It was certainly difficult to ignore the striking contrast between the London and Edinburgh 2024 New Year’s fireworks displays. Hogmanay had no political innuendo; we weren’t told what we should be grateful for and there was no strangely out-of-place message from the King. It was purely a joyful party which showed a typically Scottish sense of individuality, resisting the urge to compete with or match London. Politics aside, the message from the King seemed bizarrely uncomfortable and a reminder that our head of state and monarchy are quite separate from ordinary people.
Public sentiment remains divided in Scotland with 50% wishing to retain the monarchy and 41% thinking it should stay even with independence. Taking into consideration those who are undecided, it is close in this scenario, with 40% preferring a move to a republic with an elected head of state. As anticipated following the death of Queen Elizabeth, polls are indicating the favourability of the royal family will continue to decline.
A costly coronation
In the same YouGov poll, only 9% of younger Scottish voters consider the monarchy as good for the country compared to 57% of over 65s. This represents a clear indication of a move towards the call for abolition and constitutional change, with or without independence. With more than one in five Scots living in poverty, the approximately £100 mn price tag for the coronation was a slap in the face for many and tone deaf in the context of a cost-of-living crisis. Accounting for inflation, this is five times the cost of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The usual lack of transparency from the royal family is easy to see on their website, which has a dedicated page on the event that is full of pomp, ceremony and what they refer to as ‘fun facts’. If you search for ‘cost of coronation’ there are no results found. It would seem it is better for them for this not to be discussed in the open.
The British monarchy is by far the most expensive in Europe, so King Charles’ announcement that he would give the surging wind farm profits back to the public gave the appearance of a more ‘slimmed-down’ royal family. With growing profits, however, the income will effectively still increase dramatically in the coming years. Despite the move to reduce the income from the Crown Estate to the royal household from 25% to 12%, this remains a vast amount of money that is badly needed by society. Owning the seabed has its perks. And Scotland has an incredible wealth of renewables along its shores.
It is true that for millions in the UK and Scotland, the royal family represents a valuable connection to national identity, history, culture, tourism and foreign relations. As an institution, many feel that it gives the nation a respectable soft power whilst bringing in millions each year through visitors and jubilees. Yet when looking closer at the numbers, it appears that the cost-to-benefit through tourism is a myth. The claim that royal tourism brings £500 mn to the economy is described as dubious by anti-monarchy groups such as Republic. In terms of counting any visitor attraction sale with the slightest connection to the monarchy, there is a lack of transparency about the true benefits to the economy. This form of attribution discounts visitors’ interest in history and art, for example as the main reason for their ticket or hotel stay. Even if this figure were still accurate it still represents a small fraction of the approximately £127 bn tourist industry. There is a very real possibility that this would increase if the palaces were entirely opened up for visitors and schools.
In any event, even if the royal family did bring in money, how relevant is this when we look at the value of democracy? Granting greater power to the people can potentially reduce the gaping divide between rich and poor.
Monarchy soft power
In terms of soft power, having a parliamentary monarchy means that the royal family has the outward appearance of being symbolic. Monarchs have the right to vote but opt out to bolster the appearance of political impartiality. But can we ever know the influence that the King will have behind the closed doors of the weekly meetings with the Prime Minister? Unlike countries like Ireland, which is a parliamentary, representative democratic republic, the power to change the current flexible constitution is out of the hands of the people and lies with parliament.
There is no obligation to hold a referendum to change laws on the right to protest, for example. The government must inform the King but does not need to ask the people. The recent Public Order Act 2023 represents a clear and present threat to our free speech and democracy. Constitutional change should reflect the will of the people and not an elite class or in Scotland’s case a political party at Westminster that they overwhelmingly, consistently did not vote for.
The monarchy’s value on an international stage relates to the history of colonial power, with a decadent outward appearance of grandeur. Other nations manage quite well by sending their presidents and representatives who have been democratically elected by the people. In modern British society (that does not, thankfully, continue to colonise) and with an increasing number of commonwealth countries seeking to reject the King as head of state, this should be taken into account. Scotland is not far behind Australia in the polls when it comes to constitutional change.
Is our monarchy an anachronistic relic?
If the royal family brings a psychological sense of belonging and continuity, perhaps we can address the possibility of honouring the past whilst embracing the need for change. The often-brutal, racist colonial history of the UK is not something to be proud of.. Having a head of state who claims to have a ‘God-given’ hereditary right to power and immense wealth diametrically opposes the values of a contemporary diverse society. All monarchs are required to be in communion with the Church of England despite an increasingly secular demographic of citizens.
This inherent attachment to the Church is out of sync and reflects an ‘anachronistic relic of an imperial past’. It is revealing that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution is for the separation of Church and State. While this is often misunderstood or ignored within the US, most citizens approve of this as a core feature of a democratic nation.
Constitutional change for future generations
While polls show divided support in Scotland and the UK, the tides are changing towards a call for constitutional change. A move from a monarchy to a republic could shift government powers to the people within our already flexible constitution, to better reflect the needs of society. This kind of reform has the potential to bring back some confidence in voters’ view of government acting to accurately represent their concerns. An event like this may merit a small fireworks display of its own! I would certainly be holding a party.
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