Congratulations to Queen Elizabeth II, who today, September 9, 2015, became the longest-reigning British monarch in history, surpassing her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria.
This milestone is as good a time as any to celebrate not just Elizabeth herself, but the system she represents. A small but vocal minority of Britons — about 17 percent as of 2013 — advocate abolishing the monarchy and adopting a republic. It's an understandable impulse. In the modern era, royal families can feel like anachronisms at best and colossal, offensive wastes of money at worst.
But the skeptics are wrong. Constitutional monarchy is the best system of government known to man, and it would be a terrible shame if Britain abandoned it.
Monarchies are more democratically legitimate
Generally speaking, in a parliamentary system, you need a head of state who is not the prime minister to serve as a disinterested arbiter when there are disputes about how to form a government — say, if the largest party should be allowed to form a minority government or if smaller parties should be allowed to form a coalition, to name a recent example from Canada. That head of state is usually a figurehead president elected by the parliament (Germany, Italy) or the people (Ireland, Finland), or a monarch. And monarchs are better.
Monarchs are more effective than presidents precisely because they lack any semblance of legitimacy. It would be offensive for Queen Elizabeth or her representatives in Canada, New Zealand, etc. to meddle in domestic politics. Indeed, when the governor general of Australia did so in 1975 it set off a constitutional crisis that made it clear such behavior would not be tolerated. As Margit Tavits at Washington University in St. Louis once told me, "Monarchs can truly be above politics. They usually have no party connections and have not been involved in daily politics before assuming the post of the head of state." But figurehead presidents have some degree of democratic legitimacy, and are typically former politicians. That enables a greater rate of shenanigans — like when Italian President Giorgio Napolitano schemed, successfully, to remove Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister due at least in part to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's entreaties to do so.
Napolitano is the rule, rather than the exception. Oxford political scientists Petra Schleiter and Edward Morgan-Jones have found that presidents, whether elected indirectly by parliament or directly by the people, are likelier to allow governments to change without new elections than monarchs are. In other words, they're likelier to change the government without any democratic input at all:
Worse, Tavits, in her book Presidents With Prime Ministers, finds that directly elected presidents make the public less politically engaged, depressing turnout in parliamentary elections by about 7 percent. Even indirect elections can be extremely polarizing, she finds, and tend to produce presidents who rule in ways that subtly benefit their parties.
If you're going to have a parliamentary system of government — and you should — a monarch is a much better way to go than a president.
The cost of monarchy is low
Opponents of the British royal family often point to its expense as a reason to abolish it. The anti-monarchy group Republic estimates that the royal family costs £299.4 million ($460 million) a year. By contrast, Germany's president only costs £26 million ($40 million) a year.
But by Republic's own admission, monarchies don't have to be that expensive. Spain's monarchy, according to Republic, costs only £8 million ($12.3 million) a year, considerably less than the presidents of Portugal, Finland, and Germany. In fact, the monarchies in Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden all cost less than the German presidency as well. Monarchy can be done on the cheap.
That said, it's not clear if cheaper would be better in the UK context. Unlike, say, the Spanish monarchy, the UK monarchy has an exceptionally powerful, and profitable, brand. Some recent estimates put the annual value of the royal "brand" at about £1.9 billion ($2.9 billion). That easily outweighs the costs. Even more conservative estimates, like one putting the tourism value of the monarchy at £500 million ($768 million) a year, suggest the monarchy pays for itself.
That's a quite small economic boost, to be sure. But it puts a lie to price-based criticisms of the monarchy.
God bless the British monarchy, long may it reign
The British monarchy is not an anachronism. It is not a waste of money. It is a vital part of the United Kingdom that makes British democracy more responsive to the concerns of citizens at little or negative cost to British taxpayers.
Americans have an unfortunate tendency to get huffy about Britain's superior political system. We don't want our silly revolution to have been in vain, after all. But on this occasion, at least, let's put our grievances aside and celebrate Queen Elizabeth II for sustaining one of the world's more important democratic institutions for more than 63 remarkable years.