29 April 2011

A British Republic: the non-conservative case

Today's royal wedding has ignited considerable debate in the blogosphere about the merits or otherwise of the British royal family as an institution. Most readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I'm a dyed-in-the-wool republican, but I think it's worth engaging with two of the most cogent arguments for monarchy from the Left that I've seen so far. One is from the brilliant outgoing general secretary of the Fabian Society, Sunder Katwala, on the Fabian Next Left blog. The other is from economist Chris Dillow on his equally excellent Stumbling and Mumbling.

Sunder used to be a republican but has since become a (possibly rather reluctant) monarchist. His argument for retaining the monarchy seems to boil down to two distinct points:

  1. The monarchy's powers are so limited that it doesn't get in the way of any Left political projects (NHS, minimum wage, progressive taxation, electoral reform, etc.) so there is nothing to be gained by its abolition.
  2. For the last 40 years or more, opinion polling has shown that only around 20% of British voters have republican sympathies. Therefore, a referendum on abolishing the monarchy (which, based on recent constitutional convention, would be necessary to get rid of it) is unwinnable. Nor do there seem to be any trends in public opinion in the direction of republicanism.
I think the first point is the most important so I'll address that first. Sunder's justification for retaining the monarchy is very much pragmatic - "if it ain't broke don't fix it". That is, the key issue at stake in deciding whether to retain the monarchy or not is: does it work well?

Whereas I approach the question from a different, more ideological, direction. For me, the question is: what do my principles, as a democratic socialist, tell me about the criteria that the head of state needs to fulfil, in order to be acceptable in a democracy? For me, by definition, the monarchy doesn't "work" as an institution if it doesn't satisfy those criteria.

The main criterion I would apply is that people in positions of power should be subject to democratic accountability. There is certainly widespread popular acceptance of this principle in the case of the British government - we have an electoral system (albeit a flawed one) rather than relying on some kind of benign dictatorship. As Tony Benn has long argued, "how can we get rid of you?" is THE most important question to ask about any authority figure.

If we don't have a system where people who hold political power can be removed, then we are essentially trusting to the hope that whatever alternative system delivers people into positions of power will lead to them exercising that power in our best interests. In the case of the monarchy, the alternative system is a mixture of genetics, assortative mating, and luck of the draw. The current popularity of the monarchy, in my view, is a result of a good draw from the card deck: Queen Elizabeth II does a good job within her terms of reference, and is popular and well respected.

But what about her successor? There are huge worries that Prince Charles - who has been a very vocal advocate for a large number of causes, some of which are IMHO worthy (organic food), some of which are simply flaky or downright dangerous (homeopathy anybody?) will continue to argue for his pet causes when he accedes to the throne. And just this week, the monarchy has demonstrated clear political bias in choosing to invite previous Prime Ministers Major and Thatcher to the wedding, but not Blair and Brown. (For the record, I wouldn't have wanted Tony Blair anywhere near my wedding either, and I'd be worried that Brown would punch someone out or go into a sulk. But that's not the point).

The monarch does not usually play a role in determining what kind of government we get, but there are exceptions to this rule. For example, last May we had a hung parliament and in a finely balanced parliamentary situation, the monarch could, in theory, have chosen to favour one side rather than the other, had the negotiations between the parties been inconclusive. For example, the Queen could have approached David Cameron to form a minority Tory government even if Labour and the Lib Dems had been willing to try an alternative 'rainbow coalition' government with the minor parties. This was never going to happen with the Lib Dems under Clegg, but if Kennedy or Campbell had still been Lib Dem leader, it would have been a very plausible scenario. So, the monarch's power is limited - but it is far from non-existent.

For sure, an elected head of state with similar powers to the current British monarch would have the power to influence events in hung parliaments and would probably make their views known on other issues too. The crucial difference is that presidents who abused their powers or their position would have to face the consequences of their actions in the popular vote. The question of how powerful an elected head of state should be is a separate issue. Personally I'd rather keep the existing structures with the head of state as largely a figurehead who only comes into play as a power-broker in limited circumstances - more like the Irish model than the US model, where the president is the most powerful single person in the government. But there are a number of potential systems - all of which would be preferable, in my mind, to relying on heredity for good governance.

In fact I'd go further than this: I think the argument for a hereditary monarchy rather than an elected head of state is a fundamentally conservative argument (with a small 'c'). Adherents of this view - whether they be social democratic conservatives such as Sunder, or true blue conservatives such as Simon Heffer - are effectively saying, democracy can't deliver a better head of state than genetics. But if we have so little faith in democracy as to think that, doesn't that start to undermine the basis for democratic government itself? Why shouldn't we think (using the same argument) that heredity delivers better Prime Ministers than democracy? Where do we stop? And if hereditary monarchy was so good in the first place, how come only a handful of countries in the world are still absolute monarchies?

In short, anyone who isn't a (small c) conservative - and a conservative to the extent that they have grave doubts about the desirability of democracy as a system of governance - should support the abolition of the monarchy. But only about 20% of us do. Which brings me on to Sunder's second point - which seems to be an argument against holding a referendum at the moment (why bother if the public is so heavily opposed) rather than an argument against making the case for republicanism per se. Surely one should make the case for republicanism (or withdrawing from the EU, or reintroducing capital punishment, or whatever) based on what one believes to be the right thing for the UK, rather than based on opinion polls. Otherwise, no-one would ever argue the minority view - which would be a sad state of affairs.

Chris Dillow makes some interesting other points in favour of the monarchy in his piece. One is that it seems to work well despite being a ludicrous system in theory - I'd argue this is entirely a function of luck of the draw and who the present incumbent is. At best it's an argument for keeping the current system until we get a particularly duff incumbent (perhaps only a few years away?) so one could label Chris's position as "republicanism but not right now". Chris's second point is that the inherent unfairness and randomness of the hereditary principle serves to underline the unfairness of our wider society and in doing so, increases support for efforts to make it fairer - redistribution of income, etc. There may be something in this, but surely the most worrying feature of current British society for people on the left is that it has become much more unfair since the late 1970s, with huge increases in the inequalities of income and wealth. If we had just been looking at the hereditary monarchy as a barometer for social unfairness we'd have missed these dangerous trends in the real economy, so the institution of the monarchy can't be the best way to put these concerns in the public eye.

Finally, Chris suggests choosing the head of state by a lottery of all UK adults - this is a very interesting idea as it's egalitarian and anti-conservative but without relying on democracy as an alternative system. A lottery is the solution I'd end up with if I believed that the democratic process in modern capitalist societies was so corrupt and ineffectual that it was not fit for purpose as far as selecting a head of state was concerned. I do have some sympathy with this, but I'm not cynical enough to believe it all the way down the line - and if I did believe it, it's hard to see why the same wouldn't apply to MPs or Prime Ministers as well. Prime Ministers by lottery? It's coming sometime... maybe.


Weaser said...

There's one argument you haven't (and can't) answer: they're the strongest family.

giroscoper said...

Naturally I wouldn't try to argue with that!

Van Patten said...

This is a good summary of the two articles. I think the decision not to invite Blair and Brown was exceeedingly badly thought out. As far as I'm aware, in 1981, All the surviving PMs (Callaghan and Wilson I think the sole former Labour PMs) were invited, and whilst echoing your sentiments about both men, the decision seems to confirm your rather paranoid assertions regarding the institution's 'small c' conservative bias. Particularly egregious when you consider Diplomats from North Korea and Iran both attended

Nevertheless, I feel Katwala has a valid point. Royal assent has not been withheld from ANY bill since 1708. Indeed since the monarchy was restored in 1660, I think it has been withheld less than 5 times. the reason the consituttion and Parliament evolved as it has was a consequence of the Civil war (to some extent) thus however bizarre your schemes (driving the private motorist off the road, putting people out of work by exporting jobs to China) you're free to pursue them assuming Miliband or some Lab/green coaliton gets elected in 2014.

I see the Bennite position. It was given some substance in the entertaining Chris Mullin novel 'A Very British coup' wherein the Security services use the Prince of Wales to overthrow the Hard leftist Prime minister. The excellent Channel 4 dramatisation I recall well from my youth. However, I think the threat is overstated.

In terms of how we would structure the constitution of a Republic, you've already answered my first question which was what the status of the President would be. I take it you prefer the German to the US model? However, what checks and balances would be placed on Parliament , specifically the House of Commons. Would we go for total Lords reform and an elected chamber leading to legislative gridlock? I am reminded of the quote from Troilus and Cressida;

'Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy'

However, as you say, the republican sentiment is one which people would be free to express. However, I don't think it anti-democratic to have a monarchy per se, especially if as you suggest the Presidential role with which you'd replace it is merely to be that of a figurehead. Interesting to see the term 'Democratic Socialist' again (Do you have a small Hal Berstram in your pocket?). Considered by many to be oxymoronic!