Home / Opinion / Columns /  Britain shouldn’t lose sleep over getting rid of monarchy

I am happy and content to be a citizen of an India where a Radhakrishnan, a Zail Singh, an Abdul Kalam and a Draupadi Murmu can rise to become the President of the Republic. Ceremonial and symbolic as the office may be in practice, it is the kind of symbolism that matters. But the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II made me wonder what I would think of constitutional monarchy if I were British.

Well, I’m not British, so what follows is an attempt to see things dispassionately through British eyes. I do not have a stake in the British debate on whether or not to retain the monarchy, but there are some insights from it that are of interest to us in India and our Commonwealth counterparts.

First, there is no economic or financial case for Britain to do away with the monarchy. Folksy arguments complaining that the royal family doesn’t pay taxes and is a burden on the taxpayer do not hold up to scrutiny. The royal family earns around £400 million per year from what is effectively an asset base worth £19 billion, which is itself held in trust. Most of this is paid to the public exchequer, leaving £133 million with the monarch and the crown prince. After paying various expenses, the royal family gets around £40 million in income, all of which is already taxed in one form or another. Over and above this, Queen Elizabeth left a personal fortune of £400 million, the returns from which are also taxed.

Not only is the royal family a net contributor to the British treasury, it also represents an estimated brand value of £43 billion to the British economy. The Windsors are quite wealthy, but the richest family in their realm this year are the Hindujas, with a net worth of over £28 billion.

The £40 million that the royals earn appears to be a lot higher than the $5 million per year that Americans pay their presidents only if you ignore the $14 billion it can cost to elect one. It is true that you can have a cheaper head of state, but you cannot do that without losing the significant positive externalities that the British royals bring.

Second, British constitutional monarchy has not interfered with liberty, equality, fraternity and justice. Despite news of a protestor being arrested during the Queen’s funeral, you can stand in a public place and aim insults at the monarch without being charged by the police or beaten up by the crowd. Rishi Sunak, Sadiq Khan and Kwasi Kwarteng can hold high public office. It has among the freest economies in the world and its judiciary enjoys a stellar reputation for independence. Britain could join and leave the European Union under the same Queen, so the monarch’s preference on matters that concern state sovereignty was subordinated to popular will. Clearly, Britain has been more constitutional and less of a monarchy in practice for well over a century.

Sure, getting rid of a bad monarch can be a problem. Elected presidencies are designed to mitigate this risk. The risk remains, though, as we can see from the growing galaxy of elected autocrats who find ingenious ways to stay in power.

It is on the third count that the monarchy can be genuinely scrutinized: the question of identity, as my colleague Manoj Kewalramani put it. Would I want to be a subject of a monarch who has a right to rule?

I could not answer this question because I am not British. But clearly, it is subjective. You can put this question to the people in a referendum, but the Brexit vote alerts us of the dangers of such a method, even if it is the best method available for it. Related issues will crop up. If the monarchy goes, will England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland wish to constitute a united republic, or go their separate ways?

The answer is somewhat easier for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the various island states that still have the British monarch as their head of state. Barbados has become a republic and Jamaica too is headed in that direction. The hope is that the new set-up will be an improvement over the old one. But we can never be certain about it.

A significant reason for caution is that societies are complex adaptive systems. They are not deterministic, and outcomes are emergent. Pulling a knot or severing a string can cause entanglements and snaps elsewhere. So, it is best not to pull unless there’s a very strong reason: oppressive colonial rule, for instance. And even when there is a case to pull, it is best to do so cautiously rather than yank it at one go. For even when they are successful, revolutions are bloody, results unpredictable and often involve severe short-term upheavals. Ask Americans, Russians, French and the Chinese who had them. India was more fortunate in that our constitutional transition was relatively smooth, even considering the pain and anguish of Partition.

There is a case to be conservative in matters of state. The history of Britain’s constitutional monarchy is one of steady long-term progress towards liberal democracy.

Liberals, especially, have strong reasons to be conservative on this matter. Festina lente. Make haste slowly.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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