Removing the Rampant Lion

A Libertarian Argument for Republicanism: So you thought it was all over? All that patriotic bunting, all those streets lined with loyal crowds of her majesty’s subjects. Not a bit of it. With this year’s royal wedding just a prelude to next year’s Diamond Jubilee republicans are asking for their case to be heard with ever more insistent voices.

The British government uses the Royal Coat of Arms as the national symbol of my country. On the left “a lion rampant imperially crowned” and on top another crown. The arms feature on the cover of UK passports, on pound coins, government documents and in court rooms. I hope to live to see the day when the lion has vanished and with it, the British monarchy. With a royal wedding this year and diamond jubilee next republicans are asking the royalist majority to listen to their case once again. I suggest that the continued existence of this archaic institution strikes at the heart of our liberty as free and equal citizens.

Reconciling ‘freedom to’ with ‘freedom from’ is the classic paradox that libertarians must address. Removal of the monarchy would create a number of freedoms of both kinds. Yes, it would take away a miniscule minority’s freedom to enjoy so much privilege. However, the great majority would be freed from the financial burden and the monarch’s powers of political interference. The people would also be free to more fully enjoy the monarchy’s currently private assets. Above all we’d be freed from being constantly reminded of the petty soap opera of one very rich, highly indulged family! That in turn might reduce the admiration for the lives of the rich and famous, one barrier to the creation of a classless, democratic society.

Some readers will object that tradition may not be such a bad thing if it carries with it values we wish to live by. Some claim that the monarchy brings a sense of order and deference to older and wiser heads. The aging monarch might be seen as a concerned and responsible parent to the nation. Imbued with a spirit of Christian service, love and charity one can see the monarch as an inspiration to her subjects to follow broadly Christian habits and customs. This, so the argument goes, has helped to bring the UK centuries of relative tolerance, liberty and prosperity. Over the same centuries, it is argued, revolutions have tipped other countries over into anarchy, bloodshed and poverty. In such vein did Carlyle, Burke and Pitt the Younger counter the libertarian claims of the French Revolution.

Such arguments don’t stand up to close scrutiny. Our relative prosperity has never been shared amongst the whole British people and was achieved by the hard toil of the masses. Any democratic reforms were given away grudgingly after the long struggles of Levellers, Chartists, liberals, socialists, suffragettes and suffragists, often inspired by the continental revolutionaries.

However, there are stronger arguments in defence of monarchy. Much turns on the notion that the monarchy has modernised, metamorphosed from capricious tyrant to quaint but utterly Constitutional nice –guy. Monarchies certainly have the capacity to unite people of different backgrounds and nationalities. They did this for example in 1914, committing a generation of mesmerised young men to their deaths. There are some examples of hard-working and well-meaning monarchs, such as the current Juan Carlos of Spain or our own Elizabeth, monarchs who do a better job as head of state than some infamous elected heads of state like Hitler or Berlosconi. However, they are less in number than history’s parade of monarchical dictators while the current crop includes the kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Constitutional monarchs can, it is said, provide neutral guidance and continuity. If so that service must have failed because there have been three divisive tidal shifts in political direction during the present queen’s reign (1964 with Wilson, 1979 with Thatcher and 2010 with Cameron), untouched by any supposedly soothing sovereign touch. One might ask left-wing Australians whether Queen Elizabeth was neutral when Labour PM Gough Whitlam was dismissed by her Governor General in 1975 for no other crime than being too left -wing. Here in the UK, perhaps because of a distant folk memory of the bitter Civil War struggle, our capacity to defy any regression to absolutist tyranny is greater. In many respects the lion has already had its teeth pulled and its claws clipped. However, there is still some way to go. In 1974 a review of the Queen’s power to call an election concluded “the Sovereign is not in all circumstances bound to grant the Prime Minister’s request for dissolution” . Meanwhile the Swedes were modernising their monarchy; since 1974 Sweden’s laws haven’t required royal assent and the throne can pass to the oldest daughter before younger sons. So much for the argument that our royal family has moved with the times!

Later I will argue that monarchies may emerge at any time in history, even in the early twenty-first century. However, the general historical trend of the last four hundred years in Europe and Asia has been away from the more absolute forms of monarchy and away from monarchy altogether. Perhaps some subliminal awareness of this trend explains the paradoxical opinion poll findings showing a majority of the British public still endorse the monarchy but expect it to have disappeared fifty years hence!

Monarchy still has great power and privilege, even if its hey-day has passed. To be a monarch in the feudal period was to be at the pinnacle of society. The first born male inherited the realm in its entirety. Furthermore he could create titles and bestow estates at will. The Protestant reformations of the early sixteenth century augmented royal power by handing over control of the nation’s religious faith to the monarch. Absolutist monarchs completed the process of concentrating power in their hands by dismantling parliaments and creating standing armies. Why is this relevant today? Because, whilst generally allowing governments to exercise these powers on their behalf, monarchs from England to Thailand still retain them. Invariably, this includes control of the machinery of state, its armed forces, judiciary and prisons. Our monarch can declare war, make treaties and choose which foreign states to recognise. She possesses powers of pardon, legal assent and the right to confer honours. Just like Charles I she could, if she wished, dissolve parliament. She appoints ministers and generals. She can do no wrong; she cannot be prosecuted in her own courts. Many monarchies protect and sustain the dominance of one historically prevalent faith. Just as the English monarch is defender of the Protestant Christian faith in the UK so is the Thai monarch defender of the Buddhist faith in Thailand. Many of the world’s monarchies reflect the patriarchy of earlier epochs, male primogeniture remaining the norm for most. Monarchy rests on top of an absurdly out-dated, ossified social pyramid.

If it is true that we know people by the company they keep the current generation of Windsors are continuing in the careless family tradition of great- great uncle Edward VIII, said to have been an admirer of Hitler. Albert Speer quoted Hitler as saying that Edward’s abdication “was a severe loss for us”. As Business Representative for his country, Prince Andrew has been criticised for getting too close to a host of shady operators in the Middle East, including Saif Gaddafi, son of the colonel. Rather than demotion for his poorly judged contributions in the Middle East and elsewhere Andrew has received another honour; he is now a Knight Gerand Cross of the Victorian Order . Prince William’s wedding guest list includes the kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. As rulers these royals are little different in substance to Gaddafi or Mubarek, but exempted from similar condemnation in Britain by virtue of their royal title. The king of Saudi Arabia, who is also that country’s Prime Minister, recently joined with other absolutist monarchs in the region to violently suppress democratic protesters in Bahrain. While leading Nazis were hanged the Kaiser was spared that fate, in spite of public clamour for that retribution. Saddam Hussain was hanged, Mussolini and Caeucescu summarily shot but Emperor Hirohito spared. Evidently, regicide is still considered a greater affront, a more fearful business, than the execution of a political leader.

One should not get too carried away with the constitutional tag applied to any monarchy. There is nothing democratic about having a monarch of any description as your head of state. In an age and in a country that purports to be a beacon of democracy to the developing world the concept is an anachronism, suggesting that the British people are incapable of ruling themselves. It seems to say that the people are still at ease with feudalism, a legal system for institutionalising economic, social and political inequality dating back to the Norman Conquest. Our monarchy moves almost exclusively in the social circles of the plutocracy and remnants of the aristocracy. The Speaker of the House of Commons recently told MP’s criticising Prince Andrew that they must only talk about the royal family with “great respect”. No self-respecting libertarian should accept such a limitation on free speech. The prerogative powers, legal exemptions and social privileges of the royal family send the message that we should cringe to a mystically superior presence, accepting an inferior status by virtue of birth.

Most of the world’s republics have opted, like France or Russia, to have an elected head of state, a president. Typically, this figure is more powerful than the power-sharing prime minister but less involved in the day- to-day minutiae of government than the latter. In some ways the president functions as a quasi -monarch. Republic, the largest republican pressure group in the UK, believes that a democratically elected presidency with limited powers should replace monarchy. Unlike a monarch this head of state is accountable to the electorate and can be changed at regular intervals, is not above the law and his or her privileges of office are largely temporary. His or her obligation is (in theory) to manoeuvre bitter party opponents to some consensus in the interest of the country. There is a fine-sounding constitution to which the president must always defer. This is the theory. The practice can be quite a different matter, a fact often seized upon by opponents of republicanism.

My own inclination is to recognise the evidence of the arguments of the anti-republicans in this respect. Logically though the answer is to go a step further. We don’t need and shouldn’t have a head of state at all so long as we have elections and a properly functioning parliament. Substituting a monarch with a president is akin to putting a tiger in place of a lion, re-creating that fusion of power with ego which, as republicans, we revolted against in the first place. So long as we have a prime minister who, whilst possessing real executive powers adheres to the concept of cabinet responsibility, is answerable to parliament and is neither master nor servant of his or her party the office holder can never go too far in any quest for a lifetime at the top. Lloyd George, Churchill, Thatcher and Blair all enjoyed the adoration of the masses but were all ultimately brought to heel by various combinations of the will of the electorate, cabinet and party.

The same cannot be said of an elected head of state, a President. Hindenberg, De Gaulle, Nixon, Bush, Yeltsin and Putin were all products of this system. Even, some historians argue, Hitler. To want a single leader, someone who is both figurehead and possessor of real executive power, must answer to a deep human need, not dissimilar to the need to create a god. The two concepts were fused in the priest- kings of Ancient Egypt and Peru. It is interesting to consider that a number of the earliest monarchies in medieval Europe – the Polish, the Swedish, the pre-Norman English – were originally elected, only becoming hereditary in later Medieval times. We see the same development in Asia ; Thailand’s first king, Sri Indraditya, was originally just a popular warrior. The phenomenon of the big man who develops royal ambitions is still at work today. Ibn Saud, a modern-day warrior hero, declared himself king of Saudi Arabia, so initiating monarchy there as recently as 1932. Listen to Junkung Cemara, Chief of Fani Brefet, explaining why President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia, who came to power in a coup and is currently serving his third elected term, should be offered a crown : “the president has brought development to the country and for that he deserves to be crowned king”. He needn’t bother with this formality, says Sam Sarr, editor of an opposition newspaper, for he already has “absolute power..the presidency is like a monarchy”.

In case left-wingers imagine that these tendencies only apply to presidents with right-wing inclinations, we must add some further names. Julius Caesar, hero of the Roman plebeians, one-time consul, would- be imperial dictator. Napoleon, revolutionary turned would-be founder of a family dynasty. From the present era witness Kim Il-Jung, founder of what amounts to a royal dynasty in “communist” North Korea. Even Fidel Castro, a communist with much more integrity (considering his creation of a pioneering welfare state in the Third World) has let his brother Raul take on the reins of power, so inaugurating a neo- royal dynasty. All this seems to accord with the maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

At the present time the mass of the population seems to lack the self-confidence to assume the full mantle of democracy. The removal of the monarchy might unblock a long tradition of social deference in Britain, so driving social mobility once again and kick-starting a democratic renewal. I believe it’s time to break free, time to break completely away from the notion that we must be led by a sovereign, whether in the garb of a cod-medieval monarch or the suited swagger of a modern-day president.


Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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