2 May 2023

Why I changed my mind about the monarchy


‘It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would be more ashamed of being caught standing to attention during God Save The King than of stealing from a poor box,’ George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn.

He could have been writing about me. I once saw the case for replacing the monarchy with a republic as simple common sense. Why should the highest role in the land be open only to those born to it?

But I have changed my mind. Indeed, the strongest argument in favour of a hereditary constitutional monarchy in modern Britain is a democratic one. That sounds like a paradox. Nobody seriously suggested the King should face a referendum to ratify his reign during this Spring’s local elections. But one reason that an actual referendum is unnecessary is because we know what the outcome would be. There is already a permanent metaphorical referendum. Even those who inherit their constitutional powers are subject to the tyranny of the opinion polls, if not day to day, then from year to year, and decade to decade.

If the case for a republic is that we should be able to choose our head of state for ourselves, that change could only happen once there is broad public consent for it. As in Commonwealth realms, like Australia and Canada, it surely applies to Britain too.

The case against the monarchy that I took most seriously was that a symbol of hereditary privilege could impede social progress in Britain. But how much does the monarchy matter to big political outcomes? In fact, the broad appeal of the institution comes in large part from its retreat from political power.

While monarchs were often distrusted and reviled when they were embroiled in politics in the 18th century, they are now firmly above the political fray. The monarchy did not impede the rise and fall of redistribution from Attlee to Thatcher, Blair and Sunak, nor settle arguments about devolution and independence, Brexit or electoral reform.

Sweden is often championed as the most prominent example of actually existing egalitarianism, yet it too has a constitutional monarchy. Another point to Orwell, who imagined an egalitarian social revolution in England which ‘would not be doctrinaire, or even logical’, leaving ‘loose ends and anachronisms everywhere’ – that it would abolish the House of Lords, but probably not the monarchy.

Yet, after this last polarising decade, I would place less emphasis on the harmlessness of monarchy in politics and more on its potential utility for society. Its limited and primarily decorative social role may be fixed, but its civic role could evolve. This kingdom is more anxious, fragmented and divided than we are used to or than any of us would want.

Political scientist Karen Stenner’s research has shown that about a third of the population across democratic societies are susceptible to authoritarianism, which can be triggered by a sense of rapid social change or a heightened sense of conflict. Yet even a symbolic focus on unity can reduce this perception of threat. This can be combined with the substance of progress, as many of the social changes of the last half-century in reducing discrimination have shown.

The monarchy can be a public institution committed to defusing identity conflict if it can bridge in both directions: reassuring that section of the majority population concerned about what the pace of change means for a shared society, while also seeking to reach and include those among minority groups who are anxious about their full acceptance in British society.

At a time when politics and the media may see incentives to mobilise ‘them and us’ clashes, the Crown can help to model the kind of inclusive patriotism that invites us to transcend those divides. Doing that would depend on reaching those sections of society most sceptical about the Royals’ role, securing support across the UK nations and regions, including in Scotland and Wales, as well as reaching across the generations and across a society of many faiths and none.

To offer an example, the Crown has already played a significant role in the symbolism and practice of reconciliation in Northern Ireland’s segregated post-conflict society. In recent decades, the monarchy was much more engaged with the diversity of the Commonwealth abroad than with British diversity at home. The King’s multiculturalist declaration of his ‘duty to protect diversity’ will enable him to use his Coronation to show how he intends to blend his responsibility as head of the Church of England with his commitment to our multi-faith present – as reflected in the Royal Mail’s Coronation stamps and the procession of regalia into Westminster Abbey.

One change to past Coronations is an invitation to the public to join in an oath of allegiance, replacing that previously offered by hereditary peers. The Archbishop of Canterbury will invite ‘all who so desire, in the Abbey and beyond’ to join in at home. Some may feel more connected to the occasion. Many people will approach this in a ‘take it or leave it’ spirit. It is difficult to see why this merits much controversy, unless it was to be misunderstood not as an invitation, but an injunction, somehow generating coercive social pressure to take part.

We could, I think, learn to disagree well about the monarchy. Britain’s republican movement should acknowledge that Britain’s constitutional monarchy is a democratically legitimate institution, until they can convince a far bigger share of the public of their argument. But that should depend on a quid pro quo of giving a fairer share of public voice to the sizeable republican minority too – around a quarter of the public – than was the case during the mourning period for the Queen last Autumn. Broadcasters erred very strongly on the side of caution, respect and deference. The Coronation is an opportunity to hear the arguments for stability, for reform and for abolition more openly.

It is not the role of a constitutional monarchy to be in the vanguard of change, but it can help to ratify those social changes that have happened. It can play a powerful role in making new connections that can unlock their potential for the common good. If the Queen symbolised stability by always being there for all of our lives, the King should be a more proactive bridger. The Coronation could show how the renewed civic role of a bridging monarchy in polarised times could be to proactively celebrate and project an inclusive patriotism – in which Britain does not choose between tradition and change but seeks to knit them together into something we can share.

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Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and author of the new book 'How to be a patriot: why love of country can end our very British culture war'

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.