Image: Dan Marsh, Wikimedia
Life is full of surprises in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (or UKOGBANI as it is affectionately known). Thanks to John Kirkhope’s determined use of the Freedom of Information Act we now know that the monarchy is consulted on legislation much more regularly than we would otherwise have thought. This follows the discovery that the Prince of Wales is in the habit of writing letters to Ministers about matters that excite his interest. Though the conventional wisdom has it that the Crown is a purely decorative and apolitical reminder of the country’s glorious history, the reality is a sight more complicated.
We can at least comfort ourselves with the fact that we are a democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Or rather we could if it were true. The country is, as a matter of boring old fact, neither. In UKOGBANI the Parliament has managed to secure effective control of most of the Crown’s powers and rules in the Queen’s name. Sovereignty derives from the Crown, not the people. Parliament has given itself a democratic character of a limited kind through legislation that it could, in theory, repeal. The only thing superior to Parliament is the Crown, which retains the notional power to dissolve it.
All this presents a dilemma for democrats. The current arrangements are intolerable but the monarchy is enormously popular. Less than a fifth of the population support its abolition. Not only that, but mere abolition wouldn’t be enough to establish anything other than a very weird and ukogbanish republic, in which Parliament continued to rule without reference to a sovereign people. Aha, say modern republicans, that’s why we must have a new, properly republican constitution. UKOGBANI must become a modern country! Like France! Or the United States! Presented with this option most people seem happy to stick with the lash-up they know. It is difficult to blame them. Actually existing republics aren’t a terribly convincing argument for republicanism.
But perhaps there is another way, one that addresses the stated concerns of most republicans while avoiding the need for outright abolition. What if we were to take seriously what eighty percent of the public say that they want – retention of the monarch - and campaign for a constitutional monarchy that is formally subordinated to a sovereign people? Such a move would necessarily set limits to Parliamentary power. But more importantly, it would align democratic republicanism with majority public opinion and create an opportunity to consider how we can improve on existing republican constitutions. Constitutional reform can then become central to the cause of deep structural change in UKOGBANI.
Republicanism means popular ownership of the state. If we are to avoid the problems of elite domination found in contemporary republics the public must secure a range of new powers. Republican rule in a large and complex society requires that we oversee our institutions and have a share in determining their conduct. The systems of communication, subsidy and credit should be at the heart of our constitutional thought. We will not be forgiven if we push them to the margins in our obsession with the mere fact of a crowned head of state. And in these matters the theorists of republicanism from previous centuries have little to tell us. The world of Jefferson was closer to the world of Solon than it was to ours.
But how can a republic have a hereditary head of state? Here the ancients can help us. In democratic Athens the Eupatrid clan once dominated government. After Solon’s reforms they retained hereditary responsibilities relating to purification from the guilt of murder. If Athens, the prototype of radical democracy, could tolerate this, then there is no reason why we couldn’t make some similar arrangement here. After all, if we want to achieve something without precedent, a large egalitarian republic, then a bit of tradition seems a small price to pay. It is fun to shout defiance at inherited privilege, but, like so many things in this strange country, it is an enjoyable way of missing the point.
When asked, most people in UKOGBANI say that they want a constitutional monarchy that is also a democracy. Shrewd advocates of radical change will work to secure just that.