Is An Activist Monarch Necessarily a Bad Thing?

My post about why the Duke of Cambridge can’t get involved in the campaign to pardon gay men convicted of “gross indecency” provoked an interesting discussion on the Venerable Puzzle Facebook page. A friend disagreed with my contention that the royal family should generally keep silent, arguing that it would ultimately be better for the monarchy if the sovereign and the royal family could speak out on issues of public concern. Our exchange got me thinking: would an activist monarch necessarily be a bad thing?

The orthodox answer is yes, it would. The monarch must be politically neutral, and they cannot take positions independent of the government of the day. But the British constitution is nothing if not flexible, and there’s very little that’s actually cast in stone. The Queen’s 60+ years of sober discretion make it easy to forget that the monarchy is a mercurial institution. Sure, there are certain conventions that cross the generations, but each individual sovereign approaches the job differently. Victoria felt no compunction about arguing at length with her ministers, while the current Queen seems to take a more hands-off approach to politics.

By Dan Marsh (Flickr: Prince Charles (derivate by crop)) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Prince Charles could have transformative effect on the Monarchy. Photo by Dan Marsh  via Wikimedia Commons

When the Prince of Wales ascends the throne, he won’t necessarily be the same kind of monarch as his mother. He’s already shown a willingness to speak out on causes that are important to him, and there are signs that he hopes to continue to do that once he becomes king. His reign will likely be pivotal for the monarchy. With his mother’s example fresh in everyone’s mind, it will be hard for him to completely break with her precedent. But if he plays his cards right and doesn’t push too far, too fast, the Duke of Cambridge could have a lot more freedom to speak his mind when he finally ascends the throne.

Maybe it’s the Whig in me, but I view this prospect with a certain ambivalence. On the one hand, one could argue (as my friend has done) that speaking out on key issues will help make the monarchy more relevant. On the other hand, I worry about the potential for royal demagoguery. It’s one thing to make careful interventions on matters of public importance; it’s quite another for the monarch to set themselves against their ministers. Say, for example, that the sovereign takes a dislike to a government bill. They speak out against the bill, but it still passes both Houses of Parliament. Would they be tempted to withhold royal assent, particularly if they knew their stance had popular support? The idea of the monarch as the tribune of the people may be romantic, but it’s ultimately dangerous since the sovereign is unelected, can’t be removed from office, and lacks formal checks on their power (there’s no way to override a royal veto, for example). Royal activism can only work in a modern democracy if there are certain red lines that the sovereign will not cross. It must be clear that the monarch will ultimately accept the advice of their ministers, even if it’s contrary to their public pronouncements.

Of course the big unknown in all of this is how the government would react. Prince Charles may hope to continue his activism after taking the throne, but his ministers might have other ideas. After 60+ years of quiet from Buckingham Palace, they might not relish the idea of a voluble sovereign. If they formally advised him not to speak out on a given topic, there is little he could do about it. He could disregard their advice of course, but he’d be opening Pandora’s Box.

Lord Luce, a former Lord Chamberlain, once used a quote from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard to describe the paradox that is at the heart of the monarchy: “If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change.” It may be that playing the role of the activist is the best way for the monarchy to stay relevant. But an activist monarch will have to be a sagacious monarch, and they will have to pick their battles very carefully.

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3 Responses to Is An Activist Monarch Necessarily a Bad Thing?

  1. An outspoken monarch opposing the government of the day featured in 1993’s ‘To Play the King’, a sequel the original ‘House of Cards’ series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P24AEdTFqVE

    • jasonloch says:

      I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never actually seen “House of Cards.” I guess I prefer political humor (e.g., “Yes, Minister”) to gritty political drama.

  2. Pingback: Is There Too Much Secrecy Surrounding the Monarchy? | A Venerable Puzzle

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