As a republican I’ve been sickened this week – not by the pomp, ceremony and pageantry on display following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, but by the ignorance of other self-styled republicans about how close what we have is to the ideal.
The British constitutional monarchy is the historic creation of the 17th-century merchant class. It was won through a failed civil war followed by a successful constitutional coup in 1688. What we’ve had since then is, arguably, a “monarchic republic”.
It is not as good as a real republic, but its basic principle – that sovereignty resides only in “the monarch in parliament” – is one that has allowed fairly radical constitutional progress.
Thanks to the struggles of the labour movement in the 19th and 20th centuries, and to the Suffragettes, every adult can vote. Thanks to Attlee, the additional constraint of the European Convention on Human Rights was introduced in 1950.
Thanks to Tony Blair we have the Human Rights Act and the Supreme Court – which in 2019 was able to declare the suspension of parliament unlawful in the name of the Queen. Thanks to the Electoral Commission we have reasonably fair elections.
Thanks to 47 years of EU and EC membership, even after Brexit, we have the muscle memory of an executive constrained by international law and supranational treaty that will not be easily forgotten.
There are plenty of republics, with cast-iron constitutions – most notably the US – where all these things are currently in doubt. But the accession of King Charles allows us to discuss further change. This will, in part, be driven by Charles himself, who is said to want a slimmed-down royal household and to understand the need for strict political neutrality.
But it also needs to be driven from below.
The ten days of national mourning were never going to be the time when the electorate got a say in how they want this iteration of the monarchy to work. But it’s a discussion that needs to start – both here and in the “realms” of the former Empire – above all Australia – where the Queen’s death has already triggered new demands for a republic.
What would a better monarchic republic look like and why do we need it?
First, let’s look at the deficiencies of the governance system we have. From stuffing the BBC with Tory place-men, to stuffing ministries with non-executive cronies, to politicising the appointment of police chiefs, to the proroguing of parliament against the law, to the use of peerages as open bribery, we have a pattern of executive behaviour that needs to be halted and reversed.
It began in the Blair-Brown era but has flourished under four Tory prime ministers. It comes down, essentially, to Downing Street and the Cabinet Office being transformed into power centres unaccountable either to parliament, media scrutiny or the law.
The rule of law, meanwhile, is being eroded. Serious crimes like rape and fraud carry disgracefully low conviction rates. The absence of resources – from police, to courts to the probation service – has left petty crime virtually decriminalised. Meanwhile organised crime flourishes under the noses of police forces armed to the teeth.
All these are symptoms of democratic decay, and they have been driven by the marketisation of everything. As Goldsmiths economist William Davis put it in 2014: neoliberalism is the “disenchantment of politics by economics”, the coercive insertion of market norms of behaviour into all parts of political and social life.
Once the market makes the decisions, democracies, constitutions and rule of law are always going to be degraded.
Meanwhile the United Kingdom itself – whose lions, unicorns, and standards are imprinting themselves on to our eyeballs with every hour of TV coverage – stands a reasonable chance of breaking up.
So here’s what I would propose. That we first formalise Britain’s monarchic republic with a written constitution. Even if you proposed for that constitution to embody the absolute status quo it could not, because in simplifying the complexities, and codifying the informalities, things would change.
Take, for example, the appointment of the Lord Lieutenants to every county. Technically these are ceremonial posts, appointed by the monarch. In actuality they are both political sinecures in the gift of Downing Street and an informal intelligence network for Buckingham Palace. Yes, they “promote cooperation and good works” – but do we actually need them?
Once you start codifying the relationship between the monarch, parliament, the judiciary and the executive you either remove or neuter such informal networks of influence.
It’s the same with the vast and costly mechanism of the expanded royal household itself. If you are going to “slim it down” – as Charles is said to desire – you are essentially removing an elite hierarchical power system and leaving a gap to fill.
I’ve never thought getting rid of the monarchy should be a priority for the left. I’m not even that exercised by the separation of church and state. It’s the legal constraints on executive power we need to strengthen, and the “sovereign in parliament” can actually be a tool for achieving that, as the prorogation crisis showed.
It’s up to Charles, and his successors, to decide how they want to operate their side of the bargain this country made in 1688. But the electorate has a continuous and legitimate right to decide how we want our side to work.
The principles should be: a minimum of informal power; the separation of aristocratic title from political and business interest; the end of royal patronage; complete transparency in the interactions of the monarch and the executive, including subjecting the royal household fully to the Freedom of Information Act. Write all this into a constitution; call a convention to ratify it and you would see the systematic strengthening of what we have, at a time when many other democracies are in trouble.
How other countries respond to the change of monarch is up to them. For the Brits, as long as we remain in a single Union, turning an informal constitutional monarchy into a modern, formalised monarchic republic looks doable within the decade.