In Monty Python and The Holy Grail’s famous constitutional peasants’ scene, King Arthur is asked ‘How did you become king’? What follows is a four-minute autopsy of power, sovereignty, historiography, and tradition reduced to the absurd. Despite the best efforts of the Arthur, Dennis the peasant rejects Arthur’s claim to be ‘King of the Britons’. He tells Arthur that monarchy is no basis for a system of Government. Dennis may well have a point.
Many will argue that the coronation and the monarchy represent thousands of years of British history, running like a continuous thread. Yet, succession has rarely been straightforward. It is a story of claims, usurpation, conquests, seizure, offers, treaty, and acts. That’s even before we consider primogeniture.
English tradition can be traced to the 10th-Century. It claims historic links to the anointing of Solomon. In the separate Scottish tradition, monarchs would be crowned on the stone of Scone, which is claimed by both English and Scottish myth to have links to the biblical Jacob, via Tara and the High Kings of Ireland. King Edward I pinched the stone as war booty and incorporated it into the English coronation chair. Even after the 1603 Union of the Crowns, there were separate coronations in Scotland and England. The Scottish ceremony had retained the tradition that the king should be elected or selected by the Scottish ‘three estates’. After 1707 Scottish law and tradition was incorporated into English ceremony. The coronation and the monarch became British. The Union of Scotland with England was not popular in Scotland. It took a lot of cajolery and money to ‘persuade’ Scottish MPs to vote for Union. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland exists due to parliamentary politics, wealth, and power. The British Union came into existence through parliament and treaty, not due the will of any monarch. It is Parliament that makes or unmakes the monarch. Arthur’s claim to be the historic King of the Britons is on shaky ground.
Those who defend the monarchy claim that it is purely a ceremonial position. There is certainly a lot of ceremony to get through. There is the State Opening of Parliament, Trooping the Colour, Remembrance Sunday, Investitures, and State Visits & Banquets. In addition, there is the Garter Day Service, Maundy Service, the Ceremony of the Keys, – and we must not forget the Kings Swan Marker and the annual Swan Upping. In between all these grand state occasions there is the occasional ribbon cutting, tree planting and garden party. It is a good show and sells a lot of mugs and tea towels, but that ermine and gold braid costs an awful lot of money. It is far from clear exactly how much it does cost.
Claims that the monarchy is purely ceremonial are also open to challenge. There remains a veil of secrecy that surrounds the Royal Family and how it is financed. The wealth generated by the Duchy of Cornwall is exempt from corporation tax. Any efforts at scrutiny have quickly been shut down. No other individual or group is allowed to arrange their own ad-hoc tax arrangement, yet that appears to be the case with the Duchy of Cornwall. Further, the new King Charles III will rule over lingering remnants of an empire that are globally infamous tax havens.
The monarch is also granted immunity from a considerable number of laws. Defenders argue that this is tradition, doctrine, and convention. This defence is based on the idea that monarch remains the source of law and justice. It is the Crown, understood to be Government and Monarchy that sets the law. So, in theory, as the source of law, the Crown cannot prosecute itself. However, this immunity has been expanded to include the monarch as a private person. It took a decade to uncover the secret lobbying Prince Charles, who is now King Charles III. In response to these efforts the monarch is now absolutely and without question exempt from any freedom of information request. No other private individual receives such protection.
The monarchy is clearly at odds with the democratic ideal of one vote of equal value for all. Long term trends show that its popularity is declining. However, replacing it is not simple. It would probably require a written constitution. Whilst this constitution would have to be agreed by popular vote, those who hold the pen that writes any constitution have significant control over its content. Further, there would be the temptation to make any new head of state a political position. In the previous decade we have seen governments willing to play hard and fast with the constitution using every tool available to avoid public oversight. There is a risk that any new head of state could add further to this. There are worries over the status of the Church of England. The Church of England faces far more immediate challenges than the status of the monarchy. Faith though, is resilient. It would survive the removal of the monarch.
It is our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland that offer a potential solution to our problems with the monarchy. Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese, and Michael D. Higgins have transformed the role of the Uachtarán na hÉireann (the President of Ireland). It has been depoliticised, it is constantly evolving, and allows a public debate about the nature and character of Ireland and Irishness. They offer a function and space that the United Kingdom currently lacks.
In a four-minute scene King Arthur and Dennis ask us to consider some serious questions about power, wealth, and government. As we approach the royal coronation, these questions have become relevant once again. The British monarchy is the result of the quest for power, wealth, and political convenience. For most people, its day-to-day relevance is non-existent. Claims that it is simply ceremonial do not stand scrutiny. Those who contend that it offers stability have never had to face daily questions concerning how they can heat their home or access a food bank. NHS waiting lists are at record levels as our health service limps from crisis to crisis. Workers, such as those at P and O have been sacked with little thought for law or justice. Life in the United Kingdom is far from stable for many.
As we finish our coronation quiche, it is now time to consider the role and the status of the monarchy. Dennis had a point: monarchy is no basis for government. Yet we must also be careful with what we might wish to put in its place.