The Queen’s 90th birthday is a reminder of how monarchy curbs democracy

This unaccountable institution relies on make-believe and mythology to survive


One of the weird things about the monarchy is that it makes births, birthdays, deaths and marriages matters of constitutional importance.

By linking public office to private family life the Crown ensures that the Queen’s 90th birthday isn’t just a moment to be enjoyed by Elizabeth Windsor and her family, but a cause for wider public debate. What should simply be a private affair is a public reminder of an imminent succession.

The palace PR machine, with the enthusiastic support of the BBC, exploits these personal moments to promote the royal brand. We’ve seen it this week with a carefully managed interview with Prince William and bizarre claims about how the Queen has managed to live so long.

For the rest of us these moments are an opportunity to look back on the Queen’s record in office, look forward to what’s coming and to think about what the public celebrations say about this archaic and unaccountable institution.

I talk about a record in office – rather than a reign – because that’s what it is. The Queen is head of state, she has a job to do and a term in office that extends from her father’s death to her own.  She has a record for which she cannot be held to account, but by which we can judge her performance.

The QueenA lot of people instinctively say she’s ‘never put a foot wrong’, building the myth that the Queen is to be trusted in contrast with the scandal ridden politicians. Yet if we think the Queen has been a great head of state then we really are setting the bar very low.

A head of state in a parliamentary democracy should be independent of the government, able to perform some meaningful constitutional function and should be absolutely above board on questions of probity, accountability and transparency.

In a parliamentary system where the prime minister runs the government the head of state should be able to represent the nation, speak for us and to us at times of national celebration and crisis. You might at least expect to be able to remember some great speeches or eloquent interventions in national life.

The Queen’s record, alas, is one of silence, obedience to the prime minister, dogged determination to defend her own interests, secrecy, abuse of public funds and resistance to any serious scrutiny.

Constitutionally the Queen does as she is told by the PM. You may think that’s the right thing to do, but that’s because we’ve been brought up to believe that the rules of a constitutional monarchy are the rules of parliamentary democracy. In a parliamentary democracy there is supposed to a plurality of power, checks and balances and limits to the authority of executive, legislature and head of state.

The head of state should be able to guard the constitution, to act as a referee in the political process. It’s a role some claim the Queen plays, but as referee she will only ever follow the orders of one of the team captains, the leader of the governing party.

This renders her silent unless pressed upon by the government to make some guarded dog-whistle comments on matters such as Scottish independence or the EU.

Powerless to play a meaningful role in public life, the Queen instead puts a lot of energy into defending her own interests. As Joan Smith points out this week:

‘as elected politicians learn to exist in a much more open and critical society – the prime minister, chancellor and leader of the opposition have just published details of their tax affairs – the Queen and her immediate relatives are less open than ever to democratic scrutiny.’

The palace, under Elizabeth Windsor’s leadership, has demanded voluntary tax arrangements that must be kept secret. The royals have insisted on special treatment under the Freedom of Information Act, which was tightened up in 2010 to further limit access to information.

They have held onto the royal veto, which allows the Queen and Prince Charles to insist that laws affecting their private interests are tailored to suit their needs. That’s why so much legislation makes special provision for the Duchy of Cornwall, and why the Duchy continues to refuse to pay corporation tax.

You won’t find the Queen or Charles in the Panama Papers because their tax avoidance schemes are very much on shore and guarded by layers on acquiescent politicians and officials.

The palace also jealously guards its media image. This week’s interview with Prince William, where Nicholas Witchell asked about claims he was ‘work-shy’ was so obviously carefully planned, answers pre-prepared, they may as well have been sitting there reading directly from their scripts.

Charles cropIt was revealed just a few months ago that the royals insist on lengthy contracts being signed before agreeing to interviews, including the right to veto other contributors to programmes – a level of control no-one on the public payroll should ever have over their own scrutiny.

This week’s media coverage only reminds us that this is an institution that relies on make-believe and mythology to survive. The language of the discussion is all about ‘hard work’ and ‘duty’, we hear about charity, family and tradition. There is precious little serious challenge to the claims of the royals.

Instead we’re told how the Queen has managed to live so long, how William respects his grandmother, and we’re treated to photos of four generations of the family firm. This heavy handed PR is as much about the future as it is about the past – the royals know that a lot of their popularity is bound up with the Queen and that Charles presents a challenge to their future.

Prince Charles is a man on a mission. Joan Smith predicts he’ll be a ‘king in a hurry’, desperate to make his mark in the later years of his life. He is already widely acknowledged as an ‘activist’ prince, but he is a man who has no interest in the rules of democratic politics.

He demands he has his say but demands he isn’t challenged or scrutinized, as we’ve seen in recent years with his public interventions and his dogged determination to resist disclosure of his private lobbying.

So this 90th birthday isn’t just a private matter, it matters to all of us. Because we are coming to the end of a reign of a monarch who has worked hard to preserve the interests of her own family and we are fast approaching the succession of a man determined to influence the agenda for this country.

Yet when that succession comes it won’t be through legitimate democratic means – it’ll be at the moment of another very personal event, the death of a monarch and the inheritance by her son of the highest public office in the country. That has to change.

Graham Smith is the chief executive officer of Republic

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

14 Responses to “The Queen’s 90th birthday is a reminder of how monarchy curbs democracy”

  1. Himself

    The LibLabCon-trick curbs democracy. She does and says whatever they tell her to.

    Do we really want to be like the Americans, spending billions every four years on a corporate suite?

  2. Mark Dunn

    Grapes pretty sour this morning, I see. Long may they remain so.

  3. Stephen Wigmore

    Always good to have Republic pop up on these occasions to remind us how utterly irrelevant they are.

  4. ad

    It’s not obvious to me that abolishing the monarchy in Iraq, Egypt or Libya has done much to make those countries better run or more democratic.

  5. Alasdair Macdonald

    I listened to the phone in on Radio Scotland this morning on the topic ‘what do you want to see in a modern monarchy”, not “do we need a monarchy.”
    So, it was essentially, a piece of BBC monarchical PR. The four comments above, in various forms were the nub of the pro-monarchist case – straw man arguments about would we prefer Putin to Elizabeth Windsor?; it is all the politics of envy, the royals work ‘damn hard’; they lay down the ‘moral tone’; they are ‘born to rule’; etc.
    We need publications like Republic to present a coherent and reasoned argument.

  6. Mark Dingwall

    We have both monarchy and democracy in the UK.
    The monarchy is overwhelmingly popular amongst the broad mass of the public – they hold in great regard as a link to the history of the county and there is not a chance of that changing in the lifetimes of anyone alive unless some huge scandal engulfs either the reigning monarch or the next in line.
    So don’t waste your time worrying about it.

  7. Maria McKenzie

    We don’t have to be like the USA or Russia. I’d like us to copy the Irish model. This way we would retain the advantages of a ‘figurehead’ head of state independent of parliament, but he/she would be democratically elected and with a limited term of office.

  8. David Lindsay

    As the Queen attains the age of 90, the question of the monarchy’s dying with her is being given another outing. When Prince George was born, there were complaints that we now knew that our next three Heads of State, probably stretching into the twenty-second century, would all be white males. Well, they would all have been white males, anyway. The present one is not male. But any elected Head of this State always would be. And white. And quite or very posh. So why bother changing the present arrangements?

    No one with anything like the Royal Family’s foreign background would ever stand a hope of becoming the President of Britain. The Queen is of heavy immigrant stock, and she is married to an immigrant. They are both probably part-black. In fact, no one could believe anything else having seen a portrait of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whose features were publicly called “Negroid” at the time, when her ancestry was common knowledge and apparently disturbed nobody. The city of Charlotte in North Carolina is named after her, and it is the seat of Mecklenburg County. Furthermore, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are plausibly believed to be descended from Muhammad through various part-Moorish royal lines on the Iberian Peninsula. Even if Robert Graves was once ushered away from Her Majesty after he had mentioned their common descent from the Prophet of Islam, that view is widely held in an entirely matter-of-fact way across the Islamic world. Genghis Khan and the Tang Emperor Suzong are less plausible ancestors, but not impossible ones.

    Loyalty to the monarchy is nothing if not a bulwark against racism, and not only, although certainly, because the Queen is the Head of the Commonwealth, as well as directly of 16 member-states. Only four of those 16, including this one, have white majority populations. Only two of the remaining 14 British Overseas Territories are predominantly white, and only one of those two has a population descended primarily from these Islands, something that Canada and Australia also do not have.

    Try and imagine anyone with anything remotely approaching the Queen’s known ancestry as a candidate for President of Britain. No such person would stand the slightest chance of election to that office. Nor would anyone aged 26, as the Queen was when she came to the Throne. Nor would anyone aged 90.

    The Royal Family is not at the pinnacle of the class system. That is the old Noble Houses of England and Scotland, who look down on the Royals as immigrant noovs, an unfortunate political necessity from the eighteenth century. That was the root of the trouble with Diana. She had married down. Time was when the Spencers, then the richest family in the Kingdom, had even bankrolled the indigent Hanoverians.

    Liberty is the freedom to be virtuous, and to do anything not specifically proscribed. Equality is the means to liberty, and is never to be confused with mechanical uniformity; it includes the Welfare State, workers’ rights, consumer protection, local government, a strong Parliament, public ownership, and many other splendid things. And fraternity is the means to equality. For example, in the form of trade unions, co-operatives, credit unions, mutual guarantee societies and mutual building societies; numerous more could be cited. Liberty, equality and fraternity are therefore inseparable from nationhood, a space in which to be unselfish. Thus from family, the nation in miniature, where unselfishness is first learned. And thus from property, each family’s safeguard both against over-mighty commercial interests and against an over-mighty State, therefore requiring to be as widely diffused as possible, and thus the guarantor of liberty as here defined. The family, private property and the State must be protected and promoted on the basis of their common origin and their interdependence, such that the diminution or withering away of any one or two of them can only be the diminution and withering away of all three of them. All three are embodied by monarchy.

    Monarchy further embodies the principle of sheer good fortune, of Divine Providence conferring responsibilities upon the more fortunate towards the less fortunate. It therefore provides an excellent basis for social democracy, as has proved the case in the United Kingdom, in the Old Commonwealth, in Scandinavia and in the Benelux countries. Allegiance to a monarchy is allegiance to an institution embodied by a person, rather than to an ethnicity or an ideology as the basis of the State. As Bernie Grant understood, and as one expects that Diane Abbott understands, allegiance to this particular monarchy, with its role in the Commonwealth, is a particular inoculation against racial feeling. No wonder that the National Party abolished it in South Africa. No wonder that the Rhodesian regime followed suit, and removed the Union Flag from that of Rhodesia, something that not even the Boers’ revenge republic ever did. No wonder that the BNP wants (or wanted, since it now scarcely exists) to abolish the monarchy here.

    It was Margaret Thatcher who mounted an assault on the monarchy, since she scorned the Commonwealth, social cohesion, historical continuity, and public Christianity. She called the Queen “the sort of person who votes for the SDP”, and she arrogated to herself the properly monarchical and royal role on the national and international stages. She used her most popular supporting newspaper to vilify the Royal Family. When the Sex Pistols sang of a “Fascist regime” in the Britain of 1977, then they were referring to a Labour Cabinet with Tony Benn in it. Benn had also been the Postmaster General who had taken on the pirate radio stations in order to protect the livelihoods of the unionised musicians. The fans of pirate radio and then of the Sex Pistols went on to elect Thatcher three times, and did not vote Labour at another General Election until Tony Blair had come along, giving him a third term as Prime Minister even two years after the invasion of Iraq.

    God Save The Queen, Comrades. God Save The Queen.

  9. Maria McKenzie

    I can’t quite follow your arguments but would point out that two women, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, have served as president of Ireland and that Sadiq Khan has a good chance of becoming Mayor of London.

  10. Himself

    The dual PM/President model is a waste of time. Half the population can’t be bothered to vote for a political party let alone a president.

    You would be hard-pressed to get 25% of the population voting for a president unless they were to be a celebrity. That would make a mockery of proceedings so the LibLabCon would not allow it. The president would always come from within the LibLabCon establishment.

    So what is the point of getting a president who will just suck up to the LibLabCon when we can get a monarch for nothing who does likewise. Her Majesty can huff and puff all she likes but she goes with the parliament of the day.

    Regardless of her wealth I think she is probably half a lefty any way so why you would want to get rid of her is beyond me. There are plenty of rich people in this country purporting to be socialists.

    Concentrate on getting rid of the whole establishment rather than its perceived figurehead. That will mean getting rid of the Labour Party, which is really the modern day Whig Party, having taken the mantle of the Liberal Party in all but name. A bunch of well-off social do-gooders who don’t come across as being all that radical. To me radical is destroying the whole body and not just the head.

  11. ted francis

    All the agonising, analysing, arguing the case for or against this absurdity (the monarchy) omits the most offensive aspect of its existence. We are all cast in the role of forelock-touching, bowing, head bobbing subservient “Subjects”. We have no written Constitution or Bill of Rights. Magna Carta was framed to protect the rights of nobles and aristocrats and we, the peasantry, still live in unprotected, social fragility. The farcical adherence to rules of behaviour and demeanour when in the presence of the Windsors have a place in the scripts of an am-dram panto or a Brian Rix comedy. The monarchy is maintained by a set of self-interested individuals who benefit from a hierarchical social order. The sooner it is gone the better.

  12. Jimmy Glesga

    The old dinner lady has served Britain very well. I cannot think of any other system that could do so. Maybe East Germany and steroids.

  13. Governance wonk

    I agree almost fully with the article, and some of the comments pro-monarchy are truly frightening. (I have slightly more sympathy for the royals given that they are born into roles for which they are intellectually deficient and where the level of expectation is disproportionately high.) To add to the article, I would say that Britain is in need of a full governance overhaul to support the scrapping of the monarchy. In order to make a replacement for the monarchy – presumably a Presidency – work, there would need to be some clarification of the powers of the President as head of state. To make the role of President credible, you would have to have a resolution of the West Lothian question to rationalize the roles of the different regional parliaments. This would allow the Presidency to be a unifying force at the national level, and potentially with some genuine powers over foreign policy, defence, etc. However, such a governance overhaul is unlikely: governance debates in the UK are not driven by evidence-based arguments, but more instinctive ones, usually underpinned by a fundamentally conservative mindset, hence the love of the monarchy and the debate of the EU. Economic arguments, bizarre claims over its counter-racist effects are all secondary to the fundamental injustice of the monarchical system. But removing it should only be part of a broader programme to rationalize governance in the UK.

    The writer’s excellent article is close to something written by Dostoevsky in the Brothers Karamazov about power – that it is based on miracle, mystery and authority. As the writer points out, the miracle and mystery (roughly equivalent to the “make-believe and myth” referred to in the article) are the prime means that the monarchy has of preserving itself and its authority. Tearing those down will be crucial to removing the final vestiges of authority that are currently allowed to remain cloaked in secrecy.

  14. joan holmes

    I often feel that basic manners should be learned by the royals.for instance when Charles visited the flood victims in the north as he walked into one of the homes he handed his umbrella to his “servant” behind he did not even turn and look at the man much less a thankyou. When Philip returned to health a couple of years ago crowds were eagerly waiting to see him going into church. One lady asked if he felt much better he completely ignored her ( she had probably waited a long time to see him) So you see the royals must be brought up to ignore those less fortunate than themselves.

Leave a Reply