Why does the UK love the monarchy?

A young girl wears a homemade crown as she waits to see Queen Elizabeth II visit the town centre of Accrington as part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee tour of the country on 16 May 2012

I have recently been accused on Twitter of being both a royalist "uber-Toady" and the author of "the most anti-monarchist report you could want to view".

Both tweets related to the same item, a report for the BBC News at Ten that tried to answer a straightforward question: why does a country that has become so cynical about other institutions (Parliament, the City, the press, the police) remain so loyal to the monarchy?

Whatever republicans might wish, less than a fifth of the Queen's subjects in the UK say they want to get rid of the Royal Family - a proportion that has barely changed across decades.

According to polling data from Ipsos Mori, support for a republic was 18% in 1969, 18% in 1993, 19% in 2002 and 18% last year. Three-quarters of the population want Britain to remain a monarchy - a finding that has been described by pollsters as "probably the most stable trend we have ever measured".

Given the enormous social change there has been since the current Queen assumed the throne 60 years ago, it might seem surprising that a system of inherited privilege and power should have retained its popularity.

Mark gauges the mood during a royal visit to Lancashire

But reading some of the comments on Twitter, it seems that even to raise a quizzical eyebrow at the approval ratings of the Windsors is regarded by some monarchists as tantamount to treason.

Republicans, on the other hand, believe that to highlight the conspicuous lack of progress they have had in winning the nation to their cause is evidence of obsequious knee-bending.

I recently re-acquainted myself with the work of two seminal figures in the long-running debate between republican and monarchist thinkers in Britain - Thomas Paine and Walter Bagehot.

I was searching for an answer to the same question: "What is it about our country that we retain such affection for a system which appears at odds with the meritocratic principles of a modern liberal democracy?"

In January 1776, Paine's pamphlet Common Sense began to be passed around among the population of the colonies of the New World, a manifesto for American independence and republicanism.

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"There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of Monarchy," Paine declared. "One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of the hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion."

He contrasted the common sense of his pamphlet's title with the absurdity and superstition that inspired the "prejudice of Englishmen" for monarchy, arising "as much or more from national pride than reason".

To this day, British republicans refer to Paine's Common Sense almost as the sacred text. But monarchists have their own sacred text, written almost exactly a century afterwards. Walter Bagehot's English Constitution was a belated response to the revolutionary arguments of the New World republicans.

"We catch the Americans smiling at our Queen with her secret mystery," he wrote, with a suggestion that Paine and his kind were prisoners of their own "literalness". Bagehot didn't try to justify monarchy as rational (indeed he accepted many of Paine's criticisms), but his point was that an "old and complicated society" like England required more than mundane, dreary logic.

Walter Bagehot c.1865 Walter Bagehot wrote about the "mystic reverence" essential to "true monarchy"

"The mystic reverence, the religious allegiance, which are essential to a true monarchy, are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people," he wrote. "You might as well adopt a father as make a monarchy."

Bagehot had identified a developing national characteristic. As colonial power and the riches of empire declined, there was an increasing desire to define greatness as something other than wealth and territory. Britain wanted to believe it was, intrinsically, special. "People yield a deference to what we may call the theatrical show of society," he wrote. "The climax of the play is the Queen."

Wind the clock forward to 1952 and plans were being made for the Coronation of the new Elizabeth II. Despite post-war austerity, it was decided the event should be a fabulous, flamboyant, extravagant affair with all the pomp and pageantry they could muster. There would be feathers and fur, gold and jewels, anthems and trumpets.

It was a giant gamble. Britain was re-evaluating many of the traditional power structures that had shaped society in the 1930s. How would a population still subject to food rationing react to a ceremony that almost rubbed its nose in the wealth and privilege of the hereditary monarch?

Two sociologists, Michael Young and Ed Shils, had joined the crowds in the East End of London, dropping in on street parties to find out. Their thesis, entitled The Meaning of the Coronation, accepted that there were some who had dismissed the whole affair as a ridiculous waste of money.

Children in London's East End enjoying a street party in celebration of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, June 2nd 1953 Street parties for the Coronation were judged "a great act of national communion"

But overall, they concluded: "The Coronation provided at one time and for practically the entire society such an intensive contact with the sacred that we believe we are justified in interpreting it as we have done in this essay, as a great act of national communion."

Britain - battered, bruised and broke - appeared determined to embrace its monarchy and hang the cost. The paradox is that austerity was positively comfortable with ostentation; institutional challenge spawned a passion for hereditary authority.

It wasn't just that Britain wanted a distraction from hardship and uncertainty. Enthusiastic support for monarchy seemed to run counter to the new liberalism which was guiding the politics of post-war Britain.

The explanation, I think, is that the 1950s were also a period in which the country was anxious about how global, institutional and social change might threaten its identity.

The impact of Americanisation as well as colonial and European immigration upon British life were a source of great concern. Despite winning the war, it appeared that national power and influence were being lost. Institutional authority was being questioned.

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There were fears, too, that the values and traditions which underpinned family and community life were also changing rapidly. War and financial hardship had combined to shake up and challenge ancient orthodoxies.

Monarchy represented a bulwark against rapid and scary change.

Sixty years after our Queen assumed the throne, many of those same anxieties remain. Concerns about how globalisation and immigration are changing Britain continue to trouble us. Respect for institutions has declined as the global financial crisis has ushered in a new era of austerity.

In Accrington earlier this month, I watched a down-to-earth, no-nonsense town go slightly mad for the Queen. Thousands lined the streets, hung out of windows, climbed lamp-posts to catch a glimpse of their monarch.

They stood for hours in a chilly wind wearing daft hats - a metaphor for the attitude of their country. Times are tough, the challenges are great and we respond by cheering an aspect of our culture that, for all its irrationality, is uniquely ours.

The British have always chosen the quirks of our history against foreign rationalism. The Romans brought us straight roads and decimalisation. As soon as they left, we reverted to impossibly complicated Imperial measures and winding country lanes.

Start Quote

In trying to explain the unlikely success of the monarchy, we shouldn't expect the answer to be based on reason ”

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The Normans commissioned the Domesday Book to try and impose order on bureaucratic chaos but had to compromise at every turn. That is how we ended up with something called Worcestershire - a place that foreigners find impossible to pronounce, never mind spell.

The British don't like straight lines. When we look at those maps of the United States with ruler-straight state boundaries, we feel pity. Walter Bagehot understood that our identity is found in the twists and turns of a rural B-road, not in the pragmatism of a highway.

It is the same with our system of governance. Logic is not the most important factor. We are happy to accept eccentricity and quirkiness because they reflect an important part of our national character.

So in trying to explain the unlikely success of the monarchy, we shouldn't expect the answer to be based on reason.

It is not a pocket-book calculation of profit and loss - how much does the Queen cost compared to what she brings in for the tourist trade?

It is not a question of prevailing political attitudes - how can a liberal democracy justify power and privilege based on an accident of birth?

The British monarchy is valued because it is the British monarchy. We are an old and complicated society that yields a deference to the theatrical show of society.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Stable support sums up what having a non political head of state brings us in return. Stability. No matter what party is in power no matter the ebbing caliber of our political leadership the Monarchy stands like a rock for us to anchor ourselves to during good time and those more testing. Powerless? I'm not sure you're that clued up on her executive powers or their implications. God Save the Queen

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    People are linking the monarchy with the current financial crisis and Britain's lack of social mobility - but the Kingdoms of Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands and Norway all have excellent social mobility. The fact is our capitalistic malaise and lack of social mobility is due to our gradual shift from aristocracy to plutocracy. We have invested too much economic power in our bankers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    the support for the royals is in direct proportion to the political apathy in the UK, making all the corruption so easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    #28 the quote reads "democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting over what to have for lunch". As to your second point, I would hardly consider allowing 75% of the population to enforce themselves on the remaining 25% an achievment. It is tyranny by majority.
    Furthermore, I never actually mentioned any political parties in my post. The UK's political system is a populist farce.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    #23.alexLM your maths is faulty: it would be more like 1 wolf and 4 lambs.
    Incidentally, no "democratic" political party has ever had a 75% mandate (the proportion of the population who want to keep the monarchy). So get over it or at least be accurate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    i can give 1 very good reason for a constitutional monarchy if we had an elected head of state "tony blair" would any one want he as head of state
    oh and the queen is the queen who could do a better job

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The monarchy is a British quirk, It makes no sense, but as this article points out, it is uniquely ours. So ya boo sucks to all the killjoy whiners!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    What we have in Britain is a ceremonial Head of State with zero power in the running of our everyday lives, and a Prime Minister who rules WITH a cabinet as a first among equals.

    Are republicans really wishing to take executive power from parliament and invest it within a single person (in the form of a president) again - something we haven't had since Charles I? Is that really progress?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    The kinds of political system we have reflects the underlying economics.
    The monarchy has adapted from feudalism to capitalism.
    Now that capitalism is on its last legs - it must grow but the world is finite - will it be able to adapt to a post-capitalist society?
    That will depend on the type of post-capitalist society, if based upon direct democracy, perhaps not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Oh goodness, only 20% of the nation wants the royals to go! Well shucks, that's only just over ten million people...

    Democracy at work, two wolves and a lamb voting over lunch etc. I sincerely hope something ruins the jubilee celebrations and will celebrate if/when it does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    The monarchy is popular because it represents all that our plutocratic, short-termist, social mountaineering, bien pensant politicians are not - longevity, ceremony, unity, reserve, respect. An apolitical monarch is a finer ambassador than any elected official. The monarch has no real power of course, but her real strength is in denying power to any would-be president, political strongman etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    For "President" read corrupt public official. The Royals do a reasonable job at a reasonable cost without the temptations recently succumbed to by our politicians i.e. fiddle the expenses, fingers in the till etc etc. Would you really want Tony Blair as president with Cheri as first lady or how about "The Prince of Darkness" Mandelson, Mr. Teflon (nothing sticks) ruling the roost. God help us all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The "imperial" system of 1:240 was a Roman one, in fact, and was used by most of Europe until the 19th century - what's different is that we kept it on. And while Domesday Book was ordered by the Normans, it was based upon Anglo-Saxon institutions and probably documents as well.

    If we abolished hereditary monarchy, suitable figureheads for election would emerge. I'd put money on Joanna Lumley!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Here at the Circumlocution Office we feel it incumbent upon us to both highlight the underlying contradiction of the terms 'liberal' and 'democratic' - a fundamental opposition in concepts that the world will need to address one day.. - and to make angry note of the horrendous grammar touted by some of these balshy republicans. Bend the knee plebs, and love the skin you're in, B roads and all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    One reason for retaining constitutional monarchy is that an elected president would not be a neutral figure. Britain is already moving towards a quasi-presidential system. Tony Blair accelerated the process and it now seems unstoppable. With an elected upper house and president we would cease to be Greater Brittany and become Lesser Americy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Having actually lived in America for 15 years, I can say that I hate the notion of an elected Head of State. An American Idol contest ran to elect someone to the highest office based on nothing else but the press.
    Give me a Queen or King any day! An educated servant trained to lead and represent the country, and give us an identity.
    Lets face it they don't have any real power in the UK any more!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The circus in full swing and the bread is still cheap. For the time being the Easter Islanders are happy with their statues. The spell works for now, even though there are rumours of clouds on the horizon line. We all know beforehand what happens to the statues and their caretakers when the magic doesn't work, the bread becomes too expensive. Woe unto you if the whole world loves you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Striking that no Republicans suggest any candidate to be President.

    Until they come up with someone plausible, there will be no appetite to change the status quo. Can't think of anyone suitable myself so suspect the republicans will remain an insignificant minority

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Surely we like the monarchy because the alternative recently would have been president Blair.

    Having a politician as head of state won't save any money and will not improve things for Britain one jot. It could make things worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    There is nothing wrong with being a Royalist, having admiration for the current regining Monarch. However if you're a Monarchist, someone who believes in the devine right of someone to rule and the sitting monarch is basically God incarnate who owns everything... including you, then there is something seriously wrong with you.


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