Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, February 20, 2012

Why a monarchy in the 21st century?

Andrew McFadyen, writing for Al Jazeera asks about the meaning of the British English monarchy in a democratic regime.

What does the monarchy say about Britain?
Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating 60 years on the throne. She is a figure of global stature, ruling over the United Kingdom and 15 other countries, including Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Furthermore, she is only the second monarch to reach that milestone, after Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901…

Mark Field, the Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster, which includes Buckingham Palace, told Al Jazeera that, as a Conservative and a monarchist, he was immensely proud to have her as one of his constituents.

"The incredible social changes in the last 60 years reinforce the case for a monarchy," said Field. "If you started with a blank piece of paper you would not have a hereditary ruler, but the Queen is a great force for unity in these troubled times."

There is strong evidence that most English people agree with him. According to the polling organisation Ipsos MORI, only 18 per cent of Britons want to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state…

In Scotland, the Royal Family is viewed with much greater indifference.

In 1952, even her title, Elizabeth II, was controversial - in Scotland, there had never been a first. A popular protest song asked: "How can ye hae the Second Liz when the First yin's never been?"…

"I find it hard to see a legitimate role for the hereditary principle in government or the state. I would like to see an elected head of state," Patrick Harvie, the leader of the Scottish Green Party, and Glasgow representative in the Scottish Parliament, told Al Jazeera.

Harvie explained: "I have a problem with the idea that some people have a higher status in society because of their birth, not a problem with the monarch herself, or any of her charming family."

Viewed with cold logic, the idea of hereditary power is very hard to justify.

Imagine the reaction if someone suggested that being manager of Manchester United or Chief Executive of Google should be a hereditary position.

Conservative MP Mark Field agrees that the principle of hereditary power is anti-democratic, but says he would not change it.

"Of course it is [anti-democratic], but in terms of providing a sense of enduring unity, the hereditary monarchy has worked extremely well. No democratic politician will ever have the widespread support that the Queen has."…

In the UK, Queen Elizabeth's personal popularity prevents serious questions being asked about the monarchy, but she is 85 years old and, although she appears to be in robust health, she can't go on forever.

One issue looming on the horizon is whether Prince Charles, who is next in line to the throne, can command the same respect…

After six decades on the throne, Queen Elizabeth is on her twelfth prime minister. Her supporters say that she has been a source of continuity, unity and wise advice.

For others, the fact that they are subjects and not citizens makes a powerful statement about inequality. They ask: "How can Britain be fully democratic when the highest office in the land is chosen by accident of birth?"

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