Monarchy

Many people in Britain now, as well as in other countries whether or not they are among those in the Commonwealth who still have the Queen as Head of State, question the status quo. And a lot of young people in Britain don't understand "what the Royals are for".

On strong leadership versus collectivism

People like a strong individual.

Despite all attempts to collectivize, which means to make government a joint, collective, activity for which a group of people take equal responsibility, human beings seem continually to gravitate towards strong individuals.

At first sight, it might seem that the obvious way to ensure that no one individual in a society weilds too much power would be to have a system by which all decisions are made by a whole group of people acting together. An example of this is the modern British concention of executive government being guided by the Cabinet acting together. And it would seem that the way to structure the factions that have always seemed to arise in such circles is to adopt, or to allow to evolve, a party political system, with collective decision-making by the group or by an elected subset thereof, like, say, the British Labour Party's National Executive Committee.

However, any party political system always seems to end in even more corruption, because of the very fact that everybody can sidestep blame for whatever decision proves unpopular with the public by saying "it wasn't me guv; I was just going along with everybody else!" And this is the dilemma facing constitutional thinkers.

Indeed, the only visible portrayal of collective decision-making is that among trade unionists, or (indeed) the British Labour Party's National Executive Committee; and when anybody from those spheres speaks in public, they sound just like the caricature of them performed by Peter Sellers in his famous role as Fred Kite in the Boulting Brothers' move I'm All RIght Jack: a laughing-stock.

So it isn't the investment of "supreme" (meaning above everyone else) power in one person that ordinary people don't like; what they want is for that person to be elected. What some people don't like about the monarchy is simply that it is not elected, but they have never thought through the implications of insisting upon election for such a figurehead, and that is what I want to explore.

If you elect a person to take on the monarch's role, that person is not a monarch but a president. And then, if you are designing a national constitution that will provide good, sound, secure, corruption-free, answerable governance, you have to ask yourself: what precisely are the roles — the powers, and the duties — of the president, and of the prime minister (if you have one)?

On heads of state and government

One of the reasons why some Americans apparently imagine that the UK is not really a democracy is that they have no understanding of the crucial distinction in constitutional theory between the roles of Head of State and Head of Government. But without this understanding, one cannot explain why the British monarchy still exists.

The separation of the two roles of Head of State and Head of Government is an important factor in constitution design, in that it makes the government of a country more secure and proof against both tyranny on one hand and disorder on the other. Here is an outline of how it works:

The British system

What does this mean in Britain? The above points are chiefly about the way it works in Britain.

It is interesting to compare and contrast this system with those in certain other countries, major democracies, such as the USA, France, Germany and (say) Ireland. Any mature democracy will do, and the republics are the significant ones. The constitutional monarchies can be assumed to function in a broadly smilar way to the UK.

On choosing presidents

In the USA, the two roles of Head of State and Head of Government are combined in a single person, the President. In my view, this is dangerous in that it gives the president too much power. The machinery to protect the nation against abuse of power is collective, cumbersome and slow to act. Impeachment of a President by the Congress has actually been done or attempted more than once in recent history, and it is slow and ineffectual in a real crisis. The reasons in modern history were minor, but with America awash in an ocean of lawyers anyway the whole thing is a huge ghastly and costly spectacle ... and one could not be sure it would happen effectively if there was a real crisis, such as a major abuse of power rather than a small, local crime such as arranging for a burglary for electoral purposes. What if a President were to order the immediate secret execution of a thousand people How quickly would the available remedies remove such a figure and stop the action? One has doubts.

In all other republics that are democracies (and that I know about), there is a president, and a prime minister. The President is Head of State and the Prime Minister is Head of Government.

In Ireland, I happen to know that the system has grown up of a President who is a respected figure such as was Mary Robinson, who is not mixed up in politics of government.

However, in France, typically (France always has good theory but ignores it in practice) the President considers himself head of governement just as in the USA (the country which France so often so vehemently decries), appoints and bullies and continually interfers with the work of the Prime Minister, who we as foreigners generally never hear of because the President muscles in on everything.

In Israel, the President has tended to be a politician, and has struggled to stay outside the fraught politics of that country and region. Ironically because of the hostility between the two, this has also been true of Russia since the USSR collapsed: We now have Putin moving from President to Prime Minister. That is the wrong way round; the President should be the most senior, with the most personal authority and experience; but (s)he must also be somene capable of and determined to stay out of politics, and it is not yet clear that Putin is ready to do that. However the younger man replacing him as President when he moves to Prime Minister means that Russia has the whole system upside-down and back-to-front. It's like something from W.S. Gilbert, "topsy-turvy", ludicrous if it were not so tragic for the poor people of that rich-bandit-ridden country.

A international summits, generally the correct person from each country to attend is the Head of Government, but because many republics are not real democracies, and the President is like a dictator, the President turns up; from France and the USA, the President turns up although France might have his Prime Minister in tow like a poodle. The British Prime Minister attends, quite properly; but there will always be some TV reporters who talk about all the Heads of State meeting, themselves forgetting that that is not correct.

When the Queen attends summits, which is rare, such an occasion changes fundamentall from a political thing into a ceremonial one, and many of the politicians, the George W. Bushes of this world if they haven't been in the job long, lurk shiftily in their shiny little suits looking embarrassed at the awesomeness of the occasion.

The problem with well designed republics, like Ireland, is finding enough people to be President. Apart from old politicians, who would want to go through the grief of a national election campaign to try to become president? And with a proper job specification as here, an elected-British-sovereign job, who would want it so much as to make the effort?

Except for retired politians, anyway.

And, if the choice is among retired politians, the only real criterion is: are they honourable? and will they leave the actual politics, the legislation and running of the country, well alone?

For, indeed, what you are looking for must be an elected substitute Queen, and it is a terrible, almost thank less job with perceived responsibility but no power, and it takes a vast amount of skill so that it is unlikely enough suitable psople can be found to have a new one every (say) four years.

The British monarch

So what is wrong with the British Monarchy itself?

Is it elitist? That depends on what you mean. The Queen is as it happens mmensely rich; but the money to run the system goes frm the British taxpayer in the Civil List, for the Queen herslef has no vast ocean of cash. Her riches are in jewels, art, Houses and land, much of which are national treasures and out of the question to consoder selling them to anyone; it would be inappropriate for any private rich person to own such things anyway. Only (say) the British national collections should have them, and therefore as the Queen owns them for the nation the wealth itself is largely irrelevant.

But, the royals get to live in palaces, don't they? and they are waited on hand and foot, aren't they?

Well, yes; but let us lok at their lives and situation.

The Queen is on duty every day. She has to read huge numbers of state papers. She has a continual round of engagements, meeting people great and lowly, attending functions modest and ceremonial, and every moment she is watched by people, never able just to slip away on her own. As anybody who has watched a TV documentary about her in recent years knows, she has worked immensely hard all her life.

And there is another important difference; She has no choice about it: it is herditary. She is a prisoner of her birth.

On filling the top job

OK, so let's say we pick somebody who wasn't born to it and give them the Queen's job.

I have thought about this for many years, and have concluded that Douglas Adams was right: for this is the central underlying theme of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: that you cannot trust the top job of running any society (be it country, planet, galaxy, whether empire or republic) to anybody who wants it, because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; and yet you also cannot, in a free society, expect — thus in practice coerce — anybody knowingly to take on a job that they do not want.

So how do you get anybody7 to do the top job?

Douglas Adams's cunning solution is to give the job of running things to a group of honourable people who do not themselves make any of the decisions; their job is to find somebody very wise, and good, and innocent, and then so to arrange things that this person is allowed to live in modest if secluded comfort and safety, and to visit this person regularly, just socially for a nice chat. The group come for each visit with some questions which they slip unobtrusively into the conversation; they secretly record the entire proceedings and then, after they go away, they put the innocent person's observations into effect as policy, and thus is the Galaxy run.

How the British monarchy got like that

They didn't do that in Britain 1500 years ago; what happened was that a strong man (for it was, then, usually though not always a man) arose who could command the loyalty of enough of the others to run the land, and they made him king, and called the land a kingdom; and kings were often killed either in war or in a coup d'état with regicide, and another took his place. Succession by a son happened sometimes but (if you look at the history book genealogy tables) by no means all that often.

And so it went from not long after the Saxons first arrived in the lull after the Romans left until the 20th century: somebody whom the others would follow was found. Right from 1200 until 1900, the monarch had to keep the leaders of the people on side, and absolute power was never given to an English king. Any king who tried to use power against the common will or interest was stopped, and the examples are famous: Magna Carta, Richard III at Bosworth field, Charles I facing the Civil War and Cromwell, James II, even Edward VIII.

In short, as it now is, as moulded by Victoria with her Prime Ministers and by and Elizabeth II, the job of British sovereign is a hard one with a huge roster of duties such that one's life is not one's own, huge public responsibilities and constantly being watched (when visible) but massive constraints on action, and no choice about taking it on without a constitutional crisis of sorts every time.

Would I want the job? Certainly not; but then I wouldn't want almost any job listed in the (very thick) employment department compendium of professions and occupations. However I wouldn't recommend it to a friend however keen, for it is a huge burden.

Yet, the Queen herself is dedicated to preserving the role and to staying in it (as long as she an, anyway, presumably; one does not know her views on what should happen should she become at any time incapable of fulfilling the role as she has done these 55 years).

Do I agree with the Queen doing the job? In fact, in all respects but one, yes: speaking personally, I would be content for her, and her successors, to continue as sovereign according to custom as long as there are successors willing to take it on.

Disestablishment

What is the one exception?

Obvious, really, if you have read these pages at all: religion. I dislike one thing of the Queen's: her antidisestablishmentarianism. The Queen is against the disestablishment of the Anglican Church and I advocate it. The Pope gave Henry VIII the title Fidei Defensor because he had written some cogently argued theological paper or another, as a compliment. And for some reason Henry was very keen on religion, spending hours listening happily to very long sermons in church. When he so famously severed ties with Rome, however, he seems to have been (totally inconsistently) reluctant to give up his title, and to this day though totally meaninglessly the monarch has the title Fidei Defensor. It is even stamped on the coinage. All this is totally fatuous, especially with only 10% of the population going to church.

That another 10% are Catholics, the enemy in Henry VII's day, and other chunks belong to other denominations, other religions, and none, means that retaining in the Britsh Constitution this relic of a past age (in which different Christian factions defied what is supposed to be the spirit of their creed by putting each other to dath in the most hideous ways) is an absurdity long overdue for abandonment to the archives.

I say: for the time being, keep the monarchy but disestablish the Anglican Church.

However, in order to make this acceptable to the population there needs to be a massive effort to explain reasons for keeping it, and the disadvantages of the alternative. The fact that the republics seem to function well enough seems to ordinary people good enough reason to get rid of the side of royalty that makes them question it: the perceived wealth and privilege. But if you compare the lifetime of study and experience which the Queen brings to her job compared with what a George W. Bush brings to his, and the problems of finding in any nation enough Mary Robinson's willing and popular enough to get elected, to keep the office filled for a century, plus the lack of actual power and the reason (sheer exhaustion) for all the servants at the palaces, perhaps the people would also see why the present British system is not really all that bad.