TOPIC GUIDE: Monarchy
"An unelected head of state should have no place in 21st century Britain"
PUBLISHED: 31 Aug 2010
AUTHOR: Patrick Hayes
This year marks the 350th anniversary of the restoration of the monarchy following the English Civil War. Despite the industrial revolution and the collapse of the British Empire, the UK remains a constitutional monarchy with the Queen as the unelected head of state [Ref: Direct.gov]. Debates about whether the monarchy should be abolished have taken place for centuries; however the nature of the debate today differs from previous eras. Whilst few people in secular Britain would now support the notion of a divine right to rule, many enjoy the celebrity, pomp and ceremony of the Royal Family; seeing it as part of a harmless British tradition, good for tourism and international trade, and a bulwark against political and social instability. Campaigners against the monarchy point out the more insidious anti-democratic aspects of having an unelected head of state, for instance the use of the ancient royal prerogative by the Prime Minister and members of the cabinet to pass legislation and make decisions without having to consult elected representatives in parliament [Ref: History Learning Site]. Indeed in 2008, the UN Human Rights Council published a report recommending that the Britain should consider holding a referendum on whether the monarch should remain the head of state [Ref: Daily Telegraph]. Others argue there is no public appetite for such an initiative and that Britain benefits from having a monarchy that stands apart from the ‘murky’ process of electioneering and the potential ill-judgement of the electorate.
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Monarchy DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
An anchor in a changing world or holding back progress?
After the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal [Ref: suite101.com], the Queen was held up as a shining example of reliability and trustworthiness compared to the rotten, corruptible political class [Ref: Daily Telegraph]. Following the hung parliament in the May 2010 general elections, the presence of a monarch was said to be crucial in keeping Britain from chaos [Ref: Daily Telegraph] The fact that the head of state is unelected, it is argued, is positive, as it allows him or her to look to Britain’s long-term interests, rather than pandering to the short-term desires of the public to secure votes. Many agree with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s description of the Queen as ‘an anchor for our age’ in a ‘changing and churning world’ [Ref: United Nations]. Opponents argue that such a position shows an elitist contempt for the idea that the public are capable of governing their own affairs. Far from ‘steadying the ship’, argues commentator Brendan O’Neill, the presence of a monarch encourages the idea that people are not in control of their own destinies and need a blue-blooded ‘expert’ to make decisions on their behalf [Ref: spiked]. Supporters point to the knowledge and experience the monarchy possesses, and argue that focusing on overturning centuries of tradition distracts from looking at other, more important problems with contemporary society [Ref: New Statesman]. Opponents argue that the existence of the monarchy is fundamentally at odds with a society promoting democracy and equality, perpetuating the idea that wealth and power result from an accident of birth, rather than merit [Ref: Guardian].
A threat to democracy or harmless figureheads?
Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1867) famously outlined a template for relations between monarch and parliament – the monarch has ‘the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn’ - which has been broadly followed since. Whilst the pomp of traditional regal ceremonies remains, the monarch does not interfere in the business of parliament. Consistent with this, Buckingham Palace made it clear that the Queen’s personal preference would play no role in determining the outcome of the hung parliament at the last general election [Ref: BBC News]. On the other hand, Prince Charles is notorious for using his position to campaign around certain causes [Ref: Guardian], from opposing GM food to promoting alternative medicine to lobbying the Qatari Prime Minister to alter the design of the Chelsea Barracks building [Ref: Daily Telegraph].
Critics further point out that the royal prerogative allows the Prime Minister to bypass the democratic process, and according to The Observer, endows the PM with ‘quasi-dictatorial powers covering everything from making war to signing treaties’ [Ref: Guardian]. The royal prerogative is not simply a dormant principle: for example, former Prime Minister Tony Blair used it in 1999 to commit UK forces to Kosovo without parliamentary approval [Ref: The Times]. Supporters of the monarchy point to the flaws in politicians and Parliament, and argue that electing a President as head of state could result in a more powerful politician whom the electorate do not trust. Opponents argue that the virtue of elections is that people get to make the choice of their political representatives; and that a bad politician, unlike the Queen, can always be stripped of his or her power by being elected out [Ref: spiked].
Popular and good for tourism?
Reasons often given by the public in support of the monarchy include its importance for tourism, trade and international relations, particularly with the US. But such assertions have been criticised as a Royal spin campaign [Ref: Republic]. A leading polling organisation has reported that public support for the monarchy has remained consistently high: only 18% would see it abolished, the same as when polls began in 1969 [Ref: Time]. This, it is argued, demonstrates public support for the monarchy, rendering a referendum unnecessary; and at a time when there is little republican fever in the UK, there seems to be neither the will nor the basis for abolishing the monarchy. Opponents counter that if people use popular support as an argument for the monarchy, why not allow a referendum to take place to prove this?
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Dominic Sandbrook BBC History Magazine 14 April 2010
Brendan O’Neill spiked 29 November 2009
Simon Heffer Daily Telegraph 18 May 2009
Nick Allen Daily Telegraph 13 June 2008
The Times 6 February 2006
Graham Smith Guardian 23 June 2010
Rob Lyons spiked 3 June 2010
New Statesman 9 July 2009
Peter Tatchell Guardian 1 June 2007
Simon Walker New Statesman 9 July 2010
Tom Utley Daily Mail 30 May 2010
Harry Mount Daily Telegraph 7 May 2010
Christopher Howse Daily Telegraph 22 December 2007
New Statesman 9 July 2009
Jonathan Dimbleby Sunday Times 16 November 2008
Diana Meyer Time 16 August 2007
Frank Vilbert Open Democracy 14 November 2002
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Richard Alcock Guardian 1 August 2010
Robert Booth Guardian 30 June 2010
Jennifer O’Mahony Liberal Conspiracy 22 June 2010
Guardian 21 June 2010
Nicholas Witchell BBC News 7 May 2010
Michael White Guardian 22 January 2010
Anna Fairclough Guardian 21 July 2009
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Press Association 16 August 2010
BBC News 27 July 2010
Guardian 5 July 2010
BBC News 2 July 2010
Independent 23 June 2010
Politics.co.uk 4 May 2010
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