The Guardian (leader) – 6 December 2000
The irrelevant monarchy
Magic or not, let in the daylight
We need a level and sober debate
'The Queen will today travel by state coach and horses to parliament wearing the Imperial State Crown. She will sit on a throne in the House of Lords, surrounded by a sea of tiaras, red robes and ermine and command the House of Commons to attend upon her. The lord chancellor will, on bended knee, hand her a speech setting out the government's programme. The Queen will perch her spectacles upon her nose and begin with the words: "My government..."
Few of her subjects will, one imagines, be watching this piece of ritual, so heavy with dubious symbolism and history. There will doubtless be a short clip of pageantry on tonight's television news, which will rapidly move on to the subsequent debate. The little royal prelude will be thought by most to be charming, but irrelevant.
The "irrelevant monarchy" is a common theme amongst royalists, agnostics and even republicans. These days (they argue) the royals are decorative. They have no real power or influence. One may hold them in awe or in contempt, but at a time when we are having to import nurses from Spain and a rail journey from London to Nottingham takes nine hours there are surely more important things to discuss? The opposite case is simultaneously argued by defenders of the crown. This runs: like it or not, the monarchy is embedded in our constitutional arrangements and is, indeed, the only constant. Lords reform is a mess. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and even England are on a devolutionary journey with no obvious destination. Our institutional relationships with Europe are neurotically fraught and ever fluid. The stability of having the Queen as head of state is - in some views - essential and - in others - a reassuring veil of continuity that allows a government of the left to be more radical than it otherwise could be.
Deported for life
So the question of who should be our head of state is seldom addressed, and never by our elected representatives. MPs are indeed barred from debating "the conduct of the sovereign, the heir to the throne or other members of the royal family". An MP who raised the question of whether Britain might be better off as a republic could be sent to the Tower.
A silly bit of decorative irrelevance, of course. Like the Treason Felony Act 1848, which should really be now used by the attorney general against this newspaper, since it threatens that anyone imagining or publishing anything which might lead to the Queen's downfall should be deported for life. For we do question how much longer Britain should remain a monarchy. Today and over the next few days a number of writers argue in these pages that the widespread programme of reform undertaken by this government - the most sweeping since the 1830s - cannot be satisfactorily completed unless we also address the position of who should be head of state, together with the means by which they are appointed.
To be clear from the start, nothing we argue is intended to reflect upon the present royal family. As people we may admire them, despise them, pity them or envy them. That is, in a sense, beside the point. The hereditary principle is a lottery. One generation gets a Winston, the next gets a Randolph. One generation gets the Duke of Marlborough, another the Marquess of Blandford.
It is fruitless complaining. We have been extraordinarily lucky with the present Queen, who has behaved throughout her reign with considerable dignity and quiet common sense. Who can tell whether Charles has whatever it takes, or William thereafter? Those who support the hereditary principle as a way of selecting our head of state should accept the throw of the dice.
The problem is not one particular royal family or one particular royal. The problem is the office itself. Now that Westminster has been purged of most of its earls, dukes, marquesses and viscounts there is a general acknowledgement that the purge was long overdue. The present arrangements are widely agreed to be flawed, but no one at all argues for the return of the hereditaries. That leaves the beached whale of monarchy as the only remaining part of our unwritten constitution dependent on the accident of birth.
This is, in itself, indefensible. While much of the rest of our society - its aristocracy, its land, its property, its money, its hierarchies and feudal arrangements - was organised upon hereditary lines, the monarchy comfortably fitted into a wider pattern. Our society is no longer arranged upon these lines and the monarchy no longer fits. But our objections to the continuation of the constitutional monarchy go further. As our writers demonstrate in this series, the crown is far from being an abstract. It lies, like the Rosetta stone, at the centre of our national life. It underpins every aspect of our current set-up - and stands behind most of the flaws or excesses of our system of government.
If you think Britain's degree of centralisation is our core problem, blame the crown prerogative which hoards all executive power at the centre, placing it in the hands of the prime minister. If you hate the way parliament has been eclipsed, blame the crown prerogative, which allows a prime minister to govern with barely a nod to MPs. If it is secrecy you loathe, and freedom of information you want, look to the crown - in whose name the executive can act in the dark. If your beef is with Europe, where you believe the council of ministers takes decisions in your name that you never hear about and cannot change, ask with what authority British ministers act: the answer is the crown prerogative.
If you dislike the culture of patronage that still informs our politics, with a second chamber stuffed with cronies and monied benefactors of the main parties, then blame the crown: for it is the "fount of patronage" from which all honours, titles and largesse flow. Is your local hospital run by people you never voted for and have never seen? That is because Britain is a quango state, with appointees taking crucial decisions over all our lives: they can, thanks to the the power of crown prerogative. If you have ever wondered where our judges come from - people who will be making ever more crucial decisions of life and liberty for all of us - then consider the lord chancellor, able to fill the judiciary in the name of the crown. If you wonder by what authority a prime minister can send British troops to Sierra Leone without troubling MPs to consider the matter themselves, then blame the crown prerogative.
Accident of birth
It is a shared view on both left and right that the constitution needs rebalancing. Parliament must be given more powers. Prime ministers and their coteries must be more accountable to parliament. The House of Lords needs more legitimacy. There needs to be profound and far-reaching rebalancing of local power against central power, of national powers against supranational powers. Is it really imaginable that this debate can take place without a word of argument about the crown prerogative, as well as the historical loose ends, legal flummery and the malign constitutional impact (as well as the merits) of monarchy? Nor is it imaginable that the constitutional monarchy could be retained while dismantling crown prerogative. Those closest to the Queen are adamant that the vast edifice of power that is the crown must remain. They say the same about the residual royal prerogatives exercised by the monarch herself: the power to appoint a prime minister and refuse a dissolution of parliament. Both underpin her ability to serve as head of state and cannot be taken away.
But the influence of the crown is also cultural, and here, too, there is a need for change. Though we speak of "an accident of birth", in fact, little is left to accident with our royal family. The Act of Settlement says that in order to qualify as our head of state you must be an heir of the body of Princess Sophia, electress of Hanover; a protestant in communion with the Church of England; not marry a Roman Catholic; not be adopted and have parents who were married at the time they conceived you. More silly ritual, of course. But do not shine a torch on it too brightly in case the whole foundations crumble. One hundred and thirty-five years after Bagehot, we are still told that daylight and magic do not mix.
As things stand, the next king will be asked at his coronation - before a worldwide audience of billions - if he is willing to do "the utmost of your power to maintain ... the Protestant reform religion established by law". The question expects the answer yes. But, of course, the answer should be no. Charles mutters about becoming "defender of faiths". The Archbishop of York calls for its reform, along with the Act of Settlement. The Scottish Parliament calls for its repeal. The palace says nothing, and nothing happens.
This paper's contribution to breaking this logjam is to ask the courts to consider whether the Act of Settlement is compatible with the Human Rights Act. While we are about it, we are also doubtful that the Treason Felony Act is compatible with guarantees on free speech enshrined in Article 10 of the European convention. The legal process should, in itself, provoke a fundamental debate about how precisely the crown wishes to define its future role and whether it is any longer tenable for church and state (not to mention armed forces and the courts) to be united in one person. It will, we predict, be an unalarming and sober debate. When all but a few hereditary peers left the House of Lords, the ravens did not flee the Tower and our rivers did not run uphill. We will learn that we can discuss the monarchy in a similarly level-headed fashion.
Citizens or subjects?
Where should that debate go? It seems fruitless to begin by demanding the immediate advent of a republic in Britain: it ain't going to happen. We should begin instead by asking for a referendum about what sort of head of state we should have once the Queen dies. People ought to be able to say whether they would prefer to have an elected head of state or to continue with a monarchy. Do they want to be citizens or subjects? Our poll today shows a predictably confused picture. One in three supports the novel idea of a referendum. Given the choice between Charles and William, there is an even sharper split, with Charles mustering only 49% against 41% for William. People would - by a majority of two to one - much rather think of themselves as citizens than subjects. And there is a clear view - nearly 70% - that the Act of Settlement is objectionable. A referendum - sooner rather than later - should be threatening to no one. If - as seems likely - the royal family were to win public endorsement, it would give them a form of qualified legitimacy they presently struggle to claim. The public should then be asked whether their monarch - even if s/he remains notional head of state - should have any meaningful powers. Our poll suggests that only a small majority - 54% - are in favour of a hereditary monarch keeping any political powers. Stripping them of any formal constitutional links to either church or government would be half the battle won.
The younger royals must be acutely aware how uneasily an hereditary monarchy now fits into a Britain that is markedly more egalitarian and pluralistic than when the Queen was crowned. This misfit would doubtless cause any family doomed to assume the role great unhappiness. It is an impossible role and will become increasingly so. Engage with your subjects (the Queen taking tea in a Glasgow tower block) and you risk ridicule as well as (expressing sorrow over Paddington) empathy.
Stir up controversy (the Prince of Wales on organic farming, architecture, GM Foods ) and you are indulging in an abuse of power. Remain silent and you become an unaccountable sideshow. Split up with your wife and live with another woman and you mirror all current social trends amongst your fellow citizens. But can you then head a church whose views on divorce and extramarital sex have not yet caught up with the news from the central statistical office?
Defenders of the monarchy argue that it retains its appeal and potency by virtue of its ability to reflect a nation to itself. Consider only the official 18th birthday pictures of our future head of state dressed in white tie and Eton tails. Which teenager in the country looked at those pictures and truly saw a reflection of themselves?
The Act of Settlement may send an odd message to black, brown, Catholic, Jewish, female, unmarried and Muslim Britons, but the excuse supposedly lies in history. What is the excuse for the William picture? How can those so attuned to the power of symbols be simultaneously so blind to them?
We declare our hand: we hope that in time we will move - by democratic consensus - to become a republic. We are gradualists: we accept that it will not happen tomorrow. Let the Queen remain Queen for as long as she lives, or she wishes, or she remains able. But in the meantime there should be a long, vigorous and grown-up debate - both inside and outside parliament - as to who, or what, should succeed her.'
Postscript by Irène Diependaal written for Hereditas Historiae
On 6 December 2000 the British newspaper The Guardian had a special edition contaiing a cry for a debate on the future of the British newspaper. This leading article was giving the view of The Guardian itself. Several commentators presented on 6 December 2000, and the following days, their points for view in The Guardian. In this section of Hereditas Historiae the contributions of Vernon Bogdanor and Jonathan Freedland are published. These three articles are still to be found on the website of The Guardian. Most comment articles disappeared when the debate slowed down and changed direction.
The Guardian also published the full text of The Act of Settlement (1701). It is also to be found in this section of Hereditas Historiae (together with some extra information from the official website of British Parliament). An essay review on the Act of Settlement and its surrounding history, written by Irène Diependaal, is to be found in the section “Essay reviews”.