When the queen came to the throne in 1952, Winston Churchill was prime minister; and now her prime minister is four years’ younger than her youngest son.

 

We now have only one current MP first elected in the 1950s (Sir Peter Tapsell) and two people alive who served as MPs before 1952 (John Freeman and Tony Benn).  Whilst there are three or so current peers who have sat in the house of lords longer than the queen has reigned (Lord Carrington entered in 1945), there are very few figures in British public life which have had any prominence over the same period.

 

Perhaps only Dame Vera Lynn has been a national celebrity for a longer time.

 

Sixty years of public service is something to be celebrated.  And the way the queen has done it also should be cheered: her self-control and lack of personal showiness is a model of what a monarch should be like, if we are to have a monarchy at all.

 

There are somethings to be said for the crown in domestic politics and law.

 

First, it is less important for the power it has than for the power it prevents others having.

 

Second, it provides the most general concept of the state we have in (at least) English law – almost all executive, legislative and judicial power is exercised in the name of the crown, one way or another.

 

And third, it provides a superficial sense of continuity from medieval times (if one ignores that in 1640, 1660, 1688, 1714, and 1936, the fate of the crown was determined by others).

 

All that said, there is a basic principle: supreme executive power in any modern polity really should be in the hands of someone who is accountable and capable of removal by some formal process.

 

Nonetheless, switching a “united kingdom” to a republic would be a complex and slow process, and it is one unlikely to be done by any government one can imagine.

 

The current generation of politicians cannot get round to reforming the house of lords.

 

Indeed, they cannot even modify a honours system ridden by “knights”, “dames” and the “British Empire”.

 

So republicanism will remain as a frame of mind, a sense that things could be better organized, rather than as a serious political programme.

 

And this taming of republicanism is not the least of the queen’s achievements, though one suspects it will not be one of her eldest son’s.

 

 

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18 Responses to A jubilee letter from a republican

  • Hamish Atkinson says:

    “First, it is less important for the power it has than for the power it prevents others having.”

    Yeah, in a republic any kid can dream that one day they will be head of state, but here a girl’s best chance is to wear a transparent dress at a university fashion show and then maybe her first son will be head of state.

  • michael says:

    David you are spot on.

    From now on I might just outsource all my thinking to you so I can relax and have fun – like watching tradition being recreated with the Diamond Jubilee Flotilla and other spectacles.

  • Tristan Tomlinson says:

    I believe that whilst the monarchy does not interfere with political democracy or legal due process then I see no need to reform it. The Royals don’t really cost us anything, considering what they bring to the country, and if they can provide a feel-good factor for the majority of the population as they do, then I see no need to mess with the status quo.

    The House of Lords, however…

  • SueP says:

    Brief and to the point as ever. My first inclination to agree with Michael’s comment is countered by the thought that you can “outsource your thinking”, but not delegate your responsibility for doing something about it when change is required

  • Chris says:

    The Crown is accountable as the people have the power. You won’t see people lining the streets in protest of the Jubilee because the Queen is a symbol of all that is great about this country and we would be worse off without her, and I’m not talking economically.

  • gimpy says:

    Better complex and and slow than bloody and swift, which has been the traditional way of getting rid of a monarchy.

    Still, I think you underestimate the possible consequences of a yes vote in a Scottish referendum on independence. Support for the monarchy is not as pronounced up here, and, beyond the land owning town and country folk, hostility is not uncommon. It is not inconceivable that at least some Kingdom’s, currently united, might hold a referendum on the matter concerning the nature of their independence.

  • Felix says:

    @Tristan:

    “if [the Royals] can provide a feel-good factor for the majority of the population as they do, then I see no need to mess with the status quo”

    yes, because encouraging and maintaining a general sense of unthinking contentment it one of the primary aims of political philosophy. And rightly so!

    Anyone who suggests that principles of equality, accountability and democracy should be adanced by getting rid of an anachronistic institution clearly don’t understand the importance of tourism to the economy of the south east of England.

  • Paul Evans says:

    To my mind, republicanism is an incredibly simple concept; a preference for determining your own consitututional settlement rather than inheriting it. Is allows us to encompass electoral reform and a re-ordering of the various estates into term ‘republican’. You a even be a monarchist AND a republican.

    • Conrad Eoin says:

      No you cannot. There is no way you can be both a monarchist and a republican at the same time. You may be undecided about the issue, you may understand that the two systems would be better for different aspects of the functioning of a state but you cannot advocate both a republic and a monarchy in the same place at the same time. You can be a monarchist and be in favor of democratic reforms, a good example is China (people’s republic) which is not a republic and which knows that it isn’t, in their constitution they describe their state as a ‘democratic dictatorship’. A democratically (to a given value of democracy) elected dictator (monarch (if you accept Starky’s definition)).

  • Richard Nelson says:

    “principles of equality, accountability and democracy should be adanced by getting rid of an anachronistic institution”

    I think here’s the thing: it’s just a principle. Getting rid of the monarchy now would just be a change in semantics — the Prime Minister would be called President, law would be carried out in the name of something else instead of the crown, and so on. And I imagine knights would still be knights and dames would still be dames, so some of those things wouldn’t change.

    Plus we’d lose all the pomp and circumstance and opportunities for celebration, which so many do love so much. And, as noted, it would damage tourism to some degree too.

    So other than the principle of democracy and so on, getting rid of the monarchy would surely just be a big waste of time and money, and one that might continue to cost for a long time.

    +

    @gimpy Would Scottish independence necessarily result in the Queen no longer being head of state? Look at Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or the 12 other independent countries where she remains Queen.

    • Iain Fleming says:

      ” the Prime Minister would be called President”

      I see no good reason to assume this. The nearest parliamentary republic to us is Ireland — and, other than being a republic, they are very similar indeed to us in constitutional terms — and they did not simply elevate the prime minister to head of state when they became a republic. They have a broadly non-political president, and it seems to be a well-regarded system and office. (Unlike their parliamentary upper chamber, the Seanad Éireann.)

      “Would Scottish independence necessarily result in the Queen no longer being head of state?”

      Not necessarily, but is a distinct possibility. Most of the countries in the Commonwealth replaced the queen as head of state at, or soon after, independence, and it looks increasingly likely that Australia, and possibly New Zealand and Canada, will follow; very possibly on Charles’ accession.

  • @Hamish, due to the “dignified” nature of the crown, and the extremely limited power and comparatively small influence that it holds, surely a more desirable (and attainable) position that anybody can aspire to is that of Prime Minister? Becoming head of government is surely a source of greater pride than head of state within a Parliamentary democracy.

  • Chris Casey says:

    Camilla is the reason why I would become a republican, seriously if Charles became king and had her effectively as his queen, well…it’s horrific. Not because they are divorced but because of the whole calculated way they picked Diana for him to marry, to the way Charles and Camilla effectively carried on this sham even during the honeymoon (re cufflinks). Then they made out Diana was mentally imbalanced. This was serious horror movie stuff.
    If the skip Charles and move on to William and Catherine, I will gladly still support it. Just because I like them!

  • Andy Hicks says:

    Its a consistent and convenient myth that the Queen doesn’t interfere in politics, this being an example that she in fact does: http://phys.org/news/2012-05-majesty-secret.html And why was there no outcry that a private security firm blocked access to the river yesterday to Republic, despite prior agreement to access with the police?

  • Tom Edwards says:

    I would agree with all David’s points. However, I personally see no real need to get rid of the idea of the monarchy because of the fact that it’s more of a figurehead than anything really substantial. But couldn’t we cut the cost of having one further by getting rid of a ‘human’ monarch and rather have a cat? A small cat. It shall be called Mittens. Mittens the 1st.

  • notmyopinion says:

    Quite reasonable, you stated a basic principle: “supreme executive power in any modern polity really should be in the hands of someone who is accountable and capable of removal by some formal process”.

    Not sure what that has to do with the monarchy in the UK though. Seriously!

    And would replacing a largely symbolic hereditary head of state with a largely powerless directly or indirectly elected president (like in Ireland) really give much more power to the people? Especially if the post ends up as a reward for superannuated politicians. I mean, we the people are hardly going to get any real choice over how a replacement system would function (though the Australians at least managed to reject an attempt by their political class to give the monarchy a superficial veneer of democracy, and themselves a cosy little job).

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