The Queen and the Common Good

Posted on October 27, 2010


HM The Queen

Alongside the stories of swingeing cuts to the budgets of various departments, a number of news sources have picked up on a story about royal finances. For the first time since 1740, a proportion of the revenue generated by the Crown Estate will be given to the reigning monarch, as Chancellor George Osborne announced his intention to bring the Civil List arrangement to an end. Some have implied that the new ‘Sovereign Support Grant’ could see royal income soar by millions of pounds. The fact is that no details have been agreed with the Treasury, yet, as ever, when the topic of royal funding rears its head, the otherwise dormant republican faction in Britain suddenly springs to life to question the future of the monarchy.

Walter Bagehot in his The English Constitution observed that, because every constitution must first gain authority before it can use that same authority to govern people, it required both ‘efficient parts’ – those which do the practical work of governing –, and ‘dignified parts’ – those ‘which excite and preserve the reverence of the population’.  The dignified elements ‘raise the army, though they do not win the battle’.  Bagehot argued that the constitutional monarchy of Britain achieved a uniquely successful fusion of these two key elements: ‘Its essence is strong with the strength of modern simplicity; its exterior is august with the Gothic grandeur of a more imposing age’. 

The campaign group, Republic, argues that ‘Britain deserves . . . the best democracy we can create, a democracy that genuinely puts you, us, in charge’. Yet are we to take seriously the suggestion that being able to elect another politician would be a democratic revolution which would put the people in charge?  There is an easily detected fallacy here. Greater democracy does not necessarily mean greater control over affairs, but simply the ability to participate in the election of another official. Moreover, the debate about what form the State should take ought not to be asking who has more power, but rather which set of arrangements best provides for the common good – the social conditions which enable people to seek human fulfilment more easily. Republic is perhaps right to suggest that people need to have a greater charge over their own affairs – yet the obstacle to this is not the monarchy, but government over-centralisation and lack of respect for the principle of subsidiarity. Perversely, in a hypothetical British republic the ordinary man might end up with less control over his affairs, since an elected Head of State could centralise by laying claim to a deadly weapon not available to a constitutional monarch – the democratic mandate.
In a world increasingly dominated by political categories of thought, the monarchy provides a source of national unity which overcomes deep ideological divisions that have increasingly beset advanced western democracies. Some observe that American public discourse seems increasingly reduced to defences of alledged ‘conservative’ vs. ‘progressive’ positions rather than reasoned debate about the merits of specific ideas. Here in Britain, the monarchy has long been a focal point which unites people of different races, cultural traditions, and political inclinations. Republicans have had a thousand years to come up with a better idea, and we are still waiting.

(Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls. No endorsement implied)