September 26, 2022 ☼ The Intersection ☼ geopolitics ☼ constitutionalism
More than economics and liberal democracy, it is the symbolism of a hereditary head of state that is the question.
This is an unedited draft of The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
I am happy and content to be a citizen of an India where a Radhakrishnan, a Zail Singh, an Abdul Kalam and a Draupadi Murmu can rise to become the president of the Republic. Ceremonial and symbolic as the office may be in practice, it is the kind of symbolism that matters. But the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II made me wonder what would I think of constitutional monarchy if I were British?
Well, I’m not British, so what follows is an attempt to see things dispassionately through British eyes. I don’t have a stake in the British debate on whether or not to retain the monarchy, but there are some insights from it that are of interest to us in India and our Commonwealth counterparts.
Reason magazine goes into this in more detail. Forbes had an article on it in 2021.
First, there is no economic or financial case for Britain to do away with the monarchy. Folksy arguments complaining that the royal family doesn’t pay taxes and are a burden on the taxpayer do not hold up to scrutiny. The royal family earns around GBP 400 million per year from what is effectively an asset base worth GBP 19 billion, which is itself held in trust. Most of this is paid to the public exchequer, leaving GBP 133 million with the monarch and the crown prince. After paying various expenses, the royal family gets around GBP 40 million in income, all of which is already taxed in one form or the other. Over and above this, Queen Elizabeth left a personal fortune of GBP 400 million, the returns from which are also taxed.
Not only does the royal family is a net contributor to the British treasury, but also represents an estimated brand value of GBP 43 billion to the British economy. The Windsors are quite wealthy, but the richest family in their realm this year are the Hindujas with a net worth of over GBP 28 billion. The GBP 40 million the royals earn appears to be a lot higher than the USD 5 million per year the Americans pay their presidents only if you ignore the USD 14 billion it cost to elect him. It is true that you can have a cheaper head of state, but you cannot do that without losing the significant positive externalities that the British royals bring.
Freedom House ranks Britain very high in its political freedom and civil liberties index.
Second, constitutional monarchy has not interfered with liberty, equality, fraternity and justice. Despite news of a protestor being arrested during the Queen’s funeral, you can stand in a public place and throw insults at the monarch without being charged by the police or beaten up by the crowd. Rishi Sunak, Sadiq Khan and Kwasi Kwarteng can hold high public office. It has among the freest economies in the world and its judiciary enjoys a stellar reputation for independence. Britain could join and leave the European Union under the same Queen, so the monarch’s preference on matters concerning state sovereignty was subordinated to popular will. Clearly Britain has been more constitutional and less monarchy for well over a century.
Sure, getting rid of a bad monarch is a problem. Elected presidencies are designed to mitigate this risk. The risk remains, as we can see from the growig galaxy of elected autocrats who find ingenious ways to stay in power.
It is on the third count that the monarchy can be genuinely scrutinised: the question of identity, as my colleague Manoj Kewalramani put it. Would I want to be a subject of a monarch who has a right to rule? I could not answer this question because I am not British. But clearly, it is subjective. You can put the question to the people in a referendum, but the Brexit vote alerts us of the dangers of such a method, even if it is the best method available for it. If the monarchy goes, will England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland wish to constitute a united republic, or go their separate ways?
The answer is somewhat easier for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the various island states that still have the British monarch as head of state. Barbados has become a republic and Jamaica has heading in the direction. The hope is that the new setup will be an improvement over the old one. But we can never be certain about it.
The reason for caution is that societies are complex adaptive systems. They are not deterministic, and outcomes are emergent. Pulling a knot or severing a string can cause entanglements and snaps elsewhere. So it is best not to pull unless there’s a very strong reason: oppressive colonial rule, for instance. And even when there is a case to pull, it is best to do so cautiously rather than yank it at one go. For even when they are successful, revolutions are bloody, results unpredictable and often involve severe short-term upheavals. Ask the Americans, Russians, French and the Chinese who had them. India was more fortunate in that the constitutional transition was relatively smooth, even considering the pain and anguish of Partition.
There is a case to be conservative in matters of state. The history of Britain’s constitutional monarchy is one of steady long-term progress towards liberal democracy. Liberals, especially, have strong reasons to be conservative. Festina lente, make haste slowly.
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