Reform not Abolition? Britain’s Relationship with the Monarchy

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There are two big events to look forward to this spring (depending on your outlook of course); the Royal Wedding on April 29 2011 and the equally exciting national referendum on May 5 2011, where we will be able to decide on the voting system that we use to elect our MP’s to parliament. The second of these enlivening events has spawned a discourse full of such tired terms as ‘democracy’, and ‘fairness’, and generated phrases about ‘ordinary people’ and much talk of ‘our outdated system’ (see the recent Yes2AV broadcast) [1]. Yet, at the same time, many of those who decide to vote will have just days before watched with enthusiasm, the wedding of Kate and Wills: the to-be inheritor of an even more outdated system and undemocratic British institution. Around 26 million people are expected to tune in to the royal wedding, 52 percent of the population [2], compared to the rather paltry 40 percent expected turn out at the referendum [3]. It is rather ironic that in the space of a week millions of Britons will likely occupy themselves with both the celebration of an elitist and iniquitous institution and then march to the ballot box to have their say on an unfair and outdated electoral system.

We are still a nation that supports either actively or inactively through indifference, an elitist institution, known to us as the innocuous Royal Family. The relationship with the monarchy is rather strange. Most figures reflect a nation by in large in support of our royal family; something that is somewhat unusual considering Britain’s long and rich history of reform and liberal progressive thinking, which plainly clashes with the backing of an age-old elitist, sexist and religiously prejudiced hereditary post: the crown falls through the male side of the family (unless of course there isn’t a male to be had) and in the 21st century the future king or queen is still barred from marrying a Catholic. Whilst the people of this country have made great steps adapting to the 21st century, it seems the monarchy has been left to continue with its archaic traditions that died out in the rest of Britain a century ago. However, despite the liberal character of our country and democratic traditions, people are for the most part against the abolition of the monarchy. As a recent YouGov poll shows, 65 percent want the Queen to stay on in her role and just 13 percent believe that the monarchy should be dissolved after Queen Elizabeth II’s reign [4]. British public opinion is arguably royalist.

Yet this does not mean Britons are happy with what we have got. 70 percent of UK citizens believe that men and women should be treated equally in the succession of the throne and 71 percent would like to see the law that bans the monarch from marrying a Catholic to be revoked [5]. Furthermore, another recent poll conducted by YouGov showed that 51 percent of British citizens believe that the monarchy should slim down dramatically and a substantial 19 percent are in favour of out-right abolition [6]. It seems that reform of the monarchy is well over-due. People are not asking for abolition, just a few innocuous changes to the system.

However, despite such an apparent public desire for reform of the monarchy, the lovely men and women in the halls of Westminster are reluctant to change the status quo. The most recent action in parliament on reform of the monarchy was in 2009 with the ‘Royal Marriages and Succession to the Crown (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill’, [7] where it got to its second reading in the commons – not very far at all: it still needs to go through the committee stage, report stage and have a third reading. After which of course it has to go through the same process all over again in the House of Lords.  This is not the first time that reform of the monarchy has been brought up in parliament. In 2005 there was an attempt to clear the monarchy of its constitutional cobwebs, but alas, the government stopped it in its tracks. As outlined in a Guardian article from the time, Lord Falconer spoke of how the UK had to be ‘particularly cautious in case small changes triggered other, unintended, amendments’ [8]. Lord Falconer raises the fear that once you start to make change to the monarchy the tempting route might be to keep on reforming. Many might think ‘why stop there with these reforms?’ The logical destination of such a route would thus surely be the outright abolition of the monarchy.

There is also the question of whether there is any point in reforming the monarchy anyway? Such things would only scratch the surface. But although arguably pointless in the grand schemes of things, such reforms might be just what is needed to highlight to people the absurd nature of having a monarch in a supposedly democratic, progressive and inclusive 21st century Britain. The ensuing furore following some much needed reforms to the monarchy might stimulate a much needed debate on the monarchy and might just make people question the grounds of having a monarch in the 21st century. However, it seems from the government’s reluctance in reforming the monarchy, this might be just what they fear.

Article by George Richards. Edited by Mariam Boakye-Dankwa.

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