Why Does the British Monarchy Exist?

This seems like a fair question to ask right now

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 19: King Charles III during the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II at W...
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Tom Whyman

Why does Britain have a monarchy? A lot of people would probably say it isn't really the time to ask this question. In fact, that's exactly what Republic, the “official” UK campaign to replace the Windsors with an elected head of state, have said — declaring when news of the Queen's death was announced that “there will be plenty of time to debate the monarchy's future” later, when people are done grieving.

But whatever you think about the ethics of asking these sorts of questions just after someone's human family member has passed on, it's obvious that events since the Queen's death have made debating the future of the monarchy in Britain seem a lot more urgently pressing.

The Queen's death has come at a time of national crisis, with many individuals and small businesses threatened by spiralling energy bills — parliament were finally beginning to work on emergency legislation to deal with this, but now all lawmaking has been suspended. Soccer matches have too (even friendlies between amateur sides, and kids games). So have rail and postal strikes, and cancer operations. Center Parcs, a midmarket chain of holiday resorts, was briefly telling people staying at its facilities that they'd have to move out on the day of the Queen's funeral (it has since revised its instructions to “you just can't leave your chalet” instead). Still more seriously, anti-monarchist protesters have been hit by a wave of arrests for “breaching the peace”: the sort of thing that would be written up by some sort of human rights watch if it happened lots of other places. If this is all having a monarchy gets you, why would anyone possibly want to keep it?

It is a curious fact that, while plenty of people in Britain are royalists (just look at last week’s obsession with The Queue), basically no one is interested in offering any sort of substantial philosophical justification for keeping the Windsors around. It is just that this is the way things have always been done — at least since the Restoration. Any defense of the abstract principle, “having a monarch,” has long since merged with that of “having this monarch” — and so must now be grafted on to that of having her weird old son (the closest I’ve seen to a real attempt at a justification is “imagine how bad a person we’d elect as our head of state if we could”). If you, a British person, openly proclaim your opposition to the monarchy, you might offend someone — in particular, as older people are assumed to love the monarchy, you might offend “somebody's nan.” Or else you might end up on the front page of the Daily Mail, which is basically the worst thing that can happen to anyone (not sure why we've gradually evolved a sort of national bully that might suddenly decide to flush your head in the toilet at any given moment but that’s a separate question). It's best not really to say anything; it's best not to really think about it.

Contrast this with the early modern period, when “should we have a monarch?” was basically the central question explored by political philosophers. Probably the most famous early modern theory about having a monarch was that of the Divine Right of Kings: the idea that monarchs were not accountable to any earthly authority because they received their mandate directly from God. One extended defense of the principle, Robert Filmer's 1680 book Patriarcha, attempted to justify it on the basis of patriarchal descent from Adam — and was taken apart in the first of Locke's Two Treatises of Government.

Hobbes's Leviathan, by contrast, held that monarchy was a better system than, say, democracy, not on pseudo-religious but on practical grounds: monarchy was the system most likely to ensure against a lapse into the anarchic state of nature Hobbes feared. This is because for the king, apparently, public and private interest converge.

“The riches, power, and honour of a monarch arise only from the riches, strength, and reputation of his subjects. For no king can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure, whose subjects are either poor, or contemptible, or too weak through want, or dissension, to maintain a war against their enemies.”

For Hobbes, no system is ever really stable unless it allows people to maximise the pursuit of their own selfish interest. The monarch is going to be motivated by the desire for personal glory — but that's a good thing, because unlike in other systems, they specifically have to enrich their subjects in order to secure it. No monarch can be wealthy, beloved, successful in war, etc. unless they maintain their subjects in good style.

Of course this argument does seem rather weak when considered against the background of the actual lunatics who are often allowed to hold monarchical power: not least Charles I, who shortly before Leviathan was published had been dethroned and beheaded after triggering a civil war by insisting on his own right to not be accountable to parliament. Actually existing monarchs attempt to secure personal glory by doing things like bankrupting the treasury to build a bunch of fairytale castles, or using state funds to pay off their gambling debts, or starting disastrous wars. Many of them have been congenitally unable to rule.

As Rousseau puts this point in The Social Contract, “from afar men cry” that the best way for a king to wield absolute power is “to make themselves beloved by their people.” But in truth this power is “precarious and conditional,” so “princes will never be satisfied with it.” “The best kings wish to have the power of being wicked if they please, without ceasing to be masters.” Far from guaranteeing stability, the monarch's selfish interests will always put them in tension with their people. And besides which: while good monarchs are often able to govern very effectively, especially in large states, things usually fall apart when it's time to pass on power to the next generation.

Of course, these debates might seem less than relevant nowadays because this just isn't really how monarchy works any more. Elizabeth II did not wield anything close to absolute power; nor will Charles III. They are a “constitutional monarchy,” a symbol: their consent is ostensibly required for the institutions of the British government to function, but equally everyone generally holds that it isn't really. The British monarchy holds no meaningful power. They're just, you know, incredibly rich and people can be arrested for speaking out against them. And they don't pay inheritance tax, and they're basically immune from prosecution, even if they happen to be, say, centrally implicated as part of an international underage sex-trafficking ring. They can use their influence to do all sorts of things that ordinary people wouldn't be able to. Also there was a weird thing that happened in Australia in the ’70s where the Queen's representative there did literally remove a left-wing prime minister from office, although I'm not sure how much that had to do with the Windsors. But other than that they hold no real power.

In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel argues that a constitutional monarchy is the ideal system of government. For Hegel, it was one of the characteristic achievements of modernity to produce political systems that are able to justify themselves to their citizens — to unite what is objectively the case, with what subjectively anyone might will. The role of the (constitutional) monarch is to symbolize this in their person: to give the subjective stamp of “I will” to the objective force of the law. While they do not hold any “real” power (as Hegel admits, this would make the health of the state contingent on the ability of the monarch, which will have effectively be assigned randomly, as if by fate), they nevertheless ensure that the authority of the state is being exercised on a human level: nothing is able to happen that the monarch could not lend their stamp to.

This might be the most persuasive case one can make. Modern states are big, and complex. It can often seem as if the law acts on us with a sort of alien force (to wit: Kafka). It can often seem as if no one really knows what's going on. The idea that there might in principle be some actual human being at the top of all this is a comforting one: a check of sorts, a security break on the runaway train of reality. It wouldn't be my ideal political system, but I can see how this would work.

But it's difficult to see how this particular theory of constitutional monarchy might be used to justify the Windsors. It relies not just on the symbolic constraint of a human body but of a recognizably human life, which the Windsors precisely do not live.. They spend all their time doing things like being ferried around the world meeting their subjects or residing in their many mansions. They are allowed to force their staff to cook them some ridiculous number of boiled eggs every morning, so that one will be perfect. They get to do things like start their own toy television company or build their ideal village in Dorset. They are conditioned from birth to make all their major life decisions based on how they might play in the press.

The Windsors have been placed in a very strange position: imprisoned, almost, by their own immense, unearned wealth and power. And this manifests in their behavior: just see that recent video of Charles going apeshit over a pen, seeming every bit a man who desperately wants to pack this whole “being the king” thing in. The only member of the family who seems able to articulate their ambivalence towards the function that has been thrust upon them, who seems aware that this is possibly not a good way to live, is Prince Harry — and he's been ostracized by the palace as a result.

In a way, the point of the Windsors is to do precisely the opposite to what Hegel says a constitutional monarch should. The Windsors don't “humanize” the British state. Instead, they exist precisely as a symbol of how alien it is. Little has made sense in Britain for a long time now: we are talking about a country here which no longer really has a functioning healthcare service, which has sleepwalked into an energy crisis because it refuses to change how it regulates the price of renewables relative to gas. Where sewage companies routinely dump raw human effluent on public beaches, and there is literally nothing anyone can do about it beyond “asking them nicely to stop.” Every now and then, someone will point out a problem, and then it will turn out that the state used to own the thing you need to solve that problem, but then it got sold to a private company and destroyed. But of course: no one can do anything about any of this. No one really knows why, but nothing can ever possibly change.

And at the head of all this mess stands this one weird family, who we all pay to keep in exceptionally luxurious style. Why? Who knows. It seems like it's probably what's worst for everyone, even them. But it wouldn't really do to ask questions. This is Britain – you just have to accept it. Britain has a monarchy, precisely so that the state will never have to justify itself to its citizens.

Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer who lives in the North East of England. His first book, Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster was published earlier this year.