On 6th May, 2023, at Westminster Abbey, King Charles III will be crowned as the United Kingdom’s head of state. The UK has always had a republican minority and, whilst Queen Elizabeth II was admired for her professionalism, other members of the royal family have behaved in far less admirable ways. This is unsurprising because the royal family are, after all, human and have the same frailties as the rest of us. However, as the following graph shows, there has been a recent increase in republican sentiment in the UK.
So, is it a good idea for the UK to become a republic? This article looks at the question from a neutral and objective standpoint.
The six main types of national government are:
- Absolute Monarchies, e.g., Saudi Arabia and Oman;
- Constitutional monarchies in which the monarch is executive head of state, e.g., Morocco and Jordan;
- Constitutional monarchies in which the monarch is ceremonial head of state, e.g., the United Kingdom and Spain;
- Republics in which the president is executive head of state, e.g., the United States and France;
- Republics, in which the president is ceremonial head of state, e.g., Ireland and Italy; and
- Provisional Governments with no constitutionally defined basis, e.g., Libya and Sudan.
I have compared these categories of national government, as described in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_system_of_government, with the average Fragile States Index for nations in each category. The Fragile States Index is compiled by the Fund for Peace and is intended to be a measure of the likelihood that a state will erupt into mass violence due to internal conflicts. The lower the value of the index the less fragile the state. Data and the method by which it is gathered can be found at https://fragilestatesindex.org/
The results are shown in the following graph.
Clearly, on average, nations with a constitutional monarchy whose role is purely ceremonial are the most stable. They are considerably less fragile than republics whose president has an executive role. The reasons for this can be found in the UK’s history.
Unlike other nations, the UK does not have a written constitution. Rather its constitution has evolved over time and comprises numerous documents and practices. The general evolutionary trajectory has been towards the control of power. This process has, of course, faced resistance. Furthermore, it remains incomplete and, because new sources of power continue to emerge, probably always will be. The monarchy, religion, and political establishment are amongst those whose power has been constrained. However, for the purposes of this article, I will outline only the constraints placed on the monarchy and why they came about.
The monarch’s power probably reached its peak following the Norman invasion of 1066. There were several important milestones on the path from that peak to the present-day constitutional monarchy. What is notable however is that all followed the rule of a tyrannical, and sometimes inept, head of state.
The Magna Carta. In 1215, following a period in which he used his powers in an arbitrary and exploitative way, attempted to weaken his barons, and ultimately faced rebellion, King John agreed to limit his power over his subjects by signing the Magna Carta. Among the rights granted by the Magna Carta was the right to judgement by one’s peers and in accordance with the law.
The English Civil War. King Charles I had frequent conflicts with parliament over the division of power. Ultimately from 1629 to 1640, he ruled without parliament and his policies on religion and taxation created great opposition. In 1642, this led to the English Civil War between royalists and parliamentarians. Ultimately, parliament prevailed, King Charles I was executed, the monarchy overthrown, and the Commonwealth of England established.
Unfortunately, the commonwealth suffered considerable factional infighting and instability. In 1653, in the hope of restoring stability, Oliver Cromwell seized power and was declared Lord Protector. Essentially, he became a religiously inspired military dictator.
The Restoration. In 1660, following the death of Cromwell and after a brief ineffectual reign as Lord Protector by Cromwell’s son, the throne was restored to King Charles II. However, in 1681, Charles II dissolved parliament and ruled without it until his death in 1685.
The Glorious Revolution. Charles II’s son, James II, caused opposition by maintaining a large standing army, appointing Roman Catholics to high political or military office, and imprisoning Church of England clerics who opposed his decisions. Consequently, a group of influential protestants invited James’ daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange to “invade” England and depose him. An important part of the agreement with William and Mary was the Bill of Rights, 1689, which affirmed parliamentary supremacy.
Since then, royal influence over parliament has progressively declined and voting rights have been progressively extended. Today, with minor exceptions, every citizen over 18 has the right to vote for their member of parliament, and it is the convention for monarchs not to express political opinions.
So, the benefits of a constitutional monarchy can be summarized as follows. The presence of a hereditary monarch in the country’s highest status constitutional role prevents that role from being occupied by those who would misuse power in a corrupt or anti-social manner. The role is unavailable to those whose motivation may be personal power and self-interest. Furthermore, whilst providing that safeguard, the monarch’s relative lack of political power prevents them from behaving in a manner detrimental to the nation. So, for this reason, I would suggest that a constitutional monarchy probably is a good idea.