Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II would like you to think of her as something of an ordinary Briton. But log on to www.royal.gov.uk and you will see one face of a vast, multimedia PR operation that projects the Queen as a surly but steady presence at the helm of the nation, one who has seen us through a difficult transition from a stiff, class-ridden, imperial power to a modern, multicultural society that boasts a tech-savvy and open head of state.
This, beg pardon, Ma’am, is nonsense. As we show in this special issue, the Queen and her trail of relatives make up an institution that wields real and unaccountable power. There is no reason for our head of state to own 340,000 acres of private land, or for the role to be inherited, or indeed for the head of state to be “supreme governor” of the Church of England – this in defiance of falling congregations and the multiplicity of creeds to which Britain has become home.
At a time when the Westminster elite are being forced to discuss urgent constitutional reform, no one is discussing the powers of the British monarchy, which sits like a spider at the centre of a web of wealth and privilege in one of the richest countries in one of the richest regions of the world. Its continued existence gives legitimacy to the deeply unequal way in which British society is structured, in which 69 per cent of the land is owned by a small network of aristocratic families that make up 0.6 per cent of the population and where the gap between rich and poor grows wider year on year.
Over her six decades in power, the Queen has played a canny game, always managing to end up on the right side of public opinion, even in the aftermath of the Princess of Wales’s death. But this success is merely a testament to her personal qualities. As Ted Vallance asks on page 18, would we really want a King Charles III? The heir to the throne epitomises the triumph of inherited privilege over democracy; to cite one example, his undeserved influence on the planning process has blighted British architecture. Worse than this, the general mediocrity of the Windsors – who have produced no scientists, artists or intellectuals of note – is testament to the flaws of the hereditary principle. Talent, we know, does not reside in that gene pool.
Removing the monarchy would have huge symbolic value, confirming the people of Britain as citizens, not subjects. It would signal an end to the culture of deference which still pervades public life – a culture that emboldens MPs to redact crucial details on their parliamentary expense claims even though we already know what lies beneath the censor’s pen.
Of course, it is not enough to cry “off with their heads” and expect an immediate transformation in the way society is organised. Even a cursory glance abroad shows that privilege can thrive just as well in a republic. In the United States, for example, a president with executive power and the high cost of electoral campaigns have allowed family dynasties to consolidate their hold on politics. France, for all its proud revolutionary traditions, has for decades been dominated by énarques, technocrat graduates of the elite École Nationale d’Administration.
What is more, half-baked constitutional reform has its own corrosive effects. Labour’s 1997 election manifesto promised to abolish the presence of hereditary peers in the Lords, yet failed to set out a convincing alternative for the second chamber. Twelve years on, the government is still able to shore up its falling support in the Commons and among voters by parachuting in unelected ministers. Baron Mandelson of Foy may have always been more comfortable in the company of the “filthy rich” than canvassing among the great unwashed, but even he must acknowledge this is not a sustainable political system, as Lord Adonis does in his interview with James Macintyre on page 16.
The only real fix, we suggest, would be to install a republic as part of a bold programme of constitutional reform that would tackle unaccountable power and privilege in all its forms. The royal family gained its wealth through feudalism, but it has continued to profit under capitalism. It is part of the same system that allows businesses to funnel vast amounts of wealth into offshore tax havens; part of a culture in which extravagant wealth is celebrated, but the poorest and most vulnerable in society are demonised. The need for a constitutional settlement has never been more urgent.