Crowning complexities

I used to be a convinced republican. I’ve concluded it’s more trouble than it’s worth

The Crown of Scotland on display as the Queen opens Holyrood. Scottish Parliament, CC BY 2.0.

I’ve had republican instincts for a long time. A hereditary monarchy is inherently questionable if you’re on the left. The symbolism of choosing a head of state by inheritance challenges egalitarian values. As a constitutional reformer, the Crown seemed to be the apex of a system in need of reform from root to branch.

As I got older, I became an ever-lazier republican. And without quite noticing when it happened, I’ve accepted I’ve become a pragmatic monarchist. I’ll never be an enthusiastic royalist. But I’ve come to accept that the constitutional, diplomatic and national consequences of abolishing the Crown are too tricky.

The Crown is a constitutional conduit: replacing it is a big deal

Most people think of the Queen as a ceremonial figurehead — a symbol without any power. Some republicans (and other reformers) see her as holding enormous and unaccountable power. The better view, I think, is something else again. The Crown is a conduit of authority: a human valve through which much of the business of the state flows.

When and on what grounds the flow can be blocked — rarely, but not never — exercises lawyers and scholars. British monarchs have never actually refused formal advice in modern history. Sometimes the Brexit process raised the question of where the line might be. Governors-General in other countries have exercised reserve powers. The most (in)famous is Australia’s Dismissal of 1975.

The system would change if its office-holders’ views of their legitimacy changed. The Queen knows her limits. Inserting someone with a democratic mandate into the same system could turn it into something quite different. But if the Prime Minister hired and fired our head of state, that would neuter our ultimate constitutional longstop.

Having a monarch as our constitutional longstop rather than proper safeguards is not ideal. But I have given up on hoping British politicians will ever tackle our constitution in the round. And if they won’t, I don’t want to create a semi-presidential system by mistake. Nor do I wish to remove the only hard check, in extremis, upon a Prime Minister with a majority.

Other Commonwealth Realms would face a constitutional quagmire

She lives in the UK, but the Queen is head of state in 15 other countries. In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, one Crown became several over time. The newer Realms started with separate monarchies. The last one to become a republic was Mauritius, in 1992; since then, three have voted against doing the same.

It’s not surprising that the Crown is a more contentious institution outside of the UK. Elizabeth II and Emmanuel Macron are the only heads of state of more than one independent country. Heads of state are national symbols: most countries have their own for a reason. Still, whether due to inertia, divisions over the alternatives or affection for the Queen, we’re likely to share our head of state for years to come.

If we became a republic, Australia and New Zealand would stay monarchies unless they chose otherwise. Most Realms would face a paradox: a head of state with a succession set by UK law which no longer provided for it. (Canada occupies an intermediate and contentious position.) Resolving the issues would usually be tricky. In Canada, all provinces would have to agree to abolish the office of the Queen and/or Governor General. Australia requires a referendum with a majority of people and states (which would have to move to republican models too). Papua New Guinea needs a two-thirds majority of its National Assembly. And so on.

These are all Westminster systems and their Crowns are a conduit of authority like our own. Deciding how and whether to preserve a similar balance raises the same sorts of questions as it would in the UK. (It can raise others. The balance of power between the Australian Commonwealth and states is one example.) In the end, we have the right to decide how we choose our head of state. But I don’t relish creating 15 constitutional nightmares for others to deal with.

What’s in a name? If you’re pro-Union, you’d be surprised

When Charles III accedes, I suspect we’ll be startled by how long it takes us to get used to the shift in everyday speech. ‘God Save the Queen’, Her Majesty’s Government, Queen’s Counsel, the Queen’s Speech, the Queen’s English, ‘By appointment to Her Majesty’, ‘Boris lied to the Queen’: our form of government courses through our language.

The problem runs deeper still. Forty-four independent states have monarchies, but only the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s sole undisputed name depends on keeping one. ‘Great Britain’ is clearly incorrect. We argue about whether ‘Britain’ denotes the British state, Great Britain or either. And as for replacing ‘United Kingdom’, ‘United Republic’ (deeply clunky), ‘Commonwealth’ (repellent to Irish nationalists) and ‘Union’ (oddly syndicalist) all feel wrong. Cutting it to ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ makes us sound like a longer (and just as temporary) version of the old Serbia and Montenegro.

This matters, because our fuzziness is a function of our formation. Britain stems from a quirk of inheritance: James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, and when the Union of the Parliaments took place in 1707 Scotland was in a position to negotiate. The Anglo-Scottish bargain produced a British rather than a greater English polity. There’s no way to know how a greater English polity would have related to Ireland, in particular. But our Britishness relied on a Scottish dynasty acceding to an English throne.

As a result, our monarchy provided vital scaffolding for state-building. The potential rows over why non-English heads of state win so (in)frequently display the upside of a monarch in our multinational nation. It’s not a coincidence that we’re the last European country to continue with coronations. It’s also striking that over half the world’s monarchies had some link with the British.

Not all absurdities are worth unpicking

The UK and Japan are the developed constitutional monarchies for whom the shock of republicanism would prove most profound. There was a time when I’d have seen that as the point. For me, the appeal of republicanism remains the egalitarian principle and looking at our constitution in the round.

I remain, generally, a reformer. I want a proportional House of Commons and a democratic second chamber. I want an end to local councils where one party wins every seat. I’d like to see more checks and balances in our constitution. I’d still like core aspects entrenched to protect them against an overweening executive.

Perhaps I’ve got older, or the past few years have made me more aware of what you can lose as well as gain. But I’ve concluded that, for better or worse, the monarchy underpins too much of our basic structure for fundamental tampering to be worth the risk. If someone can avoid either creating a powerful head of state or abolishing a constitutional check, forestall a 16-fold diplomatic quagmire and prevent picking at the bonds between the home nations, I’ll listen. Until then, I’ll leave the Crown alone.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 23 February 2020.

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