Should British liberals support the monarchy?
Classical liberalism is a political movement that is based on promoting – amongst other things – individual liberty, equality before the law and social mobility. The idea of a hereditary monarchy, where someone takes a role in the constitutional structure purely by dint of birth (and, until recent changes to the law, gender), seems incongruous to these ideals. I have no intention of arguing in favour of monarchy as an ideal that, were we to be creating a new society and constitution from the ground up, we would want to adopt.
However, whatever we may wish for, the role of chief of state seems entwined into all political systems and the question then becomes how much power we want this person to have, and how involved in the day-to-day game of politics. Is the current British constitutional monarchy better or worse than what would likely replace it?
The King is not only the Head of State of the UK. He also acts as the Head of the Commonwealth and in this role provides a much-needed international focus to the British Government. The Commonwealth, personified by the reigning monarch, acts as a useful international body that has advanced co-operation and trade between members. The ending of the monarchy by the leaders of the Commonwealth could not help but reduce (or even end) this unique institution and make Britain a more insular country.
Secondly are the almost pathological efforts by the Crown to be kept out of the rough and tumble of politics, such as when Buckingham Palace made it clear that that the Queen would be ‘unavailable’ should the Prime Minister attempt to dissolve Parliament in order to avoid being deposed from office.
This is in sharp contrast to the alternatives that would likely replace the monarch. A president would need to be somehow selected. Whether elected directly or indirectly (as in Austria and Germany), the risk of party politics playing a role is high, especially considering our political fragmentation. In both Austria and Germany recent presidential contests have resulted in deeply partisan races, to the point that it is a supposed German political dictum that ‘if you can create a President you will be able to form a government’.
The same applies to the Crown’s non-interference in the democratic process. While the monarch does, in principle, retain a veto over legislation, this power has not been used since 1708. Contrast again to Germany, where the President will intervene in political debate (albeit occasionally) and uses the veto power to strike down legislation from the popularly-elected chamber on the basis that they believe it to be unconstitutional.
The simple fact of the matter is that, for all its flaws and how out of place it is in a modern liberal democracy, is likely to provide Britain with an outward-facing and apolitical Head of State. And that is probably the best option available.
Harrison Griffiths, IEA Communications Officer argues no:
Radical opposition to monarchy has not been a universal belief among liberals. In Britain, liberals pushed for a settlement which reconciled the continued constitutional status of the Crown with Parliamentary sovereignty and individual freedom. Radical French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire supported the role of an enlightened constitutional monarch and even the American revolutionaries were open to maintaining the British monarchy before they felt they had no option but to pursue an independent republic.
The Glorious Revolution, which solidified Parliament’s constitutional superiority over the Crown and firmly established laws protecting individual liberty (for Protestants at least), was a clear victory for liberalism over the despotism of absolute monarchy. However, the settlement created in 1689, which still underpins our constitutional monarchy today, should be seen as a pragmatic step towards a liberal constitution, not the fruition of it.
The Crown underpins the British constitutional system which gives the state near-limitless power to trample over our individual liberties. The King legitimises Parliamentary sovereignty, his royal prerogatives give the executive tools to circumvent what Parliamentary checks remain on its power, and the monarch himself has little to no authority to exercise prerogatives like granting mercy or denying royal ascent to protect individuals and uphold institutional checks on state power.
Removing the Crown from the constitution is a vital prerequisite to overhauling Britain’s centralised and statist governing institutions.
Furthermore, we can look to the Crown Estates as an institution which empowers the state at the expense of free markets. Valued at over £15bn, the Estate owns land that carries rights over vast deposits of minerals, precious metals, and natural resources. While the Estate does sometimes lease mining and drilling rights to the market, it has denied private actors the ability to freely acquire, trade, and explore its properties and thus become a vehicle for state central planning of natural resources and extraction of economic rents. Unlike large private portfolios, the Estate cannot go out of business, reducing incentives to maximise profit or sell land for more productive use when revenues are low.
Finally, there is a liberal argument to be made against hereditary legal privilege. The King still cannot be legally prosecuted and there is no constitutional mechanism to remove him from power. While we need not object to inherited wealth and opportunity per se, liberals should be suspicious when those inherited privileges are underpinned by state power.
That having been said, the monarchy is a fairly benign institution which fills many people with a sense of stability and national pride. Who am I to deny that to the majority of Brits who support the monarchy? I have enormous respect for the late Queen Elizabeth II and other Royals including the King, Queen Camilla, and Princess Anne whose maverick character traits and commitment to duty are admirable.
I hope that one day, enough people can be convinced to oppose monarchy as part of a broader movement to push Britain in a more liberal direction. Until then, I can only with the King the best in the daunting task of living up to his late, great mother’s legacy.