On 22 April, six speakers – Tanya Gold, Robert Hardman, Andrew Marr, Tanjil Rashid, Anna Whitelock and Gary Younge – assembled at the Cambridge Union Debating Chamber for the New Statesman Debate at Cambridge Literary Festival, chaired by the NS Britain editor Anoosh Chakelian. Two weeks before the coronation of King Charles, they were there to debate the motion: “This house believes it is time for Britain to abolish its monarchy.” Drawing on arguments about class, accountability, soft power and stability, their opening remarks throw light on an issue that goes to the heart of what it means to be British.
Anna Whitelock: “We can’t be the nation we want to be while ruled by an unaccountable relic”
Tradition, splendour, pomp, pageantry, national unity, soft diplomacy, tourism, even professors of the history of modern monarchy: these are all oft-cited reasons (perhaps not the latter) for the merits, indeed, necessity of retaining and celebrating the British monarchy. They are all reasons that to some extent I do, or did, have some sympathy with.
My research of more than 20 years has focused on the monarchy, its rituals, rights and roles; its kings and, in particular, its queens. It is, as some would have it, a golden thread through British history. But all of that is in the past. The question here is about the future.
Having been for a long time rather on the fence, over the last few years I’ve become increasingly convinced, with some regret, that the monarchy should no longer head modern Britain. I’m going to reserve my remarks to Britain, as that’s the focus of the debate, but of course the British Crown is also head of state in 14 other realms, not least nine in the Caribbean, and they are making their position increasingly and rightfully clear.
Once perhaps it might have been said that the monarchy represented the best of Britain – I think that’s debatable – but now, surely, that is no longer true. It doesn’t – indeed, it can’t – represent modern Britain, modern British values and beliefs, not least in equality, diversity and inclusivity.
Now, some of you, perhaps, might be Guardian readers. If so, you would have seen the fantastic “cost of the crown” series, in which the Guardian has sought to ask reasonable, necessary and long overdue questions. In fact, such scrutiny has long eluded the media, who have been stuck in something of a deferential 1950s time warp when it comes to their reporting of the monarchy. The Guardian has asked questions about how much is paid for working royals; for royal engagement; how much is the King worth; the cost of the coronation to the British public and so on – and they’ve done previous work and inquiries into the legal position and constitutional influence of the monarchy as well. Now, to all of those questions – and I’ve spoken to the reporters involved – Buckingham Palace responds: “Ask someone else”, “Work it out yourself”, or “You have no right to know.”
Similarly, if you go to the National Archives and call up documents there, seemingly innocuous ones, many return a computer message that says simply “the file’s closed” and invites you to make a freedom of information request. The royal family is exempt from that. So, when you put a request in the response comes back “no”, and I’ve put in some very recent freedom of information requests and that has been the response. So, we have entrenched secrecy, we are kept in the dark. Yes, we citizens in a celebrated democracy are unable to give our informed consent because we don’t know. Criticism or debate of the royal family is prohibited in parliament. The royal archives are effectively closed. There is no financial disclosure and, when there has been investigation, the findings are pretty disturbing. We know about crown consent, sovereign immunity. So, scratch the surface, and it is just the surface, and it doesn’t look good.
Crown consent is when parliament asks for consent when bills affect the crown’s interest. The Guardian revealed that more than 1,000 laws were vetted by the Queen and Prince Charles during her reign, relating to matters such as justice, social security, race relations, and so on.
In 2006 the Queen was given an exemption for an act which prevented mistreatment of animals. The exemption meant that inspectors couldn’t enter her private estates. Perhaps most concerning and surprising, the royal household is exempt from the Equality Act of 2010, which protects people in the workplace from discrimination. Buckingham Palace, when asked about that, didn’t deny the exemption; they just said they’ve got their own process.
And then there’s sovereign immunity. This holds that the monarch can’t be prosecuted or subject to civil legal action under the law. Effectively, we have a monarch unable to be tried for criminal behaviour. On a number of cases, the Crown is being granted legal immunity in respect of its private estate, such as Sandringham and Balmoral. Are we all OK with that?
Then there’s finance. The King has been estimated to be worth £1.8bn. He pays some income tax voluntarily, no inheritance tax, no corporation tax. So, what do we have here? We have an institution which resists scrutiny, at the apex of society, which, by its very survival, reinforces hierarchy. A sense that some people by birth, not merit, are better than others. And let’s be clear: this is about white inherited privilege and an institution that has profited much from colonial injustices.
The monarchy has had its time. It has run out of road. We need to begin a gradual, respectful transition to abolish it. We can’t be the British we think we are, and the Britain we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren, while we have this powerful, unaccountable relic defining us.
Robert Hardman: “In an era of soft power, it would be a monumental folly to get rid of the monarchy”
As somebody who writes about the monarchy a lot, all I can say is: it is probably the most scrutinised institution in this country, if not the world. I have been scrutinising it pretty closely for a very long time. Listening to the points made on the other side, I am reminded of King Farouk of Egypt’s famous maxim: “Soon there will be only five kings left – the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts and the King of Diamonds.” He said that in 1948, four years before his own throne went south. But, 70 years on, he is not quite right, because there are still about 25 monarchs kicking around, leading 43 of the roughly 200 countries on Earth. So, yes, it is a minority sport, but it is an enduring one. I’m not going to defend absolute and authoritarian leaders, but about half of those are constitutional monarchies, like our own. So, how have these breaks on progress, these backward, infantilising institutions clung on into the 21st century? How has that happened? If you listen to the abolition argument, it essentially boils down to two things: it’s time we all grew up, and they cost too much. So, let me deal with those points first.
Yes, royalty costs. Of course, it does. Heads of state cost. But we have the only head of state in the G7 who does not have his own presidential jet – he borrows an RAF jet when he goes abroad (and he certainly doesn’t have the purpose-built baguette oven that President Sarkozy had installed in Air France Un at considerable expense). Of course we pay. We pay the sovereign grant to our head of state – but we are always going to have a head of state. It’s about £50m, which is 15 per cent of Crown Estate revenues, plus another 10 per cent on top to refurbish Buckingham Palace. Heads of state are variable – some cost more, some cost less. The Irish have a very cheap model, the Italian one costs a good deal more and is a lot more opaque. And bonus points for anyone who can name more than two Italian presidents.
Break on progress? Some of the most progressive, forward-thinking countries in the world – Norway, the Netherlands – have monarchies. And where does that leave poor, old Japan – in the corner with a Dunces’ cap, because it’s got a fully-fledged Emperor? Except it wasn’t quite like that last time I was in Tokyo. The reality is much more nuanced than that, but I’ll offer three main points why we should not abolish the monarchy – why we are in fact extremely lucky to have it.
One is its blocking power. When the monarchy is there, no one can get their hands on the armed forces, the honours system, the judiciary, the civil service. Now, of course, there are breaches of that, but overall it is very effective. When gaining independence from the British, realms had a choice: do you want a president, or do you want to hang onto this model? So many of them chose the Crown, not because they liked Charles’s mother, but because they saw it as a bulwark that protects the people from overmighty despots. And when push comes to shove – and it does occasionally, as in Spain in 1981, when the king faced down a coup, or as this country did in the Second World War – having that sort of solidity counts for a great deal.
Number two: monarchy is a pressure valve. It means that we have two forms of politics. We have the combative, punchy stuff – politicians do that – and we have a benign force that reflects the nation to itself. When, in France, the head of state lays a wreath, half of the people standing by hate the person laying the wreath. In Britain when the Queen or King lays a wreath nobody has a problem with it. Having been around the world with the royal family for many years, I have seen that the stability and the continuity we get is something we take for granted. In eastern Europe in the Nineties, for example, they were bowled over to see the Queen. For them she was the ultimate symbol of stability – and our monarchy still is, by the way.
Finally, soft power. When I was writing my latest book, I was lucky enough to interview Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University, the man who codified the whole concept of soft power. He said: “Your country has two absolutely unsurpassed, unrivalled national, soft power assets. One is the English language – Shakespeare, etc. The other is the monarchy.” And I find that wherever I go, people want to see the Queen. She was a bucket-list head of state – and the monarchy still is, with her passing. In one of President Obama’s great speeches reflecting on the whole notion of post-war leadership, he singled out two people that inspired him the most: Nelson Mandela, and Queen Elizabeth II. Time and again that comes through. I was in Germany the other day with the King. When he spoke to the Bundestag, the impact he had was far in excess of that of any British politician or diplomat.
We live in an era of soft power. Of course the monarchy is irrational. So are a lot of things: so is the boat race, wedding dresses, turkey at Christmas and hot cross buns. But the fact is, it has served us incredibly well, and it would be an act of monumental folly and self-harm to get rid of it. We might never have invented the monarchy if we were starting a new country, but we are where we are – and we are lucky to have it.
Robert Hardman is a writer and broadcaster specialising in the monarchy. His most recent book is “Queen of Our Times: The Life of Elizabeth II” (Macmillan)
Gary Younge: “The monarchy embeds class privilege at the heart of Britain”
When I was a child my mother used to put on the song “Young, Gifted and Black”, by Bob and Marcia, put my feet on hers and then dance us both around the living room. “They’re playing our song,” she’d say. It was the early 1970s, she was barely 30 and I was the youngest of three boys she was raising alone. Even as she struggled to believe there was a viable future for her children in a country, when racism was on the rise and the economy was in the tank, we danced around the living room, singing ourselves up: imagining a world in which we would thrive, for which we had no evidence, but great expectations.
My presence in this chamber would have been as unlikely to my mother as anything else she hoped I might achieve as we padded around our living room. I am the child of, among other things, aspiration.
On 6 May, in a ceremony viewed by millions, we will get a new king. No imagination was necessary to determine whether he would get this job. Aspiration didn’t come into it. This was preordained. He was literally born into it. His qualification for the role was pretty straightforward: he was the eldest son of the eldest daughter of the only son who would do the job. If he ever needed a CV – and he wouldn’t because there would never be an interview – that would be it. His CV is his DNA.
And that’s the problem. The royals are a class act. The monarchy establishes inherited privilege at the heart of government and embeds patronage at the centre of power. It enshrines the idea that it’s not what you know, do or think that will get you on in life but who you are.
For all the talk of modernity and meritocracy, the message from the top remains that no matter how hard you graft, sacrifice, innovate and invest you will never make it to those snowy, white peaks, which are reserved for those who were born there.
That message says talent and ability do not matter. That is not only toxic, it’s dangerous. I was recently diagnosed with a heart condition. I was referred to a cardiologist. Certificates hung on his wall. I asked him where he’d trained, what areas he had specialised in, how long he had been practising. He told me about his career. Imagine if the only picture on his wall was of his mother and when I asked about his credentials he’d pointed at it and said. “Well, I don’t have any formal training but my mum was a cardiologist, so I reckon we’ll be OK. And she got the job because her dad was cardiologist, so you really are in good hands.”
I wouldn’t do it to my body and I don’t want it in my body politic.
Those who insist the role of our monarchy is merely symbolic miss the point. It symbolises something extremely corrosive that persists in the present. It enshrines the hereditary principle in a system that increasingly enriches the privileged and privileges the rich; a system that favours not democracy but deference; where the poor know their place and the rich have their power. We should abolish the monarchy now because all of those trends are getting worse now.
The gene puddle from which the elite siphons its ranks has become shallow and fetid. The tendency towards oligarchy is growing. A 2019 Sutton Trust report into social mobility portrays a nation of entrenched and calcifying class stratification where the 7 per cent who went to private school occupy 39 per cent of the elite and the 1 per cent who went to Oxbridge occupy 24 per cent of the elite. Meanwhile after decades of stagnation real wages of working people are falling. We are going backwards.
That is not the monarchy’s fault. But that is what the monarchy represents. I am not only a child of aspiration. I am also a child of free school meals, student grants and urban revolt. I danced here not only on my mother’s feet but on other people’s dreams. The monarchy was not just absent from those dreams for a more equal and inclusive society. It was the antithesis of them. The monarchy says, “Don’t dance: bow.” The monarchy says, “Don’t sing: hold your tongue.” The monarchy says you are not a citizen but a subject. This country does not belong to you but to those who were born to rule over you. I commend the motion.
Gary Younge is a journalist, author, broadcaster and academic whose most recent book is “Dispatches from the Diaspora” (Faber & Faber)
Andrew Marr: “We are far too fragile to abolish the monarchy now”
I should start off by saying that I am partially here under false pretences. Because, although I am on this side of the chamber, I am not in fact a monarchist. I don’t actually believe that anything based on bloodline and heredity, in the modern world, given all we understand, is sustainable in the long term.
My opposition to the motion is based on my understanding of politics and power, the British culture, and the implication in the motion “it’s time to abolish the monarchy” that it’s time now. Because I would put to you that we are as a country in an incredibly fragile and dangerous position.
I was in Scotland during the Scottish independence referendum and I have never seen so much fury and acrimony and anger on doorsteps; people having their windows smashed, flags torn down – it was a really unpleasant period for anyone who went through it. People who are involved in that campaign are still shouted at in the street. And that was the dry run for, dare I say it, Brexit. Brexit ripped us apart as a country and we are only slowly recovering from that.
We are, as Gary Younge said, going backwards in many ways. We have appalling growth, our rivers and our beaches are cesspits and sewers, our public services are in terrible trouble. And he is absolutely right: the elite, the ruling class, have done a rotten job over the last 15 years. But I would put it to you that that is the fault, above all, of the Conservative Party and the private schools.
The monarchy’s responsibility for that is pretty marginal, or minimal. We have heard from other speakers about the deferential nature of the media and the deferential nature of the country. I see a different media and I see a different country. By far the most devastating assault on the financial situation of the current King was made not by the Guardian but by the Sunday Times in a series of reports over the last few months.
I don’t think we are a deferential country at all, I think we are an admirably stroppy, undeferential and quite difficult country and if the monarchy is there to make us bow and scrape it hasn’t done very well. I speak as somebody who would never take any kind of honour from the royal family, which I believe that journalists should stand to one side from.
My main argument is that we are too fragile. I don’t want to go through another Brexit. You couldn’t abolish the monarchy without a referendum. Any referendum, at the moment, would be incredibly divisive. And all those people who felt that they were cut out by the so-called Westminster elites in the past will feel it even more so on this subject. I can see a really nasty, corrosive, divisive process. It wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be comfortable, it would be very unpleasant indeed. I think, given the parlous nature of the country right now, this is the wrong time to do it. The time may very well come and in due course, one day, I hope it does, but it’s certainly not now.
One other point. I think republicans have this very, very attractive, naive, rather gentle belief that if there was a presidential system – because there would have to be – the president would be somebody like them. I put it to you, given the last ten or 15 or 20 years, that Gary would have been living under first President Boris Johnson and then President Nigel Farage, or some version of that. We are in the process in this country of importing our very angry American-derived culture war. I don’t think we need a culture war of any kind but it seems to me that the prospect of a really unpleasant period in our history, when we are on our backs already, followed by the exactly wrong kind of person as president, is too high to risk at the moment. When I was asked in the old days, “Who would I like as president”, I would always say Alan Bennett, but I know perfectly well that I wouldn’t get Alan Bennett, I would get somebody much, much darker than that. And those are the reasons that, despite the personal stories and the moving eloquence from the other side, I remain against the motion.
Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and the New Statesman’s political editor
Tanya Gold: “The British monarchy is a tapestry of ruined lives”
I believe that sacred monarchy infantilises us, as if Gandalf and Frodo were characters in our national life. I believe in the truism that the larger your dreamworld – and monarchy is a dreamworld – the smaller, sadder and more brittle is your real world. I think this is reflected in our politics, which are not imaginative, or functional, or even particularly reactive.
Due to the power of this dreamworld, we do not have a transparent and accountable system of government. We have, rather, a gaudy merry-go-round that, with the rising crises in the world, seems odder by the year. Britain feels necrotic and undynamic. Our fancied exceptionalism feels less exceptional these days.
I believe too that monarchy is parent and press officer to the class system: the ever present hum that will tell a child from a deprived background that some things are not for them, and never will be. If you don’t believe the class system is a tangible evil come to my home in west Cornwall and I will show you bright children wasted, thwarted, destined for minimum wage jobs because the elite of our country are chosen at birth.
Far from being truer patriots than republicans, monarchists seem to have so little faith in our country that they dare not look beyond one family for a figurehead to embody us. Do they embody us? Are they patriots? Why not send their children to state schools? Why not have their children in NHS hospitals? Why ask for exemptions from laws? Why not pay inheritance tax? I refuse the idea that monarchy, with its magic, protects our democracy: if it does, it isn’t doing a very good job of it. I refuse its insistence it is apolitical because it seeks to preserve its power: that is a political position.
I’m not going to talk further about what monarchy does to us. I want to talk about what it does to them. It’s not a very comfortable place to be I think: a deity in the age of mass media; something to stare at; something to feast on.
They are, as the late Hilary Mantel wrote in her superb essay “Royal Bodies”, like pandas: “Pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment.” It is typical that the then prime minister, David Cameron, on being told of the contents of Mantel’s essay, condemned it without – I am certain – reading it. She called the way we talk about monarchy “a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken”.
It is easier to count the victims of monarchy than to count those made happy by it. I’ll paraphrase Oscar Wilde now: one unhappy royal is an accident, two is carelessness. We have, generation to generation, a tapestry of ruined lives.
There is Margaret, the late Queen’s sister, forbidden to marry Peter Townsend because he was divorced. She could have insisted but would have lost her royal title. If you have been taught only to be a princess, it must be hard to leave, and she didn’t.
There is the Duchess of York, whose intimate life was put on the front pages of newspapers. Prudes will say she deserved it, as an adulteress, but less titled women are allowed to make mistakes. Her pain was monetised by the fourth estate. You could listen to the King’s intimate conversation with the Queen by ringing a phone line. The shame is ours.
There is Diana, plucked as a virgin from a suitable class to provide an heir for a man who loved someone else. A mistake, for sure, and now she is dead and called mad by her husband’s allies. She fought back, that’s all. The dehumanisation of royal women – dehumanisation and canonisation are not polar but related; canonisation is another way of unseeing – is as common as air. It is normal.
The monarchist newspapers – on their knees with bared fangs – called Kate Middleton “Waity Katie”, as if it is pitiable to love someone. Now, post child bed, she is a saint of course. Her mother, a former air stewardess and self-made woman is called “Doors to Manual”.
This cruelty to royal bodies – and those close to them – is not nebulous. It is endemic, systematic. Meghan Markle‘s relationship with her father – a delicate thing – was destroyed for money in the days before her wedding. A newspaper suggested that her wedding flowers might have poisoned Princess Charlotte – yes indeed, if she had eaten all of them – and that, by eating avocados, she threatened to destroy the world.
In his memoir Spare, Prince Harry chose to tell the truth of his life in this family, and he has been traduced for it. No one likes to have their dreams shattered.
He doesn’t understand class, of course. I had a brief fantasy that he would give up his dukedom and become a tree surgeon but, as I have written, having projected on to him for a lifetime, I can’t stop now. I see him as a whistle-blower, and the story he tells is of a family fractured by monarchy and what it demands of royal people. When people tell you the truth of their lives you should believe them. He was not looked after. He was not happy. His brother and his friends chased him with guns: when his father told him Diana was dead, Charles patted his son’s knee and left him.
They walked behind the coffin together to please the public. That Harry has PTSD from media intrusion seems so obvious there is almost nothing left to say. You need to be adamantine to survive this. Few are and no one should be asked to be.
We are told that, without the magical spell of monarchy, we will fall to a greater evil: a troll, or a Farage, as if no elected head of state has ever been fit for the task but a Mountbatten Windsor. It’s another element of the fairy tale we have chosen to substitute for a healthy national life, which we might see under a republic: one that is fair and vigorous; forward-looking and vital; filled with hope.
Tanya Gold is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on the royal family
[See also: Prince Harry’s war on the Windsors]
Tanjil Rashid: “For those of us who are here as the flotsam of empire, the monarchy offers us an anchor of familiarity, safety and trust”
Since today is the Muslim festival of Eid, let me begin by quoting from a lecture delivered thirty years ago at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies: “Islam is part of our past and present, in all fields of human endeavour. It has helped to create modern Europe. It is part of our own inheritance, not a thing apart.”
The person who spoke this truth has many obscure titles. He is for one the patron of the aforementioned Islamic centre.
He also happens to be the King.
So in the United Kingdom we appear to have a head of state who recognises Muslims as integral to Europe when, across the rest of Europe, states are making it clear that Muslims are indeed “a thing apart”, with bans on Islamic clothing, on minarets, and prime ministers who call Muslims “invaders” (these examples all taken from republics).
Criticism of Britain’s monarchy is being framed in terms of its irrelevance or detriment to minorities. I belong to such a minority. It’s because I do that I’m sceptical of abolitionist claims.
Get rid of the monarch, and we don’t get rid of kings; we make kings of politicians. So, between the elected politicians who would be king in a republic and the unelected British monarchs of modern times, who inspires greater confidence from ethnic minorities? For me, the monarchy.
I don’t just mean Charles III’s outspokenness in favour of immigrants – a longstanding commitment on his part – or indeed that of Elizabeth II, with her fondness for her Commonwealth “family”, as she called it. I would trace this tendency back at least to the Proclamation of 1858, when against the wishes of the prime minister and political establishment, Queen Victoria insisted on Indians “being placed on an equality with the subjects of the British Crown”. That principle was flouted by the politicians who ran empire, but it was, as Gandhi put it, our Magna Carta, and it came from the monarchy.
Now, there are only so many ways that a polity can realistically be organised. Let’s look at republics – specifically those we have in Europe, which Britain might conceivably resemble.
We could easily become what most of the continent is: a democratic, republican nation-state, like Poland or Croatia. These societies are always nationalistic ones; their raison d’etre is as a homeland for a particular nation – a concept that virtually always plays out as a synonym for ethnicity.
In such republics, if you don’t belong to that ethnicity, there will be questions over your loyalty, your suitability. If you’re Jewish in Hungary, your government is constantly casting aspersions on you because, “Can you be a real Hungarian?” If you’re a German from the Turkish diaspora, it’s an ordeal getting a German passport – less than half of German Turks have one – because, “Are you a real German?”
[See also: The making of Prince William]
An alternative model is the ideological republic. This is what you have, for instance, in France, where, yes, you might be black, you might be Arab – but so long as you sign up to the values of the republic, you’re allowed to be French. Over there, education, and a good deal of legislation, is about bludgeoning people with those values. “Strengthening respect for republican values”: that’s the name of some recent legislation under President Macron. Woe betide anyone who may disagree with the values of the state (that goes especially for Muslims).
Now let’s turn to our peculiarly British constitutional monarchy. What is its organising principle? We have no state ideology. And we aren’t a nation-state either – Britain loosely claims four home nations, but the term “British” can encompass Indians, Ghanaians, Singaporeans. People like myself tend to favour that term because it means we don’t have to be English.
No, what unites us all, legally and politically, is the King, mere loyalty to whom makes us all British. That’s the organising principle. Our oath of allegiance is to “Charles III, his heirs and successors”: not to any ideology, not to any ethnicity, not to any nation, just to some random, weird, ultimately powerless, symbolically significant family.
My mother wears a hijab, doesn’t speak much English, and was very fond of the Queen. She’s unimpeachably British in a way that is impossible in any comparable European republic. In France, her clothing would be against the values of the republic. In Germany, she most likely would not have a German passport, which is harder for those without German blood. But in the United Kingdom, no such authoritarian demands are made of her – except a pledge of allegiance to the King (and even that is not really insisted upon).
Black and Asian people can say – many of us at least – that our ancestors have been subjects of the same British Crown for three centuries. It’s as subjects of that Crown that we were allowed free movement to come here legally, and it’s because we remain such that politicians have a hard job trying to make us leave.
So for those of us who are here as the flotsam of empire, the monarchy offers us an anchor of familiarity, safety and trust.
Tanjil Rashid is a journalist and filmmaker. He has recently produced documentaries on the war in Ukraine, Isis and US politics, and writes for publications including the Financial Times, the Times and the Washington Post
[See also: King Charles III’s Secret Kingdom]