Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96 on September 8, 2022. She was the longest-reigning monarch of Britain and had the second-longest verified reign ever (after France’s Louis XIV) in the history of the world. Held in high regard by the community of world leaders and widely-respected at home in the United Kingdom, she has left behind a void for her immediate family members and bequeathed a conundrum to the larger public.
The UK head of state traditionally also heads the Commonwealth, comprising 56 member nations, consisting of a population of 2.4 billion, the vast majority of which are former territories of the British Empire, over which the sun has indubitably set a while ago. As sovereign, he/she also opens the sessions of Parliament, grants his or her Royal Assent to the bills passed by the House of Lords and the Commons, officially appoints the Prime Minister, who has the backing of the majority of MPs. On the Prime Minister’s recommendation, the monarch also formally dissolves a government before elections can be held at the national level.
The British monarch is head of the military, the UK’s currency carries her/his visage and till September 8, a QC (Queen’s Counsel) was a barrister chosen to represent the British royal family in a court of law. In ways subtle and not-so-subtle, the British monarch impacts countless lives on local soil and foreign shores both. In keeping with tradition, Australia, Canada and New Zealand have officially announced that they will now consider King Charles III as their head of state.
However, in the event of Queen Elizabeth’s death, even the most ardent admirers of the British royal family concede that the time has come for an introspection into and a re-look at the future of the monarchy. One of the catalysts for this is the high opinion that the majority of stakeholders had of Queen Elizabeth. With her passing, the baton may have passed on to King Charles III but so has the baggage of controversies past and present that has accompanied said passing.
There was a time when the British public could not stand Camilla Parker-Bowles, now Queen Consort; she was depicted by tabloids as the most hated woman in Britain, someone who could never marry then Prince Charles, leave alone become Queen. But the couple did get married in 2005 and since then, she has come in for more generous treatment from the British public.
However, the process of repair and reconciliation, which seemed well underway by then, was dealt a huge blow in March 2021, when an interview given by Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle to Oprah Winfrey proved to be devastating for the British monarchy. The couple’s allegations that their son was subjected to racism from within the royal household also raised the spectre of the royal family’s impending descent into oblivion.
“The interview confirms a lot of what we’ve been saying for a long time: the royal household is not fit for purpose in the modern world. It is secretive, controlling, wastes hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money every year and is bad for British politics. It’s also bad for the royals,” said the Republic Campaign, which seeks signatures to a petition to abolish the British monarchy.
Then there was the involvement of Prince Andrew in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal and the disastrous interview he gave to the BBC, which bolstered the public’s perception of his guilt (cemented by an out-of-court settlement with the victim and his subsequent pull back from public role and duties).
“The British monarchy will always be part of our history. That doesn’t mean it should be part of our future. The Queen is the last royal to command high levels of support, the following generations being mired in scandal, controversy and damaging rumour. British people now, more than ever, see themselves as citizens, not subjects. We are democrats and democracy is not a spectator sport. That means we all need to have a say in who our next head of state should be, and how we’re governed. And we all need to step up and make monarchy history,” reads the petition by Republic Campaign.
So what will be the alternative to the constitutional monarchy in present-day Britain? One suggestion is that of a democratic institution. “We can have a more democratic institution, a non-political but elected head of state along with a fully elected parliament. No more kings and queens, no more lords and dukes. Just citizens freely choosing who takes on the most senior jobs in the land,” says the Republic Campaign petition.
“The royals do not live up to the standards we should expect of public servants. They demand secrecy, they spend more than £345m of taxpayers’ money a year on their wasteful and extravagant lives, and they interfere in politics to further their own interests and promote their own political agenda. The monarchy stands against our values and principles. There is a simple democratic alternative on offer: Elections to choose a non-political head of state with limited constitutional power. We still have a government headed by the prime minister and drawn from the House of Commons. Put simply: we take what we have and make it democratic,” it adds.
Morgan Jones, writing in ‘Open Democracy‘ on September 20, 2022, says, “..even if some of the most vocal republicans appear to have a poor grasp of their political climate, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. Hereditary monarchy is retrograde, and the power we give it is frightening. This has been on full display in the period since the Queen’s death, from the arrest of the man who heckled the disgraced Prince Andrew, to the sidelining of people who point out the monarchy’s historic role in the slave trade, to the country’s apparent willingness to halt everything in the name of mourning.”
Jones says further, “Seeing this power on show has made republicanism not only more urgent, but more connected to other issues. We should be wary of an institution with the power, say, to put thousands of armed police on the streets of London at a moment’s notice, to apparently interfere with our hospital appointments and to avoid inheritance tax. The monarchy’s power to influence these things, arbitrarily bestowed on the royal family as a birthright, is very real – even if it is largely exercised out of sight.”
The demand to make Britain a Republic, however muted or limited, atleast according to its coverage in the mainstream media, is not new.
In 2012, as Britain celebrated 60 years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Andrew Child wrote a blog titled “There’s every reason to argue that its time to abolish the Monarchy. Britain can do so much better” for the London School of Economics. Andrew Child was, at the time, a director and spokesman for the Republic Campaign. He helped to organise the group’s Jubilee Protest, which took place in London on June 3, 2012 and was billed as the largest republican demonstration of modern times.
Here’s an excerpt from Child’s blog:
“Our prime minister may be offered personal opinions at one of her (the Queen’s) weekly briefings at the palace or through a meeting of the Privy Council, but we’ve no idea what is said. They’re not opinions offered in the public realm. Because despite the monarchy being a public institution there’s no public scrutiny of it. It’s exempt from Freedom of Information legislation. And if our politicians misbehave – as they did quite astonishingly through their abuse of parliamentary expenses – it is they who call an inquiry in themselves. The Queen does not hold them to account and she herself cannot be held to account.”
Arguing against the oft-cited rationale that the Queen promotes Britain abroad, Child wrote, “No-one else does pomp and ceremony like the Brits, goes the old cliche and our foreign friends apparently view it all with some envy. Now this I really do find offensive. The fact of the matter is that monarchy is extremely damaging to the effectiveness of our foreign policy. How on earth are we supposed to support the Arab Spring and foster the idea of greater democracy elsewhere in the world when we have such an imperfect democracy ourselves? By not electing our head of state? But it doesn’t stop there. Our Queen gives legitimacy to murderous dictators by inviting them to dine with her and celebrate 60 years on the throne. I speak principally of King Hamad of Bahrain and King Mswati of Swaziland. But also Saudi royals, who deny women basic rights and help crush democratic uprisings in neighbouring countries with military might. In these actions we see a monarch who has contempt not just for public opinion and democracy but for human rights. It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of the 54 Commonwealth nations are now republics. Hard to see the evidence of envy in that.”
On the British royal family being a tourist-magnet, Child reasoned, “Versailles in republican France is in the world’s top 50 tourist destinations and receives six million visitors a year. In contrast Buckingham Palace, during its short summer opening, receives less than half a million. Go figure.”
While the immediate fate of the Windsor dynasty might appear unchanged and not subject to any major upheaval, what can be said with some certainty is that it would be far-sighted of them to begin seeking alternative sources of income, not reliant solely upon their status as ‘working royals’.
As Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, political correspondent at JOE.co.uk, argued after the Harry-Meghan interview to Oprah, “The Royal Family are increasingly becoming an anachronism within modern British society. Whether it’s the interview with Meghan and Harry, or the Prince Andrew affair, or the growing awareness of the wrongs of colonialism, with which the monarchy is inextricably linked, they are becoming increasingly out of place in contemporary society. There is also the very real question of what are we paying for? The Royal Family does not come cheap. A report from the Sovereign Grant, which funds the Queen, shows the monarch cost the taxpayer £69 million in 2019-20. Yet, it increasingly fuels toxic public discourse and makes Britain vulnerable to scandals such as the controversies swirling around Prince Andrew’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein.”
Batchelor-Hunt adds, definitively, “The time has come: let’s abolish the monarchy.”