Illustration: Hayley Warnham

Roadmap to a republic

Why the monarchy can’t just ‘carry on’ after Elizabeth II
April 30, 2021

It was the adjective that got me. On Saturday 10th April, the headline on Radio 4’s normally impeccably factual evening news bulletin was “Prince Charles has spoken movingly about the death of his father Prince Philip.” There had already been 36 hours during which every flick of the radio switch had brought a new line that could have come from a Chris Morris satire: “a man of action, a man of ideas, truly a renaissance man,” someone intoned in the first hour or two. We heard courtiers asked whether they thought the Windsors had had the kind of marriage “where the Queen might have discussed the Duke of Edinburgh awards?” The Duke’s jokes about “slitty eyes” were too famous to write out of the script, but were reconceived as “ice-breakers” that had been taken the wrong way. The news itself became infused with emotive judgments of a kind I can’t recall being used for, say, the drowning of three-year-old Alan Kurdi at the height of the refugee crisis.

For many such mawkishness distracted from the proper first human thought, about the new widow with the world’s most familiar face. Within days the Corporation had to report that 109,741 people had bothered to complain about the over-the-top coverage of the Duke’s passing, making it the most complained-about event in its history. But was the coverage worth worrying about, or was it—like the mandating of black armbands for jockeys in this year’s Grand National—merely a passing macabre pantomime? I think it is too complacent to assume the latter. Instead of the usual debate and argument, Any Questions? that Friday was replaced by a “discussion” about the life, times and achievements of the Duke. There were interesting observations on the Elizabethan era, but such a striking absence of Crown-sceptical voices that it began to feel like a conspiracy to avoid a discussion about the ground rules of our country.

That discussion is especially necessary now because the death of the Duke, and the Queen’s 95th birthday days later, underlines that the passing of the Crown itself is not so far away. When she dies, an even greater wave of infantilising coverage—and some genuine feeling—will drown out any talk of reform. And since her son will automatically and instantaneously become King, in some respects it will already be too late. A rapidly disuniting Kingdom, in which Elizabeth II is an increasingly rare bind, cannot afford to look away from the consequences of her leaving the scene. The coronation ceremony alone will throw up particular questions that the country has not had to think about for 70-plus years—concerning religion, class and Britain’s place in the world. When Elizabeth took to the throne in 1952 all the colonies in Africa and many beyond remained in the Empire. At her 1953 coronation, the bulk of the guests were aristocrats in a House of Lords where all the seats were hereditary. Oh, except those reserved for bishops in a Church of England which still christened about two-thirds of babies, compared to roughly one in 10 today.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 08: Queen Elizabeth II, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex on the balcony of Buckingham Palace during Trooping The Colour, the Queen's annua LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 08: Queen Elizabeth II, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex on the balcony of Buckingham Palace during Trooping The Colour, the Queen's annua

The Royal Family on display during Trooping of the Colour 2019. Image: Neil Mockford / GC Images

Even fans of pageantry might want the spectacle adjusted to fit a post-imperial, post-aristocratic and post-Anglican society. But the deeper question is—or should be—whether we actually want the Crown to pass from a widely trusted elderly lady, who has long excelled in her peculiar job by holding back from saying anything much, to a less-popular son who brims with opinions. Unfortunately, there is no more British instinct than to muddle through with things as they are, and any reform will have to overpower arguments that range from the sloppy to the serious.

If it ain’t broke…

The strongest argument for changing nothing is pure pragmatism: although no modern democratic mind would ever dream up a monarchy, in practice they often work well. Robert Hazell—founder of the Constitution Unit, and co-author of a valuable cross-national study of monarchies—points out that in the 2018 “democracy rankings” of the respected Economist Intelligence Unit, four of the top five spots go to countries with crowned heads.

When elections can boot out a government, runs this argument, the most dangerous “L’état, c’est moi” posturing no longer comes from the born-to-reign—who have, since Louis XIV, learned the hard way to be careful—but instead from the likes of a President Nixon or Trump who invoke a “mandate” as they demolish the distinction between national and personal interest. By contrast, competent monarchs, like Elizabeth II, are said to sharpen that distinction by treating every successive government the same way regardless of their preferences, thereby carving out a space in national life beyond the reach of ugly power play. Be careful what you wish for, the pragmatists say, unless you are prepared to see a president Boris Johnson or a president Nigel Farage.

The claim that Britain’s monarchy is now fully and satisfactorily reconciled to a liberal political settlement is anything but new. As early as 1867, Bagehot wrote: “A Republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of a Monarchy.” It was, at best, a hopelessly premature verdict. The Crown had a crucial role to play in the great political crisis in 1910 over the People’s Budget, in which it insisted on the need for not one but two general elections that year. As late as the 1940s the Palace appeared to have a hand in Clement Attlee’s choice of chancellor and foreign secretary. To this day, crucial powers of state—to make war, make treaties, dissolve parliament—remain royal prerogatives. Although long since exercised by elected governments in the Crown’s name, right through the 20th century they remained at the dark ancient heart of a constitution where the courts could not reach and parliament hesitated to tread. Adam Tomkins, who after a spell as Conservative MSP is just returning to his earlier life as a professor of constitutional law, says it created such an alarming “zone of power without accountability” that it once drove him to republicanism.

But, like latter-day Bagehots, both Tomkins and Hazell now believe that Crown power has slowly been subjected to republican standards. In a famous 1984 case about union rights at GCHQ, the courts ruled that prerogative decisions could be judicially reviewed. Ministers continued to chance their arm after this: in the Maastricht row of the early 1990s, foreign secretary Douglas Hurd played with the idea of bypassing a logjammed parliament with the prerogative. In the same vein in 2016/2017, Theresa May insisted that she could unilaterally trigger Article 50 and get Brexit underway. In the first instance, raw politics soon required that the Maastricht rebels be faced down in a confidence vote, and in the second, the courts decided that because parliament had originally enacted Britain’s entry into the EU, it would take parliament, and a new law, to effect our exit. That was Gina Miller’s first big case; in her second—concerning Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament—the Supreme Court asserted its right to rule on powers which, in theory at least, are still personally “reserved” to the monarch herself. Putting it all together, Tomkins thinks we have, under a Crown he once disdained, finally muddled through to a “reasonably healthy separation of powers.”

But recent experience can also be read in another, less sanguine way. It is true that the constitution did, just about, come through the Brexit crisis intact, largely because the Supreme Court proved willing to strike down that arbitrary suspension of parliamentary democracy in the name of the Crown. But it was only a fluke of personnel that enabled the Crown to submit to the PM’s outrageous original “advice” without being seen to take his side. Having already sat on her hands through every controversy for 70 years, it seemed automatic for her to nod through the demand. With anyone else on the throne, failure to use the supposed discretion to stand up for the constitution would have looked like a choice—and a bitterly divisive one. As Cath Haddon of the Institute for Government puts it, “there are many fuzzy grey corners of the constitution covering such crucial decisions as prorogation and dissolution,” where it isn’t clear if the monarch or the PM ultimately calls the shots. But so long as Elizabeth is there, then “the feeling is leave it grey, and we don’t mind, because we trust her so much.”

“Post-liberal populism looks at a pre-liberal parchment regime and sees an invitation for abuse”

Through the Brexit wars there were other occasions, too, in which the royal orb and sceptre were waved against parliament. At one point it looked like an obscure requirement for bills affecting prerogative powers to secure “Queen’s consent” (normally a formality obtained through ministers) could be used to thwart a Bill trying to tie ministerial hands against a no-deal Brexit. This eventually led to a frankly bizarre ruling that ministerial approval wasn’t necessary from a Speaker who happened to be sympathetic to the rebels, closing down a question that could have blown up into a crisis. At another point, it was briefed that the monarch would be “advised” to refuse the (separate) Royal Assent that every Bill needs to become law. Had it happened, it would have been the first such refusal since Queen Anne held back her quill from the Scottish Militia Bill in 1708.

Through a long liberal era, we have grown used to hearing old phrases about the “Crown in parliament” as reassuring mantras. But in the last couple of years, a post-liberal populist politics looked at a pre-liberal regime of parchment and vellum and saw an invitation for abuse. The only sure protection is to modernise.

Popularity context

There is another tempting but blinkered argument for leaving everything well alone. Namely, that the monarchy is hugely popular, supported by as many as 80 per cent of us. This might sound like an insurmountable obstacle to change, but when it’s only octogenarians and above who remember a different monarch, the institution and the person are not separate thoughts. When the second changes, support for the first could shift fast.

Indeed, as Robert Hazell insists: “in a democracy, whatever the formal position, monarchies always depend on consent.” Democratic politics has been capable of toppling crowns for a long time: even before a snookered Edward VIII concluded that he had to step down in 1936, Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde of Luxembourg found herself pressed into abdicating in 1919, after appearing too cosy with the recently defeated German regime. All told, there has been recourse to 18 referenda on the status of the monarchy in European states since 1900. In these votes, crowns have often won and sometimes lost—but they have always been in play. They could be again before long in Scotland, where the SNP may not repeat their 2014 referendum proposal to make Elizabeth “Queen of Scots” if Charles is on the throne. Instead, the question could be shunted off to a review and then—who knows?—put to a plebiscite once the nation is safely out of the UK.

But we don’t need to wander into the hypothetical realm to see how royalty depends on popularity: we need only think of the recent disgracing of Prince Andrew. Once it was clear how fast his stock was sinking in 2019, he had to resign his duties. In YouGov’s rankings for the fourth quarter of 2020 he had sunk to public approval ratings of just 7 per cent. As it happens he is “only” eighth in line, but if—as for much of his life—he were second, the powers that be would be deep into crisis planning. In Spain, as recently as 2014, the King himself became so embroiled in scandal that he had to stand down.

Daylight has long since been let in on Bagehot’s “magic,” and a royal wrong ’un can no longer be automatically passed off as a “brilliant edition” of a universal fact: everything turns on human strengths and human flaws. While the Queen’s popularity is both stunning and stable, she started out as a welcome flash of colour amid grey post-war Britain, and has ended up enjoying the benefit of the doubt in a country where, as Alan Bennett once put it, they think you’re marvellous if you “get to 90 and can still eat a boiled egg.” Loyally assisted by a media that gives her—though not her children—the 1950s deference seen after Philip’s death, she has been able to reign with discretion all the way through.

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The media turns on Prince Andrew. Credit: Martin Gibbs/Shutterstock

The institution would soon creak under a more divisive monarch. By contrast with Elizabeth’s 69 per cent approval in that YouGov data, both Philip (49 per cent) and Harry (45 per cent) enjoyed the support of a little less than half the country. Those numbers aren’t awful: they’d be typical for a US president. The tricky thing is that, even before Harry and Meghan’s controversial Oprah interview, it was two different halves of the country who were keen on the stiff-upper-lip grandfather and his confessional grandson. Break those numbers down by age, and Harry enjoyed majority backing among millennials, but found favour with just 30 per cent of baby boomers. As for Charles, his 40 per cent overall support sinks to 29 among the young. After a lifetime of decidedly mixed press and making stands on everything from architecture to homeopathy, it is inevitably also linked to political views and newspaper readership. For an institution that exists to be a symbol of unity, this is dangerous.

It is so easy to imagine a future King Charles following his conscience into controversy that a hit play, Mike Bartlett’s 2014 King Charles III, was based on the thought. His instinct to meddle was laid bare in the “black spider memos” to ministers in the early years of this century, covering everything from agricultural practice to the teaching of history, obtained by the Guardian after a long legal wrangle in 2015. Even fairly sympathetic observers like Hazell anticipate King Charles will endure “quite a rough ride,” but hope that as he approaches the throne he is finally grasping the need to keep clear of controversy. Others, including Graham Smith, of the anti-monarchy group Republic, suspect that if the heir apparent has seemed to be less interventionist of late, this is only because “royal lobbying” led to a carve-out of the Freedom of Information Act in 2010, which “closed the brief window that allowed us to see what he was up to.”

Less is more

Even for convinced monarchists “keeping calm and carrying on” is dangerous before this particular transition. Since the Glorious Revolution, the Crown has survived and thrived by regularly refreshing itself and submitting to successive reforms. Barring rare and unhappy exceptions, such as on Freedom of Information, the clock does not get turned back—from the young Prince Philip dewigging courtiers in the 1950s, to his wife volunteering to pay income tax in the 1990s, modernisations have stuck. And when it comes to modernising our governance, the only proper question in a democracy must be: just how much less Crown do we want?

Forget the usual distracting argument about how many “working royals” there are. If, for whatever reason, a large country thinks it worth subsidising people in palaces to cut every ribbon, it might need quite a few of them. We could, however, certainly do with less waste. Continental monarchies—including Sweden, but also large states like Spain—are an order of magnitude cheaper. Picking one palace and staying there would be a good start.

Another obvious cut could be the coronation—something, Hazell explains, “none of the other main European monarchies have. Belgium and the Netherlands never did; Norway, Sweden and Denmark discontinued them in 1908, 1873 and 1849 respectively; Spain stopped in medieval times.” But if that is a modernisation too far for Britain, then the role of religion, and the wording of the oaths, requires an urgent look.

Plainly, in a multi-faith society, we need less sectarianism: the younger Charles’s desire to be “defender of faith” (rather than “the faith”) may not have completely stacked up, but showed the right inclusive instinct. It is dismaying that the government is said to have put efforts to rewrite the arcane coronation vows into the “too difficult” box. Pledging to use his “utmost power” to preserve the Protestant religion “established by law” is not going to get Charles off to the best start with his Catholic subjects (who are still specifically locked out of the throne by law) or indeed many others.

We need less special treatment too. There was never a good reason why the Queen should not pay income tax, and there is no reason why she should be exempt from inheritance tax when she hands Balmoral—a private possession—on to her son. There should be no exemption for Charles’s Duchy of Cornwall from the usual duties of freeholders to sell at a regulated price to their tenants: Graham Smith of Republic says this creates “a potential for abuse which is fully exploited on many leaseholders in places like the Scilly Isles.” Is this use of public privilege for private gain so different from the 45th American president encouraging foreign dignitaries to stay in Washington’s Trump Hotel?

Indeed, we could do with a lot less haze on the boundary between public and family interests. When George Osborne wanted to appear to save money, he restricted the old “civil list” grant but in return earmarked for the royals a sum equal to a share of the profits from the Crown Estate, which sounded like a mere refund of a slither of their own money. In truth, the Estate has been public property plain and simple since Georgian times, and the effect has been to steadily ramp up the subsidy on the sly. More dangerous fuzziness is created by powers whose definition is lost in the mist of time, as seen in the current row about the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act: that 2011 statute removed the ancient royal prerogative to dissolve parliament, so now it is disputed whether that power should be “handed back” to the PM as the government proposes, or the monarch, as constitutional sticklers and a cross-party committee insist. Whether or not there are circumstances in which the monarch could ever refuse dissolution, Cath Haddon says, turns on something else “experts disagree on,” namely “how much residual autonomy the Crown has as a guardian of the constitution.”

The most serious problems of all concern the Palace’s role in inviting the formation of a government. The Cabinet Manualsets out how the Palace might handle various hung parliament situations. But, as Haddon points out, “experts won’t always agree with official documents of this sort, which in any case can’t cover every potential scenario.” It may only have been the inability of the anti-Boris Johnson forces to coalesce around any one individual that saved the Palace from an extremely fraught call about whether to summon such an individual as a potential “caretaker” PM in 2019. With a more ordinary Labour leader than Jeremy Corbyn, it could have happened.

The more scenarios that we collectively thrash out and write down, the less likely we are to end up with a situation like Australia endured in 1975. There, amid a stand-off between the two legislative chambers, the progressive Whitlam government was dismissed by the Queen’s governor general, while the woman herself snoozed on the other side of the Earth. Such foreign embroilments are dangerous. Furthermore, the UK is abjectly struggling to throw off pretensions about its place in the world, and providing the head of state for Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and more doesn’t help. Because she was present at the creation of the modern Commonwealth, the pre-eminence of the Queen as its head is not the rank absurdity it is likely to become under her successors. But arguments about constitutional changes in many Commonwealth realms are strewn with delays and vetoes. Ultimately, we need fewer global pretensions, and so the Crown should be ready to make its excuses and leave.

Back home, some of the controversy that threatens the coming Carolingian reign might be seen off by narrowing down the Crown’s role in the constitution. Again, Europe provides valuable tips: in 2008, Grand Duke Henri in Luxembourg was stripped of his legislative role after he refused to sign a euthanasia bill into law. Royal Assent must go. So, too, must the ludicrous separate requirement for the Queen to consent to a supposedly-sovereign parliament legislating in ways that touch on her powers and interests. It would be a matter of principle, even without the reports of it being accompanied by royal lobbying for self-serving ends.

The best way to, so to speak, put the Crown in its box would be to follow Sweden’s 1974 Instrument of Government (Regeringsformen). It clarifies that the people are in charge through their parliament by, for example: specifying that the speaker—not the King—will summon potential premiers and recommend one to the Riksdag; requiring the King to check with the PM before travelling abroad; and, asserting parliament’s right to deem the King to have abdicated if he shirks his duties for six months.

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Crown and out

This clipping of the wings has not impeded the King of Sweden’s standing as a unifying figure: he comforted a grieving nation after a terrible loss of tourists in the 2004 Asian tsunami just as effectively as Elizabeth did in the pandemic. Embodying the nation matters, but it does not require pre-modern political privileges. Indeed, the better presidents in parliamentary systems are able to rise above faction in more creative ways. In the 1990s, Mary Robinson used the Irish presidency to advance human rights in a transcendent manner; and although Israel’s Reuven Rivlin came up through the right, he now has many admirers on the left. By contrast, even Prospect readers will struggle to name any of the recent presidents of Germany. But that is precisely because it is perfectly possible to dispatch the necessary ceremony of the state without either pomp or controversy.

From the point of high theory, making pre-eminence heritable is an affront to every notion of the equal opportunity that Daniel Markovits and Adrian Wooldridge debate on p12. Attempts to update the principle—like Nick Clegg’s equal-treatment primogeniture reforms—only expose the arbitrary unfairness of the underlying rule, since babies can no more help being born second than they can arriving as girls. Or indeed, failing to have been born into a royal family.

“An awkward privy counsellor could give all the doubts an airing at the Accession Council that proclaims the new King”

Old habits of thought die hard, but the first step is merely to admit the separation of the person and the office of the head of state. This should not be impossible. In the Netherlands the last three Queens have abdicated when they reached the age of around 70; recent years have seen abdications in Belgium, Spain and Japan. And in the last decade, even the Vatican—perhaps the only institution that can outdo the British monarchy for bizarre tradition—saw Papacy disentangled from Pope when Benedict XVI retired. There should be no shame in a nonagenarian monarch hanging up the considerable weight of St Edward’s Crown.

Except, of course, once you admit there is choice about when the crown passes, it is harder to close off the question of to whom it passes to. It is already in the air, with endless press speculation about some or all of the Queen’s official functions leapfrogging Charles to William. A recent Deltapoll fortified the “skip a generation” cause by finding a “20-point lead” for the son over the father in the “next monarch” stakes—plus the glorious kicker that among the youngest adults, the most the popular option is for the Crown to jump “down and across” the family tree to Harry. And if you are entertaining that sort of wild leap, then… why be restricted to a royal?

If there is already this sort of range of opinion among the public, it would be as well for some awkward privy counsellors—mostly retired politicians—to give it an airing at the “Accession Council” that meets at St James’s Palace to acknowledge and proclaim the new King. It has always been by acclamation of course: Tony Benn used to fantasise about forcing a vote but, since he died in 2014, it will fall to some other brave soul to try the stunt. It won’t stop the succession, but it would make a point, and it might kickstart an overdue conversation.

And stunt though it would be, it is hardly as dastardly a trick as that pulled in 2019 when parliament was suspended in the Crown’s name. No one would try that in a country of equal citizens. And if that’s really what we want then, ultimately, we need to make room at the top.

Read David Allen Green on why the Crown is at a constitutional crossroads