The argument for the abolition of the monarchy often focuses on the political and democratic reasons, constitutional nuances and financial implications. Republicans argue that it would be better for democracy if we elected our head of state, that that the money paid out to the Queen and her family is disproportionate and unfair and question the principles and ethics of the family who are supposed to be the moral figureheads of our country. However, it is less often that the deeper impact upon society is examined. How would a republic be structured? What would the role of the head of state be? And perhaps most importantly, in what way would it benefit the people of Scotland and indeed the UK as a whole?
When a recent study showed that people in Scotland were more likely to back independence if it meant having an extra £500 in their pockets each year, it was evident that it is not the complex constitutional and economic factors which matter to people but what the benefit would be to their daily lives. With Britain entering another period of recession, record unemployment and pay cuts and freezes affecting every sector of the job market, few people would consider the fact we do not elect our head of state to be a pressing issue. However, the benefits it could have on our society, both collectively and individually could be wide ranging, from inspiring young people, to providing extra income for the state and culturally reinvigorating the nation.
Before examining the impact being a republic would have on the country, it is of course important to look at what the political structure of the country would be. One of the best examples of a well-functioning, democratic republic is the Republic of Ireland and it is this system upon which campaign group Republic bases its proposed structure for the UK.
Republic advocates a head of state, known as the president, directly elected by the people for a maximum of two five-year terms. Any British citizen could stand for president, and as well as being ceremonial, the role would hold reserve constitutional powers such as the power to appoint a prime minister, call a general election and sign acts of parliament into law. The head of state would be equal before the law as every other citizen and would take an oath to serve the people, uphold the law and protect the constitution. Unlike the monarchy, the president would be required not to involve his or her extended family in the performance of their duties. Crucially for many, the office of the head of state would also have no constitutional links with any religious faith.
So what would the benefits on society be? For a huge proportion of the population, the difference between the roles of the head of state and the head of government are ambiguous and few know exactly what the job of the monarch is beyond cutting ribbons and hosting garden parties. However, if the head of state were to be elected it may encourage more politically apathetic voters to take an interest in exactly why they are electing this person and in what way they differ from the prime minister. In Ireland the president is seen by many as someone to represent the country abroad and entertain foreign dignitaries whereas the Taoiseach is seen as the person who runs the country. While by no means a thorough understanding of the roles, this often means that presidents are elected apolitically and based on their personalities while governments are elected on policy, as it should be. For this reason, if we in the UK had the chance to elect a president, it could end the habit we have fallen into of electing presidential-style prime ministers and instead the focus could fall back onto policy. Furthermore, the president would be put under more scrutiny than the monarch. In a bizarre juxtaposition, those who are elected in this country generally face more scrutiny from the press than those who are not. Any immoral or allegedly illegal activities which today could be carried out by the royal family and covered up or go unpunished, would be subject to the impeachment procedure which would be in place. The accounts of the office of the president would also be open and transparent, unlike those of the highly financially secretive royal household.
Today, the idea of aspiration and self improvement is so deeply entrenched in Thatcherite ideology that it is often ignored by the left. However, there is little doubt that religious, ethnic and other minorities would take pride in seeing a minority figure being elected to the highest office in the land and being chosen as the figurehead and representative of the nation. The sense of pride felt by black Americans upon Barack Obama’s election is a prime example of this. Not only did it inspire Americans but it was a clear sign to the rest of the world that the country was progressing. A president who was for example, muslim, gay or of Asian origin, who has worked to gain the respect of the country and earn votes, someone who has lived a real life rather than been pampered and hidden away from the real world in a bubble of opulence is far more inspiring than what we have right now. The royal family no longer represents multicultural Britain and the fact that it is a hereditary system with constitutionally binding ties to the Church of England means that it never can.
The deeply-entrenched boundaries ensure that it is incredibly difficult, even for the rich to enter the tight circle of aristocracy and therefore gain proximity to the royal family. This ensures that they remain alone and inaccessible at the top of the class pyramid.
Closely tied to this is the British obsession with class. This has been a massive social barrier in this country for hundreds of years. While it could be argued that the lines between the working and middle classes are slowly blurring, the divisions at the top are almost as strong today as they were a hundred years ago. This state-enforced class structure ensures that those at the top stay at the top and only a carefully-vetted few from each generation are permitted entry. Monarchists last year praised the royal family’s modern attitude in allowing Prince William to marry a “commoner.” It says a lot about our society that someone who is educated at a £30,000 per year private school, who’s parents are millionaires, is considered to be a commoner. The deeply-entrenched boundaries ensure that it is incredibly difficult, even for the rich to enter the tight circle of aristocracy and therefore gain proximity to the royal family. This ensures that they remain alone and inaccessible at the top of the class pyramid.
We’re constantly being fed the lie that the monarchy brings tourism into Britain. Monarchists argue that the Queen is the reason why millions of people visit this country every year, yet of the top 20 tourist attractions in the country, the only royal residence to feature on the list is Windsor Castle, at number 17. On becoming a republic, the royal residences will not cease to exist and rather than being closed off except to a select few, could be opened to the public, to serve as revenue-generating monuments, museums and galleries. For the best example of how this can be carried out effectively we need only look across the Channel to France. The Palace of Versailles, once home to the French monarchy, attracts three million paying visitors a year, generating large amounts of revenue for the French state. Furthermore, the world’s most famous and most visited museum, the Louvre, was once home to French monarchs, before being turned into a museum after the revolution. If we followed this lead it would give the opportunity to display the Royal Art Collection, 150,000 works of art which are the property of the nation but to which very few people outside the royal family have access. This art could be distributed throughout the country and displayed in existing galleries and in space freed up in former royal residences, showing the public for the first time the art which we as a nation own, and instilling within the population a new sense of cultural pride, giving everyone the pleasure which is currently open to a select few.
No-one knows what Scotland’s constitutional future will be but whether or not Scotland remains part of the union, it is possible that after the abolition of the monarchy, the revenue generated from the Crown Estate in Scotland would be paid directly to Holyrood, as opposed to the Treasury as it is now. In the 2010-2011 financial year this amounted to £11.9 million and while not a vast amount compared to the Scottish Government’s £33 billion total budget for the same year, it could pay for a new primary school or more than four hundred new nurses. Indeed there are already talks underway for matters relating to the Crown Estate in Scotland to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
While it would be naïve to presume that the abolition of the monarchy could serve as a panacea to the UK’s social, political and economic problems, there is no doubt that it could at least go some way to inspiring a new sense of possibility, equality and pride in our nation. We could create a society with less defined class boundaries, leading to more opportunities. A society in which anyone, regardless of their background, can become head of state through hard work and by gaining the respect of the people, rather than by accident of birth.