The carriage of King Charles III, the

The Case For and Against Abolishing the Monarchy

Leon Wheeler argues in favour of the British monarchy's abolition, whilst Adam Arnfield highlights its contributions to the UK.

The Case For the Abolition of the Monarchy – Leon Wheeler

When Charles I was beheaded in 1649, a fundamental tenet in his belief, and in the belief of his supporters, as to why he should be King was the view that the English monarch was divinely appointed by God. Ultimately, when the monarchy was restored in 1688, the exposition of the divine right of Kings to rule died out – there was an appreciation that with the advancement of science, such an argument was less persuasive. However, although our current monarchs no longer rule us – instead holding a symbolic role of superiority – this notion that some are ‘divinely’ appointed to stand above the rest of us ‘common folk’ remains an underlying basis for the continued reign of the British Royal Family.

In the wake of the coronation, in which the country was very nearly asked to pledge its obedience to the new King, I’m forced to confront the reality that the very concept of the monarchy – especially in the form it takes in the UK – is an afront to the principles of democracy, equality, and individual sovereignty that our country has proudly boasted of.

The UK claims to be the home of parliamentary democracy, but can it really claim to be a democracy when we have an unelected head of state? The principles of democracy argue that those governing and in positions of power should only do so with the consent of the governed. A principle that is significantly undermined when the main signature needed to ensure a law is enacted is that of someone whose sole requirement be that they were born to the right person in the right order.

Furthermore, when we as citizens (not subjects) vote for MPs and for the government, we expect them to create legislation that applies equally to everyone, that doesn’t favour those from a particular class, creed, or race. We certainly don’t expect individuals who play key roles in our constitutional system to make use of their position to ensure that what legislation is produced is favourable specifically to their family.

Since 1967, the Queen, and now the King, has had exemptions written into over 160 different laws – the Royal household is exempt from employees of the monarch pursuing sexual or racial discrimination complaints, the monarchy is exempt from the 2010 Equality Act, police and environmental officers are banned from accessing the Royal families’ private properties without first attaining permission, the monarchy is not required to pay income or capital gains tax (not even on private interests), and the monarchy is exempt from paying inheritance tax. This is only compounded by the fact that the Royal family has the right to inspect legislation that may affect them – and request alterations – before it becomes public.

As such, we have a situation where a select group of individuals, born into their positions, are able to intervene and exempt themselves from the democratically constructed law. When those in positions of power separate from the legislative body can so freely interfere with the making of laws, can we then truly label the UK a democracy?

…the very concept of the monarchy – especially in the form it takes in the UK – is an afront to the principles of democracy, equality, and individual sovereignty that our country has proudly boasted of.

This point about the Royal family being exempt from multiple laws feeds into my next point. Very clearly, the monarchy is a contradiction to the belief that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. When a select group are not only unlikely to be prosecuted for a breach of the law, but have illegal acts made permissible for them by the law itself, any illusion of equality must be thrown out of the window. The mere fact that one family in this country are born not just into great wealth, but into positions of national power and importance, indicates that we are not all equal – there are some of us born with more rights. This is a direct call back to the divine right of kings that once separated the monarchy from everyone else.  

It is often argued that the monarchy plays an important role in representing the UK abroad. Royal visits are seen as a way in which the UK can advance its interests by soft power – giving the Royal family a valued diplomatic role. I argue that this is mistaken. At its zenith the British Empire ruled over roughly 25% of the world’s surface. It therefore seems bizarre to argue that the best way to endear the UK to other countries, especially members of the commonwealth, is by sending over the direct descendants and representatives of the individuals and institution that sanctioned and endorsed the colonisation, looting, and desecration of the nations in the first place. Proof of this can be seen in William and Kate’s trip to Jamaica in 2022. Prior to their arrival Jamaica indicated its intention to transition to a republic. Furthermore, an open letter signed by one hundred Jamaican academics, politicians, and cultural leaders branded the royal visitors as “direct beneficiaries of the wealth accumulated by the royal family…from the trafficking and enslavement of Africans”.

The Royal Family’s position as representatives of the UK not only harms chances at bridging diplomatic gaps, but it also contributes to a negative portrayal of the UK internationally. When the scandal over Prince Andrew’s ties to Jeffery Epstein emerged, it directly harmed the Royal Family’s reputation. And because the monarchy is the head of state, this directly harmed the UK’s reputation as well. Similarly, issues with Prince Phillip making ‘problematic’ (racist and sexist) gaffes when abroad, and the scandal over Charles’ affair with the now Queen Camilla, further harm the reputation of our country. In this way the monarchy’s position as representatives and figure heads is a large negative for the interests of us all.

So what’s the alternative? Many argue that were the position of head of state to be elected, it would bring in a political element and constitutional crisis that the current system avoids. This view, though, is premised on a mistaken assumption of the monarchy’s apolitical nature. When the Royal Family’s net worth is estimated to run into the billions, when the entire family was born into luxury and wealth, and when they are predominantly white and upper class, they cannot help but represent traditional, conservative values, the status quo, and the advancement of the wealthy.

By contrast, a duly elected head of state with the same duties and removed stance from the levers of power would act merely as some kind of ‘chief diplomat’. An individual who could be relied upon to perform just their duties and could be unelected at the end of their term or at the arrival of scandals of the like that are becoming common with the Royal Family.

To conclude, if we truly value democracy, if we care about the reputation of the UK, and if we believe in the equality of all – then we have no option but to oppose the monarchy.

Responses to the case for abolition – Adam Arnfield

  1. Many of the exemptions which the Royal Family have from laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act, are exemptions they have because they are a family before they are a business, the laws often containing the words ‘in [his] private capacity’. Moreover, the Queen voluntarily paid tax, despite not being required to do so. Of course, some of the exemptions, such as from sexual and racial discrimination complaints, should not exist, but these can simply be removed alongside Charles’ modernising agenda – abolition is not required.
  2. If we were to bar all people with morally questionable ancestors from diplomatic roles or other public offices, I’m not sure we’d have any diplomats or public figures left in Britain.
  3. The monarchy clearly does more good for Britain’s reputation than it does harm. The outpouring of affection from across the world at the late Queen’s death and the vast number of international visitors to her funeral are surely signs of that.

The Case Against the Abolition of the Monarchy – Adam Arnfield

‘Not to be served, but to serve’. Those were the words that we heard repeated over and over again throughout the coronation on Saturday. Although the coronation brings to mind a monarch in a golden carriage, waving to adoring crowds, at its core, Britain’s monarchy is not about taking but about giving.

As much as royal duties may seem like the family repeatedly setting off around the world, tooting their own horns, the reality is very different. Royals do not make up their calendars as they please, but accept the invitations of the hundreds of organisations that desire and value their presence. Republicans might think the respect that the British people have for the Royal Family is misplaced and unhealthy. The suggestion here is that republicans know what’s best for the British public, better than the British public themselves. This patronising attitude mirrors the paternalistic ethos which republicans so often rail against when protesting the monarchy.

As Stephen Fry points out, the monarchy can have a positive effect on government. The Prime Minister must meet the monarch on a weekly basis, discussing national affairs and explaining their decisions. Regularly meeting with a figure who symbolises the British people is a check on the Prime Minister’s ego and a disincentive against corruption. Note that most of Boris Johnson’s most outrageous scandals occurred during the 15 months wherein COVID prevented his meeting the Queen. Without a monarchy, would our leaders go even further off the rails? Of course, at elections the people can punish bad government. But elections happen only twice a decade, while the King meets with the Prime Minister every week to hear of their work. Patriotism might be stirring to some, but surely meeting with an embodied monarch inspires more fear than a mythic ‘King Arthur’. Do we really imagine that Donald Trump, for example, feels a sense of duty towards Uncle Sam? A Prime Minister without a King is like an Oxford student without a tutor. And usually a PPE student at that!

The personal effect on the Prime Minister is clearly not the only political benefit monarchy brings. As I have written for the Oxford student previously, the Royal Family provides Britain with a national icon that it can honour and trust, without the toxic effects of giving a politician such power. I doubt I need to give examples of cults of personality leading to political overreach and disaster. A monarchy is a guard against popular politicians going too far. By contrast, the idea of a President Thatcher or a President Blair is not a comforting one. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, half of the world’s twenty most democratic states are monarchies, and monarchies regularly score highly on Transparency International’s absence of corruption index.

Despite regular complaints of ‘taking taxpayers’ money’, having a monarchy actually saves Britain money. Brand Finance estimates that the royal family generates a net surplus for Britain, costing £292M, but generating £1.766B! Moreover, were republicans to have their way, even if we didn’t add presidential campaigns to our election cycle, campaigns would certainly become more personalised and expensive. On top of those recurring costs, there would be an incredibly complicated and expensive process of untangling the Royal Family from the British political system, the two being intimately intertwined. The opening of parliament, the investing of power in the Prime Minister, the process by which bills become law, the welcoming of foreign diplomats to Britain, the management of Crown properties, and the symbols on various government services would all need to be reformed or replaced, to name but a few aspects of the process.

Do we really imagine that Donald Trump, for example, feels a sense of duty towards Uncle Sam? A Prime Minister without a King is like an Oxford student without a tutor.

The most important part of a republican Britain, however, would be the codification and entrenchment of a British constitution. Britain’s political system currently functions on the basis of convention, and its structure puts the politically neutral monarch at its head. Therefore, the removal of the monarchy would need to be accompanied by the creation of a new constitution, as the duties of the head of state are vested elsewhere. Firstly, this process is likely to provoke the wrath of parliament: enshrining a certain set of laws as foundational and unchangeable could easily be considered a threat to ‘parliamentary supremacy’. Secondly, the process would naturally become very partisan very quickly. Britain took nearly four years to negotiate Brexit with the EU, formalising rules about one part of its foreign policy. Imagine how long Britain would take, and how difficult it would be, to negotiate the rules of the entire political system. And remember we’re talking about a negotiation not between two trading partners, but between two bitterly opposed political parties. The exact nature of various political processes, including the selection of the Prime Minister, the calling together and dissolution of parliament, and the relation of the Supreme Court and other institutions to parliament, would all need to be hashed out.

Of course, none of these positive effects are simply institutional. The Kings and Queens that have served Britain are not mere figureheads with no substance – they are real people with real personalities, and of course, they must come with real flaws. I do not want to pretend that King Charles, or past monarchs for that matter, are without sin. However, the monarchy has been able to recognise its role in the mistakes of Britain’s past, with King Charles supporting research into the connection monarchy has had to slavery, calling it “the most painful period of our history”. And as Britain steps into the future, it is led by a King who has been ahead of his time in climate advocacy, showing that the monarchy can have a positive influence despite being above politics.

Responses to the case against abolition – Leon Wheeler

  1. Although the weekly meetings between the monarch and the PM represent a chance for the PM to be grilled about their achievements and conduct, to assume that this represents a check on their power or intentions is wrong. The monarch has the right to make suggestions or criticise conduct but not only does this display the fact that they do have a political stance, but it also has little effect. An Oxford tutor can impose some limited sanctions – a monarch cannot.
  2. As for the apparent issues surrounding Parliament, the codification of the constitution, and the place of an elected ‘president’, I believe my opponent exaggerates them. There seems no need to me for any part of the UK’s uncodified constitution to become entrenched – not even parts pertaining to a new head of state. Parliamentary sovereignty could easily be maintained in a republic, and I believe that in many cases the role of the monarch in the Parliamentary system could very easily be replaced by that of a president with very little alteration.
  3. From a republican standpoint, to engage in a debate over whether the monarchy is a net financial positive or negative is a mistake. Such a debate is premised on the idea that if only the monarchy can reach a certain level of financial profitability, its existence is justified.

Image credit: Katie Chan at Wikimedia Commons.

Image description: The carriage of King Charles III en route to his coronation.