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  • Nikhil Venkatesh

How the monarchy dominates us

Buckingham Palace. Photo by Debby Fan on Unsplash.

Upon the death of his mother, Charles Windsor became a king: the Head of State of Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and the United Kingdom. Some find selecting a leader by bloodline rather than election infantilising and archaic, and infected with hierarchies of class, religion and race. Others believe the monarchy to be the will of God or a venerable tradition – and others still that it is a bit weird but saves us from having yet another elected politician. One very common opinion, in the UK at least, is that it doesn’t matter that the King is unelected because he doesn’t really have any power.

This is false: the British monarch holds a huge number of powers. These include the power to dissolve Parliament ahead of a general election, the power to veto laws, and the power to appoint the Prime Minister (for realms other than the UK, these powers are often exercised through a Governor-General). Many people who know this go on to hold that it still doesn’t matter that the King is unelected, because even if he has all these powers, he won’t use them. He will always sign laws passed by Parliament, and he will always take the Prime Ministers advice about elections, and the voting public’s advice about Prime Ministers.

However, one prominent philosophical theory holds that our freedom is infringed not only if someone uses power over us, but even if they do not, as long as they could.

Some terminology. A ‘Republican’ in American politics is a follower of the party of Lincoln, Reagan and Trump. A ‘republican’ in its typical British meaning is someone who opposes the monarchy. To contemporary philosophers, ‘republicanism’ (sometimes ‘neo-republicanism’) is a view about what it means to be free, associated in particular with the work of Philip Pettit. I will argue for republicanism (the British meaning) by appeal to Pettit’s republicanism. This theory implies that a monarch could make us unfree, even if they never used their powers.

Pettit-style republicanism says that at least one important aspect of freedom is what he calls ‘non-domination’. One is dominated if there is someone else who could interfere in your life against your will, whether they actually do so or not. Consider a slave whose kindly owner lets her do whatever she would like. This slave, Pettit’s theory says, is still unfree, because – being a slave – if her owner wanted to stop her doing something, or make her do something else, or sell her, he could. This seems right: however kind a slave’s owner is, they are still unfree by virtue of being a slave. Similarly, we might worry that a monarch who doesn’t intervene in politics, but could if they wanted to, is a threat to our democratic liberty. This objection to the monarchy would be a problem, then, however good a person the monarch is, and however restrained they are from getting involved in politics.

But, of course, any political system requires there to be some people in positions of authority, and thus able to interfere with the laws and policies of the state, and the lives of others. Do all leaders dominate the people? Pettit’s theory says ‘no’. You are dominated when someone is able to interfere with your life arbitrarily. Someone interferes with you arbitrarily when their use of power is not answerable to you. Elected politicians – at least, insofar as democracy is working – do not have such power. They are accountable to voters, and so can’t use their power in a way that is totally out of line with what the people want. Monarchs, being unelected, seem more like dominators.

Defenders of the monarchy might say at this point: but the monarch, in modern Britain anyway, is accountable to the people. The reason Charles will never use his powers is not simply because he doesn’t want to; it’s because if he did, his subjects would be so aggrieved that they would, through democratic processes, alter the constitution to remove him from politics. Therefore, this argument goes, monarchs do not have the power to interfere in politics arbitrarily.

Certainly, a lot of Queen Elizabeth II’s popularity was due to her appearance of impartiality and non-interference in politics. She appointed socialist Prime Ministers and conservative ones, signed legislation nationalising things and privatising them, took Britain into and out of the European Union. But it is not entirely true that she never intervened in politics. In fact, The Guardian last year revealed that she (and then Prince Charles) vetted more than one thousand laws during the legislative process, sometimes influencing governments to amend them. So she did use (some of) her powers, and this didn’t seem to provoke her subjects to overthrow her. There is little evidence, then, that if Charles III were to intervene more, he would face resistance.

Furthermore, the events of the past week seem to confirm that the monarchy is highly insulated from public pressure. Charles’s reign was presented to the public as a fait accompli, a timetable that will happen, whether we want it or not. He became king automatically at the death of his mother, and the bodies involved in officially acknowledging this fact – the Accession Council and the Privy Council – involve current elected politicians only as a minority. People have been arrested, or threatened with arrest, for publicly asking ‘who elected him?’ and holding that he is ‘not my king’. The broadcast media (which is supposedly politically impartial) has featured almost no republican voices, or even mild criticism of the Windsors. All major newspapers, along with all political parties, and almost all public and private corporations, have dutifully mourned the Queen and praised the new King. Even my employer, a university with a large share of international students, a socialist history and left-leaning faculty, has an official line, and it is a royalist one. Events at which working-class protest was likely (if only by a minority), such as football matches and strikes, were postponed. In these circumstances, it seems impossible for any movement aiming to hold the British monarchy accountable to get off the ground, in Britain at least.

Perhaps if Charles were to misbehave enough such a movement would emerge. Institutions would distance themselves from him, public opinion would swing rapidly against him, and he would have to listen. But if republicanism is as easily suppressed as it has been recently, I see little prospect of his power being accountable to the people. If the new king wants to reign without dominating his subjects (and therefore without making us unfree), we must be allowed to hear a wide range of opinion about the monarchy, and to exercise our rights to debate and protest his position.

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