How Would the UK Actually Scrap the Monarchy, and What Would Happen Next?
A planned £369 million refurbishment to Buckingham Palace has, yet again, got some people calling for an end to the Royal Family. But what exactly would that look like?
Once again, some people are unhappy with the Royal Family. First it was the announcement last week that the Treasury intends to spend £369 million on doing up Buckingham Palace in the middle of a housing crisis, and then – bizarrely, given the outrage over the refurbishment handout – the Palace put out a job advert for a new gardener, offering a salary that works out at less than the London Living Wage.
Both of these things have provoked "action", with former journalist Mark Johnson starting a popular online petition demanding that the royals pay for repairs themselves. Bloggers on Royal Central – which, in fairness, is essentially a royals fan site – and The Spectator have pointed out that it is actually money generated through an additional tax on the Crown Estate that will fund the work, not money from the British taxpayer, but for many that still doesn't justify the huge amount of cash being spent on the Palace as the rest of the country falls apart.
Either way, none of this is particularly new; anti-monarchy petitions have always had a presence online. Yet polls consistently show that people prefer Jubilee bunting and ritualised deference to democratic accountability. In fact, about 70 percent of the UK's population continually say they would rather keep the royals than chuck them.
But imagine a world in which that statistic leant the other way. Theoretically, what would it take to actually remove the royals from the throne, and what would happen once they were gone? I'm glad you asked.
FIRST, A LOT OF GROUNDWORK WOULD HAVE TO BE LAID
Republic is an organisation campaigning for a "democratic alternative to the monarchy". Pia de Keyser, the group's campaigns officer, says their vision of change involves years of healthy public discourse, gradually pushing the issue onto the political agenda, before provoking a national referendum.
"Since Brexit, we do definitely feel that we wouldn't want any referendum to do with this to be as divisive," she says over the phone. "There would need to be a sizeable majority before the referendum would be held – it wouldn't be a case of '51 percent would do it'. Public education should be far more balanced and accurate, unlike Brexit, where so many people were googling 'What is the EU?' right before it."
CHARLES WOULD HAVE TO BE TRULY AWFUL
Historian Phillip Murphy tells me the warm fuzzy feelings people have towards the monarchy are mostly for Elizabeth herself, rather than the institution as a concept. "I think as long as she's there, there will be pretty strong support," he says over the phone. "But once she's gone, there may be a change of mood."
Relative to the Queen, Charles isn't exactly popular. He's been criticised in the past for sticking his oar into political matters, and if he kept at that it would highlight the problematic royal prerogative powers monarchs still technically have. Pure speculation here, but I can't imagine that would do much for his ratings.
WE'D HAVE TO ENDURE THE UNKNOWN, MESSY POLITICAL FALLOUT OF ANOTHER REFERENDUM
A referendum in favour of a republic would only be the start. De Keyser says Republicans don't have a concrete vision of what post-monarchy Britain would look like – and that they wouldn't yet want to. "Like Brexit, we would be facing a situation that we haven't had to take through Parliament before. It could be quick, but like with Brexit, my instinct would be not to rush it," she explains. "The ideal would be that we would slowly, pragmatically walk through it."
Beyond the whole "what, so we're getting a president now?" chat, this process would also involve lots of complicated legal disentanglements, like working out who would occupy the position of head of the Commonwealth and the Church of England.
Also, as Murphy says, you've got to be careful that a restructuring of political power doesn't just leave a new demagogic-shaped hole to be filled. "In a world in which Donald Trump has just been elected, and in which Marine Le Pen seems to be within fighting distance of the French presidency, even people on the left now might be thinking, 'Do we really want Nigel Farage as our president?'" he points out. "Which might be the likely result of a national election for a president."
CAMPAIGNERS WOULD WANT THE ROYALS TO HAND OVER THEIR RICHES
Anti-monarchy campaigns tend to revolve around the injustice of the massive amounts of wealth and privilege commanded by a select few people lucky enough to be born into the right family. So, the thinking goes, in a post-monarchy UK, while the royals would still have a private wealth in the multi-millions – thanks in part to their extensive property portfolio – all profits generated by the Crown Estate would be handed over to the people.
Currently, the Queen pays an 85 percent tax on earnings generated through the Crown Estate – a huge property and land portfolio, including Regent Street and Buckingham Palace, worth about £12 billion – with the remaining 15 percent going to her to pay for stuff like royal travel and Palace garden parties. According to Murphy, this 15 percent going to the people instead wouldn't do much to correct social and economic imbalances.
"You might hope that it would change British society," he says, "but some of those divisions – the aristocracy, the power of public schools, the power of Oxbridge – unless you really radically changed the way society is governed, they would still be there in the social character of Great Britain."
This year that 15 percent worked out at nearly £43 million, which is admittedly just a fraction of the £1 billion the NHS spends every three days, but, you know, every little helps. And what of Buckingham Palace, which – as part of the Crown Estate – would also theoretically be handed over?
"The 750 barely used rooms in the Palace would hopefully become a huge central community hub, or a museum, or a centre for education, or a hub for democracy," says de Keyser.
THE ROYALS WOULD BECOME MERE COVER STARS OF 'HELLO' MAGAZINE, SLOWLY AND INEVITABLY DECLINING IN STATURE
"There's the sense that [the royals] themselves are sort of trapped in many ways," says de Keyser. "In terms of the human rights that the rest of us have, like freedom of expression and movement and choice of marriage partner, they are massively curtailed from enjoying."
So in a republic, the Royal Family would be free to be whatever they wanted to be. EDM DJs! Chartered surveyors! Openly xenophobic! But in all likelihood, as Murphy says, "They would certainly still be on the guest list of any trendy party in London, New York or Paris."
So we wouldn't have to worry too much about them.
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