Frequently Asked Questions

question mark Do we need a written constitution? Wouldn’t it give too much power to judges?

question mark How much would I have to pay for a seat in the British legislature?

question mark How many members does the state church, the Church of England, have?

question mark How wealthy are the Windsors?

question mark I have heard supporters of the royal family say that it is our protection against tyranny. Doesn't having a head of state who is independent of partisan politics act as a safeguard against a political movement holding on to power against the wishes of the people?

question mark Is it true that only a white person may be head of state in Britain?

question mark Are titles such as Lord, Lady and Sir anything more than harmless ways of rewarding the contributions that individuals have made to the country?

question mark Isn't the House of Lords a necessary balance against the House of Commons acting in an immoderate way?

question mark The monarch seems to unite the country in a way that an elected head of state would not. Should we risk giving that up?

question mark Does it really make any practical difference if our head of state is born into the job instead of being elected? Isn't the job merely a ceremonial one? Should we think about the monarchy as anything more than harmless fun?

question mark The Queen seems to be a decent person who is much-loved. Should we not be pleased to have such a person as our head of state?

question mark I love all the ceremonies that go with a monarchy and aristocracy. Won't life in Britain be very dull if we lose them?

question mark Would we not lose much tourism income if we did not have a colourful monarch to attract visitors?

question mark Aren't republicans left wing agitators? What's the connection with Irish republicans?

question mark Look at the massive social problems in the United States. Why would we want to follow that path?

question mark Should not the impeachment of President Clinton cause us to think twice before changing to the American system?

question mark How many countries still have a monarchy?

question mark What does the British monarchy cost taxpayers?


Do we need a written constitution? Wouldn’t it give too much power to judges?

No system is perfect so we should never refuse to change simply because there may be some disadvantages.

The main advantage of a written constitution is that it would establish the people as the source of political authority for the first time in Britain. By agreeing a constitution we would be telling the politicians that we are in charge and that there are limits to what they can do.

At present there is no limit to what Parliament may do. If there was a majority in the House of Commons for taking the vote away from women or for limiting freedom of speech it could do it.

We now have a Human Rights Act but in truth the “rights” it gives us are privileges. They were given by Parliament and Parliament can take away what it gives whenever it chooses to.

In a written constitution we would say what our rights are and what the limits to parliament’s powers are. A majority would not be enough for Parliament to change this. Some more complicated procedure requiring the agreement of more than a majority of the people would be necessary.

How much would I have to pay for a seat in the British legislature?

Legislators who sit in the so-called House of Commons are elected by the people in elections at intervals of no more than 5 years. Some of the legislators-for-life in the so-called House of Lords inherited their seats on the death of a parent. However, the majority of the seats in the Lords are no longer hereditary and have never been filled by election. These legislators are nominated by the main political parties and appointed by the government.

Usually the money is paid to one of the two leading political parties as a campaign contribution. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin business group is one of the few who has revealed the way this works. The wealthy business person reported that it was hinted to him that he would receive an "honour" if he made a donation to the conservative party. Before 1925 a seat could be bought for £100,000. Writing in the Independent newspaper in 2000 one critic of the British constitution estimated that now "the starting price . . . is about £2m" for a seat in the second chamber. In March 2000 that same newspaper wrote of the "venality" of "the continued sale of places in the" legislature.

How many members does the state Church, the Church of England, have?

Forty-three percent of the population of England consider themselves members of the Church of England. Only slightly more than half of these attend their church. Seventy-six percent attend less frequently than monthly. The membership has an ageing profile. The weekly average in contributions is £6.

How wealthy are the Windsors?

According to a survey by EuroBusiness published in 1999 Britain's "royal" family has personal wealth of £2.7bn. This was said to include £20m in cash and investments, £1bn in art works, jewellery worth £130m, land valued at £895 and other assets of £160m. However much of the real estate is not the personal property of the family, although Charles Windsor does the profits of the Duchy of Cornwall. In 2016 that Duchy had assets of £1b, of which Charlie's take was £20m.

At the same time Forbes magazine estimated the Windsors' wealth at £450m without the jewellery and art collection but at £10bn when they are included.

The Windsors are not the wealthiest royals however. Their comrades in Liechtenstein and Luxembourg have accumulated even more. On the other hand the Oldenburgs of Norway have assets of a mere £90m.

I have heard supporters of the royal family say that it is our protection against tyranny. Doesn't having a head of state who is independent of partisan politics act as a safeguard against a political movement holding on to power against the wishes of the people?

No. This is an unsophisticated view of how a democracy works. No tyrant would allow the monarch to stand in his or her way. The real protection for our democracy is the existence of a strong "civil society," that network of institutions and people that provides a counter-balance to the power of the central state. Republics such as the USA and Ireland have not found their democracy under threat from tyrants. In Britain since the Second World War the only hints of an undemocratic seizure of power have come from parts of the "establishment" that are closely allied with the monarchy.

The example of Thailand makes it clear that monarchy is no defence against tyranny. There a military junta that supported the monarchy overthrew democratic government in 2014.

Citizens of Thailand can be and are imprisoned for up the fifteen years on the charge of insulting the monarch. The parents of the estranged wife of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn were imprisoned for insulting his father. His poodle is reported to have been given the rank of air chief marshal.

Is it true that only a white person may be head of state in Britain?

Yes it is. To become head of state one must be a member of the Windsor-Mountbatten family, which is of white European origin. No person of, say African-Caribbean or Irish background, could be head of state. Such a restriction would be illegal in the case of any other public office.

Are titles such as Lord, Lady and Sir anything more than harmless ways of rewarding the contributions that individuals have made to the country?

Outstanding contributions that people make are rewarded in many ways. Public esteem, financial reward and historical acknowledgement are among them. Everyone can come to their own opinion about an individual's worth and can change their mind. All such rewards can be lost. But titles are forever. Using them amounts to what one British writer has called "verbal bow." They contribute to the stratification of our society, discouraging a healthy belief that we are all socially equal.

Many honours are rewards to supporters of the government. Before 1925 a peerage, which comes with a seat in the legislature, could be bought for £100,000. A knighthood could be had for £10,000. Recently Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin business group, reported that it had been hinted to him that he could have an honour in return for a donation to the Conservative Party. It is particularly outrageous that a seat in the legislature can be had in return for financial help to a political party.

Isn't the House of Lords a necessary balance against the House of Commons acting in an immoderate way?

A second chamber can be useful in that way. But it is better to have a democratic second chamber that can act with legitimacy and democratic authority. If there is a difference of opinion, can it be right for an unelected chamber to prevail over the chamber that has a democratic mandate?

The monarch unites the country in a way that an elected head of state would not. Should we risk giving that up?

This is often said to be so, although it is not clear that it is so. There is no evidence that republics are less united than monarchies. Certainly the monarchy has not deterred more and more Scots from wanting independence or the growth of Welsh nationalism. It also makes those who are convinced that monarchy and aristocracy have no place in a democracy feel that they are denied their basic rights in this country. Britons who are black or who belong to an ethnic minority are also likely to feel excluded if they know they will never see a head of state who shares their origins. A system of government that is fair to all is likely to be much more unifying.

Does it really make any practical difference if our head of state is born into the job instead of being elected? Isn't the job merely a ceremonial one? Should we think about the monarchy as anything more than harmless fun?

The Queen does still have some real power, that could be crucial at times of crisis, such as choosing a Prime Minister, dissolving Parliament and assenting to legislation. And the monarchy also has great symbolic importance for out nation. It signifies that it is right when ability and hard work take second place to birth. As long as the job is inherited no person of humble birth, no Briton who is black or who is of say Irish or Italian descent, can aspire to make it to the top public office. That is an important message that the monarchy sends to the people of Britain. And too often the rest of the world focuses on "heritage" Britain, not on the modern skills, achievements and drive on which international respect, our overseas sales and our prosperity depend.

The Queen seems to be a decent person who is much-loved. Should we not be pleased to have such a person as our head of state?

The Queen may be a decent person, although we are allowed to know very little about what she thinks. Some other members of the royal family certainly have expressed opinions that most people would deplore or have behaved in disreputable way. With an unelected head of state we are stuck with whoever is born into the job. There is no way of removing her or him whatever they may say or do.

I love all the ceremonies that go with a monarchy and aristocracy. Won't life in Britain be very dull if we lose them?

In fact there will still be room for plenty of ceremony and pageantry. But if will not be allowed to undermine our democracy. If we must choose between ceremony and democracy the choice must be democracy.

Would we not lose much tourism income if we did not have a colourful monarch to attract visitors?

No! Few tourists ever see the Queen or any member of her family. When they have gone the tourists will still be able to watch the Changing of the Guard and other ceremonies. And they will also be able to tour Buckingham Palace and view the royal treasures. That will mean more foreign income for Britain. At present France, Italy and the USA all attract more visitors than does the UK. All three are republics.

Aren't republicans left wing agitators? What's the connection with Irish republicans?

Republicanism has nothing to do with left or right wing politics. Outside of Britain everyone from far-right conservatives to far-left socialists are republicans. Republicanism allows for differing opinions about economic policy and the role of the state in society. In Ireland republicanism has been entwined with the movement for national independence and such movements often resort to violence. However, most Irish republicans have for long been committed to non-violent methods.

Look at the massive social problems in the United States. Why would we want to follow that path?

Both Britain and the USA have social problems. Britain is only one above the US in poverty levels and has a higher degree of illiteracy than America. On the other hand, the average American is significantly more prosperous than the average Briton. Whatever problems the United States has are the result of a complex mix of its history and the cultures of those who have settled there and their descendants. It is hard to understand how not having a monarch or a peerage could be responsible.

Should not the impeachment of President Clinton cause us to think twice before changing to the American system?

We should certainly think carefully before making any constitutional change to make sure that we have learnt from the experience of other nations and that we have chosen the best system. However, nothing that happened in America suggests that replacing the Queen with a President would lead Britain into the same kind of turmoil.

The United States has a President who is a partisan politician with executive powers. That is bound to make him the subject of political controversy. Britain is likely to follow the example of Ireland. There the President is more of a figurehead, somewhat like our Queen but with the great advantage of democratic legitimacy.

Even in the United States it has taken more than an executive presidency to bring about the current state of affairs. It is the Independent Counsel law that has allowed Kenneth Starr to carry out his partisan investigation. That Act is of recent origin and not intrinsic to the American system of government. Many Republicans and Democrats have questioned its merits. Some legal experts have said that the Act is unconstitutional.

Remember that in 200 years the American Congress has not removed one President, though it came very close with Andrew Johnson.

Despite the problems that can arise the American constitution has one great virtue. It makes the will of the people the basis of government. In Britain the people have no say in who should become head of state. And there is no way of removing the head of state whatever they may do or say. The man next in line for our chief public office is an adulterer like Bill Clinton. But if you think that such a person ought not take his place at the head of our nation there isn't a thing that you can do about it.

As for unseemly spectacle, Britain has a notorious tabloid press that exposed the private life of the younger Windsors with as little restraint as Kenneth Starr has shown with Bill Clinton. The only limit on royal exposures has been imposed by our gagging libel law that has kept Kitty Kelley's fascinating history off the shelves of British book stores.

How many countries still have a monarchy?

There are 45 countries besides Britain that sill have a monarchy. Sixteen of them, all members of the Commonwealth, have Britain’s queen Windsor as head of state. They are Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St. Christopher & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.

What does the British monarchy cost taxpayers?

Please read our Short Guide to the British Monarchy.

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