With the passing of the queen, there has been much discussion about whether the monarchy and all the various paper currencies with a portrait of the queen should be replaced. I have a one-word answer: Never!
At one time or another, the queen had her likeness placed on the currency of 33-or-so issuing jurisdictions. Even today, the queen appears on banknotes issued, not just by the Bank of England, but also by many other countries and political jurisdictions, like Canada and the Cayman Islands.
A couple of decades ago, I was honored to be the first American appointed to the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority (CIMA). It regulated the banks, insurance companies, investment funds, and trust companies and also oversaw the issuance of the currency. Since Cayman was a major global financial jurisdiction, the actions of CIMA could have a worldwide impact. The Cayman Islands bank notes have a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on all the denominations. New technologies had been developed to make it much more difficult to counterfeit paper currency, and CIMA decided to update the currency with the new safeguards.
A question arose as to how old to make the queen appear on all of the new banknotes. Her portrait had not been changed in decades and so she appeared to be in her thirties, even though she was about 80 years old at the time – but the view was that she should appear to be less than 80 but older than 40. The question was of considerable concern to some of my fellow Cayman and British board members. As an irreverent American, I suggested that in the future they only put dead people on the currency, as we do in the U.S.
There are billions of bank notes from many countries floating around the world. An attempt to recall and replace all of these bank notes with a new note with a portrait of King Charles III is unfeasible.
Some countries, like Canada, are now issuing polymer bank notes rather than paper so that they will last much longer. (Note: the U.S. paper currency is made out of cotton, not paper.) Replacing the queen on the currency would be expensive and serve no good purpose. It also avoids arguments of how old Charles should look on the currency – particularly since old white men are out of favor – even though Charles is probably a fine chap.
The queen is as famous, beloved, and non-controversial as anyone can be, but there is always the danger with a live person on the currency that they may end up in a scandal (imagine if Prince Andrew had been the eldest son), or say something that offends millions. Over time, the British could add other famous Englishmen, with sterling reputations, like Sir Isaac Newton, to a collection of portraits for their currency.
After the queen’s passing, a sizeable number of people think it is a good time to get rid of the monarchy. The monarchies in Liechtenstein and Monaco have worked well, but they are the exceptions. A number of countries – Sweden, Spain, Japan, etc. – with democratic parliamentary systems of government, still have a king, queen, or emperor as a figurehead with no power.
The British are unique – with a very odd form of government. Their common law, their form of government, evolved over the last 1000 years through trial and error. The country is officially a kingdom (with queens serving as head of state for most of the last two centuries), but functions as a parliamentary republic. On paper, the king or queen has considerable power but in reality almost none. The country has an unwritten constitution – that works to ensure a balance of power – largely based on tradition. There is a considerable degree of judicial independence, and its decisions are enforced by a general agreement that it is the way things should be done. A military coup is just out of the question.
Despite leaving the E.U., Britain continues to have an outside influence in the world. The international financial system is largely an outgrowth of British common commercial law. The British bequeathed the modern concept of the rule of law and the importance of property rights most everywhere they had governed at one time or another. The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment in many ways made the modern world – in political theory, economics, science and industry. The ancestors of more than one-third of the world’s population were at one time ruled by the British, for good or evil. The English language is the global language directly spoken as a first or second language by a billion and a half people (many more than Mandarin Chinese or Hindu – which are not international languages).
The British monarchy does not belong to the British alone – it is the touchstone for the modern world. The endless dramas played out by the British royals are like a global soap opera to which much of the planet is addicted. The British are unrivaled in pomp and circumstance, to which billions are emotionally attached and watch as grand entertainment. No other country can get the attention that the British can because they set the global standard of how to govern and behave.
The British monarchy is not only the world’s most profitable tourist attraction but, in a perverse way, is key to the unique British identity. The fact that Britain has not been successfully invaded for a thousand years and has had an almost continuous monarchy, with a slowly evolving economic and political system that has steadily enhanced liberty and prosperity, gives everyone on the planet hope that the future can be better. The British monarchy – despite all of its flaws – is now a global public good, which needs to be preserved for all of mankind.
• Richard W. Rahn is chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.