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Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Time to talk about the British republic

In a post-Brexit time of national uncertainty and economic struggle, it’s perhaps logical that the death of the grandmother of the nation should be the cause of mass sorrow. That said, a long weekend just spent in London made me aware of the sharp contrast between the tourists and devotees in the centre and the workaday folks going about their business in the periphery. That Queen Elizabeth II worked hard in her role as head of state is not for me in doubt. That over 70 years were spent in this inherited position is a cause for personal admiration and respect. However it should also be a reason to step back from the emotional fray and ask why? That the appointed ‘national’ broadcast media are going into expected overdrive to mobilise mass mourning is not surprising. However that shouldn’t prevent the more reflective among us from doing what the prime ministers of Jamaica and Antigua & Barbuda have just announced they will be doing, and having a national debate about whether their countries will become republics or not. Perhaps it’s indecent to suggest such a debate in Britain at a time when our former head of state hasn’t even been interred in the national imagining let alone Charles III formally crowned. But surely it’s precisely at this time that we should stop and wonder what maintaining the monarchy, or at least maintaining it as is, is good for? 

The much vaunted 'neutrality' and claimed ‘non-political’ nature of Windsor family rule will not only be tested by our new King’s attachment to a range of deeply political causes and opinions, but politics very much goes with the Windsor turf, as it were. You can’t be head of the Commonwealth and be sworn to uphold the Protestant faith and not be political. To think otherwise is to dwell in a soft, pink, cotton notion of the world forged in story books and childhood delusion. The king, like the late Queen, is a deeply political figure, as any head of state would be. 

The question is whether we’re happy to maintain a political system, and yes, ‘regime’, that having a monarch whose government uses royal (prerogative) powers, ensures? For those quirky enough to have watched the more than hour long ceremony on Saturday morning live from the Privy Council, an appreciation of all that is undemocratic, indeed archaic, about our political system was in full, open and transparent view. It was as if Penny Mordaunt had won the premiership and Liz Truss had been kicked straight upstairs before even passing Go as PM. 

As Leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt led the business of the great political and clerical good who constitute this former Executive body. However her announcement of the Privy Council’s decisions underpinning the uncontested ‘election’ of Charles as king was straight from Medieval Britain. The Union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland was a constant reference point as was much Monty Pythonesque referencing of the Great Seal and of interim Seals of some kind. The newly minted monarch himself grew visibly more irritated by the arcane absurdity of all that he had to voice ‘Agreed’ to. However for him, his Consort, and his Heir, I suspect this was all so much tiresome theatre, as no doubt it would seem to any still watching members of the public. 

However the substance of what was on display was an assertion of power by unaccountable decree from a body, the Privy Council, whose official purpose is to “counsel” the monarch but is in practise more about the underpinning of the royal prerogative powers that all governments exercise by reference to the crown and not to the sovereignty of the people. Charles’ stated affirmation of his office, that he is the sovereign, made clear where powers still lies in Britain. It may be his 'constitutional' understanding that God and the elected government, in that order, should guide him in the performance of his ‘duties’, but our unwritten constitution gives “his” government a welter of unaccountable royal powers to exercise on his behalf. 

Should we care? Well, declaring war, signing international treaties of any kind, issuing executive decisions such as orders in council without proper parliamentary scrutiny, are all the exercise of royal prerogative powers. They quite literally have nothing to do with claimed electoral mandates turned into parliamentary legislation. A country that has supposedly ’taken back control’ doesn’t seem to care that as an electorate they have little control and that their sovereignty is only partly honoured in name and largely ignored in practise. 

The great symbol of British parliamentary democracy is not the office of prime minister but the speaker of the House of Commons, the person who, ceremonially speaking at the ‘State Opening of Parliament’, bars the monarch’s entry to the legislative chamber via Black Rod. Speaker Hoyle though was a mere attendee at the Privy Council on Saturday, lending his democratic imprimatur to the thoroughly undemocratic proceedings.

Perhaps this is all liberal elitist claptrap, point scoring by a member of the over-educated classes when ordinary folk just want a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work, and affordable, heatable, housing to live in. But if the masses aren’t actually determining who governs them and how, and if their elected representatives don’t hold sovereignty on their behalf, then what hope is there that popular needs and desires can be met? 

Arguably the last time a collective programme of mass need was addressed by an elected UK government was in the latter 1940s when the second war in two and a bit decades had brought an establishment and party political consensus that things could never be the same again. Democracy’s role was merely to choose those in the red corner as the ones who should try to administer it. No Labour government has in practise done anything to challenge the monarchical constitutional settlement other than to partially limit the power and membership of that residue of royal favour, the unelected House of Lords. The maintenance of the monarchy shouldn’t however be a matter of left V right. It should be a matter of democracy V unaccountable power. If Scotland goes independent then it’s likely to replicate Windsor’s prerogative powers over an elected Holyrood.

We are told that the late Queen was so shielded from the mucky and constitutionally inappropriate business of politics that in 1975 her Governor General in Australia turfed out an elected Australian Labour prime minister in cahoots with the then Prince of Wales and the Queen’s private secretary. These were royal powers used secretly to get through a political impasse that should have been Australia’s political business, but was actually the business of the UK monarch’s own Governor General. The British Labour Government of the day was seemingly equally constitutionally “shielded” from what the British royal house was up to. 

Britain plainly needs a head of state to at least arbitrate when there’s such a political impasse at home. It was feared that the Queen couldn’t be shielded from doing that if there had been no prospect of a UK parliamentary majority ‘to get Brexit done’. The prospect, pre-PM Johnson, beckoned of the Queen having to appoint a national (coalition) government to get through the political morass. Some would argue that it’s surely better that such a political arbiter be the head of the house of Windsor than perhaps an archly party political figure appointed as a figurehead president. (Few serious republicans in Britain want a US-style presidential political system.).

This is not just a matter of what kind of head of state do we want when the parliamentary arithmetic is bothersome. It’s very much more than that. It’s about who do we think should rule us, whether as head of state or in terms of the laws, orders and executive decrees that are currently issued on the basis of monarchical power? Should these be our laws, argued over by our representatives, or the prerogative of a royal house that, as witnessed on Saturday, elects itself?


Anonymous said...

I'm thinking....

Anonymous said...

Thought about it. Monarchy can exit stage left and I'll give them a jewelled orb with a free sceptre as a leaving gift. Ok ok I'll chuck in two old castles as long as they an pay the bills.

Anonymous said...

I don’t fully understand all of this! But in practical terms the office and the arcane ceremonial traditions are also a representation of a very deeply held sense of national identity for many, and a stability in that identity not reflected by increasingly disconnected government. A sizeable proportion of the population probably support the figure of the monarch more than a PM and a vote, at any time ,as to whether the head of the monarch or the PM of the day should be removed would be a very close run thing. Emotional reactivity is not generated by the BBC… apart from rage that there’s seemingly no other news of course.

Anonymous said...

Important point well said

Anonymous said...

When you mentioned a black rod I thought this is my kind of website, but sadly that was as deep as you went into it.

Anonymous said...

Elitist claptrap maybe to those struggling with grief, obsequious media overload and whatever horrors the winter will bring, but it's good that you so clearly understand the nuances of these curious dynamics. Not so much that only a few 'educated liberals' get all this stuff, but concerning that in general so very few people do. Sadly such expertise is so often regarded with suspicion and resentment by those being manipulated by forces they may never even partly comprehend, with the media happy to covertly participate in perpetuating that lack of understanding.
The bonus for me is seeing la Truss's fairytale honeymoon abruptly erased a mere 48 hours after shaking the hand of the dearly departed. 'Soft' power indeed.

John F said...

I found this interesting and informative about the subtle power of the unelected Monarchy and The House of Lords. i suppose it could be argued that since our so-called democracy is built on the power of people with lots of money and little accountability - (good for them that the Government is "going for growth) - it is simply our system writ large for all to see.

Neil poses a pertinent question and a discussion about republicanism is overdue. It would be good to have a proper debate about a real democratic system, although notions such as 'democratic socialism' seem often to be regarded as a mirage.

TBG said...

Important debate to be had but apparently'now is not the time' - so when is it? Rightwing press and media already trying to divide and rule by making a big issue of a tiny minority who dare to dissent, even if silently and with blank placards, during the obsequies. So much for a 'liberal' democracy! As a republican, I'm content to respect this protracted period of mourning, but I do expect a debate soon. I favour a non-executive presidency, along Irish Republic lines. As a pensioner, however, I doubt I'll live to see it.

Neil Partrick said...

I'm grateful for the biggest 'debate' about anything I have ever written in my life. I wrote most of a book on Saudi Arabia a few years ago and I didn't get one email commenting either way on whether it was good or bad. That said, several years later another Saudi author praised it by a personal email and said it had been invaluable to him in his own research for a similar book. (He was touting for reciprocal but public praise). When I checked out his book on Saudi the other day I was listed (misspelt; natch) in the bibliography among many many other dull tomes, but that was it. There was no footnote, no quote of 'Patrick'; nada). Here though there's a semblance of an exchange going on among all you Nonymouses. I loved the comical insight of, let's call them, A3. A3 in fact brought in a key aspect that I often write about elsewhere, national identity and in this case, the sceptic orb. Latter brings me to A2's hilarious comment re giving the Windsors such an item as a parting gift. The Black Rod comment by A5 is comic genius. A6 is kind and makes a good point. Im indebted to less anonymous 'John F' for his, as ever, considered comments, and indeed likewise to 'TBG' for his on the money quip. Keep 'em coming good people. I did get a couple of responses elsewhere, both kind (privately by 'A') and less considered in a WhatsApp group. In the latter case their comments betrayed that they hadn't actually read my blogged article. But hey, twas ever thus. The bloke I reference above probably didn't read my book on Saudi.

Martin said...

Thanks Neil. Prompted quite a bit of thought on my part. I am not a monarchist in any way, shape or form. Especially having had the pleasure of working just along the corridor from the now civillian suited (but still heavily medalled) Andrew when in Whitehall in my good old days. Well, I say work. He was usually there at the crack of 10 30 and off to lunch by 11. Usually back by 3 30 and off home before 4. But I'm still struck by the idea that although our head of state system is far from perfect; at least we haven't yet ended up with anything as democratically horrific as Mr Trump. So my contribution - A h.o.s with a considerably longer-termist mindset for the nation than one who would worry mostly about the next election is definitely something to think about. The Queen had a generational/lifetime mindset. I think with hindsight that was a benefit during her reign. Does that lean inexorably towards a heriditary-like system ? I think it certainly pushes in favour of a role that might not be medieval; but perhaps would be "heavily institutionalised".

Neil Partrick said...

Many thanks to Martin for his comment immediately above, and for his relaying of his first-hand experience of what working with a senior royal implanted in the government machine was like.

On the specifics of the form and authority of presidential office in the soon to be Republic of Britain, or perhaps make that Republic of England, Republic of Scotland, and the Republic of Wales (ROW) (and with Northern Ireland presumably (re) integrated into Mother Ireland).

I thought it would confuse the issue to get into it above - other than the almost throw away remark that most UK republicans don't want the US 'model'.

I've long thought that ex speakers (perhaps excluding as Bercow type) could automatically qualify (depending on health and inclination) for appointment as a largely figurehead President for a 10 year term (or as long they felt able). Appointed by a vote of the legislature (as is the Commons Speaker). I look also to presidential models in parliamentary democracies such as Germany and Ireland here (and partial democracy Israel), and very much stress though that they should NOT in my view be directly elected i.e. by the people! The whole point is that this is NOT supposed to be an institution carrying major political power. They would though carry the approval of elected (and un-elected Lords for as long as that aspect continues) representatives, and have to arbitrate if there was no clear parliamentary majority for the appointment and function of a would-be government. Ex speakers are obviously from the party system but by virtue of being speaker they've (usually) proved their non-partisanship (with possible exception of Bercow who arguably became anti Tory right at least).

Anonymous said...

Thanks Neil. Some good points here. My feeling though, as another ex diplomat, is that while there’s a lot that needs changing in the UK constitution (the electoral system and the House of Lords for a start) replacing the monarch with a President isn’t the answer. The monarch remains above day to day politics and when the role is conducted as skilfully as The Queen has managed, the represents the nation and the values to which we aspire in a way which no ex-politician could hope to do.