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Debate: Republic vs monarchy in the UK

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Should the UK monarchy be abolished, and replaced with a standard republic?

Background and context

Although the U.K. has perhaps the best-known monarchy in the world, it is far from unique. Within Europe, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain also function as constitutional monarchies, as do Japan and Thailand within Asia. Hereditary rulers in Africa and the Middle East (e.g. Morocco, Lesotho, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) still retain a great deal of real power. Are these Heads of State anachronisms who should be swept away in the spirit of true democracy, or do they have much to commend them at a time when the leaders of many new republics still struggle to find popular legitimacy?

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Argument #1

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Yes

The concept of monarchy is undemocratic. If the monarch retains any significant political powers (as they do in Belgium and the U.K. for example) these are unjustifiable. Why should the opinion of just one person, in office purely by accident of birth, be able to influence the outcome of elections (e.g. in the U.K. if no party has an overall majority in parliament) or of political decision-making (e.g. the U.K. and Belgium again, where the monarch has to sign legislation before it becomes law)? Monarchy may also be used to prop up other unjustifiable elements within the constitution, e.g. the House of Lords in the U.K.

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No

Constitutional monarchy is a very effective political system. A hereditary Head of State acts as an important element of continuity within a democratic system. The real powers (as opposed to purely theoretical ones – no British ruler has actually vetoed an Act of Parliament since c1720) of European monarchs are negligible. But as unelected figures above the political conflicts of the day, they retain an important symbolic role as a focus for national unity (very important in Belgium, for example). In Britain their right “to advise, encourage and warn” the Prime Minister of the day has acted as a check against overly radical policies, in Spain King Juan Carlos actually faced down a military coup in the 1980s. They also will have had experience for many years of remaining independent of political allegiance, and a strong sense of duty in their work, and as such are more likely to be impartial in their choice of prime minister in a hung parliament than an elected politician or appointed supreme court justice.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The concept of monarchy is also inegalitarian. Even if the monarchy retains little or no political power, its presence sustains the traditional class system, sending out a message that who you are born matters more than what you make of yourself. This can stifle aspirations and lead to a culture of deference, where entrepreneurialism and individual ability are not valued. A system of royal honours may be used to tie achievers into the traditional social structures, making radical social and political change less possible.

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No

Monarchy acts as a guardian of a nation’s heritage, a living reminder of the events and personalities that have shaped it. As such it is a powerful focus for loyalty and a source of strength in times of crisis, for example World War II, and a reminder of enduring values and traditions. Separating the positions of Head of State and Head of Government also makes great practical sense; the monarchy undertakes much of the ceremonial work at home and abroad, leaving the Prime Minister free to focus more effectively upon governing. Also, there is no culture of deference to authority in the United Kingdom - suspicion of government and other public bodies is rife, and at the head of a capitalist society for centuries, often leading the world in innovation, the monarchy can hardly have been said to stifle entrepreneurial and individual thought.

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Argument #3

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Yes

The costs of monarchy are unjustifiable. Typically monarchs and their immediate family receive substantial amounts of money from the state to maintain luxurious lifestyles, complete with servants, expensive holidays and hobbies. The state also spends a great deal to maintain and run palaces and other royal residences, which are seldom accessible to the general public who support them through their taxes. Security costs are also very high.

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No

Monarchy is highly cost-effective when compared to the expense of maintaining a Presidency with a large staff and equally stringent security requirements. Royal residences are held in trust for the nation, and would require the same upkeep costs whether they were inhabited by a monarch or not. Instead monarchy more than pays its way, not only through its generation of tourist revenue as millions visit sites associated with royalty and through its role in promoting trade and industry abroad on royal visits, but through the Crown Estates which are owned by the monarchy and contributes over £200m annually to the government of the United Kingdom; much less than the given figure for the cost of the monarchy (£41.5m), or even the figure when including an estimate of security and other hidden costs (~£150m).

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Argument #4

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Yes

Royal families have become national embarrassments. In an age of mass-media monarchies are no longer able to maintain the mystique which once set them apart from the common man. Instead kings, queens, princes and princesses are revealed to be mortal, fallible and sometimes foolish creatures. As their wardrobes, squabbles and failing marriages have become constant sources of media scrutiny, so any remaining respect for monarchy as an institution has waned. How many people travelling abroad like to find their Head of State, and by extension their whole country, is a source of much amusement to foreigners?

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No

Monarchy is preferable to the alternative; an elected Presidency. It avoids the partisan nature of a Presidency, inevitably associated with one of the political parties, and thus incapable of uniting the nation as monarchy can. Bob Worcester of Mori, a well-known polling organisation, says that support for the monarchy has remained constant at about 70 per cent for the past 30 years. In all countries public trust of politicians is sinking to new lows, another reason why an elected Presidency fails to provide a focus for national feeling. Constitutional monarchy is also a more effective system of government, vesting real power clearly in the hands of democratically accountable leaders with a mandate to govern, without all the dangers of political gridlock and lack of accountability that can result from conflict between two differently elected bodies (e.g. in the USA or France).

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Argument #5

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Yes

Monarchs no longer have divine right to rule. For centuries the main justification of royal authority was a religious one. Catholic rulers had their legitimacy supported by the Papacy, Protestants rulers often headed their own state churches; in both the monarch’s rightful authority was preached in church every Sunday, while the ruler in turn protected a single national church. Today societies are increasingly multi-faith and many people have no religion at all; hardly anyone believes the monarch has a spiritual right to exercise authority. Indeed, those whose religion differs from that of the monarch (often ethnic minorities) may be actively alienated by the way in which a particular faith seems to be privileged.

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No

Monarchy can lead public opinion. Although above party politics, modern monarchs have proved able to raise important and sometimes unpopular issues that would otherwise have been ignored. For example, in the U.K. Prince Charles has legitimised discussion of environmental issues and stimulated a lively debate about the purpose of architecture, while Princess Diana’s work with Aids sufferers helped shift public opinion. Indeed, the Chief Rabbi in the United Kingdom has expressed his support for the established church because it can bring faith communities together in a way a disestablished religion cannot.

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