Colour photo of the regalia published in 1952

Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule. (Edward Gibbon)

An independent sovereign state needs a head. That role can be filled by an executive president, a constitutional president, or a monarch. The first is additionally head of government, as in the United States and France. The second and third have little or no political power, but act as a state’s figurehead and representative. In the UK, the monarch assents to laws, appoints and receives ambassadors, is the fount of honour, initiates and dissolves Parliament, and, in Walter Bagehot’s words, has the ‘the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn’. Elizabeth II is the UK’s longest reigning monarch. Given the role she has been required to play, it’s hard to see how anyone else could have performed it better. Politically neutral, as she is required to be, she is, nonetheless, more experienced in national and international affairs than anyone else now living.

The problem for many is that the UK’s Head of State is a monarch and not a president. Monarchy is a mediaeval institution and, it might be argued, not fit for purpose in the 21st century. If we were to create a new state tomorrow, it’s unlikely we would say that its head should always be appointed from members of the same family. One of the objections to doing so is that we don’t know who we’re going to get. Even the most ardent monarchist cannot claim that all Elizabeth II’s predecessors have been role models, and there’s no guarantee that all her successors will be. Then there’s the question of the extended family. Why should the monarch’s relatives, both close and distant, be given titles that enhance their status, and why should they enjoy great privilege and wealth because of an accident of birth? There may well be cogent answers to these questions, but they should be debated. The bicycling monarchy of the Netherlands, for example, might be one we should emulate.

For the time being, the monarch is the UK’s Head of State. The UK’s constitution can be changed only by act of parliament, and no party with any political ambition is going to say in their manifesto that they’re going to abolish the monarchy. Those who do wish to do so have also to consider the implications for the 15 other countries of which Elizabeth II is Head of State, and her role as Head of the Commonwealth. The historian David Canadine has said that a monarchy is overthrown only after a period of serious civil unrest. I doubt that would be a price worth paying.

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