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 on 23 February 2020.

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.