, 2005 [2 favorites]

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