Opinion: On black spiders, royalty and liberalism

The release last week of Prince Charles’ letters to Ministers – the so-called “black spider letters” – offers a once in a lifetime window (and one unlikely to be repeated, thanks to the 2011 amendments to the Freedom if Information Act exempting royal correspondence from FoI disclosure – inexplicably supported by our party in coalition) into the workings of the British ‘system’, and the influence of the royals in the process of our ‘democratic government’.

I hope that, as liberals, all Liberal Democrats would agree that political power derives from the exercise of the people’s democratic rights at the ballot box, and that no-one should be able to exercise political power, nor exert undue influence on the political process, simply by virtue of birth or connections. This is why we have argued for democratic reform of the House of Lords, for example.

Yet, in the black spider letters we see both the absolute expectation of Charles that his views are relevant, important and to be listened to, as well as the sycophantic grovelling of ‘commoner’ Ministers towards the royal point of view (that “I have the honour to be, Sir, Your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant” sign-off of Charles Clarke must surely stick in the craw of every socialist).

OK, so the views of Charles – Patagonian Toothfish, support for farmers and concern for the military – are hardly earth-shattering, nor are they as politically damaging as the efforts of the government to suppress them might have implied. However, I want to argue that these letters should be deeply concerning to all of a liberal view of the world, and something that ought to be addressed squarely by our party.

At this point I ought to nail my colours firmly to the mast. I am a republican, and I believe strongly that an hereditary head of state has no relevance, and makes no sense, in a 21st century parliamentary democracy. It is my liberalism, my absolute belief in the equality of all, that drives me to this position.

I realise that I am in a minority in the country, and possibly in the party as well. However, I want to argue that – irrespective of one’s views on the question of monarchy vs. republicanism, as liberals we all ought to be very concerned about the current constitutional set-up that allows the heir to the throne (and presumably the head of state too – Charles has already indicated that he wants to be a more ‘active’ monarch) to involve himself in the development of political policy.

If we believe in equality, and especially in equality of opportunity irrespective of birth or ‘position’, then we should expect Charles’ letters to be treated no differently to the letters sent to Ministers and MPs by any other citizen. Yet one cannot imagine letters from ‘ordinary’ correspondents being treated with the same degree of sycophancy and deference that is accorded to Charles.

If we have to have an hereditary head of state, a monarch chosen by birth rather than through the ballot-box, then that monarch must be wholly and absolutely a figure-head, a ceremonial focus for the country. It cannot be acceptable in a liberal democracy for the monarch to have even the slightest modicum of influence in the political process.

For me, this means unequivocally adopting a republican position. In this I am clearly not alone, and there are many within the Liberal Democrats who are prepared to go against the ‘popular’ view and argue against the monarchy (you can find them on Twitter @Libs4aRepublic).

I don’t expect any time soon that the Liberal Democrats will adopt a policy supporting the republican position, and I doubt that any of the current leadership candidates will be prepared to risk the controversy of a public disclosure of republican sentiment.

However, I firmly believe that this is a debate which we, as a party and as individual liberals, ought to have.

So how about it? Anyone prepared to argue that royalty, especially one that involves itself in government and the political process, is compatible with liberalism? And, if not, then what are we going to do about it?

* Mark Posen is a long-time party member and has been encouraged back to activism by the 2015 General Election results.

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15 Comments

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 23rd May '15 - 9:39am

    It has taken me along time to come to my own worldview on this topic without being swept away by anothers ideology etc.,. And I’ve have come to this, that everyone has a place and a value in this world as:

    ”Monarchs are there to hold you steadfast. Lords are there to raise you up. Gods are there for you as inspirations. You are their priority.”

    Your views is why I think equally can be exclusive to those pertain only equality among themselves, and who would use it for their own ends, rather than any noble function. And that has always concerned me as regards to equality.

    For in equality everyone has to abide by conformity. However, In diversity everyone has to abide by participation.

  • I don’t believe in a monarchy, but if we’ve got one I think they should be able to present their views to politicians. I’d like to formalise such processes, and have them far more open, but I don’t have an issue with the letters themselves. It’s maybe more concerning that in years to come Charles will probably have weekly, undocumented meetings with the Prime Minister, and won’t need to write letters any more.

    I think a liberal party in the UK that took a republican position would be a very successful force under some form of PR, but with FPP there are sadly topics best not mentioned. It’s certainly one of the positions missing from our political choice.

  • “one cannot imagine letters from ‘ordinary’ correspondents being treated with the same degree of sycophancy and deference that is accorded to Charles”

    This is the key problem, but not in the way that Mark Posen intends it, I expect; the culture of indifference and contempt for “common people” is so entrenched and accepted that taking one person’s views seriously is seen as egregious “sycophancy.” The truth is that every correspondent should be treated like a prince.

  • Shirley Campbell 24th May '15 - 12:54am

    Wow, when did Liberalism abandon radicalism? Wow, when Liberals abandoned the Liberal Party and set up the Liberal Democratic Party.

    Please folk research Liberalism and its impetus. Nothing has changed:

    Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession
    MANKIND being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance: the distinctions of rich and poor.
    But there is another and great distinction for which no truly natural reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of Heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into.
    To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries.

    Unfortunately, Julian Huppert has lost his seat and Liberals and Liberalism is a lost cause in the current legislature.

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 24th May '15 - 7:03am

    What we have is a constitutional monarchy (ie., a democrat one).

    A constitutional monarchy in which the monarch’s power is limited by a written constitution which takes the form of constitutional monarchy, in which the monarch retains a unique legal and ceremonial role, but exercises limited or no political power pursuant to a constitution or tradition which allocates governing authority elsewhere.

    What you are trying to suggest is that we an absolute monarchy. We do not.

    In Liberalism and its impetus not all held a radical viewpoint, as in the 1860s, Walter Bagehot, the great liberal journalist, classified “the monarchy as one of the “dignified” parts of the constitution.”

    Its function is to be the living “representative” of democracy to the outside world, as opposed to the “efficient” parts, such as the House of Commons, which work is to administer to the welfare of people (something of which seems to have gone amiss for quite sometime regarding the HoC).

    And lastly, in creation no one was created equal, as the concept didn’t exist in terms of what was done to survive, so only existence was in place.

  • [The monarchy’s] function is to be the living “representative” of democracy to the outside world

    Whatever the monarchy is, it is definitely NOT that. By no contortion of logic is the monarchy representative of democracy. Perhaps representative of democracy’s victory over feudalism. Like a caged animal taken as a trophy.

  • nvelope2003 24th May '15 - 4:54pm

    There have always been republicans in all parties, even the Conservatives, but the monarchy remains popular and until it ceases to be so there is no point wasting time advocating its abolition. It is a bit like reform of the House of Lords – only a few people are interested. By advocating a republic you will upset potential supporters and most likely nothing will come of it. Just leave it alone. It will be hard enough winning back the millions of lost voters without gratuitously offending some of them. People are mainly interested in how much money they will have and what they have to do to get it, not political theories.

    The environment might be a better issue to campaign on – Prince Charles could be a help there. The problem for republicans is that he seems such a decent man and has many good feelings about important issues. It is what works in practice, not theories, that matter. The French apparently think the opposite !

  • Katerina Porter 24th May '15 - 6:10pm

    As I remember in our constitution the monarch has the right to be informed and to be consulted.
    It is worth noting that members of the royal family usually pass their lives meeting very different people and visiting very different places at home and abroad, more than most politicians have the chance to.
    Also at this moment with the threat of the repeal of our Human Rights act we are relying on the House of Lords for its defense.
    These two accidents of history have their advantages. Just think of a President Thatcher!

  • Katerina Porter 24th May '15 - 6:14pm

    PS “places at home and abroad’ so have wide experience which can be of use.

  • SIMON BANKS 25th May '15 - 9:15am

    Oddly, I don’t entirely agree with Mark. I too am a republican. But we don’t have a republic: we have a constitutional monarchy. While the heir to the throne has no constitutional role (I remember the future George IV, in “The Madness of King George”, saying something like “To be Prince of Wales is not a role – it’s a CONDITION.”), it’s sensible enough to make some allowance for the fact that this person will almost certainly be monarch.

    The role of monarch in a constitutional monarchy certainly includes offering ministers advice – in an interesting reversal of the old situation, that the ministers offered the monarch advice. Each of Elizabeth II’s Prime Ministers has had regular sessions with her, talking over government business and the state of the nation, and it would be strange if she’d never asked a searching question or made a suggestion. The monarch will inevitably have access to power that you and I don’t. Strong conventions have grown up around how not to misuse that access. It does seem that Charles has overstepped the line, not in using an unusual degree of access, but in lobbying strongly on specific issues. He should be advised not to do that; but as monarch, he’d be perfectly within his rights to ask if the PM was happy that dairy farmers were getting enough support, say.

    But perhaps he’ll never have to and we’ll have a republic…but then Charles might get elected President – the Bulgarians did something similar…

  • I thought we weren’t allowed to call for people’s sacking on LDV. Scrapping the Monarchy, House of Lords, Trident etc will mean thousands lose their jobs, but is obviously OK. Calling for one person from the LibDem HQ be sacked because he has been a disaster is obviously much worse.

  • nvelope2003 25th May '15 - 4:27pm

    We have a crisis in the NHS, in the education system, public transport, housing, and a huge deficit and National Debt and what are the Liberal Democrats worrying about ? The only part of the system that is not in crisis. How much time would need to be allowed for Parliament to make Britain a republic ? Two Parliaments ? No wonder we only have 8 seats in Parliament. I am surprised there are so many.

  • nvelope2003
    It is really not the only thing the Liberal Democrats are “worrying about”. There is a lot else being discussed around here, and I very much doubt that it is the reason for the election result.

  • nvelope2003 27th May '15 - 8:42pm

    R Rossim: No of course it was not the reason for the election result but I think many people felt that some of the things which concern Liberal Democrats were rather a waste of time from their point of view and some of them were not what they wanted at all. Although personally I would like to see some reform of the House of Lords and the voting system very few votes would be won by this but ordinary people might regard it as fiddling about for no obvious benefit. As regards the monarchy most people think the Queen does a good job and they are right to do so. An hereditary monarch who has not had to fight for the job will often have a more balanced view of things than a politician. He or she may have a certain calming effect so I am not sure I agree that the monarch should only have a purely ceremonial role and not meet the Prime Minister to discuss important issues.

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