The myth of the “powerless” figurehead

This post was written by Owen on February 14, 2013
Posted Under: Class,Health Care

As a lefty, it can be surprisingly easy to become quite blasé about the Royal family. Sure, a hereditary unelected Head of State flies in the face of any halfway-sensible notion of equality, and Prince Philip might come out with the odd bit of bigoted rubbish from time to time (OK, pretty much all the time), but where’s the actual harm? When the economy’s flatlining and the Welfare State’s being shredded, is it really something that it’s worth spending time worrying over?

The problem is, though, that it isn’t just about constitutional niceties, as this story fairly powerfully demonstrates:

Draft guidance for the website NHS Choices warning that there is no evidence that homeopathy works was suppressed by officials following lobbying by a charity set up by the Prince of Wales.

[…]

A draft page that spelled out the scientific implausibility of homeopathic remedies was neutered by Department of Health officials. It is now uncritical, with just links to reports on the lack of evidence.

[…]

[NHS Choices editor David] Mattin says officials were more worried about potential political fallout from homeopathy supporters than about publishing evidence-based information. He says his draft was delayed and then suppressed.

There’s no suggestion that Prince Charles himself was personally banging the drum for homeopathy. (At least not this time.) But the lobbying was done by a charity – the Foundation for Integrated Health – which he personally set up to promote homeopathy (and other forms of alternative medicine), and what it was doing was pushing the NHS to take down from its website an article stating a fact which Charles is well-known to vociferously disbelieve: that water with minute traces of other stuff in it has been shown in countless scientific studies not to be any more medically effective than a placebo. How likely is it that the site’s editors would have paid as much attention to the Foundation’s protests if it wasn’t associated with the Prince of Wales?

(Besides  this, of course, there’s the fairly obvious conflict of interest inherent in the fact that the first in line to the throne produces and sells his own range of homeopathic remedies through the Duchy Originals brand; it seems fairly likely that a widely-read health website pointing out their clinical inefficacy could have the potential to damage his profits.)

The problem here, quite simply, is that you can insist that the Royal Family have no formal power as much as you like, but the real world doesn’t work like that. If someone’s in the public eye and has regular contact with senior political figures and civil servants, then their views – however ill-informed they may be – will inevitably carry a lot more weight than most people’s. In much the same way, you could argue (as many classical liberals do) that inequalities of wealth aren’t unjust as long as everyone has a vote and equal status before the law, but this would be to overlook the reality that if one person is substantially richer than another they’re more likely to be able to buy access to politicians and hire expensive lawyers to get them out of legal trouble.

Being a figurehead – or in the case of Charles, being the heir to figureheaddom – gives you power. It may be true – as monarchists are always quick to claim – that the Queen herself has always been the soul of discretion and never abused that power. But the fact that she so chose is no guarantee that her successors will. In fact, there’s every reason to think that even after he ascends the throne Prince Charles fully intends to keep on poking his nose into issues where he has neither the intellect nor the democratic mandate to make a worthwhile contribution. And this, I think, is the most powerful argument against monarchy. All figureheads, and those around them, have power. This being the case, it seems indisputably prefereable, we as a society should collectively decide who’s given that power rather than leaving it up to genetic chance.

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