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Monarchy: The role and function of the British Monarchy in contemporary Britain

In recent years, there has been much scrutiny placed on the British monarchy, a lot of which has been of a critical nature. However, its continued existence suggests that the monarchy still has a role to play in British society. Functionalist sociologists such as Durkheim emphasise the elements of society that bind people together and contribute to social cohesion. If we relate this theory to the monarchy, functionalist advocates would point to the unifying role in British society that the monarchy theoretically plays. The monarchy operates outside of, and above, party politics. So even if we look at traditional party politics perhaps as being Labour versus Conservatives, working class versus middle/ upper classes, the monarchy, in being outside of this framework, is theoretically a politically neutral and unifying institution for all British people.

In an analysis of the monarchy's role today, it is important to draw comparisons with the past, and the role that it used to play. In particular the Monarch (the King or Queen) has considerable theoretical prerogative powers. Whereas in the past these were put to greater practical use, in reality most of these prerogative powers have now passed to the Prime Minister. In contrast to the days before parliament, when the Monarch effectively governed Britain in addition to being the symbolic Head of State, the government is now headed by the Prime Minister. The Monarch has not officially lost these powers, but their transfer has happened by Convention. Hence the role of the Monarch has become more symbolic than practical. These changes have come about as a result of an evolution from being an absolute monarchy- where the ruler monopolises power within a particular state- to a constitutional monarchy, in which the King or Queen is a figurehead and government is practised by elected politicians. Indeed, many commentators highlight how the British monarchy's willingness to compromise in this respect has enabled it to survive so long. A key comparison here is in contrasting the diminished role of the British monarchy with the fall of the absoluteFrench monarchy. The refusal of the French King Louis XVI to relinquish his considerable powers was a significant contributor to his overthrow amid the French Revolution. The gradual transfer of prerogative powers from the Monarch to the Prime Minister means that the BritishMonarch's role is now "dignified" rather than "efficient" (Bagehot, 1867).

It is important to present the arguments and philosophies against the British monarchy, which favour abolition, and counter- arguments in favour of hereditary rule, in a functionalist analysis. The emphasis of such arguments varies according to who is advocating what. Conflict theorists- such as those who occupy a Marxist perspective- tend to stress the aspects in society which they perceive to promote inequality and division between people. The innate elitism and inequality that a hereditary monarchy in Britain enshrines attracts much criticism from conflict theorists, who are often to be found among observers calling for the monarchy's abolition. However, functionalist theorists would point out what they perceive to be the unifying qualities that the monarchy has, and that in fact it contributes to social cohesion. A functionalist would argue that if the monarchy was too unpopular it would not be able to survive in Britain and that its re- definition and survival is a sign that the majority of British people are satisfied- if not overwhelmingly jubilant- with the monarchy as it is.

Many of the arguments against the British monarchy focus on its loss of power as well as its undemocratic nature. However, although counter arguments concede that the monarchy has given up many of its powers, they emphasise that it still retains a useful advisory role, which Walter Bagehot was alluding to when he described the "right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn"  (Bagehot, 1867). It is clear that the monarchy is not democratic, but royalist advocates emphasise that much of the British constitution, and indeed the constitutions of any democratic state, contains many undemocratic elements; for example the judiciary is not elected, nor is the House of Lords. Critics also claim that the cost of the monarchy- which receives around £60 million of taxpayers' money each year- is unacceptable, but advocates point out that this is a small amount in the context of total British public expenditure (about £300 billion per year). The values that the monarchy enshrines- privilege, wealth, hierarchy, class and inequality- are much maligned by critics, among them conflict theorists. However, those in favour of the monarchy, including functionalists, would argue that not only does the monarchy represent tradition and heritage, but that there is not necessarily anything wrong with inequality, wealth and privilege and that above all it is a focus for national unity to a greater degree than any divisions that it fosters or represents in society.

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