On Monarchy


Jubilee post trying to untangle a monarch from the monarchy

“Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not some farcical feudal ceremony. Just because some elderly cleric places some piece of precious metal shaped in a circular fashion around my head does not give me the right to form and dissolve governments. If I went around claiming that, they’d put me away!”.

…or so I once posted somewhere sometime. This post tries to unpick some of the issues covered by Carl Gardner’s post: The case for a constitutional monarchy. (It doesn’t seek to make the case for alternatives – just explores some issues). It doesn’t have a look at how capitalism is celebrating the Jubilee by encouraging women to get their genitalia decorated with sparkly things arranged in a crown-like shape – Stavvers tears into this phenomenon more than brilliantly.

A little bit of recent-ish history

The historian in me is fascinated by royalty around the time of the late 19th/early 20th Centuries. In the days of the Queen’s grandfather, George V, it was quite useful to have a constitutional monarch. Recall that in the early part of George V’s reign, on the thrones of Europe’s two other superpowers were his first cousin on his father’s side, Wilhelm II of Germany, and his first cousin on his mother’s side, Nicholas II of Russia. Given the autocratic nature of both (in particular with regards to foreign policy), having some sort of good working relationship with the head of state was essential for a UK Prime Minister. The British Government of the day could find out through conversations with UK royals what the thinking was of foreign governments far better than foreign governments (using their royals) could find out about the thinking of the British Government, given how the role of a constitutional monarch by then had been set in stone. Not that it stopped the First World War from breaking out mind you.

Moving quickly onto the current monarch Elizabeth II, we sort of take it for granted that she doesn’t really have much of a political role. There are some things that the royals do that might help keep other countries ‘on side’ as far as UK exports are concerned – think of the Middle Eastern monarchies. Well…gotta find something for Edward and Andrew to do. But it’s not the sort of stuff that was key to world events that are so brilliantly described in Robert K Massie’s tome Dreadnought covering the early 1900s vintage.

Lots of historical footage and photographs have been published and publicised of late as the media have moved into full throttle on the “You will celebrate the Jubilee” scale. One photograph that caught my eye was one of the Queen meeting then Prime Minister Winston Churchill along with then Leader of the Opposition Clement Attlee. Her first Parliament having Churchill on one side and Attlee on the other, compared with today’s Parliament of Cameron on one side and Miliband on the other…comments on a postcard please.

But then the country – the world that we live in – has changed dramatically. This set of pictures from the Daily Mail illustrates the former – looking at it from an historical “here is a photographic insight” perspective rather than a “Let’s go back to the 1950s when everything was better.” We don’t see the other perspective of the homeless and the bombed out inner cities that still had not recovered. The pollution, the poverty, the institutionalised discrimination. All too easy to forget about the bad stuff when looking back at history.

What about The Queen?

Of The Queen herself, I’ve not met her and probably never will. Few people know what she is really like. The last silent celebrity as Marina Hyde writes? I can’t think of a time when The Queen has been interviewed on television or radio by anyone so as to give an insight to her thoughts. TV has been full of interviews from her children and grandchildren of late, and of her husband the Duke of Edinburgh too, but not of her. Ironically that may be one of the things that has helped keep her popularity up. By not knowing what she thinks, it’s difficult to criticise her for opinions. Perhaps it’s the inertia from the start of her reign: Monarchs do not do interviews. That’s the way it’s always been…hasn’t it? Contrast that convention with the interviews her children have undertaken over the years – including the excruciating ones about the breakdown of their relationships.

For most of us, I’d guess that The Queen as always been there as this permanent background presence, but one that few of us take much notice of or give little thought to. At the two extremes you’ve got your “Majesty Magazine” readers at one end and your Republic supporters at the other.

Come on Pooffles! Should we get rid of the monarchy or not?

The problem with that question is people tend to mix it up with a whole host of other things. Are we talking about institutions or personalities? The riposte of “President Blair” from monarchists puts the focus on the latter when pro-republic people want to talk about the former. Ditto when people talk about how respected Elizabeth II is across the world. That’s a tribute to her as an individual (and how she has conducted herself in the role she has inherited) rather than a tribute to hereditary monarchy as a system for deciding who should become a head of state. It’s not as if there are not bad monarchs around – both past and present. It’s just that there aren’t many that are in both the public’s eye as of present and in the wider public’s conscience. If a future monarch conducted him or herself really badly, would the people’s position towards monarchy as an institution change, or would it be put down to one bad apple just as The Queen is currently seen by many as a good one?

Please don’t talk about class.

I normally wince when I hear this word. It reminds me of the peasant scene of Monty Python. In part because it feels like it’s so complicated and also because the only people I’ve heard talk about it have done so in a manner that puts me off. A sort of really intense intellectual lecturing manner followed by “And the only solution is revolution!!!” sort of statement, followed by a reading from the gospel according to Marx…and possibly an attempt to sell a paper that looks like it’s straight from the last millennium.

Social mobility

The monarchy is one of the reasons in my opinion why some politicians find it very difficult to deal with a whole host of issues around class and social mobility. (That’s not to say the issue would disappear if we got rid of the monarchy). We only have to look at how the issue of the remaining hereditary peers in the House of Lords is still unresolved. Yes, in the 21st Century we still have a few there by luck of birth impacting on legislation and scrutiny of the executive. I touched upon these issues at the end of a post on Miliband and Cameron’s poll ratings. Going guns blazing at hereditary peers is seen to undermine the monarchy – but politicians are restricted from doing so because of the rules of the House of Commons regarding commenting on the royal family.

It’s also tricky for politicians to go guns blazing about private schools and social mobility because so many are the result of a system that has put them there in the first place. It’s not just senior politicians, but the the children and grandchildren of The Queen too. All four of her children were educated at private schools – Edward at one time being in the same class as David Cameron. William and Harry famously went to Eton. Despite such a well-funded education, it’s not as if we’ve been rewarded with high profile intellectual powerhouses within the royal family – unless I’ve missed something. (Does It’s a Royal Knockout count?) Prince Charles has a ‘colourful’ history on issues of science and alternative medicine – the coffee cure being but one example. (Ben Goldacre commented here at the time).

If social mobility matters to them that much, why have party leaders appointed so many senior politicians from such privileged backgrounds? (Is Jeremy Hunt really the best the UK can do for Culture Secretary – especially given his recent performance at Leveson?) Why is it that parties selected so many candidates from privileged backgrounds to stand for elections and to become MPs? Judging by recent years it certainly wasn’t because they were the most competent and talented people and a reflection of the wider society that this country could find. It’s not just the royal family that has social mobility issues – though if you are a royal, the only direction you can go in is downwards social mobility-wise.

Back to HMQ.

Perhaps one of the questions to ask is: What do we want from a head of state?

In terms of staying out of party politics, The Queen has done a pretty good job over the years. Francis Urquart and co gave a recent insight in House of Cards as to what a very political future king vs prime minister would look like. This final scene very much illustrates the difference between monarch and monarchy – a take of what Prince Charles may become? This was the political line that Mr Urquart had issues with. Yet it was the king that lost the election. (The other alternative modern look was with King Ralph)

One of the burdens that comes with being a constitutional monarch is that s/he is ‘above party politics’ – and accordingly does not publicly express political opinions. It’s a similar burden with being a civil servant in a politically-restricted post, or being in the military or uniformed services. You serve the administration of the day. Your behaviour is restricted by the terms of your public office. One of those The Queen is bound by is to act on the advice of her ministers, no matter how bad that advice might be – in particular advice that puts her in a really awkward situation. Think of all the heads of state she has had to welcome and be nice to that the rest of us would not want to give the time of day to. There have been some really nasty pieces of work over the years. The criticism of why such dictators were welcomed in the first place rests with the prime minister of the day.

The future of the monarchy?

I quite like the principle of being able to vote for our future head of state – even if it is a “Do you consent for the heir to the throne to succeed to it?” vote. We don’t have to call a head of state a president – it’s not as if history isn’t full of elected (if on very limited franchises) monarchs anyway. If the country chooses to vote for Charles or William as head of state, so be it. At least we would have explicitly given our consent. The incentive being for heirs to behave in a manner that would minimise the risk of a ‘no’ vote winning. If there were a chance of a significant ‘no’ vote winning, my guess is that it would be in a time of a major social and political crisis shaking the foundations of lots of other institutions too. That or an heir apparent being far more suitable in the eyes of the people for such a role. Some would argue that MPs signify allegiance/approval on behalf of us citizens as part of their role in a representative democracy. Just as being in favour of secularising the entire education system I can’t see an elected monarchy/head of state happening in my lifetime.

What about wider reforms around the monarchy?

My guess is that other things will be up for debate upon succession as part of some wider political reforms. In part because so few of us at present can imagine how things will be in the wider world without a presence that has always been…well…’there’. When The Queen dies, the natural break will make it easier to ask those questions. There will be existing calls from the likes of Republic to call for an elected head of state. There will be others asking for a much more slimmed down version of the royal family. How that will work in reality is less straight forward. It would mean more having to work for a living, but how would you then stop them from cashing in on their family connections? Again think of Edward’s home movies – not that this ended well for him.

In terms of the wider issues, things such as reform of the honours system are likely to crop up. Will the succession be a time for a massive overhaul of the system, with the scrapping of a series of aristocratic titles and the replacing of the Lords’ titles with that of “senator”? Personally I quite like this idea – Not that this will stop the media from using the old titles in the way several still do with European families that still try to hold onto long-vanquished titles. What will it mean for the Lord Justices in the legal system? (I like many have unwittingly referred to Lord Justice Leveson as “Lord Leveson” – but he’s not a peer of the realm, as he says in his own words! He’s just…Brian.)

There’s also the issue of ‘Defender of the Faith’ – the Church of England issue. Will the succession be a time to discuss the disestablishment of the Church? (As well as a time for more people to learn what antidisestablishmentarianism actually means and how it might apply?) Some have reported that Charles would like to be ‘Defender of Faiths’ – but what about ‘Defender of reason’ too? As far as titles go, how about formalising ‘Servant of the People’ into it too – one of the descriptions given to the Queen’s father George VI.

There is the issue of the Crown Estates – and those of the Duchy of Cornwall. Should anything be done with them? I can imagine some calls to sell off or privatise various aspects of them in some quarters.

Finally, there is the issue of all the overseas territories – in particular the tax havens. Many of those fall under ‘The Crown’ but not under the remit of ‘The Government’ – which makes things a little tricky as some ministers (if I can work it out myself) have duties as Ministers of the Crown that fall outside the remit of HM Government. Parliament is on record as having issues with the relationship between The State and Crown Dependencies. As ongoing pressure around the issue of tax avoidance remains – and grows, will the succession be the time to overhaul Crown Dependencies and overseas territories over tax havens?

Oh…and someone tell William that as Duke of Cambridge he owes us (i.e. Cambridge) a few visits. Some of us don’t like absentee dukes – that and lots of tourists are waiting outside Kings College to get a glimpse of him sitting on the ducal throne. It’s in the chapel you know!


One thought on “On Monarchy

  1. If we didn’t have a Queen or any Royals, we still might find ourselves lumbered with the Crown and we might still have the Crown Estate too. I seem to recall all three are legally/technically different. Anybody?

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