Scrapping the monarchy gets in the way of real political reformby John Morrison / April 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
It was when the Republican of the Year boasted about peeing on an aristocrat’s carpet as a child that I realised the monarchy was safe. My epiphany came at the annual meeting of Republic, Britain’s anti-monarchist movement. Before the teabreak the 60 people present chose Mo Mowlam to be their fantasy head of state and heard comedian Mark Steel describe the monarchy as “bloody mad.”
Republican of the Year for 2001 was Claire Rayner, who delivered a rambling attack on the monarchy as a symbol of privilege: “It makes me want to throw up!” Not all of the speakers were this bad. Some of them were people whose opinions I share on most subjects, such as Geoffrey Robertson QC, Jonathan Freedland, and two MPs, Norman Baker of the Liberal Democrats and Andrew Mackinlay of Labour.
So why did the afternoon I spent with these fellow admirers of Tom Paine leave me unconvinced? It was partly that their anti-monarchism seemed to be propelled by personal hostility to the royal family. The Windsors were seen as rich and dysfunctional, enjoying a lazy lifestyle funded by tax fiddles. British republicans talked about the royal family in the way I remember Russian monarchists talking about the Jews. On the one hand, speakers assured the audience that their cause would triumph. On the other, there were dark warnings that they might be locked up under the Treason and Felony Act.
But the real problem with republicans is not the dottiness they share with enthusiastic monarchists. It is that far from helping constitutional reform, they are getting in its way. Campaigning to abolish the British monarchy by referendum in favour of a directly elected president is unlikely to succeed, and if it did, it would destabilise our democracy rather than reinforce it.
Despite the royal family’s problems over the last decade, there is no sign that republicanism is any closer to winning majority support. Polls by Mori since 1993 show great consistency in the key statistic of how many people would vote for a republic. It has varied between 15 per cent and 21 per cent, while support for the monarchy has varied between 69 per cent and 74 per cent. Public indifference to the monarchy may be on the rise, especially among the young, but this does not necessarily translate into active support for a republic. The British monarchy has repeatedly recovered from periods of unpopularity; the emergence of Prince William may further stack the odds against republicanism.
The constitutional reform group Charter 88 has never made the mistake of putting the abolition of the monarchy on its agenda. It understands that to present the abolition of the monarchy as the major issue of constitutional reform will make it harder to complete the changes begun by Labour in 1997.
The legal challenge to the monarchy launched by the Guardian is thus a quixotic distraction. The real flaws in our system lie elsewhere, in the overwhelming power of the executive over the legislature. If we are to have a referendum on constitutional reform, the first issue before the electorate should not be the monarchy but a fairer voting system for the House of Commons.
This is not to argue that the monarchy is peripheral, nor to deny that it needs reform. The Guardian is right to call for reform of the prerogative power inherited from the monarchy by the prime minister. But it is wrong to believe that this requires abolishing the monarchy. The fallacy is to believe that a constitutional monarchy is by its nature a block on reform and incompatible with democractic advance. In fact the reverse is true. All constitutions rely on a balance of continuity and change. Without a written constitution, we rely on a person with historical legitimacy to symbolise the unchanging aspects of our state. The monarchy is the institution we maintain in order to give ourselves the space to innovate elsewhere.
Republican objections to the monarchy are based on a series of other misconceptions. One of these is that, in the words of Jonathan Freedland, “We no longer believe in heredity.” Are the republicans planning to disinherit their children? I doubt it. Heredity is one of the enduring principles of our legal system, tax system and social structure. The question is not whether we should ignore heredity, but whether it should cease to be a basis for exercising political power. This is the argument that was used to reform the House of Lords. The flaw in applying it to the monarchy is that it no longer wields political power. To introduce a directly elected head of state would re-politicise the office. A president would become a player on the political stage instead of an impartial symbol, with destabilising results. We would move back to the 18th century.
For republicans, the existence of the monarchy is proof that we are still living in a feudal and deferential society but the opposite is true. Deference to the monarchy has all but vanished. Sycophancy and deference do still exist, but are reserved for the truly powerful, such as Rupert Murdoch.
The other objection to the monarchy is that it is a hangover from a traditional age; we now allegedly live in a rational world that has no need for tribal ancestor worship. True, we are more secular, more multicultural. We are not used to swearing oaths of allegiance. But it is a fallacy to believe that our society is now so rational that we have no more need of signs and symbols, flags and uniforms that testify to our identities. If you push mumbo-jumbo out of the door, it will climb back in through the window.
What we need is what Labour MP Tony Wright has called “a monarchy for grown-ups.” Radical chic republicanism is a cul-de-sac. It is the lazy Guardian reader’s substitute for real constitutional reform.