The Guardian (opinion) – 6 December 2000
The Guardian has got it wrong
By Vernon Bogdanor
'A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a hereditary head of state reigns but does not rule. In separating the role of head of state from that of head of government, a constitutional monarchy ensures that the head of state is free from party ties. This, surely, is of inestimable value in an age when politics has come to invade almost every aspect of our national life, choking all too many activities in its unnatural embrace.
It is because of her political neutrality that the Queen can act not only as head of state but also as head of the nation, or, perhaps more accurately, as head of the various nations which comprise the United Kingdom. At times of national commemoration such as the anniversary of D Day or VE Day, the Queen speaks for all, whatever their political allegiance. She alone is in a position to interpret the country to itself. A president could not easily do so because of the political baggage which he or she would carry. Republicans have, admittedly, been searching, rather desperately, for a modern analogue to the late Lord Franks, a member of the great and the good without any party history, whom they can propose for the British presidency. The trouble is, however, that Margaret Thatcher demanded that the great and the good stand up to be counted. They were either for her or against. Since then, the great and the good seem mysteriously to have disappeared.
But in any case no figure, however eminent, could aspire to the presidency without acquiring the support of a political party. Indeed, with a directly elected president, as in France, the parties would put all their energies into getting their own candidate into Buckingham Palace. This conception of the presidency, however, as political leader as well as head of state, would radically alter our political system. Politicians here would be no more likely to agree to it than they were in Australia where last year's republican referendum offered the alternative of a president chosen not, as in France, by the people but, as in Germany and Italy, by parliament.
A president chosen by parliament would most likely be a retired politician, a party warhorse who could be relied upon not to cause trouble. Names such as Neil Kinnock and Tony Newton spring to mind, although the Conservatives might just conceivably be prepared to risk Margaret Thatcher, hoping perhaps that high symbolic office would put a stop to her wilder utterances. One cannot help feeling, however, that the appearance of Mr Kinnock, Mr Newton or even Lady Thatcher on the balcony of Buckingham Palace for the anniversary of VE Day, would not have had quite the emotional resonance of an appearance by the Queen.
There is, in much of the western world, a distinctly anti-political mood, as voters come to feel that they can make better decisions for themselves than politicians acting on their behalf. It was indeed partly for this reason that the Australian referendum resulted in a defeat for the republicans. In the United States the legitimacy of government has been severely damaged by the confusions in Florida that remind us of the dangers of a political system in which every office has a party taint, even the courtrooms being stuffed with political appointees. If the answer is more politicians, we are, as John Major once said, asking the wrong question.
The unifying role of the monarchy has become even more important with devolution which has made Britain an explicitly multinational state. In Belgium, it is sometimes said that the king is the only Belgian, everyone else being either Fleming or Walloon. Similarly, in Britain a president would be either English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish - most probably English, since the English comprise 85% of the population. The Queen alone can belong, not to any single one of the nationalities comprising the United Kingdom, but to all of them.
There is a further feature of our monarchy which is often ignored: its international aspect. The Queen is the symbolic head of a multiracial Commonwealth of 54 countries representing around one-third of the world's population. Most of these countries are former British colonies who have chosen, entirely voluntarily, to continue their association with Britain. While lacking formal powers, the Commonwealth is not without influence, enabling Britain, in Douglas Hurd's words, to "punch above her weight" in diplomatic affairs, through her connections with Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. An elected head of the Commonwealth, however, would probably seek a more positive leadership role which the Commonwealth would be unable to sustain, while a rotating head, as once proposed by Tony Benn, might have allowed Idi Amin of Uganda to traverse the world as head of the Commonwealth. Thus the device by which the Queen is a symbolic head enables it to avoid what could prove an embarrassing constitutional problem.
It is because the arguments for constitutional monarchy are so powerful that republicanism has not been a serious political force in Britain since the 1870s, when Joseph Chamberlain confidently told his Radical colleague, Sir Charles Dilke, that: "The republic must come, and at the rate at which we are moving, it will come in our generation."
The 1870s, however, proved to be the high water mark of republicanism, and, in the 20th century, the left has disdained it. The Labour party conference last debated the monarchy in 1923 when republicanism was defeated by 3,694,000 votes to 386,000. In the aftermath of the abdication, in December 1936, a republican motion in the Commons could muster only five votes in its support.
Today, however, republicans have come up with a new argument. They claim that monarchy, whose roots lie in the past, symbolises deference and hierarchy, thereby underpinning values which hinder the modernisation of Britain. It is the idea of the crown, insists Stephen Haseler, chairman of Republic, which "stops us from seriously modernising our polity".
It is hard to take this argument seriously. Denmark, Norway and Sweden, after all, are monarchies, yet more markedly egalitarian than such republics as France and Germany. Italy is hardly more modern than Norway, nor is Portugal noticeably more efficient than the Netherlands. Moreover, the experience of Japan shows that a monarchy of a highly traditional kind is perfectly compatible with economic success. The truth is that, in Britain, the monarchy has become the latest and the least convincing of the many scapegoats which the left has produced to account for its failure to win the people to its cause.
There is indeed no correlation between republicanism and modernisation. Constitutional monarchy yields not conservatism but legitimacy since it settles beyond argument the question of who is to be head of state, putting that position beyond the reach of politicians. Wise leaders of the left, from Gladstone to Blair, have always understood that because change is bound to be disorientating, a reforming government needs the monarchy even more than a government committed to the status quo. It is for this reason that the hopes of modern republicans are likely to be dashed as cruelly as were those of Joseph Chamberlain 130 years ago.'
Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae
In December 2000, at the time of writing this article, Vernon Bogdanor (1943) was professor of government at Oxford University (Brasenose College). He had already published The Monarchy and the Constitution (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995) and had been an advisor to the BBC series “Monarchy”.
Nowadays Vernon Bogdanor, semi-retired, is a research professor at the Centre for British Politics and Government, King’s College, London. Some more information is to be found on his page at King’s College. Vernon Bogdanor has written widely on government and politics. He has been an adviser to government and parliamentary bodies on many occasions, and in 1998 was awarded the CBE for services to constitutional history. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.
Vernon Bogdanor still contributes, with comment articles, to a broad range of national newspapers in Great Britain.