As King Charles III’s coronation approaches, the role of the monarchy in modern Britain is under renewed scrutiny.
Supporters argue that the monarchy provides a sense of national identity and stability, but critics insist it is an outdated institution that perpetuates elitism and inequality within British society.
Efforts to modernise the coronation ceremony, including a proposed “Homage of the People”, have triggered further debate. The invitation to swear allegiance to the King has met with reactions ranging from approval to “mild bemusement” or “plain disgust”, according to The Guardian.
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The royal family has been mired in a series of controveries in recent years. Prince Andrew’s friendship with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein triggered a PR disaster that was exacerbated by his car-crash Newsnight interview in 2019. And the reported rift between Prince Harry and other senior royals including his brother William continues to be a headache for the monarchy.
Here are the arguments for and against keeping the centuries-old institution.
1. Pro: popular with public
The monarchy as a whole “has long enjoyed broad, albeit declining, support among Britons, even if several of its individual members have not”, said Time magazine. Despite fears, Prince Harry’s scathing biography, Spare, “did little to dent the royal family’s popularity” – although his own ratings fell to a record low.
Support for retaining the monarchy in the UK increased briefly to 67% following the death of Queen Elizabeth in September, up from 62% at the time of her Platinum Jubilee in May 2022, according to YouGov polling.
But as of last month, support had dropped back down to 62% – significantly lower than a decade ago, when backing for the institution was as high as 75%.
Today, attitudes to the monarchy differ dramatically by age, with only 36% of younger Britons in favour of keeping the monarchy, compared with 79% of over-65s.
The “first and most obvious challenge” for King Charles will be to “maintain popular support”, said Robert Hazell, professor of government and the constitution at University College London. “Modern monarchy no longer depends on divine grace, but the consent of the people,” he wrote in a guest paper for the Institute for Government last December. He warned that if public support “does start to dwindle”, the government might come under pressure to reduce funding for the royals, as has happened in Spain.
2. Con: cost to taxpayers
The monarchy is supported financially by UK taxpayers via the Sovereign Grant, which covers central staffing costs and expenses for the monarch’s official households, maintenance of the royal palaces in England, and travel and royal engagements and visits.
Accounts for the Sovereign Grant, released in June, showed that this cost £102.4m in 2021/22, an increase of 17% from the previous financial year.
“At a time when all we keep hearing about is the cost-of-living crisis and our bills rising, the thought of the monarchy costing us over £100m last year is eye-watering,” said Rhiannon Mills, royal correspondent for Sky News. To be fair, said Mills, a lot of their engagements have focused on people struggling financially. But they will “inevitably always face the criticism of ‘how can they understand?’ when their family is one of the most privileged in the country”.
The cost of the coronation of King Charles III has not been confirmed, but was predicted to be “around £100m”, according to the London Evening Standard.
The funding sources for the coronation include the sovereign grant and the UK government, according to a Buckingham Palace spokesperson, but that the bill will be footed at least in part by the taxpayer has sparked public concern.
A YouGov poll carried out around two weeks before the crowning on 6 May found that more than half of respondents did not believe the government should fund the coronation, compared to around a third who did.
Many critics have called for more transparency and clarity on the final total.
3. Pro: ‘soft’ power benefits UK
The Queen was a source of British “soft power” and diplomatic influence throughout her 70-year reign, making countless state visits and foreign tours that brought benefits for national security, influence and trade.
A 2017 report by consultancy agency Brand Finance said that the monarchy generated an estimated £150m worth of trade for the UK each year. And combined with contributions including surplus revenues from the Crown Estate, which go to the Treasury, and money from tourism, the total estimated gain for the UK economy was almost £1.8bn.
“Measuring the wealth-generation of a brand is no easy task, especially when it comes to the royal family,” noted Sebastian Shehadi at Investment Monitor, but their influence on the UK economy “spans the likes of trade, tourism, media, real estate and heritage sites, foreign investment and much more”.
4. Con: no place in equal society
Critics of the monarchy argue that having a system of hereditary power at the top of the country’s political, military and religious institutions perpetuates class divisions and inequality.
Political journalist and author Eve Livingston argued in The Independent that the royal family “exist as a glaring symbol of the unearned privilege and inequality that pervades the roots of British society”.
And it is not just in Britain that the monarch’s role as head of state is increasingly under scrutiny. Elizabeth’s reign was “bookended by periods of great uncertainty about Britain’s role on the world stage”, said Foreign Policy. She “was coronated in 1953 as the sun was beginning to set on the British Empire, and her death comes as the country reexamines its place in the world”. There are increasing calls for the UK to “reckon with its colonial history”, said the magazine, while republican sentiment is gaining traction in the Caribbean.
5. Pro: boosts national unity
Supporters of a constitutional monarchy say it “represents a constant and lasting connection to the country’s past” and they stress the importance of having a head of state who is “above party politics or factional interests”, said Politics.co.uk. This neutrality means “the Crown can help secure smooth and peaceful handovers of political power and restrain abuses of authority”, said The Telegraph.
The royal family’s official website added that the monarch provides “a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service”.
Martin Kettle in The Guardian described Elizabeth’s seven decades on the throne “as a low-key but extremely effective unifying force”. But he warned that it was one “her heirs cannot assume they will be able to replicate”, especially if the now-King Charles “fails to earn the breadth of respect that Elizabeth enjoyed”.
6. Con: undemocratic
Campaign group Republic and other anti-monarchists argue that “hereditary public office goes against every democratic principle”.
Calling for the monarch to be replaced with an elected head of state, the group said that because the public cannot hold the royal family to account at the ballot box, “there’s nothing to stop them abusing their privilege, misusing their influence or simply wasting our money”.
The monarch “can only ever act in the interests of the government of the day and does not represent ordinary voters”, according to the campaigners, who insist that “the monarchy is a broken institution” that should be scrapped in favour of an elected head of state who “could really represent our hopes and aspirations – and help us keep politicians in check”.
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