Poor republicans. Not the ones in the U.S., suffering from the attempted kidnap of their party by Donald Trump, but the British ones with a small “r” having to put up with the adulation of Queen Elizabeth II. On Wednesday, she became the longest-serving monarch in the country’s history.
Not only does Elizabeth remain immensely popular, she does so in part because of her dogged adherence to the fusty, semi-feudal traditions whose unapologetic elitism drives republicans to distraction. (Watch the opening of Britain’s parliament sometime; it’s hard not to sympathize with them). Worse, the monarchy appears to be value for money. As a Bloomberg news story estimating the queen’s personal wealth shows, she is rich, but not as rich as many people think. Her personal wealth is in the region of $425 million (including a $75 million stamp collection, how glamorous). In today’s world that’s no longer spectacular — the richest woman in France, Liliane Bettencourt, is worth $32 billion.
The queen’s inherited wealth and maintenance costs may also pale next to her value to the U.K. If the monarchy were a business, it would produce a net benefit to the U.K. of 1.55 billion pounds annually, giving the company a net present value of 36.7 billion pounds, according to Brand Finance, a consultancy firm in London.
It’s tough to win the argument for abolition when the thing you want to abolish seems to produce substantial economic benefit, while providing possibly the world’s most popular and longest-running soap opera for entertainment. You can hear the frustration ooze from Polly Toynbee, the Guardian newspaper’s tart columnist of the liberal left: “But the institution of monarchy is deeply ingrained in the British psyche as a conservatism that tolerates the intolerable — the corrupt payola House of Lords, our archaic constitution and our crude voting system that defies people’s choice of a party reflecting their beliefs.”
The Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) with her “lettuce leaf” figure and cute baby? She “must be the despair of exhausted mothers, leaking breasts, struggling sleeplessly,” says Toynbee. “That’s majesty, making everyone else feel lesser.” Forget the money; the monarchy in this view is the cultural keystone that holds back the U.K.’s natural march towards equality and progress. It makes Britain vote Conservative, forgetting that only the Labour party has improved the lives of the electorate: “Put an end to this royal infantalizing of a nation. Imagine how abolishing the monarchy would open all the dusty constitutional cupboards to the sunlight of reform. Let her reign as long as she lives — but let her be Elizabeth the Last.”
And for the U.K.’s relatively small republican movement, the greatest betrayal of all is that America, a country that fought a war to rid itself of British monarchy and became the republic par excellence, is besotted with the royals. If only it would buy them. No numbers go uncontested, of course. A pressure group called Republic has dismissed the Brand Finance figures, arguing that the revenue-producing estates it attributes to the monarchy really belong to the people and that there is no evidence that the monarchy increases tourism. The annual subsidy for the monarchy is about 40 million pounds, but according to Republic the true cost is 334 million pounds, once you factor in the costs of official visits, security, and revenues that Republic believes rightly belong to the taxpayer.
Removing the people from the monarchy wouldn’t make all those palaces and revenues (55 million pounds last year) disappear, but some of these arguments seem circular. Brand Finance is probably closer to the truth. Take Buckingham Palace, which attracts close to half a million paying, and some 15 million “just looking” visitors a year. It is one of the dreariest buildings you are ever likely to see, and isn’t even very old. Without the knowledge that it’s where the queen lives, the crowds that mill outside the gates would certainly be thinner. Deep down, most people understand that constitutional monarchy is an anachronism, offensive to the democratic values and meritocracy that most Britons would surely like their country to represent. One day, a less savvy and self-disciplined monarch than Elizabeth (there are plenty of candidates in the family) may destroy the brand, which by this time is all that the monarchy has to offer. And once that happens, it may go.
For now, though, Brand Royals is strong. The fury of some republicans seems like special pleading at the failure of the left to dominate British politics, as seems to them the natural order in a world with more poor people than rich ones. More dispassionate judges of the monarchy’s value would look around this increasingly unstable world and ask what is so broken in the U.K., even relative to highly advanced European republics such as France, that it needs a constitutional revolution most voters don’t want. As the Hippocratic oath suggests, first do no harm.
They would ask, too, whether the symbolic presidency that would probably get bolted onto Britain’s parliamentary system in the monarch’s place (few democracies are without a head of state) would be significantly cheaper or more effective; whether that would result in people wanting higher taxes and more welfare, as Toynbee suggests, or in fewer extremes of inequality.
An elected president would without question be more democratic than a queen.
As for the rest of the republican wish list, there is no reason to believe it must follow:
Just look at the U.S.
Marc Champion is a columnist for Bloomberg View.