Wednesday, March 11, 2009

British leftist about the United Kingdom in the 21st century

Tony Blair:

A lot of people of my generation have decided, in part because of how important a unifier for the country the Queen has been, that actually this is a better system - rationally, not simply emotionally or as part of tradition - but rationally this is a better system.

Donald Macintyre:

A genuinely republican argument grows in strength every time there is another royal mess: the problem is not the high-maintenance, outer members of the family, but the institution itself. Rupert Murdoch's The Sun recently came its closest yet to suggesting that no amount of cosmetic reform can, or should, in the long term save the monarchy.

This is an argument worth examining ¬ in part for its flaws. For extravagant claims are made for the abolition of monarchy, not least that it would at a stroke make Britain not only a less class-conscious, but also a more democratic society. The danger, rather, is that if republicanism starts to become a fashionable cause on the left, it will distract from the much more important, but necessarily lower profile reforms which would actually have that effect.

A popular starting point among republicans is the royal prerogative, under which Prime Ministers can without consulting parliament ¬ make war in Iraq or the Balkans, sign treaties, appoint judges, fill the House of Lords, or prorogue parliament itself. But this is to misunderstand the nature of those powers. Yes, they were inherited from those deployed by the monarch when the monarch was powerful. Yes, it might be highly desirable to curtail them. But they do not depend on the existence of the monarch. The idea that governments would willingly abandon them simply because there was an elected head of state is to misunderstand the nature of political power.

Not to mention the near-powerlessness of the sovereign herself (other than very briefly in the very rare circumstances of ¬ say ¬ a hung parliament). As Professor Anthony King pointed out in his Hamlyn lectures, „the Monarchy [has] long since to feature significantly in British political life, yet a substantial proportion of the scholarly writings on the UK's constitution is still devoted to discussions of the monarch's role.“ The same fallacy applies to those who elevate abolition of the monarchy to the status of a pivotal constitutional reform.

But it isn't just that her constitutional role doesn't much matter. It's also that her existence can't be blamed for the many flaws in the British constitution, for which governments have a direct responsibility. It isn't the Queen's fault that the House of Lords has been turned from a hereditary chamber into a wholly appointed one. Or that parliamentary select committees cannot even be given the rudimentary independence from the executive that a proper system of elections would afford them. Or that so much real power is vested in non-elected quangos.

These arguments are essentially negative, of course. But unfashionable as it may be to say so, there may be positive ones as well. This goes beyond the possible benefits ¬ psychotherapeutic or political ¬ to a Prime Minister of being able to speak regularly in total discretion to someone who got her job when Churchill was still in office, and has pretty intimately known every one of his nine successors. Or the fact that the monarch remains a potent totem of the union between Scotland, Wales and England. And an honest broker on the very rare occasions one is needed. For there is an argument for the monarchy which, oddly, ought to have an especial appeal to the left. Which is that if you are trying to change society, and particularly if you are trying to change it radically, there is a great deal to be said for preserving the symbols of continuity. Clement Attlee, whose government was arguably the most radical in the 20th century, certainly understood this.

Historian Linda Colley in a brilliant lecture argued in favour of a transformed monarchy. Rightly, however, the most eye-catching part of Ms Colley's lecture was her massive proviso. And this goes a lot further than her correct disdain for the Merrie England flummery with which the Royal Family surrounds itself. Even slimming the family down ¬ though essential ¬ is only part of it.

But how far will go the help for monarchy to truly modernise in the interests of the institution itself? It would mean an end, at least when the Queen finally goes, to the palaces, to the tweediness, to the modes and manners of the 1950s. There are hopeful signs ¬that ¬ so far ¬ Prince William, at least, appears more than capable of getting with the programme. For the question is not whether it would be better to preserve a changed monarchy than go through all the immense, energy-sapping, upheaval abolition would require. In the right circumstances, it certainly would be. The question is whether it is do-able.

Linda Colley:

The symbolism and public culture of the new Citizen Nation would need to acknowledge the essential equality of the people of these islands far more than at present. Does this mean that Britain must become a republic? I don't think so, though it may happen. Monarchs can serve as extremely useful and reassuring symbols of stability, especially in periods of massive cultural, economic and political flux like this one.

But if there is to be a 21st century citizen's monarchy in this country capable of attracting broad, enduring support, it will require far more than a face-lift in image. Its public presentation will have to continue changing, but so must its avowed rationale. The crown jewels, together with the gorgeous robes, the golden coaches and the ermine should be consigned to museums.

At their coronations, future monarchs should not only undertake to protect the faiths of each and all of their subjects, they should also swear a new oath of service to the majesty of the people. Members of all parliaments and assemblies in these islands should also swear oaths of service to the majesty of the people.

If all this sounds excessively radical, I must point out that Denmark implemented similar reforms to the ones I've just outlined after 1848, yet the Danish monarchy remains - as you know - one of the most dignified and popular in Europe. The notion that monarchs must either be surrounded by pomp, circumstance, rank and traditional glitter, or be reduced to riding bicycles, sets up a thoroughly false dichotomy. We need next millennium to move beyond it.