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.

The March for the Alternative, and why it’s OK for the marchers to want different things

Like many (probably most) of my friends in London, I spent my Saturday marching in protest against the Coalition’s planned spending cuts. Like everyone else on the march, I don’t believe that £81bn of spending cuts by 2015 and only £29bn of tax rises represents a plan in any way compatible with social justice: and I do believe that it will do terrible social damage and wreck lives.

I’d have to concede, though, that the alternatives put forward by the marchers were many and various. People miles to my political left and my right were there – from those who were much more concerned by the speed than the composition of the fiscal tightening through to those who ‘opposed every cut and fought for every job’ (except Trident, usually!). The Coalition’s response has been, in essence: ‘You have no alternative; we have a plan; we’re carrying on with the plan’.

The trouble is, their plan bears no relationship to anything the public could reasonably be said to have endorsed. Forget the fact, for the moment, that all three parties fudged and dodged a real accounting of what would have to happen in this parliament. Even on the points which did come up – should we cut over five years or over eight? – the current plan is at odds with the votes. During the campaign, the public displayed a preference for the more gradual approach. 52% of people voted for parties who (at the time) agreed. Whatever you think about the balance of taxes and cuts, this is not a mandate for shock therapy in Britain. But that is what we’re getting: the sheer depth of austerity we now face parallels the 1920s.

And a large part of the reason for this is that, in the coalition negotiations, the Liberal Democrats didn’t prioritise economic policy when they chose their sticking points. In fact, they may well have decided to reverse their policy before they even entered the room; according to Nick Clegg, at least some of them changed their minds before they went to the ballot box themselves. The result is that the basic process of discussion, of splitting the difference – of negotiation – which a hung parliament might have been expected to require has been short-circuited. Instead, we’ve got a deficit reduction plan written in outline by one party alone and occasionally coloured in slightly different tones by another. Perhaps that’s not so different from the norm in British politics: but then, a hung parliament was supposed to change all that.

The marchers wanted a range of different things, granted. A march for any other alternative, if you will. But what they were trying to start, in a way, was that very negotiating process which our Parliament so signally failed to carry through. That’s why it was a March for the Alternative: Saturday’s protesters all agree that there are alternatives, even if they don’t agree which ones should be chosen. And that’s why, rather than saying ‘what’s your alternative?’, the powers that be ought to look at the range of alternatives we do have.

If we’re looking at compromises from the Coalition, they might involve more capital spending, combined with a reduction of the structural deficit at the planned rate; they could involve a greater emphasis on taxes. I appreciate that a Conservative government is not going to give me the deficit reduction programme I actually want – but then the voters didn’t elect a pure Conservative government, even if the deficit reduction programme makes it look as if they did. It’s high time the government acknowledged this reality in its economic policy.

And by the way, they should remember that mass demonstrations don’t always have an effect on the government’s policy … but if that policy goes wrong, the demonstration has a habit of making the government look a whole lot worse later on.