Why not every discussion about the Crown should be just another debate about its abolition – and what Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ gets right

 13th February 2021

This week the Guardian has run a sequence of pieces about the right of the Queen and the Prince of Wales in respect of proposed legislation that affects their private interests.

See here, here, and here.

Such a right is, as this blog averred, unacceptable and should be abolished (and indeed could be easily abolished without even an act of parliament).

But even mentioning this particular wrong triggered the usual broader reaction: ‘Let’s abolish the monarchy while we are at it’.

And so a particular point becomes the most general of demands, and in the end – as always – nothing will be done about either of them.

This is, in live action, the constitutional utopianism recently described by this blog (here and here).

It is similar to what happens with any attempt to highlight or expose a constitutional wrong by the government.

There such an exposure or highlight triggers the general demand for a written (that is, codified) constitution. 

And again, nothing ends up being done to address, still less remedy, the specific problem.

(I have set out in this provocatively titled Prospect column, why we should stop talking about about a written constitution.)

These general reactions are not so much ways of thinking about constitutional issues but a way of not thinking about them.

You hear or read of a problem, type out your demand in a tweet or other comment, bit ‘enter’ and gain a ‘like’ or even a retweet, and: job done!

But the job is not done.

In fact, nothing gets done.

And the constitutional abuses carry on as before.


Of course, there is a strong if not compelling case – in principle – for republicanism in any mature polity.

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.

Supreme executive power should derive from a mandate from the masses, and not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.


Against the strong if not compelling case for republicanism as a matter of principle, however, there is a plausible case as a matter of practice for the monarchy in the instance of the United Kingdom.

This practical argument is not so much about what powers the Crown has – but what powers it prevents others from having.

In particular, the office of prime minister has few direct and express powers (and indeed there are relatively few mentions of ‘prime minister’ in statute or case law), meaning that almost all exercises of prime ministerial power are negotiated and are thereby contestable.

Even the convention that Crown will do whatever the prime minister ‘advises’ was shown to be open to challenge by the supreme court of the United Kingdom in the second Miller case.

These checks and balances on ultimate executive power are weak – but the challenge for any republican is that they should show how any replacement to the monarchy would also have checks and balances.

For a solution to the problem of the monarchy that would mean even more unchecked and imbalanced executive powers would not be an improvement – at least not from any liberal perspective.


In constitutional theory the Crown is the ultimate basis of not only executive power but legislative power (the ‘Queen-in-Parliament’) and even the judiciary (the Queen-in-her-courts).

This can lead to pleasing if not amusing events such as an application for judicial review brought in the name of the Crown (‘Regina‘) in respect of the exercise of the royal prerogative to prorogue parliament so that there can be a new Queen’s speech.

(That was the constitutional essence of the second Miller case.)

An understanding of the Crown therefore is essential to understanding at least the theory of the current constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom.

And as the ‘United Kingdom’ label on the tin suggests, the Crown is the single most significant unifying factor in the current political union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If and when there is a republic then what replaces the Crown will also have to function as this all-purpose constitutional glue.

This is not to say abolition of the monarchy should not be done – but, like Brexit, there will be an awful lot of work to do just to duplicate current arrangements under a new label.

And, again like Brexit, the question has to be whether it would be really worth all the time and effort, regardless of your position as a matter of principle.


In the meantime, the powers of the Crown – both in respect of the public powers of the royal prerogative and the private powers such as the Queen’s Consent – still need anxious scrutiny.

That there is a broader question of whether there should be a republic should not mean any narrower questions should be disregarded.

The one thing that the Netflix series The Crown gets right – even if it gets a lot wrong in respect of historical detail – is that it conveys that the monarchy is an ongoing work-in-progress.

The Crown adapts, and it seeks to avert or survive crises with a combination of stubbornness and reinventions: an institution highly alert to its own precariousness.

And those who want to limit the misuses of the power of the Crown (and what is done in its name by the prime minister and others) should adopt a similar but opposite approach.

For keeping the powers of the monarchy properly in check is also an ongoing work-in-progress.

And in the happy event that we do one day become a republic, then keeping the powers of any presidency would also be an an ongoing work-in-progress.


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28 thoughts on “Why not every discussion about the Crown should be just another debate about its abolition – and what Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ gets right”

  1. The advantage of The Crown as a basis for government is that it’s a metaphysical entity which cannot desire undesirable things as the people often do.

    1. But the judgment in the second Miller case made it clear, without actually mentioning it, that The Crown either (a) desired an undesirable prorogation and exercised its prerogative unlawfully in an attempt to bring it about, or else (b) undesirably treated its prerogative as a dead letter.

  2. The question is not a choice between a queen or a president. The prior question is: Why do we need a head of state, like a king or a president.
    In my country we did not have a head of state between 1581 and 1804. This period in the history of the Netherlands is still called the “Golden Age”.
    My final question is: “Who is in 2021 the president of Switzerland, one of the best run countries in Europe?

  3. Thank you for this.

    By way of a minor public service, from my computer table within a former post office of the late, unlamented, Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, I would like to offer a link to the distribution-of-swords clip (the one where Arthur’s Excalibur donator with the samite sleeve gets dismissed, by a strident peasant analyst, as a “watery tart”): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXmwK2-R2dY . This item is an upload of YouTube user “Eightbanger”, from 2014 March 25, under the title “Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Lady Of the Lake)”. Brevity notwithstanding, it rises even to the formidable BBC heights of “Yes Minister”.

  4. The current impeachment trial of Donald Trump indicates how useful a written constitution is in settling a real legal issue.

      1. The impeachment issue and the US constitution is an interesting question. I’ve been assuming that in the early days of the constitution, the political imperative was to guard against an over-powerful presidency vis-à-vis the independence of the States. Congress provided the political heft for the latter and impeachment was a tool in its armoury. But since then, the party system has developed, diffusing the political heft of the States alone as a counterweight to the presidency, turning impeachment into a party political issue and devaluing it as a constitutional tool. Societies and the polities that serve them do not stand still, so nor should constitutions. Hence all those amendments. But my guess is probably wrong.

  5. Thank you for this excellent summary of the pros and cons of monarchy vs. republicanism as they pertain to the United Kingdom. One of the best such summaries I’ve ever come across.

  6. David

    You write, “The challenge for any republican is that they should show how any replacement to the monarchy would also have checks and balances”. Fine. Let’s do that. As you rightly point out this will be necessary. But it is not beyond the wit of man, and has been achieved in many countries.

    In my opinion, the case for retention of the monarchy is logically insupportable in any country that purports to be a democracy. No modern state should have a head of state whose position
    is based on the single qualification that they were born to the previous incumbent. Why should it be Liz’s children who inherit the position of head of state, if her children can be head of state why not mine, or yours ? If the nostalgic groupies wish to continue their hero worship, the monarch and her family could continue to play that role in their affections as private citizens.

    The argument that you raise for abolition, that there may be difficulties, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t accept that challenge; otherwise would we have had universal suffrage, abolition of slavery, etc ?

    Also, solving the immediate problem does not mean we should abandon seeking wider, more fundamental reform. We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

    1. I can readily see your point. But as Faridge showed, tradition still counts for a lot in our quirky country. I also approved, when i long ago joined the military, that our allegiance was, at least nominally, to the Crown, and not directly to the govt. Of the day.

      1. Why not consider substituting allegiance to the constitution of the country or to the citizens of the country…oh wait, we aren’t citizens, we are subjects of the monarch.

    2. Absolutely agree. Until the Guardian’s fascinating revelations about “Crown Consent”, I was not even aware of the existence of that extraordinary phenomenon.

      The idea that any family should be able, uniquely, to influence, to their advantage, any proposed legislation that might affect them, behind the scenes and without transparency or scrutiny, is outrageous, imo.

  7. David

    I see the “let’s abolish the monarchy” ploy as a deflection from addressing the specific abuse being discussed. Almost as if it’s all or nothing which is not how our constitution (such as it is) was arrived at. It was a gradual evolution from ‘divine right’ to ‘constitutional democracy’ over hundreds of years. It could be that abolition and a formal codified constitution would take a similar length of time to get right.

  8. I’d like to make a number of miscellaneous points.

    First, I’m pretty sure that the concluding commentary to the 1969 documentary about the monarchy, that has been the subject if little flurry of controversy recently, was exactly that the advantage of it was that, while the monarch held the position of head of state, no-one else can.

    Second, there might be thought to be a distinct advantage that the position of head of state is not subject to political contestation – though, of course, that can be a bad thing as much as a good: political contestation ought to be healthy – though (again) it too often isn’t. But political contestation often carries with it personal ambition and the desire to do things. There is is surely an argument that the point of a head of state is to be, not to do? (See my third point below.) To put it in crude terms, who would one rather have as head of state: Elizabeth or Charles Windsor as non-political inheritors of the position, or Tony Blair (accomplished Prime Minister that TB, in many respects, was)?

    Third, anti-monarchists very often seem to me to focus on the person of the monarch. But might not “the Crown” be seen in a more impersonal light as the embodiment of the state – as in the expressions “Crown servant” or “Minister of the Crown”, for example; something to which all of us are subject, an equivalent of a constitution, a representation of all of us?

    Fourth, it’s interesting (though far from a complete justification of the institution) that in this particularly democratic quarter of the globe, seven European countries are monarchies (though Hans Beukers’s point is interesting).

    I think that, at the moment, monarchy seems to work ok for the United Kingdom. It’s quite hard to think of any real material disadvantage that individuals in the UK, or society as a whole, suffer as a result ot it being a monarchy. But is has illogicalities and absurdities and might at some stage be found materially wanting. This is particularly likely at times, such as these, of constitutional crisis.

    1. The question, “who would one rather have as head of state” is only really germane if the head of state’s actions are not properly constrained by the constitution. Get the constitutional arrangements correct, and the HoS will simply be a puller of levers, rather than a figure with the ability to pursue a political agenda.

    2. Surely the Guardian story has provided an example of such a disadvantage. Or perhaps we should consider the state subsidy provided to the monarch and her family as equitable when compared to, say, unemployment benefit ? Also what might lie under other rocks we haven’t yet lifted (and which we may not know exist) ?

      This is also about confirming that no animals are more equal than others.

      I’m not convinced the monarchy works for Britain, or its people, in the way posited. Advocating acceptance of the status quo sounds to me (by definition) like an admission that we can never improve on what we have – I don’t find that a compelling argument.

  9. “These general reactions are not so much ways of thinking about constitutional issues but a way of not thinking about them.”

    Absolutely. And it’s really hard to get people to look beyond the generalities and focus on specific features of the constitution that are fundamentally flawed.

    As I see it, there’s currently a void at the heart of government because the monarchy has no mandate of its own, and therefore the monarch doesn’t have the confidence to oppose the branches of government that are notionally subordinate to them. I think it’s crucial that the ultimate overseer of government should be democratically accountable.

    However, I don’t see any benefit in replacing the monarchy with some kind of presidency, because there’s no reason why a monarch – even an hereditary monarch – can’t be accountable to the people. The essence of democratic accountability lies more in the power to dismiss an office holder, than in the power to appoint them (where the true collective will of millions of people is almost certain to be obscured by the practical limitations of the appointment/election process).

    That could be achieved just as easily in a monarchy as it could be in a republic. Back in 2019, as part of a set of constitututional reform petitions that I tried submitting to Parliament, was a petition which asked:

    “that Parliament require the appointment of a directly elected official (with an appropriate recall mechanism, to ensure constant accountability) with no power except:

    a) authority to call a referendum on replacing the reigning monarch, according to laws of succession approved by Parliament; and

    b) access to, and authority to make public, all information necessary to effectively oversee the operation of government”.

    That reform would have given the monarchy a mandate of its own, separate from Parliament’s, without directly exposing the monarch to the political fray.

    As it happened, that petition was still pending approval when Parliament was dissolved but it almost certainly wouldn’t have gone anywhere anyway, so I didn’t try re-submitting it after the election. Getting people to think about constructive solutions to specific constitutional issues is an uphill struggle at the best of times, but seems to be even harder when there’s a live issue like Brexit, or a pandemic, for them to focus on!

  10. The single most persuasive argument in favour of keeping our monarchy is that it allows for the safe expression of flag waving nationalistic sentiment. Without it these powerful nationalistic forces would instead focus on elected politicians, a far more volatile and combustible prospect.

    1. I was going to write something similar until I reflected on the hyperpartisanship illuminated by David yesterday. Look to the obsessive flag-waving for inter alia Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump.

      1. The dark nationalistic forces surrounding Trump are far more dangerous than the kind of nationalism triggered by Johnson and Corbyn. The point I was trying to make was a nuanced one and I wasn’t simply arguing that flag waving nationalism doesn’t exist in republics, or isn’t stirred up by certain politicians. As David says though, contemplating incremental, meaningful reform can often be crowded out of constitutional debates, reducing them to broad basic principles (abolish the monarchy, we need a ‘written’ constitution etc). A trap that I myself fell in to with my initial comment. Reform in areas such as Crown consent, the PMs weekly trip to the palace, and the stage at which a future King recieves government papers (it shouldn’t be before the Cabinet gets sight of them) are all achievable without potentially destabilising our constitution by becoming a republic.

    2. If we write the job specification and the rules carefully enough voting for a head of state could be made to work.
      Rule 1 would need to be; no head of state shall serve more than one term. Remove at a stroke the always campaigning politician and ensure that work gets done during the term.
      What a single term would be is anyones guess but no more than 7 years should be enough.

  11. [b]It’s quite hard to think of any real material disadvantage that individuals in the UK, or society as a whole, suffer as a result of it being a monarchy.[/b]

    But they bring no advantage either – the monarchy is literally surplus to requirements in any logical sense.

    At the risk of sounding like a “knows the price of everything, the value of nothing…” conservative, I simply can’t see why (hugely expensive) tradition should outweigh utility…

  12. While I’m both in head and in heart a republican, I take all of DAG’s points. Of all the many ways in which I think we need to improve our governance (electoral reform, an end to adversarial politics, a constitutional right for local government to exist rather than at the whim of central government, reform of a second chamber) moving to a republic is the least important.
    Don’t we need a head of state with enough stature and ability to stand up when events such as Johnson’s unlawful prorogation take place?

  13. Brexit has provided and proven the overwhelming case against republicanism.

    That “power should derive from a mandate from the masses” is all well and good so long as the masses vote the way you want and the refusal of Remainers to accept the 2016 referendum result, and to do all in their power to thwart Brexit, says it all.

    Now, that’s not to say all Remainers are republicans, but I would say the most vocal of them are, that is, the ones who have over the past couple of years tried to stop Brexit (yes I think the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller II was purely political).

    A few years back Lord Hannan wrote an excellent article on why Marxism still remains intellectually respectable, especially among the “elite” and within academia. Both are Remainer strongholds and becoming a republic is but a step along the road for them.

  14. The US constitution was certainly breached in the first great formative event in US history i.e. the Louisiana Purchase.

    It was probably breached in the second i.e. the Civil War.

    I don’t know whether, for instance, the Canadian or Australian constitutions have been similarly bashed about.

    Anyway, the notion that a constitution, rigidly adhered to, is a WD-40 of political life, seems childish to me.

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