Surely hereditary monarchy can never be justified?

23Two names were put forward: Joseph, who was known as Barsabbas and bore the added name of Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, ‘You know the hearts of everyone, Lord; declare which of these two you have chosen 25to receive this office of ministry and apostleship which Judas abandoned to go to where he belonged.’ 26They drew lots and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was elected to be an apostle with the other eleven.

Acts of the Apostles 1:23-26 – Revised English Bible

Photo courtesy of Alex Neri, Pexels

If you’d asked me when I started writing for this site more than three years ago, whether I’d find myself writing an article on how hereditary monarchy could be justified, I’d have answered: ‘No. Never’.

After all, everyone knows that the entire idea is absolutely ridiculous. How could you ever justify a position of privilege passing to someone, based purely on an accident of birth? It comes under the ‘you can’t consider this for a moment’ category, along with murder, incest etc.

So what’s changed? Well, the death of our Queen has resulted in many of our news channels carrying virtually no news other than items surrounding the Queen’s death and an assessment of her life. Historians have had a field day, or rather a field fortnight. And, yes, it’s given those wishing to replace the monarchy with an elected Head of State, a reason to break cover and put forward their views. There have even been people who’ve got into trouble for carrying placards in the street saying ‘Not My King!’ or shouting out ‘Who elected him?’ just as King Charles was passing.

Most of the debates that I’ve heard on this subject have revolved around what I’d call ‘The Tony Blair Question’. What I mean by that is that those who feel that our monarchy must be supported, in the immediate aftermath of the death of our most popular monarch ever, have always tended to say to thosw wanting change: ‘What else would you have – President Tony Blair?’

It’s impossible to discuss this, without considering what we would do instead of a hereditary monarchy, of course. But can a positive case for keeping what we have ever be made?

I know, it’s impossible.

Are there any advantages of the current system? I would suggest that accessibility may be one. One of the very first acts of King Charles was to get out of his car at the gates of Buckingham Palace and talk to the people. As I write this, he’s just gone to speak to the queues of people waiting to file past his mother’s coffin. I’ve no doubt that this will have given his security people nightmares. But what would the point be, of a Head of State who was always hidden behind rows of dour-looking security men? An elected President could be equally accessible, surely? Well, maybe. But do bear in mind that there have been many calls to tighten up the security surrounding Members of Parliament, in the wake of the murder of Sir David Amess. MP’s have not been notable for their presence among the crowds of mourners in recent days.

Consider the Royal Family walking behind our late Queen’s coffin all the way from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, past huge crowds. Can you imagine an elected Head of State doing this? Neither can I. The best I suspect you might get would be a slow drive behind an armoured screen, in a limousine. And would an elected President walk together with members of their family? No, it just wouldn’t happen. No-one has pointed out that most adult royals who are in the immediate line of succession could have been wiped out in a single attack. We have a Royal Family who know and value being accessible to the public. Why? I think it’s because they view themselves as servants.

Would an elected Head of State consider themselves a servant? It’s perhaps the sixty-four-dollar question, and on it hangs the outcome of the whole debate.

If you look at the website, there are several statements that are full of wishful thinking. Here’s one example:

‘The rules that would govern politicians would also apply to the head of state – these rules would stop them becoming party-political.’

How exactly, when our politicians can’t even agree what a woman is? And is it ‘party-political’ that’s the problem? If our late Queen had engaged in politics of a non-party nature, do you think that people would be queueing up for hours overnight, to walk past her coffin?

There are several other important points to make, but the most important one for this short summary, which I think is self-evident, is that we’ve seen with our own late Queen, that the answer to a supremely successful monarch is a large dose of humble self-effacement, self-sacrifice and duty of service. That is why people loved her. That is why people will be moved on Monday and that is why so many are waiting patiently in queues as I write this. Whatever form of appointment or election you choose for a Head of State, and whatever section of the population from which they’re drawn, I’m afraid that egotism, entitlement, arrogance and self-importance will follow, as night follows day. Can you name me just one person from the worlds of celebrity, acting, the arts, music, politics, the law, the military, the worlds of letters or history, the Church or any other field, who would not eventually be corrupted by holding this office and start to feel, (as we’ve seen so often with politicians who’ve hung around too long), that they’d become invincible and omniscient.

What about King Charles, I hear you argue? Well, I agree that it’s going to be more than interesting to see whether he can keep his mouth shut about architecture, organic farming and global warming. Maybe not? But he has, at least, spent 73 years being taught that the office he now holds is much bigger than he is. He has ‘skin in the game’, in the sense that he would not wish to be the last monarch in history, nor would he wish to ‘queer the pitch’ for his children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Or am I wrong?

The republican website I’ve mentioned above gives three examples which, according to them, reflect why an elected Head of State system would be successful. I doubt they could have chosen three more shockingly bad cases!

Their first case is the Speaker of the House of Commons. That’s embarrassing, in the light of the previous holder of this office – John Bercow. It would be almost impossible to think of a worse example than his ten years in office, which included, right at the end of his term, deliberately ignoring the parliamentary rules that were designed to direct his work and ensure the independence of the office of Speaker. At the same time, we found out, mostly to our astonishment, that there was no mechanism by which a sitting Speaker could be removed from office. Bercow developed a bullying and hectoring style that made millions of people squirm.

Their second example is that of the Chairman of the BBC. I think most people would struggle to think of a single one of those who was a shining example of hands-off, independent, ego-free, servant-based leadership. Rather the exact opposite, sadly.

Their final example is Michael D Higgins, the elected President of Eire. He’s a poet, and therefore surely the epitome of self-effacement? And he’s an example of all the qualities you need in an independent President? Well……only two years ago, he refused to attend a service of reflection, reconciliation and hope for the future of Northern Ireland. In refusing the invitation, he stated that in addition to his misgivings about the service itself, he had been written to as ‘President of the Republic of Ireland’ which he was not. He was, he said, ‘President of Ireland.’ I love Ireland and the Irish and spent a lot of my childhood and youth there. But I can hardly think of a statement that was more calculated to stoke tensions in such a bitterly divided island. However ‘republican’ or anti-royalist you might be, it’s impossible to think of a member of our Royal Family acting in such a crass and provocative way.

When I was thinking of writing this article, I found myself reading several articles advocating an elected Head of State and termination of the monarchy. What struck me forcibly was that not one of them actually put forward a model of what they’d like to see; they all simply attacked the concept of a hereditary monarchy per se. I fear that the truth is that any elective system would almost certainly result, sooner or later, in a head-on collision between elected Prime Minister and elected Head of State, both of whom would claim to hold legitimacy that trumped that of the other, and particularly so if there was a difference in the timing of the two elections.

Of course, I’ve lived only during the reign of a very good (I think I’d even say superb) Queen. What if in years to come, we found that we had a new monarch who was about as unpopular as our late Queen was popular? Well, I think I can safely say that, historically in these islands, we’ve been very skilled at getting rid of monarchs who’d outstayed their welcome. And of course, in the modern world, there’d be no need for a ‘storming of the Bastille’. All that would be required would be a quiet conversation between the Prime Minister and the wayward monarch, along the lines of: ‘Either, Your Majesty, you abdicate in favour of X, or we’ll take action to dismantle the monarchy for ever.’ Why could we not do the same with an elected republican President? Simply because such a person would have no ‘skin in the game’. ‘President Blair’ to use that unhappy title, would simply not care if he was booted out, and would therefore fight to the death.

So, in conclusion, do I think a case can be made for a hereditary monarchy, for continuation of the status quo? Maybe such an idea can only really work in a country with a very long history, such as ours, and a tolerant culture that’s famous for its addiction to muddled compromises? A good example is that, so far, we’ve declined to make ‘Assisted Suicide’ legal (I might add, despite the very best efforts of the BBC). The result is that it’s still illegal to help someone to commit suicide, but in practice hardly any cases are ever brought and those that are, tend to be dismissed. Personally, I’m very happy with this muddle. Absolute clarity and logic is not always the best course.

The biblical quotation above comes from the first chapter of Acts. The background to the story was that when it was necessary for a replacement to be selected for Judas Iscariot, after the resurrection, the disciples ‘cast lots’ and Matthias was appointed. I believe that the Coptic Pope is to this day selected by the casting of lots. This would perhaps be better than election, but there would, of course, be a few downsides!

Maybe it’s impossible to justify hereditary monarchy. The historian David Starkey thinks that we are (and need to continue to be) a ‘monarchical republic’. I find that to be a good, British compromise and worthy of testing over the next generation of British monarchs. And if it doesn’t work, I’ll be rooting for change, along with everyone else!

Heavenly Father, guide our new King, Charles. May he follow the superb role model of his late mother, and act with wisdom, patience, restraint, humility, self-denial and self-sacrifice. For in that way, he’ll be a good King. Amen  

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