The recent debate on changing the rules of royal succession has only served to remind many people in this country what an absurd and out-dated constitution this country has. Why, in the 21st century – or in any century for that matter – do we consider the freedom of one family to marry whom they choose a constitutional question? The answer is simple: the monarchy is about power and privilege, it is designed to protect that power and privilege by masking it in the ‘magic’ and ‘majesty’ of royal mythology.
It is one of the great deceptions of our age – the idea that the monarchy is ‘harmless’ or that it simply doesn’t matter. Even Evan Harris, an otherwise intelligent and accomplished MP (representing Oxford West and Abingdon for the Liberal Democrats), suggested this most bizarre of institutions could stay for those very reasons – and because it is ‘popular’. But the monarchy isn’t harmless, and this issue really does matter.
There are two key themes to the republican argument, both are strong arguments against the monarchy. The first is what I often refer to as the ‘princes and palaces’ argument. This basically makes the case that inheritance of public office is wrong in principle, it doesn’t work in practice, it generates greed and deference and it corrupts those it touches.
Democracy isn’t just a nice concept, it is the fundamental bedrock of modern progressive society. It is an idea that is little understood in this country, but essentially it is based on the notion that we are all equal citizens. It follows then that we all have an equal right to govern ourselves and therefore all those in positions of public office can only be there with our consent. Therefore monarchy is wrong in principle and has no place in our democracy.
Inheritance of public office doesn’t work in practice because it leaves to chance what is a very important decision – choosing our very highest representative. Yes, we’ve been reasonably lucky in the sense that the current monarch has done an okay job. But what sort of head of state we will get with Charles is anyone’s guess, but no-one’s choice.
The second, and perhaps more important, theme is the question of ‘power and politics’. The monarchy isn’t just some harmless decoration, it is the core of the British constitution. It is the source of all political and legal power in this country, it is what allows the Prime Minister to take us to war or to sign treaties without the consent of parliament. It is what enables parliament to whittle away our rights and freedoms without the consent of the people. The Crown is all powerful. It has been placed in parliament, which in effect means we now have King Gordon wielding the power while Queen Elizabeth lives in the big house. But the PM’s control over monarchical power doesn’t make it any more acceptable.
There is no higher authority than our parliament. Yes, European Union law has direct applicability in British courts, yes there are treaties we’ve signed which put obligations on us to, for example, not use the death penalty. But these are only binding while our parliament agrees them to be. Parliament is sovereign, it has virtually all the power. What power it doesn’t have the PM has through the use of the royal prerogatives. Oh, and the PM pretty much controls parliament too. So when the nation was debating whether or not we should sign the Lisbon treaty it really came down to one-man-one-vote. And that one man was Gordon Brown.
Britain has the least intelligible, least democratic constitution in the western world. It is a train-wreck of a constitution, deliberately kept vague and mysterious so the people can’t quite get to grips with how it all works. It isn’t and never has been based on the principle of popular sovereignty. Our constitution is based on the power of Kings – the power has shifted slightly, but still ‘we the people’ rarely get a look in, save for the occasional chance to elect less than half our parliament.
All of this can be traced back to the monarchy. That isn’t to say the monarch herself is to blame, although she isn’t above criticism. It is the institution that is at fault. It is open to abuse, it masks the truth about power behind the faÃ§ade of royalty, it deadens debate and holds back reform.
Our democracy should inspire aspiration amongst our young, it should instil in all of us a sense of responsibility for our politics, a real sense of ‘we the people’. Britain is a great country, a union of nations we should all be proud of, and for that reason we should have the best of everything – and that means the very best democracy possible. That means a democracy based on the notion of popular sovereignty, one where the power of the politicians is limited, not limitless. A democracy that has no place for inheritance of public office, deference and servility.
Tinkering with the succession really is a case of shifting deckchairs. Forget reform, abolition of the monarchy is the challenge and a democratic republican constitution for Britain is the answer.
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This post was written by Graham Smith