Does the UK need a king?

Published: Tue 09 May 2023
Updated: Tue 09 May 2023
By steve

In Markets.

Tuesday 9, May 2023

Does the monarchy matter?

I am not a republican. Anyone can see that simply getting rid of a king is hardly the secret of a successful political order in a country. The UK royal family may have cultural influence, a lot of money, and the direct access to heads of government that is denied to the 99.99%. But cutting off their heads would not turn us into France, which anyway is not such a paradise.

I am uncomfortable about suggestions that the royal family does in fact influence laws in a way that favours it. This is just one example, but I have seen suggestions that there are many. But even this is not the issue I am most concerned about. My concern is that the mere contact between royals an ministers acts to affect what legislation is passed. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed by Putin, and had a lot of his (admittedly enormous) wealth taken away, but he was never the target of an assassination. When asked why this was, he said that it was because he and Putin knew each other personally. I think that when the PM meets the monarch, on a weekly (?) basis, it’s hard for him to actively promote any policies which would have an adverse effect on him and his family. This ends up with a bias towards enacting policy that increases inequality. Politicians all talk about boosting productivity, but they know in their hearts that it’s a lot easier to transfer existing resources than to accelerate the production of new ones.

Someone said to me the other week that his strategy for advancing his career was to identify influential people, and make himself as useful to them as he possibly could be. Although I’d like to imagine that in the real world merit would be its own reward, this idea doesn’t long survive any contact with reality. At least in a job with clear metrics, such as professional sport, sucking up to the boss is not the secret of success. I always wonder whether the transparency of professional sport results in international competition being dominated by vaguely democratic countries (other than in the rather odd collection of fringe sports that characterise the Olympics).

The monarchy, especially the late queen, was viewed very favourably by most of her subjects. She seemed to be hard working — at least she turned up to the opening of an awful lot of dull buildings — but she hardly had the inclination, or energy, to keep in personal touch with every one of us. She did the next best thing, however, which was to maintain an extensive press office, and feed the media with endless stories and pictures of the royal family, especially the more photogenic and scandal-free ones, such as the Duchess of Cambridge. It’s a well-worn trope that the Royal Family is a long-running soap opera, but everyone loves the stars of such shows, even if they are pantomime villains. I guess we’d have to make an exception for Prince Andrew.

Well, I almost persuaded myself to become a republican, but I think I can just about remain a monarchy-agnostic. It’s much easier to destroy an institution than to come up with a convincingly superior alternative. The monarchy has adapted itself to coexist with its host, like all successful parasites. If it tries to extract too many goodies, eventually the host will react and its immune system will rid itself of the monarchy. It may even be that the monarch is like a mitochondrion: something that started as a foreign body, a pathogen, but which has now taken on some role without which the host would die. OK, I’m not too concerned that the UK would waste away without the royals, but it would be a different place, and possibly a worse one.

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