Forum

Stop pretending the Royal Family doesn't have power

Queen Elizabeth II waving from Buckingham Palace balcony on her coronation day in 1953. (credit: Courtesy of National Science and Media Museum via Flickr) Queen Elizabeth II waving from Buckingham Palace balcony on her coronation day in 1953. (credit: Courtesy of National Science and Media Museum via Flickr) Prince Charles watching from Buckinghm Palace window on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation day.  (credit: Courtesy of National Science and Media Museum via Flickr ) Prince Charles watching from Buckinghm Palace window on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation day. (credit: Courtesy of National Science and Media Museum via Flickr ) Credit: Courtesy of National Science and Media Museum via Flickr Credit: Courtesy of National Science and Media Museum via Flickr
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

I don’t think it should be a hot take to say that we, as a society, have progressed past the need for monarchy. They are relics of a bygone era, a time before the modern thinking on what government should look like. But against all reason, the majority of the British public maintain support for the monarchy as an institution.

People who want to maintain royals argue that they boost national identity, bring in tourist money, and bring up the simple fact that most people still want them to be there. One of the more common reactions among people I’ve spoken to, though, is that of indifference: “Why does it matter? It’s not like the monarchy actually has any power anymore” — and this is where my objection lies.

It’s easy to believe at first glance that they don’t hold any power or are just figureheads, because the monarchies we read about in history books were absolute. But the fact that they have less power doesn’t mean that they have no power. That seemingly subtle difference has been made crystal clear by the recent death of the Queen. All of the remaining vestiges of royal influence have been dragged unceremoniously out of the woodwork. Currently, one cannot live in the United Kingdom and go about their normal life. The national performance of grief is legally enforced. Everything, and I mean everything, is subject to the official mourning period which runs until the evening of her funeral. While there isn’t a direct mandate to close, there is a strong cultural pressure to do so (see the backlash against the amateur football teams who dared to play after the Queen’s death, as well as the essential services like food banks that closed.) While there isn’t a direct mandate to close, there is a strong cultural pressure to do so (see the backlash against the amateur football teams who dared to play after the Queen’s death, as well as the essential services like food banks that closed.) While under normal circumstances you could go about your life as a sort of conscientious objector to the monarchy, quietly ignoring their existence, that option is no longer available. Regardless of the lack of direct legal mandate, the social pressure makes it so that you effectively must participate in the mourning.

The way the country has been forcefully ground to a screeching halt is a direct example of the power the monarchy maintains. In the days following the Queen’s death, peaceful protestors have quite literally been arrested for holding signs criticizing the monarchy. If you told me about Brits getting arrested for daring to criticize the monarchy, I would assume you were retelling a story from medieval times. But somehow, the “nonexistent” power of the monarchy surpasses the right of free speech to this day.

Fine, fine, I hear you saying — who cares, it’s not like they have any power over the law! Unfortunately though, that is not the case. For example, the brand new King Charles is set to receive a massive royal inheritance… with zero inheritance tax. While the lowly British commoner is usually required to pay a hefty 40 percent tax on “any part of an estate that's valued above a threshold of 325,000 pounds (about $374,000)," the monarchy made a deal with the Prime Minister in 1993 that they would simply not pay inheritance tax… how convenient! This particular arrangement is under fresh scrutiny today given that the United Kingdom is in dire straits financially, facing a massive cost-of-living crisis. While the exact monetary value of the King’s inheritance is not clear, the best guess places it at least in the hundreds of millions of pounds. Queen Elizabeth’s personal net worth was estimated by Forbes to be at least $500 million, while the crown’s real estate holdings are valued in the tens of billions. Even if they didn’t have any political influence — which simply isn’t true — the power inherent in that magnitude of wealth cannot be overlooked.

Everyone knows that the Queen’s (well, soon to be the King’s) face is printed on the UK’s money. But were you aware that Queen Elizabeth’s portrait appears on 32 other currencies? Yes, Lizzie sat at the helm of one of the greatest colonial powers in history. How can anyone claim that someone whose face appears on that much of the world’s currency doesn’t hold significant power or influence?

This is all to say, I find the argument that the British monarchy doesn’t hold any power to be absurd. Remnants of a time long gone are still present in almost every facet of British society. Passports are created in the name of the crown, the King is Head of the Armed Forces in his position as Sovereign, and to this day prime ministers still must be approved by the King.

The simple fact that the monarchy still holds so much power, regardless of how ceremonial their power appears to be, requires us to consider whether we really still want a royal family at all. By definition, this power was granted by virtue of their bloodline.

A question for the royalists out there: if you think royals should still exist, do you really believe they should still hold all this power? As of the most recent coronation (Queen Elizabeth II in 1953), the monarch is anointed with the will of God. The divine right of kings is not a common belief in our society, so it begs the question: Why are they still here? What right do they have to wield this power? How can our modern values coexist with a literal King?

The switch from Queen Elizabeth to King Charles in particular raises some interesting questions about the public’s continued support. Queen Elizabeth kept up the performance of royalty about as well as anyone possibly could, she embodied the idea of royal superiority (and therefore the idea that they were deserving of all that power). But Charles … is normal. Unlike the Queen, his normalcy is widely known by the public. He loses his temper, he has his vices — just like the rest of us. Will the overwhelming public support last in the face of an unlikeable king? More than any other point in history, the monarchy’s continued existence is completely contingent upon the public’s continued desire to keep supporting them. And that shift in the source of their power should really not be overlooked.

In the Middle Ages, the approval of the general public didn’t matter nearly as much. The divine right of kings was so widely believed and enforced that it maintained the legitimacy of their power on its own. The average medieval peasant didn’t know anything about the monarch personally, they didn’t have tabloid media, they just lived in a world where the popular consensus was that there was monarchy because certain bloodlines were appointed by God. Today, though, the source of monarchic legitimacy has shifted to reflect the more democratic system of government — in a world where the public is told that they have a say in their political leaders, public approval of the monarchy is vital to even maintain its existence.

At this point, once the public moves on, any remaining legitimacy is gone. So until that day, the Crown’s public relations people are toiling in the consent manufacturing factory simply to justify their own existence. So when you’re told that the monarchy is harmless, think about what it really is to be harmless. Because reconsideration and critical thought on the ethics of monarchy could quite literally be their end.