Does the Monarchy Still Matter?

New Statesman (1996), July 13, 2009 | Go to article overview

Does the Monarchy Still Matter?


Richard Eyre, theatre director

It's hard to deny our resemblance to devout worshippers of a cult: we crook the neck, we bend the spine, we bob and curtsey, we metaphorically cross ourselves towards the altar of monarchy. And just as religious faith defies the light of reason, so we are reluctant to examine the monarchy with anything more man an irritated shrug. No government will seriously tamper with the "constitution" (whatever that is), so we end up with the monarchy in the position of the monkeys on Gibraltar: a superstitious charm against the decline of our territorial integrity. But we won't grow up as a democracy until we resist the consolation of the English religion.

AS Byatt, novelist

The monarchy itself is faintly absurd. When I express republican sentiments my husband points out what a huge expenditure of money, parliamentary time and national energy would have to be diverted, from other urgent causes and concerns, to abolishing the monarchy. The other thing I have observed is that the European democracies I find most sympathetic are in fact monarchies--Holland, Norway, Sweden, modern Spain, even Belgium, for all the tensions. So I don't think about it much, most of the time. There are more important things to get excited about.

Peregrine Worsthorne, journalist

If a majority of the nation wanted to put an end to monarchy, then, of course, it ought to go. But most emphatically a majority does not want that. While a majority would want to kick out the present lot of self-serving politicians, bankers, mandarins and BBC executives, for the Queen they still have great affection and respect. Which is not surprising since of all our great institutions, the monarchy is the only one which actually works. Unlike aristocracy, which divided the nation, monarchy holds it together. In other words, today's haters of the monarchy are little more than bigots.

Peter Tatchell, human rights activist

Monarchy is incompatible with democracy. According to the elitist values of the monarchical system, the most stupid, immoral royal is more fit to be head of state than the wisest, most ethical commoner. Monarchs get the job for life, no matter how appallingly they behave. The alternative is not a US-style executive president. We could have an elected president, but a low-cost, purely ceremonial one, like the Irish. This would ensure that the people are sovereign, not the royals. And we get an important safeguard: if we don't like our head of state, we can electa new one.

Susie Orbach, psychotherapist

A monarch serves a symbolic purpose, as the overarching figure on to which we project the capacity to care for us and go before us as a representative. But that is an idealisation. The monarchy is the representative of a society still riven with class inequalities and the need to position oneself, always. The monarchy creates insecurities in all, of whatever background.

Eric Hobsbawm, historian

Can we disentangle the effect of the monarchy in general from the effect of having lived for almost 60 years under one Queen? In fact, most of the arguments about it take for granted that she is an element of continuity in Britain and a way for most people to identify with the country that is more effective than a national football team, because she is reliably on top all the time. The arguments about monarchy are therefore mostly about the future. Like Queen Victoria, she has seen off republicanism as a serious political force, maybe even in Scotland. There is no reason to believe that constitutional monarchy will be less viable in the 21st century than in the 20th, when it proved to be the most reliable framework of liberal democratic states (Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Japan and, since 1976, Spain).

Stephen Bayley, critic

I've no gripe with constitutional monarchy, but I 'm not so very keen on the House of Windsor: I'd love the chance to redesign the whole glum family.

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