IN 2019, RESEARCHERS at the University of Sheffield argued persuasively that the UK may be going through a process of ‘undevelopment’, which they defined as “the dismantling, rather than the building, of a viable, functioning political economy that satisfactorily serves its people.”
If this process of undevelopment is to be halted and reversed, much radical change is needed. Perhaps freeing ourselves from the anachronism of an inherited head of state, and the entrenched inequality that represents, could be a small but important part of this change. And now, in a process that seems to be gathering momentum, the reasons for preserving the status quo seem to be crumbling.
One of the main reasons cited by supporters of the UK’s constitutional monarchy is that an unelected head of state is non-political, a neutral figurehead to which people of all persuasions can be loyal. But this has only ever been an illusion, and it is an illusion which is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Take the issue of Scottish independence. Scotland’s National newspaper has reported that ‘The Queen is to lead a Royal “charm offensive” to help save the Union – with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge expected to play a key role’. However subtle or discreet, this places them in opposition to the aspirations of a large section of the population of Scotland.
Of course, one could say that the potential breakup of the United Kingdom is a unique issue, the exception that proves the rule. But the notion that the royal family remains above the political fray owes more to secrecy than to reality. The records show that far from simply rubber-stamping legislation which has been produced by a democratic process, the current monarch has actively sought to influence legislation in the past. Earlier this year it was revealed that ‘Elizabeth Windsor’s private lawyer put pressure on ministers to alter proposed legislation to prevent her shareholdings from being disclosed to the public.’ And in 2015, after a long legal battle to block a freedom of information request, we learned that Prince Charles had been making ‘direct and persistent policy demands’ to the government. Now, we are all entitled to lobby the government – but none of us will receive a reply from the Education Secretary which ends, “I have the honour to be, Sir, Your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant.”
Even if individual royals did remain scrupulously above the political fray, the monarchy as an institution is a huge, weighty political symbol looming over our national life. It is a dominant and ubiquitous embodiment of the preservation of privilege, inequality and inherited wealth. There can be no doubt that all its institutional instincts and all the signals it sends are conservative, if not explicitly Conservative. It is an institution which, by its very nature, has an internal imperative to maintain the status quo, for reasons of self-preservation. It is a brake on progress which sits at the apex of a system of privilege, sustaining a complex web of connections. It is a ‘trickle down’ system that actually works, as any association with royalty confers an irrational and unjustified social advantage.
This is unhealthy, not just for the people within such an artificial institution, who must subsume their individuality to an accident of birth, but for the psyche of the nation. The idea that there are people who, simply by dint of birth or blood, are entitled to a higher social rank, privilege, wealth and power is profoundly anti-democratic. And yet in the UK we are not just expected to accept this, it is considered a rather poor show to even question it.
We are not citizens, we are subjects. At an almost subconscious level this seems to pervade our culture and our values, creating a country where often the most unsuitable people are allowed to wield power over us because they speak in a certain way, or went to the right school, or know the right people. As a nation, our belief in, or commitment to, equality can look rather unconvincing and superficial.
When abolition of the monarchy is discussed, supporters of the status quo often ask, “But would you want a President Blair?” as if this is sure to win the argument – their Trump card, so to speak. But we only need look to our nearest neighbour to see that an elected head of state, if you are wise enough to elect the right person, can be a real asset to a country, without the anachronistic baggage and inherited privilege.
Michael D Higgins is a deeply impressive man who is held in high esteem. When he ran for a second term as President of Ireland in 2018 he was re-elected in a landslide victory. His predecessors, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson are both highly accomplished women, respected on the international stage. These elected heads of state are dignified, democratic representatives of Ireland. If we think the UK is incapable of producing a similarly impressive head of state, then that is our problem to solve, not a reason to preserve the monarchy.
Yes, there is always a possibility that someone not very suitable could be elected – but then in a few years they would be gone. There are now retired people in the UK who have spent their whole lives under the same head of state – and it is a matter of pure luck whether the head of state, with a job for life, is dutiful or an utter embarrassment. That cannot be right in a 21st century democracy.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden