This month the UK is marking the Queen’s platinum Jubilee. She’s been on the throne so long that very few of us can remember anyone else in the job. In her terms, it’s been a life of service and a job well done, and one from which she declines to retire, seeing her reign as a responsibility God charged her with at her coronation.
I’ve sensed disquiet recently about what should happen when the Queen passes away. Some people are in favour of a Republic and say it’s time we had a President as Head of State instead of continuing this line of hereditary privilege. Others say that the monarchy is good for tourism, which is probably not quite a good enough reason for keeping it – couldn’t we achieve all the benefit by donating the Royal Palaces to the National Trust? And of course, France has been a Republic for over two hundred years and is heaving with tourists, at least, when Covid is not stopping them. Some people say that a presidency would be expensive, but it’s hard to know exactly what the Royal Family (and it is quite an extended group) costs the nation.
How much power?
What has worried me about the monarchy in the last few years is how little power it has under the ‘royal prerogative’. In fact, constitutional lawyers do not agree on what that concept means. When the current government decided to illegally prorogue Parliament in 2019, the Queen reportedly ‘had no discretion’ in the matter, and our legal system dithered as to whether it could rule on a political decision. We had to rely on the Scottish Court of Session to refer the matter to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom; the latter being a court that was only formed in 2009 with limited powers, and which could presumably be dissolved again with an Act of Parliament by any future government.
As I am now in Ireland, I am living under a presidential system, and it leads me to suggest that the UK might be better off with a president than a monarch. I’ve discussed his with friends recently and below I’ve listed some of their objections and my answers to them.
We don’t want a president like Trump to take control of the country
Fair enough. Don’t have an ‘executive president’ like the USA or France. Have a ‘ceremonial president’ like Germany or Ireland. Leave the executive power with the Prime Minister, unless something goes badly wrong. Then, as a backstop, have a president who can act.
What could a ceremonial president do that a monarch can’t? Wouldn’t it amount to the same thing?
No. As we have seen, the Queen can’t intervene as a last resort against a government acting illegally, because she is not elected – for her to dismiss a democratically elected Parliament would be the kind of autocratic outrage that lost Charles I his head. But a directly elected President, whose role is to uphold the Constitution, could do so if their job description allowed. And the Irish Constitution is cunningly written down all in one place, where everyone can see it.
But an elected president would bring party politics into their role… we want them to be impartial
Just as the Speaker of the House of Commons relinquishes party affiliation, so do elected presidents. We would need somebody who is mature enough and responsible enough to be even-handed. You would hardly expect a candidate for the highest office in the land to have no political views, and at least this way, you know what those views are. Also, see the astonishing careers of two former Irish Presidents, Mary Robinson, who was an Independent Senator, and Mary McAleese, who never held any other political office and did not even hail from the Republic.
The current Irish president, Michael D Higgins, is a former Labour TD who manages to tread a careful line. He is currently serving his second and final seven-year term of office. He’s a fluent Irish speaker and poet from Galway and has held the office of Minister for Arts and Culture. He’s recently celebrated his eightieth birthday and is small, twinkly and leprechaun-like.
With great affection, he is known as ‘Miggeldy Higins’ after a primary school child famously mis-spelled his name in a test paper that went viral, and has inspired a large number of knitted tea-cosies in his likeness (see photo below). His powers are set out in the Constitution and one of them is to dissolve Parliament if necessary and call fresh elections, although this has never been done in the history of the State.
But what if the president goes power-crazy?
In Ireland, at any rate, he can be deposed if he becomes incapacitated, or impeached for a criminal offence or the misuse of power. This seems fair enough to me.
But the monarchy is important for the country’s stability!
Let’s think about that. Scotland is trying to leave the Union. The Northern Ireland Assembly has just collapsed again due to Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement being mutually incompatible. There is speculation every day about whether the Prime Minister can survive in his job, having broken the law on lockdown. The government is planning to leave refugees to drown in the Channel. The son of the sovereign is being investigated for his alleged part in the sex trafficking of young women.
We have rising inflation, the enormous growth of food banks, Russian oligarchs being elevated to our unelected Upper Chamber and some of the worst Covid death rates in the developed world. There is corruption, misogyny and racism in the police force of our capital city and the Met Commissioner is refusing to investigate crimes. Judicial Review is under threat. Much of our Foreign Direct Investment is being lost, again due to Brexit, and London is the money laundering capital of the world. But go on, tell yourself that’s what stability looks like.
Something having always been that way is not a good enough reason why it has to continue. If it were, we would never have had the abolition of slavery or universal adult suffrage (but Athens! but Rome!). If people want to swan around in knee-breeches, wigs and gold braid, calling themselves ‘Black Rod’ or ‘Bluemantle Pursuivant of Arms in Ordinary’, so be it. They can Troop the Colour, Change the Guard and Up the Swans to their heart’s content. That doesn’t mean we have to be a monarchy.
It is refreshing to be in a country where the head of state wears an ordinary suit, ceremonies are low key, and there are no crowns or sceptres or woolsacks or Bands of the Blues and Royals in sight. It makes me even more certain that the pageantry of the Royal Family is a permanent blingfest designed to dazzle us into thinking they are our betters. The monarchy underpins the entire class system. Living here in Ireland I begin to believe that the people in charge are not actually different from us, and they probably got where they are on merit, rather than by hereditary privilege.
There’s only one downside I can think of to dissolving the monarchy and sending the Royal Family off to enjoy their private estates at Sandringham and Balmoral, and that is, we could no longer call this country the United Kingdom. What, then, should it be called? And please don’t ask the people to vote on that decision. You know they would only say ‘Britney McBritface’.