The case for constitutional monarchy

by Carl Gardner on June 2, 2012

I’m not a “royalist”. Nobody in Britain is now in the old civil war sense of course, and I’m not one in the newer sense of loving the pageantry and froth that goes with royal occasions. In fact I used to be a republican, when I was sixteen and put pure abstract perfection above sense in matters constitutional.

But I don’t think like that now. In my view constitutional monarchy, along the sort of lines we have in Britain, is an excellent constitutional model, fully the equal of any alternative – and in some respects arguably better. We should stay with it. It’s time for the country to grow up, and turn decisively away from the case for change put forward by campaigners like Republic.

It’s true that we could move to having an elected President with largely ceremonial duties and some reserve constitutional powers – the sort of President they have in good democracies like Germany and Ireland. But why should we? In effect we already have this sort of head of state – we just call her our Queen. She’s unelected, of course. But if the President would have little or no political power (as the Queen does now), what, in a sense, is the point of electing him or her? Of course what the President does could matter a great deal in a moment of constitutional crisis – but those events are unpredictable, so it’s impossible to vote for someone today having any real idea of what the person could do in an unforeseeable moment of crisis.

The problem about electing a president is that the head of state would be yet another politician, probably supported by one of the parties. We’d be faced with serious questions about what electoral system to use, we’d worry about what would almost certainly be a very low turnout, and the candidates could well be either very bland ex-ministers or else semi-celebrity politicians of the Ken and Boris type. What would the term of office be, and when would elections be held? Would the President be chosen at general election time, and so probably be of the governing party? Would it be a mid-term choice, probably of an old opposition figure? The more you think about these issues, the more you realise that we’d be replacing a system that works well and is popular with one that would be risky and might quickly become discredited.

The very strength of the monarchy is that the Queen is not a politician identified with any political past or party. If a constitutional crisis occurs, whatever biases people might feel our current or future monarchs suffer from they have no ideological or tribal loyalty to any of our parties.

If we did elect a President, we’d probably decide we needed to specify more precisely the extent of his or her reserve powers – and indeed, Republic does want a written constitution. But that’d be a mistake for Britain, our unwritten constitution being one of our greatest strengths. In a constitutional crisis, the very uncertainty created by unwritten conventions and precedents means that politicians are forced to act cautiously and behave in ways they claim represent propriety – they cannot instead claim written rights or dispute them. Nor can they turn to the courts to ask judges to give them victory. The useful uncertainty built in to our system is too often unnoticed. It’s built in, for instance, to the convention – only a convention, you’ll note – that the Queen gives Royal assent to Parliamentary bills. It used to be built in to the arrangement surrounding the Queen’s power to grant or refuse a dissolution of Parliament and a general election – until this government got through its awful, unwise Fixed-term Parliaments Act. That’s an unhelpful piece of ad-hoc written constitutionalising that I hope’s repealed in the next Parliament.

Other countries, forced to create their own constitutional arrangements from scratch, have come up with very good designs: the United States and Germany are two excellent examples. I think those constitutions are outstanding achievements that have worked well. They have strengths and flaws, just as our constitution does, but they show us that, when it comes to constitutions, intelligent design can work. We here are lucky, in that we’ve never been forced to rely on intelligent design. Evolution has done its work for us. Over the last two hundred years, for instance, it’s gone further in reducing the power of the monarch than America’s founding fathers did when they reduced the King’s powers and subjected him to election as President. Evolution does well, too, as a method of making constitutions fit for the social environment.

Nor is Britain alone. We like to flatter ourselves that archaism and quirkiness are unique to Britain, and in our most hair-shirted moments feel the urge to sweep them all away so we can be shiny and modern like “everyone else”. But in fact many countries have similar constitutional arrangements to ours – in particular, quite a few of them are constitutional monarchies. Constitutional monarchy is in no sense an unusual, isolated or outmoded choice.

If you list the world’s major constitutional monarchies – the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Spain; Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of which share our monarch; and Japan – you realise that these are some of the best, most egalitarian and socially progressive societies in which anyone lives. This should make those on the left of politics especially think twice about change.

Republicanism is for puritans, purists and those who love to daydream about fixing what ain’t broke. Let’s keep our perfectly sound constitutional monarchy.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jeremy Poynton June 2, 2012 at 14:49

Spot on. Same here. I’m 60 and have been through a similar process to that which you describe. Brenda, or a Sarkozy, Blair or Obama? No contest. Her Maj defines public service. And her feller’s a laugh as well.

2 Stephen June 2, 2012 at 15:08

She’s harmless enough so I too would leave them be. As you say, they have no real power so there is no reason why they should stand for election.

Now business leaders, e.g., Beecroft, and their lobby organisations such as the IoD and CBI, seem to exert undue influence over government policy. Who elected them? Certainly not the majority of employees whose lives these lobbyists seek to run. I suggest Republicans should focus concern about democratic deficits on these groups, not Brenda et al.

3 Doug Young June 2, 2012 at 15:47

Change always has its challenges. That’s not a reason to avoid it.

There are more options than a president – we could have a British way. A commonwealth?

I’m for some kind of elected head to state for a simple reason. I’d like to be able to tell my children ‘You too can aim to be the highest in the land. This country is your country’

4 Adam Banks June 2, 2012 at 15:53

Essentially, then, what we need as head of state is an absence; a floating asterisk, like the Doonesbury Dubya. And you’re saying a hereditary monarch is the next best thing, avoiding the complexity and potential corruption of Presidential elections.

This is all very reasonable. But what about the hereditary aspect extending to the monarch’s offspring, in very active and influential ways, interfering in policy on town planning, the environment and religion, and negotiating business deals and arms contracts on behalf of a UK plc which exists independently of parliament, favours the interests of an equally hereditary privileged class and is not accountable to the electorate?

There’s surely quite a lot that republicans can seek to change there short of sweeping away the constitutional monarchy.

5 Simon June 2, 2012 at 16:41

Doug Young sums up the argument for an elected head of state. Of all the babies born in the last 25 years, not a single one has any chance of becoming head of state. What sort of system is that?

6 Stephen June 2, 2012 at 16:46

@Simon

That issues is easily redressed:

William and Kate, get breeding!

7 ObiterJ June 2, 2012 at 21:59

Our constitutional arrangements have much to commend them and, in particular, the Queen as Head of State is infinitely preferable to having a politician as Head. Politicians usually want real power !

Now, if one turns to “The Crown” as an entity, we begin to find problems including the massive powers which, in practice, the “Royal Prerogative” gives to Ministers of the Crown.

I totally agree with you about the wretched Fixed Term Parliaments Act. It should be swept away and a return made to the previous arrangements. This Act is a vivid demonstration of the coalition (cobbled together under our flexible constitution) locking itself into power for 5 years. And, why 5 years? Hardly any government since the war actually lasted 5 years. 4 would have been better. (The last Labour government made the 5 but only because Blair went, Brown came and he didn’t have Blair-like cojones to actually call an election until he had to).

BTW, I love the ceremonial. There is no other nation on earth which carries off ceremonial like the UK. Queen’s Birthday Parade coming up – I shall be watching and listening to the superb massed band.

8 Brian Burge-Hendrix June 2, 2012 at 23:13

You may find interesting Hegel’s comments on the usefulness of a constitutional monarch.

9 dw June 3, 2012 at 01:10

Having lived for long periods in both the UK and in a republic, I feel that the constitutional monarchy fosters a deferential frame of mind and a timidity that I do not like very much (and which, moreover, I was not even aware of until I moved to another country). LIke others, I think that the (theoretical) ability of any child to assume the highest office of state is a wonderful thing.

I don’t understand all the hate for the Fixed Term Parliaments Act — unless it’s purely because the term of 5 years it too long. What other country gives the prime minister the ability to call an election at the drop of a hat?

10 Simon June 3, 2012 at 01:35

@obiterj

Before Gordon Brown who were the last two PMs to wait five years? Answer, John Major and John Major.

I would accept four years rather than five on one condition. That is that general elections should not coincide with local elections. A four year cycle for both would mean that one set of local elections would always clash with a general election. That would make it even less likely that they were fought on local issues.

11 Tom June 3, 2012 at 11:17

I’m with Doug and others above; the principle, and the symbolism, does matter, even if it causes a few teething problems. I’m not sure I share your worries about political heads of state; Ireland has a president on the same very limited model I’d like for us, and while they do have candidates standing from political parties, they’ve done pretty well out of it. I think the parties, in nominating, and the public voting, would recognise that you want different qualities in a head of state to a head of government, and choose accordingly and appropriately.

12 William Richardson June 5, 2012 at 22:29

Would agree with you more if there relative wealth was more like the leaner Scandi-Netherlandsk models…no idea how relatively wealthy the Nippon Emperor is, anyone else?

13 Ben June 6, 2012 at 19:40

The argument for maintaining our existing arrangements is simpler and easily made.

If we were to have a new constitution it would be written by this lot.

14 ObiterJ June 7, 2012 at 19:01

@ Simon – thanks for your comment as to what i said above. Please see:

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/public-policy/UCL_expertise/Constitution_Unit/150.pdf

Figure 4.2 in this document shows lengths of Parliaments since 1945. If the 3 Parliaments of under 2 years are discounted, the average length of a Parliament has been 4.3 years.

The “coalition” appears to me to have locked themselves in purposely at 5 years so as to maximise their hold on power.

There were some problems with what amounted in practice to the PM’s right to call an election (i.e. to request a dissolution) but there were also advantages in that through public pressure a PM might be made to realise that the time had come. Now it is only the MPs who can say when the the time is up until we get to 2015.

That means another 3 years of this shambles and the Lib Dems have no real interest in losing their grip on at least some of the levers!!

15 Jonathan James June 8, 2012 at 15:54

In terms of issues which really make a difference to people’s day to day lives, the monarchy is well down any sane person’s list. The items higher up the list are more than enough to take up every available scrap of parliamentary time for years and years to come.

16 Benjamin Gray June 11, 2012 at 16:15

“I’m for some kind of elected head to state for a simple reason. I’d like to be able to tell my children ‘You too can aim to be the highest in the land. This country is your country’”

I would rather not suggest to my children that political office is an end in itself. That the top politician is not the head of state is a useful way of keeping their ambitions in check.

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