The Free Market Monarchy

Have you ever heard the story of Emperor Norton? It’s one of those bizarre little curiosities of American history, the San Franciscan who declared himself Emperor of the United States (and sometime Protector of Mexico) in 1859 and remarkably found that many of the inhabitants of his home city accepted him as such. He never achieved any real political power in his lifetime, but made himself a nice living as the Emperor, eating for free in the city’s best restaurants (to whom he granted an Imperial seal of approval), getting balcony seats at the theatre and opera, and being saluted by the city’s police officers when he was on his daily walk around the city, inspecting its infrastructure.

I was reading about him recently, and that got me thinking about the British monarchy and how it could benefit from exposure to the free market.

For me, Emperor Norton was the first free market monarch – realising that the people felt the need for an Imperial ruler, he chose to fill that gap in the market and managed it with a remarkable degree of success – and it occurs to me that the idea of free market monarchy isn’t something we should leave in the nineteenth century.

I’m a republican in that I’d like to see the UK – like many other states – have a head of state who’s the elected representative of the people rather than the latest scion of an aristocratic family getting the job by an accident of birth. (My personal preference is for a non-executive ceremonial President in the same vein as Germany or Ireland, but the mechanics of any future republic are a debate for another time) However, I don’t have any objections to the Royal Family as people and neither do I have any objection to them using the titles associated with royalty. I just don’t feel that it’s any business of the state’s as to what people choose to call themselves.

My proposal is simple – in a future United Republic (or United Former Kingdom, perhaps?) the monarchy would be disestablished rather than abolished. The Royal Family would be free to continue living the life of royalty, but there would be no compulsion on anyone else to recognise their titles or nobility. So, people like me could happily ignore their activities (in as much as the activities of any ubercelebrities can be ignored) while those people who wished to could still be ardent royalists and go to see them doing whatever it is they do. As Emperor Norton showed, if someone with just a hat with a rosette on can make a living as an Emperor, life shouldn’t be too hard for the Windsors.

But where does the free market come into this? Well, with the monarchy disestablished and the state washing its hands of any role in the determination of supposedly noble status, the market would be open for anyone to declare themselves a monarch, a duke, an earl or whatever else they wanted to be. Whether they fail or succeed as monarchs and nobles would be up to the market to decide – if people want to follow King Bob from down the road, give him gifts and pay him royal levies that’s entirely for them to decide. Instead of buying football teams, bored billionaires could declare themselves monarchs and stage great pageants to garner support for themselves. ITV could run Royal Idol in an attempt to find the ‘People’s Royal Family’ – the possibilities are endless, really. Think of the explosion of websites and magazines tracking and rating the activities of the various royal families, think of the benefits to tourism as they flock to see the new monarchs in action (‘Come to Britain and get three Queens for the price of one!’) – yet again, we’ll see the economic benefits of opening up a state monopoly to the competition of the market.

  1. Robert said:

    I interviewed the Zimbabwean mbira player, Stella Chiweshe, over the summer. The mbira is a traditional ‘finger piano’ and she was the first popular female purveyor. Many in Zimbabwe call her the ‘Queen of Mbira’ and she does have a very regal air.

    I suppose being Queen of England implies being a custodian of sorts, so being the custodian of a particular tradition or talent might also warrant regal nomenclature.

  2. I had heard of Emperor Norton: he was the inspiration for The King in Huckleberry Finn – one of two itinerant con-men along with a chap called The Duke.

    I actually quite like your idea. I’m certainly no abolitionist – I believe that the monarchy serves a purpose and I think we too often break from our traditions. But I see no reason why they should be supported at the public’s expense.

    Back in the good old days when the monarch really mattered, one of the main qualities by which a king was measured was his ability to live off his own resources; taxation was considered to be a disgraceful liberty (in the other sense) that could usually only be justified for war.

    I can’t see why an elected but entirely powerless head of state is any better than a hereditary but entirely powerless head of state, but if we must become a republic I think your solution is far better regicide. That sort of thing is fit only for savages (Puritans, Bolsheviks, The French)!

  3. G. Tingey said:

    I believe that Charlie-boy wants to go back to this.
    There are certainly well-sourced rumours thatif he had his way, the Civil List would be abolished, and the Crown would live “of its own”.

    I.E. they would set up a corporation/private company [Let’s call it: “The Firm, Ltd.”] and pay taxes, as normal, but ALL the crown’s present possessions would constitute The Firm’s assests.
    So that rather than the monarchy handing over all its’ money to the state, and getting an ex-gratia payment (the Civil LIst) as at present, they would operate as a normal private-enterprise corporation.

    All calculations that I’ve seen – admittedly VERY back-of-envelope – suggest they would do much better, financially, than they do at present.

    Interesting ……

  4. John B said:

    The calculations you’ve seen are misleading, since they assume the Crown Estates are the Royals’ property, and that the money they generate is voluntarily handed over in exchange for the civil list.

    Although this was the case for nearly 200 years, it stopped with the 1952 Civil Lists Act. Since then, the money generated by the Crown Estates is legally the property of the Exchequer.

    So Parliament could, if it so chose, abolish the Civil List *without* having to seize the Royals’ property (since the Crown Estates are no longer the Royals’ property). The monarch’s only sanction would be to refuse assent to the bill. Since this would lead to a constitutional crisis and ultimately a republic, the monarch would be most unlikely to refuse assent.

    In case you were wondering about Brenda and Charlie’s welfare, don’t worry – their privately owned estates already generate large incomes (which they certainly don’t hand over to the Treasury).

  5. Katherine said:

    Excellent plan! Like it.

    This sounds rather like Sue Townsend’s portrayal of the future, in which the royals have been done away with via referendum and the palaces privatised. Charles et al are living on a council estate. The free market in action.

  6. G. Tingey said:

    And we have an executive president – like Geo. W. Shrub, or Chirac.

    No, thank you.

  7. Tingley – why would we have to have an executive president?

    If the Queen has no real political power, then she can be done away with withour replacement.

    But if the Queen has real political power, the democratic argument must be for her removal from power.

    and if the latter is the case, why cite Bush and Chirac for your examples of presidents. You could cite Ivan the Terrible, King Leopold of Belgium or King John as examples of kings that one would rather not be ruled by. It wouldn’t, in itself, be much of an argument.

    Anyway, I have already dealt with the monarchy here at The Sharpener

  8. Dear Royal sharpener,

    The Queen can have a free seat on my lap and can sit there as long as she wants.

    I also believe the Queen should be head of my campaign for free national viagra. Now this a way to get real exposure:

    Free viagra for over 60’s

    Your Queen lover,
    Prof Scrub

  9. Become a Discordian and you’ll be able to call yourself Pope!

    From this moment on, I am to be addressed as Pope Fenderson Papps II.

    Thank you for your consideration.