Reign, reign go away! Why I’m not jubilant about the Jubilee

Jamie Reid’s classic 1977 image for the Sex Pistols. Photo credit: British Vintage Posters

The Jubilee Bank Holiday at the beginning of June will celebrate the fact that the UK’s current head of state has spent 70 years in the job. But when she is guaranteed the title for life, is this really an achievement?

I for one don’t consider hereditary power or titles to be a cause for jubilation. And when the position in question is literally the head of a nation state it seems reasonable that some form of popular mandate would be required.

However, the monarch has no legitimacy beyond perhaps the divine right of kings, a medieval exercise in metaphysics that solidified in Europe after the reformation, essentially stating that the monarch is God’s earthly representative and is thus answerable to none but divine authority. 

In the 21st century it’s a laughable concept yet the institution persists, and our head of state has no greater claim to the title than I do.

Aside from the injustice of hereditary rule in principle, we should reflect on the contradictions of monarchy and ask if it is really necessary. The monarch is the head of the state, as well as the head of the Church of England and, worryingly, the Armed Forces. But arguably their most significant roles are opening and closing sessions of parliament, assenting to bills passed by parliament, and ‘advising’ ministers (how the latter is done with political neutrality is unclear). And welcoming visiting heads of state, even sometimes the unsavoury ones.

The Queen and Prince Charles sit on thrones at the House of Lords. Before them are lords in ermine-fringed cloaks.
The Queen and Prince Charles at the State Opening of Parliament, October 2019. Photo credit: royal.uk

These are purely ceremonial formalities; with no mandate for independent action, the monarch does more or less whatever the prime minister of the day tells them to do: for instance when the Queen became complicit in Boris Johnson’s unlawful prorogation of Parliament in September 2019. There is also therefore the potential for significant constitutional uncertainty and a threat to democracy. Which begs the question, why bother?

Celebrating during a cost of living crisis

On top of which, the Platinum Jubilee comes amidst a cost of living crisis, with the UK’s household energy bills having risen over 54 per cent on last winter and set to increase further. By the end of this year up to 40 per cent of households are predicted to be in fuel poverty. 

Therefore, it is fair enough to raise the issue of the cost of maintaining the monarchy. The Sovereign Grant, the annual stipend of public funding for the upkeep of the immediate royal family and the occupied palaces, was £87.5m for the year 2020-21, an increase of 26 per cent on the previous year. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

A 2017 report by the campaign group Republic estimated a total annual cost of the monarchy to the public purse, accounting for appropriated revenues from the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, security, travel, etc. exceeding £345m; the current figure would doubtless be higher.

A newspaper page features the headline'We do not want their helicopter on our land' beside a picture of two protesters carrying a banner reading Prince William Leave Our Land. The pad features another picture of protesters with banners, and one of the royal couple, William and Kate.
Protesters make their feelings known during the recent royal tour of the Caribbean. From Daily Mail, March 18 2022

Celebrating the Jubilee in a year when Her Majesty’s Government is pushing half a million children into poverty is, to say the least, tasteless.

This is before reckoning with the imperialistic paternalism inherent to the British monarchy, increasingly under challenge, such as when the young royals faced republican demands during their recent disastrous Caribbean tour.

Why not an elected head of state?

The royals also consider themselves above scrutiny and above the law. There’s the obvious case of Prince Andrew, who recently settled the sexual assault case brought against him by Virginia Giuffre with a sum reportedly over £10m, mostly covered by the Queen (i.e. by the British taxpayer).

There’s also the exploitation of ambiguities around their constitutional role to avoid public scrutiny, avoid tax by overseas investment and use arcane parliamentary procedures to lobby for legislative exemptions.

The monarchy has been described as undemocratic, unaccountable, medieval and ridiculous. Could we do better? A good starting point would be a written constitution to lay out the basic rules, institutions and rights under our political system, which sets constraints on government power.

An elected head of state, such as a president, would have a mandate to enforce these constitutional rules and hold parliament to account, and to take more of an independent role in scrutinising legislation.

Monarchists claim an elected head of state would lead to a British Donald Trump, or, as one royal historian recently posited, President Lineker. The football pundit would perhaps be an odd choice, but his elevation would hardly be the stuff of nightmares. 

But of course, this is to miss the point. There’s a way to rid ourselves of a bad president: an election. By contrast, if a monarch is unpopular, we the people just have to swallow it.

If anything should be celebrated this Bank Holiday, it’s the high likelihood that this will be the last time our head of state occupies the role for 70 years, uncontested and unaccountable. Ideally, the current monarch will be our last, with the public less content with the prospect of King Charles III than they are with his mother, and support for monarchy generally waning

I will save the celebrations for the day that I, as a citizen, vote for my president: that day we will be a real democracy.

What do you think?

Do you agree with Ross or are you an ardent monarchist? Or… are you just looking forward to the street parties? Email us at letters@sussexbylines.co.uk

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