The future of the monarchy after the King’s coronation

Charles III has now been formally crowned as King in a ceremony with deep historical roots that reflect the institution’s long history. But what about the monarchy’s future? Craig Prescott discusses whether the UK is willing to consider the major constitutional change of becoming a republic, and concludes that should such a change take place, it will need to coincide with an underlying change in political culture in order to be anything other than symbolic.

The British public, as Brexit underlined, is not necessarily averse to major constitutional change. The start of a new reign provides an opportunity to reappraise the monarchy. Such a reappraisal is already taking place in many of the 14 Commonwealth realms.

In June 2022, Australia appointed an Assistant Minister for the Republic, with the intention that Australia will move towards becoming a republic after the next election, due in 2025. Over the next few years, referendums on whether to become a republic are likely in Antigua and Barbuda and Jamaica. Belize has formed a People’s Constitutional Commission to review its constitution, including the question of whether to become a republic. There is no reason, in principle, why such a reappraisal should not take place in the UK.

Constitutionally, the core argument for the monarchy was that it could function as a pressure valve in times of political crisis. If necessary, a Prime Minister could be dismissed, or a Parliament dissolved. Especially during the reign of Elizabeth II, that argument diminished almost to vanishing point as the personal prerogative powers of the monarch became increasingly regulated by convention and law. For example, the Cabinet Manual (paragraph 2.12), and events after the 2010 general election made clear that the monarch plays no active role in the formation of government even if an election returns a hung parliament.

Instead, the primary political argument for the monarchy is that it provides a space in public life which is beyond day-to-day party politics. Through their role as Head of Nation, the monarch seeks to ‘represent the nation back to itself’. Most notably, this can be seen on occasions such as Remembrance Sunday, when the monarch leads the nation in an act of remembrance which commands broad and deep, but not total, support across the political spectrum and in the country at large. In this way, there is a separation between the state and the government of the day.

In this way, on behalf of the nation, the monarchy seeks to represent widely held values. These include the concept of voluntary and community service, diversity, and religious expression. This can manifest itself through the variety of engagements that the Royal Family undertake across the country. Especially through the honours system, the monarchy can recognise the ideals of excellence and service.

In this space, the monarchy can draw attention to issues in a manner that supplements rather than supplants party politics. For example, the Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood, established by the Princess of Wales, commissions research and encourages collaboration from experts on how the challenges someone faces in their early years can impact them for the rest of their lives. Yet, the need to be politically impartial means that such activity must always be several steps away from engaging in specific policy problems or making policy proposals for the government to consider.

None of this is exclusive to monarchies. Most presidents undertake duties which could be classed as acting as Head of Nation. The difference with the monarchy, based on the hereditary principle, is that these activities take place beyond the electoral cycle, which some argue means monarchy can withstand even the most turbulent politics.

The core argument for republicans is to take these points and make them the core weakness of monarchy and the greatest strength of a republic. Fundamentally, the republican argument is based on the principle that all political power should, in some way, flow from a democratic mandate. A directly elected president would be accountable to the electorate, and an indirectly elected president would be accountable to parliament.

This accountability would enable both a directly or indirectly elected president to provide a constitutional check on the government of the day. A president might be more inclined to reject an inappropriate request to dissolve or prorogue parliament. By contrast, the King cannot get involved and must act on the advice of the government. At moments of acute political crisis, this creates a risk that the King becomes a mere pawn in a broader game of political chess. By contrast, a president would be expected to be an independent player in the political process. For example, in October 2022, Italian President Sergio Mattarella facilitated the formation of a new government by meeting the leaders of the political parties.

A president would also be more active politically. This may not be a bad thing. In June 2022, Irish President Michael D Higgins described housing as ‘our great, great, great failure’ and a ‘disaster’. Despite his actions as Prince of Wales, it is inconceivable that the King would make such a political intervention. In this way, a president can provide an outlet at moments when ordinary party politics has, for some reason, failed or been reluctant to confront a policy problem.

A series of presidents, elected over time, can represent different aspects of the nation in ways that a hereditary monarchy is simply unable to achieve. In principle, those becoming president could be of any gender, race or sexuality, drawn from anywhere in the country, have different political backgrounds, or perhaps none at all. They would bring their background to the role of President, representing the nation as it is today. By contrast, a monarchy which projects continuity through its ceremonies and iconography provides comfort in the glories of an imagined past. This can be at the expense of confronting today’s problems. For some, that imagined past may also carry the baggage of the Empire and imperialism. Some go further, arguing that the monarchy seeks to maintain the status quo, perpetuating the class system and inequality. Symbolically, abolishing the monarchy would be a profound shift away from this past.

Yet, in many ways, this last point is the biggest problem for the republican argument. To be more than a symbolic move, any move to a republic needs to coincide with an underlying change in political culture. Otherwise, is not immediately obvious how abolishing the monarchy would improve equality more effectively than tackling specific policy problems by reforming tax, investing in skills or improving infrastructure. In principle, all of these things can be achieved under a monarchy. The challenge for the republican argument is to connect these dots.

Any move to a republic is most likely to happen when there is a groundswell of opinion in favour, which coincides with a moment when radical political and economic change is sought. Otherwise, the monarchy’s biggest weakness may be the Royal Family itself. They endure constant press intrusion and are unable to benefit from many of the freedoms we take for granted. These include the freedom of expression, a free choice of career and the freedom to travel. It is understandable that some members of the Royal Family, not in the direct line of succession, such as Prince Harry, have chosen to opt out and pursue a private life. This begs the question, what if Prince George thinks that his Uncle Harry is right, that the loss of freedom is too high a price, and that he too would like to flee the ‘gilded cage’? What then?

This post is the last in a series of articles about the monarchy, which seek to promote the Unit’s new report, The British Monarchy, co-published with UK in a Changing Europe. If you enjoyed this series of posts, you might wish to sign up to attend our summer conference on 28 and 29 June, which is free to attend and open to all. Entitled The Future of the Constitution, it will consist of panel discussions covering topics such as electoral reform, the rule of law, constitutional standards, and how to implement constitutional change.

About the author

Dr Craig Prescott is a Lecturer in Law at Bangor University.

Featured image: The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by UK Prime Minister