The British Monarchy: Unifying or divisive?

Few experts have shared with me their thoughts on the British Royal Family, democracy, society and politics in the United Kingdom.


Some critics of the British Monarchy argue that the hereditary monarchy is absolutely undemocratic even if it is in a form of the constitutional monarchy. What kind of impact has the lasting existence of the British Monarchy in your opinion on the quality of political system and democracy in the UK? Positive? Negative? None? And why?


Philip Williamson, Professor, Department of History, University of Durham

The questions you ask raise matters on which there are sharp divisions of opinion, and no clear answer is possible.  A number of distinctions are perhaps helpful, between the monarchy as an institution; the arrangements and customs which surround the monarchy; and the wider royal family and its financial costs.

As an institution, the monarchy has been an inseparable part of the British constitution and the arrangements of other public institutions.   The sovereign body in the United Kingdom is a combination of monarchy and parliament – ‘the sovereign in parliament’.  The monarch represents this sovereign body as head of state, and the law courts, armed forces and so on owe their allegiance to ‘the crown’ in this sense.  In practice, the monarch has long acted on advice from elected and public officials, and so the position is largely symbolic.  The monarch and royal family more generally also act as nominal patrons of a large number of other public associations, most notably charitable bodies.  Here the role is again very largely symbolic, conferring on these organisations a degree of ‘national’ endorsement.   The prevailing view in Britain has been that it is better to have a hereditary rather than an elected head of state, or one nominated by any body which might be controlled by a political party.  A hereditary monarch is considered to be a neutral representative of the whole nation, independent of any partisan causes.

The arrangements and customs associated with the monarchy are more controversial, because some argue that these support traditional – in the sense of outmoded –  public arrangements, a status hierarchy and deferential social attitudes, and ultimately privileged or partisan positions.  It has been presented as an influence which is resistant to reform, and which upholds social inequalities – though in recent times this has less to do with what the monarch herself does, than with the attitudes of the various institutions and groups around the institution.   What the monarchy represents and does has changed and can be changed, and it has represented social and international good causes, as is very evident from the involvement of members of the royal family in many charitable bodies.   It and its advisors have adjusted the institution to conditions of political democracy, and they have tried to adjust to those of greater social democracy.  Even so, there is much about the attitudes towards the royal family – the obssession with its celebrity status, the deference and so on – which many find distasteful and unfortunate.

An important symbolic role of the monarchy has been to uphold, represent and express certain fundamental values and standards, which are very widely accepted and which in some cases are vital to public well being.  One of these, well exemplified by the current Queen, is commitment to public duty and public service – the notion of kings and queens as public servants.  Others have had to do with respectability, decent behaviour, stable family lives, the domestic virtues, and so on.  In these respects, the wider royal family has caused problems, because of a conflict between what it is thought the monarchy should represent and the way that some members have behaved – in other words, there have been what some of the media call ‘scandals’, what can be sensationalised. And they are also expensive, adding to the costs of the monarchy in its fundamental role of head of state and so to the ‘civil list’, or the part of the costs of the monarchy which are paid from public funds. All this attracts criticism.

In terms of the quality of the political system, it is not easy to argue that the monarchy now makes much difference.   The institution has been taken out of political decisions in which its choice might seem partisan and controversial.  The creation of the coalition government in May 2010 makes this very clear: the role of creating a forum in which the party leaders could negotiate the formation of a majority government was taken not by the monarch, as in the past, but by the senior civil service.  The system of government is now in the hands of the politicians, civil servants, law courts and so on. Where the monarchy or really the royal family has an influence is in the wider public and social culture, but much of this is unintended – as I say, to do with the obsession with celebrity and with the sensationalisation in the media.

Eunice Goes, Assistant Professor of Communications, Richmond, the American International University in London

It is a matter of fact that a monarchy is undemocratic, because the head of the state is not elected and owes her/his position to hereditary principles. So it’s not some critics, it’s a matter of fact. Constitutional monarchies try to make monarchies palatable to the democratic public, but they’re not democratic. In the real world, no member of the royal family would have proper jobs, as most of them aren’t very bright and come from a very conservative — even reactionary background.

The monarchy contributes to the continuation of a certain deference in British society and clearly to a sense of a class-based society. I believe that at the moment the Royal Family’s effect in public life is rather harmless. Most people do not care about the Royal Family and tend to see them as one sees celebrities. The Royal Wedding will be a good excuse to throw a party.

George Jones, Emeritus Professor of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

On balance hereditary monarchy has been beneficial for the British political system and democracy. It has been an unifying symbol above politics, with a Head of State who is not a participant in partisan conflicts. A President chosen by politicians would not command the loyalty and affection of the people as has the Queen. Both ministers and civil servants are Crown Servants, so they know they are not autonomous rulers. The regular weekly meetings between the Prime Minister and the Queen have been found useful by prime ministers as therapeutic sessions where they can talk over pressing concerns with someone who is totally neutral, trustworthy and, in the present case, with a Queen whose experience of public affairs goes back to the 1950s.

The problems lie not so much with hereditary monarchy but with some members of the royal family, who have damaged the monarchy by speaking out on public issues, and by pursuing indiscreet private lives – all subsidised by taxpayers. The present Queen, and her mother, were model monarchs, much loved by the British people. They have shown the other members of the royal family how to do it. Their behaviour and antics have damaged the reputation of the monarchy. I hope William and Kate will follow the examples of his grandmother and great grandmother.

Some attack the monarchy for being the cornerstone of the British class system, sustaining deference in society; and for encouraging philistine and not civilised cultural pursuits. These views are held by only a minority, and are outweighed by the advantage of having a unifying monarch above the political battle.

Gëzim Alpion, Lecturer in Sociology, Department of Sociology, University of Birmingham

The British Monarch as Head of State is largely a ceremonial figure; as such Queen Elizabeth II does not play an ‘active’ role in contemporary British politics. British monarchs ceased to play such a role a long time ago. The British Monarchy is indeed an anachronism (some would include religion in this category) but the institution itself does not have any negative impact on democracy. As a central iconic symbol of the British identity, the Monarchy serves as a constant unifier (at least at a wishful, make-belief level) at a time when party politics continues to ‘divide’ public opinion and the electorate in the UK as anywhere else in the world. Those who raise the issue of the undemocratic nature of the British Monarchy perhaps should also explore the ‘wisdom’ of and ‘legitimacy’ behind some decisions made by democratically elected politicians.

Bill Jones, Professor of  Politics,  Liverpool Hope University

The monarchy has no political power and does not enjoy the same popularity as in the past ie early 20th century. But it is still seen as a symbol of national unity and the Queen is universially respected a selfless servant of ‘her’ people. This can be seen as a plus but the monarchy is also a symbol of inherited privilege and as the apex of a deeply divisive class system.


One Response

  1. Good luck to Kate Middleton and Prince William.

    Those who choose to take on the burden of monarchy and the heavy spiritual lifting of leadership need to be supported. They will need a very good team around them. A circle of trust. People that can just sit with them, enjoy their company and treat them like everyday human beings. Calming influences are required in their lives. They must find some genuinely righteous people to be part of their inner circle. As public figures they also need strict boundaries for their private lives. Certain things should be completely off limits to the media. People find sanctuary in good leadership, but good leaders also need sanctuary.

    As King, William’s prime responsibilities will be the following…

    “The Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights — the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn. And a king of great sense and sagacity would want no others !”

    – William Bagehot 1826 to 1877

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