Why Abolishing the Monarchy is a Good Idea (But Not For the Reasons You're Thinking)

By James O Malley on at

Benefits scroungers are in the news again today as it has emerged that the accounts of the Windsor family from London show that they need to claim £150m of benefits to fix up their taxpayer funded 240-bedroom house. Worse still, in this time of austerity and despite Iain Duncan Smith's heavy-handed crackdown on handouts, the family (who don't even have jobs) cost taxpayers £35.7m, or even as much as £334m depending on who you listen to.

Yep, the Royal Family are expensive - almost outrageously so, and it is enough to make you wish that Buckingham Palace was less about 'God Save The Queen' and more 'Pretty Vacant', and available for use as a new national museum - just like the French did with the Louvre Palace after their King found himself relieved of his duties, along with his head.

But here's the slightly awkward truth: Arguing over money is a really bad argument for getting rid of the monarchy. And I say this as a staunch republican and as a member of Republic, the campaign group that wants to get rid of the royals.

The trouble about arguing over the monarchy is that the circumstances rarely change, so both sides are destined to spend decades making exactly the same arguments. And many of these arguments are terrible.

Tony Scare

For example, the pro-monarchy side will generally always deploy the scary canard of "Why get rid of our lovely Queen... would you rather have PRESIDENT BLAIR?" (Say this in a scary voice with a cackle at the end for maximum effect.)

The flaw is that the argument is easily reversed: What if it wasn't President Tony Blair or David Cameron, but President David Attenborough, or President Mary Beard? In any case, in the not too distant future the pro-monarchy side won't be defending the relatively mute Queen, but meddling, incompetent King Charles III.

Worse still for this bad argument, even if we did have "President Blair", would it really be worse than Prime Minister Blair? Given the whole premise of constitutional monarchy rests on the idea that the monarch doesn't get involved in politics, an elected President would at best be a weak, symbolic figure (like the President of Ireland), or at worst be as terrifying and powerful as... umm, an elected Prime Minister. The idea that the 21st century monarch puts limits on the actions of the elected government is nonsense. If the Queen tried to do anything without Parliament saying so, Trafalgar Square would quickly become Tahrir Square.

Similarly, another example of a bad pro-monarchy argument is the tourism argument. We can't get rid of the royals, the argument goes, because look at all of the visitors they attract to the country. This argument falls apart when you look across the English Channel and ignore all of the millions of people visiting Paris and the Palace of Versailles every year, even though France hasn't had a king for 150 years.

The Cost Argument

The abolitionists can be just as bad though. And this brings me back to cost: Ultimately, whatever we replace the monarchy with is going to cost money. And probably a lot of money too. An elected President will still need a suitably grand home and office, as well as all of the security and staff which would come with the office. Unless we decide to destroy all totems of our former monarchy, Buckingham Palace and former royal residences will need paying for as historic buildings. This might work out cheaper than the current arrangement, but it is still likely to cost millions.

The more fundamental problem with this argument though is that I would still prefer an elected head of state even if it were to cost more than the current royal family. Because the principle trumps reductive cost considerations. This isn't a unique case of principles-over-purse-strings - we make decisions like this all of the time. It'd be cheaper to eat eggs from battery farms, but we pay more for free range out of a commitment to not being awful to animals. Holding elections is a lot of hassle and isn't cheap - but we do them every five years anyway, because that is better idea than having the guy with the biggest stick make all of the important decisions.

What's maddening is that these bad arguments persist because like in all political debates, both sides need to create the most demonised caricature of their opponents possible. This means not just attacking the important stuff, but the less meaningful too. Remember during the election when Ed Miliband would be attacked not just for his policies, but also his ability to eat a bacon sandwich gracefully? The good news is that if you're a fan of banging your head against a brick wall, the EU referendum over the next couple of years is going to be full of bad arguments.

Ass or Lion?

The weird thing about the monarchy debate, like many others, is that ultimately it should be an argument about principles. I would like to abolish the monarchy and have an elected head of state because it would be a statement of democratic intent: The idea that anyone can theoretically rise to the top, even if they were not born into the right family. Obviously real life is much more complex than that, but it makes more of a positive statement than the one of entrenched power and privilege that we have at the moment.

Presumably pro-monarchy people would build an argument around the principle of tradition or continuity. But I think that the principle that we, as a society, get to choose our rulers, is a good one. As Thomas Paine wrote in 1776:

"One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion."

And hey, even if we do elect an ass rather than a lion, at least we can kick the out after a few years - and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.

But don't get me wrong, I'm realistic - I realise I'm probably in a minority on this issue (just as I am in the drugs debate), but is it conceivable that we could at least aim to have this debate, without all of the nonsense on both sides?