To start with, the evaluation of the Royal Family’s net contribution vs. annual cost to the average British taxpayer seems to me an eternal discipline of figure-fiddling and digit-doctoring. So my argument will not concern itself with the relative injustice of the Monarchy costing every citizen somewhere between 69p (Vanity Fair calculated this for some reason) and £5 (republic.co.uk.’s indignant estimate).
Neither will my argument rest on the personality cult which captures the nation every time someone named Windsor ties the knot or gives birth to a national newborn. I agree, the personality cult which often makes the monarchy such a popular institution, is just as irrationally irritating as the veneration of talentless celebrities. The fact that Queen Elizabeth herself is a hugely popular and inspirational figurehead for many people, is indisputably a lucky coincidence, as my fellow contributor rightly points out. Any one of her descendants could prove to be an insufferable and misguided oaf, yet this line of reasoning on the basis of personality is besides the point.
Let us then move away from arguments based on emotional attachment or ideology, and move to more pragmatic evidence: the political stability of the British democracy. Funny as it may seem to us, engulfed as we are in a time of particularly toxic political segregation, Britain is one of the very few countries in Europe which has had a continually functioning parliamentary democracy since the early eighteenth century. This successful model has survived not despite, but because of the constitutional monarchy attached to it. The Republic website cites that a monarchy does not have a particular claim to support a country’s parliamentary stability, quoting Germany and France as examples for a prosperous republic based on purely elected institutions. The ludicrous failure to remember the parliamentary election of a Nazi party in Germany and a Vichy regime in France seems to me like a gargantuan display of amnesia, or, perhaps a laughable misjudgment of ‘stability’ in a political sense.
Now think of Sweden, Norway, Denmark or the BeNeLux countries, whose progressive policies and demonstrably democratic systems of government have made them among the most prosperous and content countries in the world, despite‘suffering’ under the yoke of a constitutional monarchy. Countries with elected ceremonial heads of state are not necessarily going to inevitably succumb to radicalised politics. But the likelihood of that happening in a constitutional monarchy is, generally speaking, lower.
How so? Let me give you an example from my home country – Austria. A republic since 1955 (the first attempt at a republic in 1919 didn’t last too long, I’ll let you figure out why), it has an elected president as head of state. The election of said president is held in a two-round system, with the two highest polling candidates going head to head in the second round. In 2016, this was fought between Alexander van der Bellen, a former Green politician and left-wing candidate, and Norbert Hofer, the right-wing freedom party candidate. The second round was annulled after the result was deemed too close to call, with van der Bellen winning the re-run with roughly 54%. This election between the two diametrically opposed candidates fuelled a division in Austrian society which reached Brexit-levels of antagonism, prompting one half of the population to feel ignored and betrayed (sound familiar?) and eradicating my naïve faith in the possibility of a truly independent head of state.
The constitutional monarch, on the other hand, is above party politics by definition. It doesn’t matter what the monarch thinks. The Queen’s unique position as a symbolic arbiter of the law-making process provides the checks and balances which make a radical undermining of democracy almost impossible. The accountability which elected politicians have, not to good old Elizabeth Windsor herself, but to the continued authority of an institution respected by the majority of the public, is an essential antidote to media manipulation, financial corruption and the unbounded ego of ideologists (think Orban or Trump). This peculiar brand of authority, or what Bagehot termed ‘dignified power’, is limited by its own need to survive despite the institutionalised anachronism it represents.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the constitutional monarchy’s inherent weakness in the face of actual decision-making doesn’t limit its symbolic strength as a backstop against reckless politics.
Call me irrational, but I, for one, would much rather have a harmless silent monarch than a polarising opinionated president.