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 ”

End Quote

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 132.

    Tourist income to UK economy from Royal family and related industries: approx £500 million

    Cost of civil list (direct funding of Royal family by UK taxpayer): approx £15 million.

    So that is a 33:1 return on the taxpayers "investment" on the Royal Family.

    So, yes we do need them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Post 91 - Expat. (re royal family careers)

    Can you imagine the future career prospects of the military recruiting officer who awards commissions who says to a member of the royal family "I'm sorry, we are unable to offer you a commission". I'm not saying that they don't do a fair job when they've got the position, but it is hardly a massive achievement when success is guaranteed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    #121 your clear and practical list is too long for 400 characters. But you can always read the Putney Debates from 1647 for a clear and practical list on why we should never have had a monarchy

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    I would like to see the reigning Monarch wield some actual power again, and making some actual decisions for the country. Maybe then we could escape all the ceaseless posturing and empty drivel that the government subjects us to. There can be no real change when all the parties do is look for ways to make each other look bad.

    Also, @ 29 "It is tyranny by majority."

    Er...a.k.a democracy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    I personally have a great deal of respect for the royals, for all their other faults they do still seem to see their role as serving the people of Britain. They maintain their ideals of national service, and in the case of the current generation seem to be quite nice. Also how boring would life be without Phil the Greek??

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    Without the monarchy we would be a dull grey little America ruled by bankers and politicians.

    While the second part of that may be true even with the monarchy, at least the monarchy works in Britain's national interest and adds a bit of colour to everything. They also seem to be quite positive unlike large amounts of the country. Seeing history is also a definite advantage for someone like me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    Each can a view.


    Long live the Queen. Simple.
    And for those that are being so rude --- do a little research on how much the Queen brings into the UK in trade and agreements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Since 99.99% of the population don't know this family except what the pro monarchist media feed them, it's not a difficult question to answer. The BBC is always presents her in a very gentle human light for instance.
    But are people who are happy to dine with foreign despotic 'royalty' but who wouldn't dream of dining with their ordinary (paying) subjects worthy of the love of those subjects?

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    I must admit that when I lived in the UK, I was sceptical about the monarchy and the Royals. However, after moving abroad, I defend the idea of the monarchy against all those that question it. There's just something so inherently British about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    As Tennyson said , we are a "Crowned Republic"- we get the best of both worlds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    We like them becasue they compete at the olympics, fight in wars, watch coronation street and have big problems with marriage - just like the rest of us. The pomp and ceromony is tolerated because we are polite and don't like to point out the obvious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Can any republicanists please give me a clear and practical list on why the monarchy is bad for this country?

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    I have a lot of respect for the Queen as a person with a mature outlook. She represents holding a country together no matter what as a strong backbone that is always there. She did not choose to be there but was born into it and has managed to keep going for 60 years. Elected politicians come and go like chaff on the wind. They chose to be politicians, grab what they can like immature schoolboys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    The Monarchy is poular today because YOU ARE TOLD and EDUCATED to support them.
    I am of the belief that public opinion will change with a new King.There is a new young generation who are Politically aware, and this brainwashing will be called into question in the fullness of time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Worries me when people camp overnight to get a good view of the Royal Family.
    Or fill their houses with so many Royal themed items their partners move out.
    Or deride people who aren't interested in really nice people they don't really know.
    It all seems a bit mad when you don't feel anything yourself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    None of my friends/family are royalists.
    To be honest I can't think of anybody I know who likes them.
    Even those going to street parties are saying it's just about the party and the day off.
    If it's true that 3/4 of the population love them, I'd like to know where they all are!

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    If the PM or another elected politician asked me to sacrifice for my country, I would tell them where to go
    If the Queen asked, I would do it willingly

    The reason for this is simply, respect, and the knowledge that the Queen, not having to pander to party politics, puts the national interest first!

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    "The Romans brought us straight roads and decimalisation"
    Miles are from the Roman word and measurement...

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    I simply don't understand this president Blair argument. He managed to take us to war as the PM, and unlike a Monarch a president is ELECTED. If he is unpopular, he will not be elected.

    So worshiping an unelected head of state born superior to me is being British? Eh?

    This is how I feel about the matter.


  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    I'm very sorry to hear that you believe the monarchy is better than you. However, no, I don't think they are any better than me.


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