Should the British Monarchy End?

September 19, 2013

In the wake of the much publicized birth of a new royal prince in Britain, this lesson explores the history of British monarchy and the debate about whether to end it.  

 

To the Teacher:

A new prince was born this summer in Great Britain. On July 22, 2013, Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, became the parents of a new baby, Prince George. The boy will be third in line to British throne, behind only his grandfather, Prince Charles, and his father. The current monarch, Queen Elizabeth, has reigned for more than 61 years. Throughout much of the media and among fans of the royal family, George's birth generated an enormous amount of excitement. At the same time, the recent fanfare over the royal baby has raised some important questions for Britain, and, by extension, for the many other countries around the world that still support monarchies.

In this lesson, students consider: What exactly is the British monarchy and why does it still exist today? If Great Britain is a democracy, isn't maintaining a royal family simply antiquated? Should the British people continue to financially support a hereditary monarchy? The first student reading below gives a history of Britain's evolution from monarchy to democracy. The second reading examines the debate about whether the monarchy should end once and for all. Questions for student discussion follow each reading.
 



Student Reading 1: 
Great Britain, from Monarchy to Democracy

A new prince was born this summer in Great Britain. On July 22, 2013, Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, became the parents of a new baby, Prince George. The boy will be third in line to British throne, behind only his grandfather, Prince Charles, and his father. The current monarch, Queen Elizabeth, has reigned for more than 61 years. Throughout much of the media and among fans of the royal family, George's birth generated an enormous amount of excitement. At the same time, the fanfare over the royal baby raised some important questions for Britain, and, by extension, for the many other countries around the world that still support monarchies.  

What exactly is the British monarchy and why does it still exist today?
 
Historians trace the origins of the British monarchy to the reign of Alfred the Great of the Kingdom of Wessex in the late 9th century. Prior to the unification of England under a single ruler, the country was made up of a number of smaller kingdoms, which suffered frequent Viking raids. Alfred the Great succeeded in defeating the Vikings and building Wessex into the most powerful of the English kingdoms. His grandson Athelstan, in the early 10th century, became the first monarch to rule over a unified kingdom roughly resembling present-day England.
 
The process through which England became a democracy proceeded slowly over the following centuries. Under the feudal system, the King held absolute political and economic power over the English people, standing as the owner of all of England's land. The land was "held" by a class of nobles and knights—or "lords"—and parceled out to "vassals" in exchange for a guarantee of service (often military service) to the lord and to the crown. While the unification of England into a single kingdom gave the king authority over a larger population and geographical area, the emergence of these social classes planted the seeds for ongoing tension.
 
These tensions came to a head in the early 13th century when a group of barons, unhappy with rising taxation and the loss of their possessions in unsuccessful wars, rebelled against King John. As a result of negotiations between the King and the rebels, the Magna Carta (or Great Charter) was issued in 1215. The document represented one of the first formalized checks on royal power. Clause 61 of the Magna Carta provided for the creation of a committee of 25 barons who could overrule the King and confiscate his possessions if he defied other clauses of the Charter.
 
The committee of 25 barons would ultimately comprise the basis for an English Parliament. The centuries that followed saw Parliament continue to develop and, slowly, assert more political authority. In the middle of the 14th century, Parliament was formally split into two chambers—what became known as the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Limited elections for the House of Commons were introduced in early 15th century, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become a democratic political system.
 
Social unrest gripped England in the 17th century, resulting in political changes that have endured to this day. The English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1651, pitted Parliamentarians against Royalists and culminated in the overthrow and execution of King Charles I. From 1649 through 1659, England had no king, but the Monarchy was restored—albeit in a weakened form—in 1660. Less than 30 years later, however, English Parliamentarians staged a decisive blow to the power of the Monarchy in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688.
 
Tom Chivers of the British Telegraph summarizes the significance of this watershed event:
 

The Civil War [of 1642] had removed the monarchy, and then reinstated it in a weakened form, setting the stage for the attenuated 'constitutional monarchy' that we have today. But it was the arrival of William of Orange from Holland to take the throne from James II which led to the creation of the Bill of Rights, constitutionally preventing absolute rule by the Kings and Queens of Great Britain to this day, and leaving Parliament as the true seat of power in the country.

 

In the years following the Glorious Revolution, the Kingdoms of England and Scotland merged, and the Parliament of England became the Parliament of Great Britain. Although the monarch maintained some influence over political affairs, its power slowly eroded. Despite retaining the official title of "head of state," today the monarch occupies a purely ceremonial and diplomatic position.
 
In Parliament, meanwhile, the House of Commons became the more influential chamber following the Reform Act of 1832. This law began the process of expanding enfranchisement and providing more equitable popular representation. Today, the House of Commons is a democratically elected body of 650 members, each representing a geographic constituency, similar to Congress in the United States. Elections must be held at least every five years. Members of Parliament are divided into political parties, with the leader of the party holding the majority of seats serving as Prime Minister—the effective head of government in the United Kingdom. The current Prime Minister is David Cameron of the Conservative Party.
 
So, if the United Kingdom is now a democratic society, why does the monarchy continue to exist at all? As we will see in the next reading, this question is the topic of considerable debate.
 

 
For Discussion:

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. How did a democratic system develop out of monarchy in Great Britain?
  3. How would you compare this development with the establishment of U.S. democracy?
  4. What is the role of the monarch today? Who is the effective head of government under the current system?

 



Student Reading 2:
Should the Monarchy End?

Although the United Kingdom has been a democracy for many years now, the royal family continues to garner a great deal of attention, both in Great Britain and around the world. Millions of people tuned in to watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in the spring of 2011 and closely followed news of a royal birth in the summer of 2013. Despite being citizens of a country that fought a war of independence specifically to be free from the rule of the British crown, many Americans were also enthralled by these proceedings.
 
In the United Kingdom, popular support for the monarchy has been strong and remarkably stable over the last several decades. In a May 2012 article for the BBC, journalist Mark Easton summarized a recent poll:
 

Whatever republicans [those who wish to eliminate the monarchy and replace it with a formal republic] might wish, less than a fifth of the Queen's subjects in the UK say they want to get rid of the Royal Family—a proportion that has barely changed across decades.
 
According to polling data from Ipsos Mori, support for a republic was 18% in 1969, 18% in 1993, 19% in 2002 and 18% last year. Three-quarters of the population want Britain to remain a monarchy—a finding that has been described by pollsters as "probably the most stable trend we have ever measured."

  
 
Despite the limited support for republicanism in the UK, whenever there is a major royal event, it reopens debates about the place of the monarchy in modern British society. Opponents of the monarchy contend that it is little more than an anachronism: The British people have been electing their government representatives for many years now, they argue, so it makes very little sense for them to still have a king or queen as an official head of state. Moreover, they contend, it is wrong for the British people to have to support the monarchy with millions of pounds in tax revenue every year. As Heather Horn of The Atlantic wrote in a February 2012 article:
 

[T[here's something a bit jarring both to logic and to liberal democratic sensibilities about what the queen stands for. After all, British "citizens" are still at least nominally, and arguably legally, considered "subjects." The United Kingdom's Home Office and the passports it issues reflect the country's switch in 1949 from the language of subjecthood to citizenship, and thus make a distinction between "citizens of the United Kingdom" and "British subjects." That's not a particularly pretty distinction, since the latter is mostly a leftover of the country's imperial era.
 
But as plenty of experts have pointed out, there is no piece of paper that officially designates Brits as "citizens." And if a magazine-length article can be written under the headline "Are we subjects or citizens?" as the BBC did in 2005, whatever scraps of citizenship clinging to Britons can't be all that substantial.
 
The financial side of the British monarchy is no less quirky. Governing for payment is standard, but the queen reigns, which appears mostly to mean visiting things. Strange as this looks from a practical standpoint, it's even stranger in theory. In 2012, why would the people of a Western state pay someone to subjugate them?

 
Supporters of the monarchy, on the other hand, argue that public support for the monarchy delivers a large economic return in the form of the tourist revenue it generates. In addition, they say, the royal family provides the British people with a sense of national identity. As Gerald Warner of the Telegraph stated in a June 2010 commentary:
 

The monarchy costs 69p a year for every person in Britain, or £1.33 per taxpayer  [about $2.14 in dollars]. In return, besides the Crown Estate profits, there is the unquantifiable, but enormous, tourist revenue it generates. Claims that a republican head of state would be less costly are absurd. The German presidency costs about the same as the Queen, but how many tourists line the streets of Berlin to catch a glimpse of - er - what is his name?....
 
Although the monarchy undoubtedly represents value for money, its true worth cannot be expressed in financial terms. It is the personification of the nation, the embodiment of our national identity. The monarchy is living history, a pageant of our past that remains relevant in the present and will continue to do so in the future. Constitutionally, it is the guarantor of stability: during the political impasse that followed the general election and the protracted negotiations, our governmental process did not miss a beat, since the Queen remained as the constitutional authority, ensuring continuity.
 

Despite these considerations, republicans such as George Danker of the Cambridge Union Society believe that the monarchy should be eliminated as a matter of principle. Danker wrote in a March 2012 article for the Huffington Post:
 

[T]he most common arguments for abolishing the monarchy are not economic or political—they are ideological. With an unelected Head of State, our democracy is incomplete, a notion that republicans simply cannot bear, and it is easy to understand why. It doesn't feel particularly fair that one family has privilege and millions of taxpayers' pounds thrust upon them, whilst being totally unaccountable to the outside world. Especially as the rest of us are struggling through the worst recession in living memory, it seems illogical that we might refuse the opportunity to decide which person, above all others, represents the nation.
 


For Discussion:

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. What are "republicans" in Great Britain? How would they like to change their government?
  3. What are some of the economic arguments for and against the monarchy?
  4. Beyond economic considerations, supporters believe that the monarchy creates a sense of national identity, while republicans consider the royal family to be an insult to British democracy. How would you weigh these competing arguments? Which position do you find most convincing? Explain your position.
  5. What do you think about the fascination many Americans have with British royalty, given that American colonists fought a war and created a Constitutional government to free themselves from the British monarchy (or any monarchy)?