As I said a few posts ago, these are interesting times in the UK just at the moment. We have the Olympics next month and that won’t happen again for another hundred years or so if we’re lucky. And we also have just the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. In well over a millennium only three monarchs have made it to sixty years, and one of them was insane at the time. So 2012 is special in more than one way. We have a chance for a harmless knees-up, based on something that happens less than once a century, and therefore we should take it. Those who take a different view, such as Republic, are seen as joyless party-poopers, and, reading their website, one can see why.
A lot of commentators have opined about the significance of this week’s events. Elizabeth II has been around for a long time, even longer than I have. In 1952 things were very different – just to take a few examples, hardly anyone had a car, a telephone or a fridge, our lives were on average ten years shorter and getting to university was something that happened to people that you didn’t know and never would. It was a different world, but continuity – linking the world of 1952 with the world of 2012 – is represented by our Head of State, ensuring that we haven’t lost touch with history altogether. In other words, the British Royal Family provides us with a stability not available to many other nations. The Queen has worked with twelve prime ministers during her reign, and political times have often been turbulent in the last sixty years, which is unsurprising given the presence of such controversial figures as Wilson, Thatcher and Blair, the loss of Empire, the cold war, recessions and financial meltdown, race relations (as they used to call it).
How influential has Her Majesty been these last sixty years? In 1952 Harry Truman was US President and Konrad Adenauer Chancellor of West Germany. These two, not even British citizens, have defined the Britain of today much more than any member of the Royal Family. Compared to the British politicians mentioned above, as well as many more, and also to many cultural, artistic and sporting icons, the royals are remarkable in the main for what difference they haven’t made – they share this distinction with the churches, incidentally. That is not to say the British head of state has to be influential. The monarchy is a largely ceremonial part of the constitution. Someone has to sign all those bills into acts. In theory, the monarch has the power to dismiss Parliament, but in practice this hasn’t happened for almost 200 years. Almost everything that the Queen does that is connected with the constitution, she does on the “advice” of her ministers. This is how the British constitution has evolved, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with this. A head of state does not have to wield political power.
So, given that the monarchy has become symbolic, why have a monarchy – even a constitutional monarchy – at all? As Britain is supposed to be vaguely meritocratic, is there any place for the hereditary principle in the 21st century?
There are a number of arguments put forward by defenders of the monarchy. It is argued that continuity and stability are themselves good things to have and are more likely under conditions of hereditary succession. Correlation, of course, does not imply causation, and any study of political stability within countries in the last hundred or so years wouldn’t lend itself to support that argument. It is true that there has been no revolution or civil war in Britain for many years, and the Scandinavian countries (most of which are also constitutional monarchies) and the Netherlands have also been remarkably stable. However, in Europe at least, it is typical that revolutions and civil wars have centred around the role of monarchies. England’s civil war was no exception, and although Cromwell’s republic was short-lived and followed by a hereditary protectorate, the role of the monarchy following that was instrumental in the revolution of 1688. A hundred years later, in France, the monarchy can hardly be accused of promoting stability.
George V wisely, from his perspective, distanced himself from his close relatives in Germany and Russia during wartime in the early part of last century. This included changing the family name from the German Saxe-Coburg Gotha to the quintessentially English Windsor. The fact that the monarchy had to adapt to general political feeling in order to survive demolishes the stability argument. For as the country in general is barely recognisable from itself sixty years ago, the same thing can be said about the Royal Family. Indeed, any criticism as there has been, has been in the main because of the failure of the monarchy to adapt. For example, the Queen was heavily criticised for failing to react with the requisite degree of understanding at the time of the death of the Princess of Wales. There was no prospect of a republican revolution at that time, to be sure, but in order to preserve itself, the Royal Family has learned that it must adapt to the mood of the nation – albeit that it centred around an unstable attention-seeker – rather than the nation’s mood adapting to the monarchy.
Possibly the closest that the monarchy has come to losing its place in the last hundred years is the abdication crisis of 1936, which centred around the identity of the person that a reigning monarch could marry. Many years later, when a suitable partner for the Prince of Wales was being sought, there was a prospect of him marrying a Catholic, at which point the wisest of idiots, Enoch Powell, and, allegedly, the Pope, fulminated against such a union. It’s hard to see that sort of thing happening today, though I could be wrong. Prince Charles, after all the matchmaking efforts, married a commoner following his divorce, and so did his son, with hardly a mention. Again, this demonstrates that, rather than promoting stability by its very existence, the royals have had to change themselves in order to reflect stability.
The second major argument in favour of constitutional monarchy is that it keeps politicians in check. The head of state is not a partisan politician and therefore is more concerned with the workings of the system itself rather than any particular political policy or interest. The royals are wealthy enough in their own right to be able to ignore any financial inducements that might come their way. The Queen in most respects comes across as unremarkable, although this very unremarkableness is held to be a virtue. Her main concern, we are told, is her duty to her position, and no-one can accuse her of favouring one side or the other. Little snippets come out, such as her like for Harold Wilson and dislike for Margaret Thatcher, but these are never confirmed and in any case it is not unusual to have to deal in a neutral fashion with those one likes or dislikes personally.
Certainly there should be something that mitigates against political excesses. One result of the First World War was the growth of democracy throughout Europe. But following the world-wide economic depression the majority of Europe’s democracies had been replaced by the onset of the Second World War, and in many cases, notably in Germany, the anti-democratic governments had actually been elected in the first place. In many countries the ruling families were notable for their support of various factions, and there is nothing to stop a monarch from having political opinions nor is there anything to stop a monarch from promoting them. It’s well-known, for example, that King Edward VIII of Britain was sympathetic to the German system of the 1930’s, and King Alfonso of Spain favoured military intervention in government at around the same time – it is noted that his grandson, King Juan Carlos I, was instrumental in preventing a putative military coup in 1981. My guess is that, had Edward not abdicated, Britain would be a republic today. For the success of the current Queen is due in large part to her own acquiescence in the system in which she became a part. Her own personality is what renders her fit for the current task, not that she has been particularly notable otherwise.
Her successor is slightly different. The Prince of Wales is well-known as a political lobbyist, although because of recently-bolstered secrecy provisions surrounding the Royal Family we don’t know exactly what these opinions are nor their extent. While I wouldn’t suggest that Charles favours a complete break with our current arrangements it is true that he does promote some rather odd ideas, particularly in regard to the role of faith in government and so-called “alternative medicines”. Unfortunately, under current secrecy rules, we have no way of knowing what his views are nor how he promotes them, and so far any attempts to discover them have failed. This would only add to any speculation about them. But what this does tell us is that while politicians should rightly be kept in check, then so should the constitutional monarch, no less. And it also tells us that, however innocuous a head of state that Charles (King George VII (??), we are led to believe) could turn out to be, the way that he acquiesces in this, together with governmental attempts to protect any interventions render him unsuitable for the role and say little or nothing in favour of the system that fosters it.
Britain has an “unwritten constitution”. This doesn’t mean that we have no constitution at all, nor that what constitutional arrangements we have are irrelevant or should be discarded. Defenders of this arrangement see this as a good thing – that written constitutions are too inflexible and don’t allow us to to react sufficiently to changes. Somehow they promote flexibility by also promoting keeping things the same in the guise of “stability”. Of course, the American Constitution, with which British arrangements are often favourably compared, has occasionally, though not recently, been changed itself. When people talk about the benefits of the American constitution they are in the main talking about the Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments to that constitution. While I would not argue that American political life is perfect, the Constitution has been remarkably successful, and no serious politician would seek to act against it, as his career would not survive such an attempt. Investing political arrangements in a flexible system based around a person rather than an idea gives us nothing.
The third argument in favour of monarchy is its connection with tradition and history. As I’ve argued elsewhere, traditions are created and discarded all the time such that the only real tradition we can be said to have is an attachment to “tradition”. And if the monarchy suddenly stopped or withered away, it’s not like Hampton Court would disappear or Henry VIII would never have existed. Despite the French monarchy losing their heads in the Eighteenth Century the Palace of Versailles is still doing good business.
A fourth, related to the second, argument is that any replacement for a hereditary monarchy would inevitably be worse. Certainly, with regard to Scandinavia and Holland especially, we can see from other countries that largely egalitarian states can coexist with hereditary monarchies, and also that many republics fail in this respect. Again, correlation does not imply causation. We can also point to stable and progressive republics within Europe and North America while pointing out repressive monarchies such as those of the Arabian peninsula. Typically, these arguments pose the question “would you rather have a President Thatcher / Blair / Campbell or (Heaven forfend) Bush / Sarkozy”. This misses the point completely. British prime ministers are not heads of state, and the British political system need not automatically be replaced by something based on arrangements within the US or France or anywhere else. Should the monarchy be replaced, it would have to be replaced by something, to be sure, but to point to perceived failings elsewhere, whether justified or not, is a straw man argument.
As far as I can see, these arguments in favour of monarchy fail. There are some other arguments against, largely to do with cost or the personalities of members of the Royal Family. These also fail, as a republic would also incur costs, probably not dissimilar to the current system, and any head of state, royal or not, could conceivably have personal failings. Indeed, the last two German presidents prior to the incumbent have been forced to resign, one for uttering controversial views, the other for corruption. In Germany as in Britain, executive power is separated from the head of state, so should the monarchy be removed from its current position it’s likely that, barring revolution, the UK would be similar in its political constitution to Germany. The fact that two German presidents have been forced to resign is an argument in favour of the German system, in that the head of state is formally accountable to that system. Although neither president was formally impeached, they did owe their positions to the German Constitution (the Basic Law) and to the support of the Bundesrat. Although presidential resignations are not desirable under normal circumstances, Germany did not become noticeably less stable as a result, and this is because the constitutional arrangements, rather than the office-holder, dictate the position.
This leaves us with the last of the arguments in favour of monarchy, which can be summed up by the phrase “if it ain’t broke, then why fix it?” If that’s the case, then why have politics or politicians at all? The fact is that if a better alternative exists, in any walk of life, then we should not be complacent, and the constitutional arrangements surrounding the head of state are no exception. I would say that people making this argument see a republic as a leap into the unknown, although republics are a commonplace in the first world, so not that unknown. This is compounded, as described above, by monarchists via adverse comparisons to unpopular (from a British perspective) heads of state, like G.W. Bush or Sarkozy, without reference to the fact that those countries operate under very different systems, and there is no need to emulate the American or French systems of executive government, although, no doubt, they have much to teach us in certain respects.
We are told that by the standards of modern, developed economies, the British are still class-ridden. I don’t think that this is as true as it was even quite recently – observe, for example, the numbers of university entrants which has grown enormously over the last thirty years. Still, it is one of the first things that foreigners notice about the UK – that family background and things like schools still matter more than they should. The British Royal Family still stands at the apex of whatever remains of this system, which includes appointment of Anglican bishops, ex officio, to the legislature. Personally, I feel that in a democracy there is no room for any other “ocracy”, including meritocracy and aristocracy. While we can’t be fully described as either of those things, accident of birth has no place in any system which prides itself on being democratic.
A truly democratic system would be reflected in a democratic head of state, and this head of state would conform to and be limited by his or her role within it. I’m not completely convinced, but there is a role for a head of state under a modified British system to be a focal point for national identity and aspiration. The example I’m thinking of here is Nelson Mandela, although I’m aware that South Africa is far from perfect. It’s often that Elizabeth II reflects our own sense of identity but to my mind I can’t see how this works, she being a member of an exclusive club which, therefore, actually denies inclusivity (if that is a word).
I’m also not convinced that “nations”, by their existence, are the way forward for humanity. However, we must accept their existence at least for now, as well as accepting that what is in the national interest (of whatever nation) is not necessarily within the overall interest. But we could make a start. Elizabeth II is remarkable, if for nothing else, of recognising that her role is dependent upon her reaction to it. Her interest is to maintain her own family’s position in the British constitution. But what she has done is to highlight the monarchy’s reliance on the constitution, whatever that is, rather than the constitution’s reliance on the monarchy. At best, this is ambivalent. It’s time to take another perspective.
The Brits already have an alternative head of state in the personage of the Speaker of the House of Commons. Like the German President, the Speaker is not directly elected by common suffrage. I don’t see this as a problem, provided those doing the electing are themselves accountable. The Speaker owes his or her position to an ability to transcend party politics – analogous to the House of Windsor’s public view of themselves. Moreover, the Speaker can be replaced.
I don’t honestly see it coming, but it is time for Britain to join the modern world completely and have a head of state that is not in that position through accident of birth, but both represents continuity through history via “tradition”. It’s time for a republic.