I’ve been something of an anti-monarchist every since I can remember, primarily based on the general idea that holding the privilege and powers associated with the office, both explicit and implicit should not be something that someone gets based on who their parents happened to be and whether their ancestors won a battle hundreds of years ago. There are also convincing arguments that the institution is expensive, unaccountable, and so on.
To me, the UK has really just been lucky that for so long we’ve had a queen, that at least as far as I know (which is not all that far), in recent times has been a committed, principled and dutiful holder of the post, not being unduly meddlesome or inflammatory. Quite the opposite, you’ll not find too many hot takes on the Royal Family’s Twitter account. It feels sad that she has left us, irrespective of whether or not the institution itself is valid. But it’s a bit of a risky proposition to say that all future holders of the crown will be of a similar type.
The usual “pragmatic” argument I have heard about in favour of the British monarchy is, sure, they cost money, but they also generate a lot via for instance tourism. I haven’t looked into it in any detail, but given most tourists don’t get to meet the queen or king themselves, I wonder how we go about separating the specific impact of the power structure of the monarchy and the people involved from the more available parts of the associated tourism; the fancy buildings, soldiers dressed up in unusual costumes, museums full of jewelry, the history and mythology and so on, all of which could exist without a formal monarch.
A recent edition of Ian Leslie’s newsletter provided a take I’d not really considered before. It seems inspired in part from an essay by Clement Atlee - yes, that same socialist Prime Minister, beloved by some of the British left, no flag-waving conservative here! - who wrote that “I have never been a republican even in theory, and certainly not in practice.”
Leslie (and Atlee) note that, as irrational and hierarchical as the system of a constitutional monarchy may be, several countries that are widely acknowledged to have high levels of both wellbeing and relative equality have one - think of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. That’s not to say this style of monarchy causes these good outcomes, but it clearly doesn’t prevent them, and perhaps may even be positively associated with them.
Why do they appear to work well? Leslie argues that the unavoidable irrationality of bestowing power and finery upon someone predicated solely on who their parents are may be part of the attraction - “they speak to the heart as well as the head.”
Humans are not purely rational beings, and perhaps the “sentimental loyalty” humans are prone to is better to be absorbed by a monarch than left to be picked up by the leader of a faction, with Atlee citing Hitler, Mussolini and de Gaulle as contenders. To the extent that a constitutional monarchy isn’t the obvious centre of day-to-day power in practice, perhaps it’s safer and more uniting to have irrational sentimentality directed that way.
The fact that the queen didn’t have to fight for votes in an election (or, to at least some extent popularity in the media) gave her the ability to not become part of any major argument. There are plenty of people who aren’t a fan of the monarchy in principle, but nonetheless the queen did seem to be able to unite swathes of people in a way that it’s almost inconceivable a leader of a more “democratic” institution such as a political party could. This may be a particular property of some kings and queens more than others - after all support for Queen Elizabeth was substantially higher than the support for Britain remaining a monarchy at the same time - but it almost by definition cannot be a property of anyone involved in a close-run battle for electoral success.
The US of course famously has no monarch, having torn themselves away from the British one in 1776, but to many external observers seems to be riven by a particularly polarised politics. Certain presidential candidates appear to attract high amounts of almost conditionless blind-seeming loyalty from their supporters, as sentimental and irrational as anything one might feel for a monarch.
Leslie also considers that the constitutional monarchy gives us a way to express positive sentiment for our fellow country-people. Not that we don’t understand that they live an incredibly privileged and unusual live, and sometimes we may quite legitimately feel jealous or resentful of that. But at the end of the day we can acknowledge their common humanity. As a human family they proxy for all the country’s families. The widespread doting over whoever the latest royal child is - who is after all just one of the hundreds of children born each day in the UK - being a reminder that we could and should feel love all those other children too.