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The topic of monarchy languishes in a backwater of political theory. Even when it does appear, criticism of monarchy tends to focus on which cast member deserves press scrutiny this week. With the hamster wheel of scandal (such as Andrew Mountbatten-Windsor’s association with Jeffrey Epstein), re-introducing monarchy to political theory may seem intellectually trivial. It is best left to tabloid journalists—not theorists.
However, after the latest monarch's coronation, we should take the opportunity to re-assess. Prompted by discussion of racism and the British monarchy, I develop an argument that monarchy is discriminatory as it relates to class. With a thorough conceptual grounding, anti-classism offers a new way to show why monarchy—at its core—is wrong.
Arguing against ‘monarchy’
When monarchy features in political and legal theory, its role is supplementary or peripheral. In the UK, attention falls on the Mountbatten-Windsors’ function in the media, monarchical prerogative (in assent to legislation and prorogation) and the rise of administrative law. Tom Nairn's book, The Enchanted Glass (1988) represents the only in-depth analysis of the British monarchy's role in national identity. Its closest successor is Robert Hazell and Bob Morris’s collection of essays, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy (2020). But these texts only take us so far. Although Nairn is comprehensive, he does not articulate one sustained objection to monarchy. Meanwhile Hazell and Morris’s collection is more empirical and only touches on the legitimacy of monarchy in a limited way. Both texts pay little, if any, attention to the topic of discrimination.
Discrimination theory meets monarchy
The most familiar arguments against monarchy concentrate on its anti-democratic nature and the imposition of one country’s figurehead on another. They are unsatisfactory in arguing against monarchy as an idea. For example, monarchists can respond to democracy-based objections by stressing the ceremonial nature of many modern monarchies.
In recent years, new arguments have appeared. The saga of Meghan Markle has seen increased criticism of the British monarchy as ‘racist’. By 2021, even the tireless Piers Morgan conceded, ‘We can’t have a racist king!’ Yet, as Kenan Malik notes, even anti-racism arguments tend to leave open the permissibility of a reformed, racially diverse monarchy.
Indeed, anti-racism arguments reveal a pernicious edge to monarchy: its capacity to adapt when threatened. Consider Charles Mountbatten-Windsor’s encouragement of research into the British monarchy’s historical ties with enslavement. That encouragement frames anti-racism as both a charitable cause and a historiographical exercise. He retains the front of his legitimising philanthropy while he amplifies his distance from terrible monarchs of the past. The mission is to re-brand monarchy as compatible with what Jean Seaton calls ‘inclusive and diverse modernity’.
The argument that the monarchy is racist retains an important power, though. By drawing on the language and concepts of equality and anti-discrimination, it gives a sharper edge to traditional arguments that monarchy is snobbish and archaic. It raises the objection that monarchy—specifically the British monarchy—enforces and symbolises the dangerous wrong of discrimination, a criticism swept aside in much political analysis. The discussion of the British monarchy’s role in colonialism allows this argument to demonstrate what Nairn advocated in 1988: monarchy is neither ‘decorative icing’ nor just an ‘ornamental headpiece’, but an essential element of racist imperialism.
The anti-classism argument
In this context, it may seem odd to resort to what Nairn calls the ‘old friend’ of ‘class’. Is it not obvious that monarchy is snobbish and hierarchical? Plainly, the answer is yes, but the question itself indicates what analysis of monarchy has missed. Consider the ideas of class and classism in outline. On one common understanding, class is a distinctive form of status based on social, cultural and economic capital. For the purposes of my argument, the precise formulation of ‘class’ is inessential. In whichever formulation, class and the concept of ‘classism’ are absent from most analysis of monarchy and discrimination.
Two reasons explain this. First, people often view class as more difficult to define than other bases of discrimination. Yet there is a recognisable hierarchy based on ideas of class, for example in the way that regional accents are associated with negative stereotypes. Second, there has been little recognition of classism as a form of discrimination, distinct from simply a problem of ‘maldistribution’ or ‘socioeconomic disadvantage’.
More so than Nairn’s analysis, my proposal understands class as part of the system of discrimination. In seeking to advance the most intellectually compelling argument against monarchy (rather than, for instance, the most mobilising or pragmatic), I suggest that an evolving understanding of classism poses a fatal threat to the justification of monarchy in political theory. That is because, if we are committed to anti-discriminatory values for our political institutions, monarchy will never be compliant.
Critics have long characterised monarchy as snobbish and unequal. However, those words fail to articulate the criticism in the way that ‘classist’ does. To criticise something as classist is to categorise it not as simply bad or cruel, but as discriminatory. This criticism is distinctive because it identifies discrimination with ‘abiding, pervasive and substantial disadvantage’, which marks it out from other concepts.
Monarchy deploys itself as the bastion of the proper class hierarchy. From the vision of divine right to the growth of vast financial and social advantage, the British monarchy represents the apex of the traditional hierarchy. Ultimately, monarchy elevates one (already upper-class) family above the rest, with that family enjoying supreme status among unequally distributed social, cultural and economic capital.
Notice how criticism of monarchy as ‘classist’ functions in a way that anti-racist objections do not. While a family like the Mountbatten-Windsors could, in principle, become more racially mixed (for instance by marrying black and brown people) or do in-depth work against racism, that family can never disclaim its ultimate class status without also disclaiming its identity in a monarchy. Either there would be a monarchy, with its familial structure and class denotation, or there would be another kind of entity. Unlike other objections, anti-classism attacks the essence of monarchy as a political entity. Monarchy can never plausibly claim to be anti-classist; it would have to abolish itself to be so.
From the conceptual point of view, we need the anti-classism argument to explain why no amount of re-imagination or adaptation will save what distinguishes monarchy as a political entity. Granted, any anti-discrimination argument risks prompting cries of ‘wokeness’ and complicating more palatable lines of attack, such as the familiar democracy-based arguments. However, concession is often closer to the surface than we might expect. Revisit Piers Morgan’s plea: ‘We can’t have a racist king!’ If we can’t have a racist king, we can’t have a classist one, either.
More generally, if we are committed to ending discrimination in all its forms, we have a duty to pull the topic of monarchy from its backwater and to challenge the identity of the head of state. Put another way, especially in a country as marred by classism as the UK, it matters if the fish rots from the head.