Symbols matter: the case for a republic

I hadn’t really planned to write about anything relating to the Royal Wedding: as a republican who recognises he’s probably doomed to be disappointed it leaves me cold, but I’ve been spending more time campaigning for fairer votes and hoping for a democratic second chamber than thinking about abolishing the monarchy. I have Camden Borough Council’s decision to effectively ban the only republican street party in Britain to thank for spurring me to post at all.

Clearly, the monarchy isn’t the number one issue on my priority list. In terms of democratic reform, the top two have to be changing the voting system for the Commons and creating an elected second chamber. I fully understand, furthermore, that republicans are in a very clear minority – not an insignificant one (15-30% of the population isn’t a small group), but not likely to be a majority any time soon.

The formal powers of the monarchy are more important in the here and now: only one citizen gets a guaranteed, weekly audience with every British Prime Minister. They have all, to date, tended to praise the Queen’s experience and insight. This should actively worry any democrat. Civil servants are appointed competitively, MPs are elected, special advisers are appointed (indirectly, at least) by politicians – but there’s no line of accountability between us and the Crown. Add the prime ministerial power accrued through the Royal Prerogative, the absurd position of ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’ and the arcane succession laws, and you have an awful lot of anachronistic nonsense even as monarchies go.

So is that it? Tidy up the succession laws, remove a power or two and then leave the Windsors alone? Well, it would be a start: but modernising the monarchy is a bit like modernising the Boy Scouts. Either you accept anachronism or you really have to question the thing itself. Monarchy represents hierarchy, continuity and the past: it is anachronistic – in the sense of not being in line with our own time – by its very design.

I suppose that’s fine for a lot of things – like graduation ceremonies (or the Boy Scouts, for that matter). But the Head of State is supposed to represent the nation. She (or he) is meant to embody Britain – to stand for its values and reflect something about its character to the world. At this moment, and despite the dedication of Elizabeth II herself, we have an unelected hereditary multimillionaire as that representative. Our supreme public office is the embodiment of hierarchy; of inequality; of closed and unaccountable power, subject to no one. It states, as a defining value of the British state, that we owe allegiance to someone who gained her position through no intrinsic merit of her own.

Yes, traditionalists will argue that our monarchy represents a constitutional tradition of limited government: but that is to confuse the fetters on monarchy with the monarchy itself. Closing the door in Black Rod’s face at the State Opening of Parliament represents the House of Commons asserting itself against the monarch: Black Rod himself represents the old attempt at royal fiat. Neither his office nor a recounting of the misfortunes of Charles I can substitute for a democratic public culture.

I want our Head of State to represent the values I want to see enshrined in Britain – not the values I want to see abolished. Our Head of State should simply be our first citizen, accountable to all of us and representing all of us in the only way a democracy should recognise: through the ballot box. We don’t need an executive, US-style President: the Republic of Ireland is our nearest neighbour and an admirable example of how to run a ceremonial presidency. Mary McAleese, and Mary Robinson before her, were fine examples of elected presidents who could interpret Ireland to herself and unify their nation. But they represent a principle at the heart of their country’s constitution, one which should be at the heart of our own: the sovereignty of the people.

And if that means we end up with someone called ‘the President of the United Kingdom’, that’s one anachronism I can live with.

2 thoughts on “Symbols matter: the case for a republic

  1. Dear Ambivalent Leftie,

    I’ve very much enjoyed your posts, which are thoughtful, factual, practical and compassionate. But I can’t agree with you on the monarchy, as on this issue I feel your arguments lack the above virtues.

    If the Queen had any real power beyond that exercised by other popular celebrities, the argument that she is unelected would work. But her weekly audience with the PM is not about instructing him, merely a chance for the PM to ask the advice of someone who has long experience as an observer of government. You could argue this may not be the best use of the PM’s time (especially when Charles succeeds) and no one would worry too much if these meetings were brought to an end. The royal prerogative, as you well know, is one of the most anachronistically named items in the British constitutional kit bag (and that’s saying something), which would not be allowed to die under any deal to abolish the Monarchy. So these issues aren’t really relevant. The Queen’s weekly meetings and other, minor interactions with the executive do not justify requiring her to be elected.

    However, I do agree that the Monarchy should represent the British people, and it was clear from your article that you accept representation can be possible without election, although you seem to take the narrow view that if a representative does not look, sound, spend and behave the way her representees do (although she does watch Eastenders), she must be illegitimate. While few of us are millionaires, you have to admit that last Friday’s display of pageantry was an incredibly effective way for our Head of State to ‘represent [the British] to themselves’, to borrow your elegant phrase. Not only did the style of celebrations resound so powerfully with British people, but the sighs of a billion foreigners around the world seemed to express an envy that their own, neatly constitutionalised governments are incapable of producing the same spectacle. The reason for this is not that we have the best marching bands (though don’t we just) but that our constitution allows us to fix our notion of Britishness into a single family, entirely and indefinitely devoted to us, whose triumphs and tragedies we can feel as our own. In adoring them, we celebrate ourselves.

    As a historian, have you considered the reasons why in Britain we have a monarchy why elsewhere in the world countries don’t? It’s because in Britain the constitution has always been a bit of a hodge-podge, flexible enough to allow radical demands to be settled by a tweak, instead of the full-blown revolutions that unseated the monarchies of France and Russia. Even the crises of the mid to late seventeenth century left us with the blessing of a constitution that is a theorist’s nightmare, but an incredible practical success. Shouldn’t a constitution be judged by its successes? The first industrial revolution was enabled under the occasionally interventionist monarchy after 1688, and the most recent survey gives the 18th century state a great deal of credit [Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy, Yale 2011]. More recently, the survival of our monarchy is a reminder that we won both World Wars, where Germany was forced to dump the Kaiser in 1918. When we look at the Monarchy, we are reminded of our own endurance.

    The Monarchy is representative even in the more ‘political’ sense of the word. Be in no doubt that if the Royal Family ever lost touch with the British people, and stopped reflecting our best ideas of ourselves, that would be that. This is of course what almost happened in 1997, although you might know more than me about the fine details of what went on in that week following Diana’s death. The Queen made the necessary changes then, as she has done, mostly silently and against her own interests, since the 1950s. Similarly, in an age where (whisper it) we just want our governments to guarantee our prosperity, the boost to Britain’s economy via the tourist and related industries as a result of the Monarchy continues to be enormous. And of course an extra public holiday doesn’t go amiss either. All this is reflected in the Monarchy’s incredible poll ratings, which effectively makes the Queen more legitimate than the Coalition government.

    A constitutional monarchy is far from the anachronistic choker on our constitution that republicans describe, but rather its diamond tiara. It fits perfectly into the need of all peoples to live in harmony with their past and their future. In Britain, aren’t we lucky to have one?

    Nan

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