Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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The British Monarchy: The Value and the Controversy

Res Publica

July 1998

by Erica Cook

For centuries, the British monarchy has been an essential part of the nation’s culture and history. As England’s oldest secular institution, it is intertwined with the nation’s identity and political culture. When functioning properly, the monarchy embodies the best of English society. If abolished or radically changed, the nation would lose an essential element that solidifies its political system.

In a modern democracy, many have questioned the legitimacy of the monarchy. Such a concern is logical, but the institution performs many important roles for the nation. According to Philip Norton, author of The British Polity, "Twentieth century monarchs….occupy a position in which….they fulfill two primary tasks. One is to represent the unity of the nation. The other is to carry out certain political functions on the advice of ministers" (Norton, 308). Unlike the U.S. President’s elected office, the Crown occupies a hereditary post as England’s head of state. It is a symbolic position, delicately balanced between governmental representation and participation. As with all symbols, however, the significant meaning of this position exemplifies the government at its best. The monarchy acts as a unifying agent, with all government performed in its name. In difficult situations, such as war, this symbolism provides "a sense of duty for government&q
uot; and "a sense of continuity" (Norton, 309). The monarchy and all it represents triggers an emotional, but not sentimental, bond to a truly English institution, inspiring loyalty among the people. Thus, in this capacity, the monarchy functions as an "effective barrier" against nondemocratic government (Norton, 310).

Because England’s power is concentrated in its executive, additional objections have been raised against the legitimacy of the monarchy’s political roles. Although a valid concern, it is largely misunderstood that the monarchy’s political duties, such as dissolving parliament and appointing ministers, are governed by convention (Norton, 312). These duties present no threat to England’s political structure because they are tempered by a counsel of ministers that reduce any authority to token responsibilities. This condition is necessary because the Crown must maintain a nonpartisan and tempered stance to insure its survival; any participation in governmental affairs could render the Crown vulnerable to political attacks from Parliament. Ultimately, the Crown must appear to transcend all political activity or it will not survive.

In order to operate as intended, the monarchy needs money to perform its duties as head of state, such as making overseas visits and entertaining foreign dignitaries. Because the Crown serves as the nation’s ceremonial head, adequate subsidies are required to properly fulfill these roles. The monarchy’s operating costs in 1992 were approximately 57 million pounds, the majority of which was spent on palace staff and maintenance. Moreover, increases given to the Civil List, a fund allocated by Parliament to cover the monarchy’s personal expenses, pale when compared to those of government spending. An Economist article titled "Should one pay tax?," revealed that since the Queen’s accession, "the value of the Civil List has increased only 12 times–roughly in line with retail prices. By contrast, government spending has risen by 35 times" (Norton, 59). Most of the monarchy’s expenses are legitimate, and its status as a tourist attraction greatly offset
s its costs. Nevertheless, in an effort to economize, several junior royals were recently trimmed from the Civil List and the Queen began paying income tax on her personal fortune, effectively ending the Crown’s tax-free status.

Although it proves useful as a ceremonial head and tourist attraction, these benefits alone do not justify the monarchy’s existence. However, when they comport themselves correctly, the Royal family embodies the English historical concept of all that is noble and good, providing the people with a virtuous ideal. For example, Professor of History at Columbia University, David Cannadine, says that the life of Queen Elizabeth has:


Been busy, comparmentalized, and ridgedly constrained and controlled….as head of the Commonwealth, she has helped to preserve postimperial connections with and between former British colonies, and she has visited more of the world than any king or queen in human history (Norton, 23).


Such reliable behavior potentially proves invaluable to a nation that depends upon a strong political culture to preserve its constitution. As the embodiment of virtue, the royal family’s political worth is moral and educative, especially in a society with a crumbling family structure. Their work preserves freedom by inspiring ministers to politically restrain themselves and commoners to adopt gentility.

Perhaps embodying English greatness is an impossible ideal, for realizing this possibility requires the royal family to act consistently with grace and virtue. There is still not sufficient reason, however, to dismiss this historic institution. The monarchy may be enshrouded in debate, but it still retains its basic reputation and integrity. As The Economist article, "A Royal Fudge" explains:


The head-of-state arrangements that a country has do not lend themselves to fruitful discussion. They are bequeathed by history, not by reason; they emerge from cataclysm not from debate. For better or worse….Britain has a monarchy. Unless the House of Windsor chooses to dismiss itself, the monarchy will remain.

Erica Cook is a graduating senior from North Canton, Ohio, studying Political Science and Journalism-English. In the fall, she will pursue graduate studies in English at the University of Cincinnati.

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