Why the Monarchy Must Go

By Elliott, Michael | Newsweek, March 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

Why the Monarchy Must Go


Elliott, Michael, Newsweek


I WAS A TEENAGER IN SUBURBAN LIVERPOOL WHEN I decided I was a republican. It seemed to be a pretty easy act of rebellion -- a bit like wearing flared hipsters on Sunday. Yet it's a funny thing: like anyone halfway sensible, I've managed to jettison almost everything that I held dear 30 years ago. Not republicanism. The older I get, the more implacably I become convinced that Britain won't get some big questions right unless it dumps the monarchy. Plainly, republican sentiment has risen in Britain during the monarchy's awful 1990s, but it's still a minority taste, and it will take more than a few giddy antics from Chuck, Di and the gang to convince most Britons that they are better off without the whole lot. Malcolm Fraser, an erstwhile conservative prime minister of Australia, has said that "the harsh reality is that the young royals have done the monarchy immeasurable harm." They certainly have: but the case for republicanism has to be made on principle, not on the sordid foolishness of the moment.

The simple, straightforward case against monarchy is that in a democracy it is inappropriate for the head of state to be determined by heredity. Positions of public authority should, wherever possible, be acquired on merit and confirmed by a democratic mandate. The obvious riposte is to note -- as British monarchists have for a century -- that the queen "reigns but does not rule, and to point to societies like the Netherlands and Denmark where democracy coexists with monarchy. Why not Britain?

Because Britain is different. In the 19th century, the British elite staved off revolution by giving a little bit of ground every few years to the forces of democracy. That was no doubt wise: but it has left modern Britain with a system of government that is in many ways premodern, and in which heredity still looms large. Arguably, that mattered little until the 1980s. But it matters a lot now. For in the last 15 years, British society has been stood on its head. From a closed, inward-looking, placidly shabby sort of place, it has become an energetic, entrepreneurial society with a diaspora spread across the globe. From a place in which everyone knew his place, it has become one of the most delightfully undeferential places on earth. Its institutions, from the BBC to labor unions, have been subject to withering fire. This, above all else, is the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, who, when the history books are written, will be identified as the person who thrust a dagger into the heart of monarchy. For at just the time when the British decided that authority had to be not inherited but earned, the monarchy went into a tailspin. The royal family, in one of the little phrases that we learned at school, was supposed to be a "mirror to our better selves.

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