Opinion: The case for a Republic – and why Lib Dems should support it

This is a long fought argument and, maybe, one that everyone that will read this is tired of hearing. Nonetheless, it is an argument that all liberals should support.

As liberals, we oppose the arbitrary concentration of power – and you don’t get more arbitrary than your head of state being hereditary!

As a short disclaimer, I do not intend to go into arguments about cost et cetera, but rather the principle of having a monarchy.

Certainly, a liberal conception of a head of state isn’t one that that has no mandate to challenge what the government legislates, simply rubber-stamping all legislation. A liberal democracy has checks and balances at all levels and subsidiarity to avoid concentration of power.

We support devolving power away from Westminster because we believe that local decision-making is superior and more accountable than laws emanating from Whitehall. We support an elected House of Lords, because we believe that no-one should inherit a seat in parliament and that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those who follow them. We also believe that an elected house has more of a mandate to challenge the Commons, which can often pass bad laws. We support proportional representation because we believe all votes should be equal and no one party should have a majority unless a majority of voters put their trust in them. We support Freedom of Information because we believe that those officials who exercise power on our behalf should be open to scrutiny.

If we support devolving power away from Westminster, why do we not support a constitutional change that would weaken the power of the central government? If we oppose hereditary peers, why do we not oppose an hereditary head of state? If we believe that those who make the laws of the land should be elected, why do we not believe that those who sign them into law should be elected? If we support Freedom of Information, why do we not oppose an institution that is exempt and exercises significant political power? How can we be consistent with our own policies, and our own principles, while we support a monarchy?

Does this mean I hate the Queen or the Royal family? No. Does this mean I think they have no role in the future of the UK? Interestingly enough, not at all.

There are a few options for a way forward, consistent with a strong, vibrant liberal democracy.

1. Disestablish and deport the monarchy and establish a British republic with a president elected by the public using SV/AV.

2. Disestablish the monarchy and establish a British republic with a President elected by the public using SV/AV, keeping on the monarchy as ambassadors for the British republic.

As we have found with the House of Lords debate, the ways you can go about reform are inexhaustible. You could probably use indirect elections, such as electing the Prime Minister, or any other number of solutions to this democratic deficit as well as any number of questions over what sort of power an elected head of state would have. As for the solutions I just briefly sketched out, I am personally most keen on the second.

Firstly, I quite like ol’ Liz. I wouldn’t be keen on deporting her and her family even if I didn’t. Even if you do not believe that she has done a good job, or you are a Republican like me, you have to admit that she has served the public for a long time and that, in itself, deserves commendation.

To conclude, I think that an elected head of state must be a part of any radical, liberal constitutional settlement for Britain.

* Kevin McNamara is a Fellow Royal Society of Arts, Honorary Vice-President Liberal Democrat Campaign for Race Equality and Honorary Vice-President Young Liberals

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23 Comments

  • Good stuff. Agree totally.

  • I cannot support a single person being in a position of such power. Why do we not get rid of a single head of state, and demand cabinet government where the executive is inherently accountable to the legislative by being drawn from it?

  • Kevin McNamara 9th Jul '12 - 1:41pm

    henry, there is no reason that the president couldn’t be a check on the executive and the commons a check on the president.

    either way, as i see it we should not have an unelected head of state.

  • John Roffey 9th Jul '12 - 1:43pm

    You have an unlikely ally in Richard North!

    “Even being picked up by the international media now, over the weekend we have seen German president Joachim Gauck intervene very publicly on the euro-crisis.

    In a TV interview on the ZDF channel, he has told Merkel that she needs to explain why more clearly why Germany needs save the euro – at great expense to the country’s taxpayers – and what will be necessary.

    Not mincing his words, Gauck said that Merkel has “the duty to describe in great detail what it means, including what it means for the budget”. He added that the political establishment had struggled to explain why it was vital for Germany to do its part to save the euro, and actually offered to help in the process of communicating those priorities.

    “Sometimes it‘s hard to explain what this is all about. And, sometimes, there’s a lack of effort to openly tell the populace what is actually happening”, Gauck said, stressing that he did not want his words to be seen as an attack on Merkel.

    Gauck, of course, is the man who refuses to sign the law ratifying the fiscal pact until Karlsruhe has ruled on it, and he also had words about this, saying he was glad complaints had been made to the court, as he wanted to see a broad social debate on the issue.

    One can’t help but feel here that the Germans have got the better deal, compared with the UK, in having a politically active head of state who is prepared to intervene on contentious issues. To carry out such a role in the UK, the post is currently vacant, as the Monarch is not permitted by convention to express political views in public.

    The president himself very rarely makes the international press, even though Gauck was a controversial appointment, and not Merkel’s preferred candidate for the job. But his intervention now seems well-founded and does highlight how badly we are served in the UK. ” More at:

    http://www.eureferendum.com/blogview.aspx?blogno=82875

    Personally I would prefer to the old system with the Lord Chancellor necessarily a peer:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Chancellor

    but who is expected to kick out anyone who demonstrates impropriety. At least that way the wise and the expert could be appointed rather than recycling a bunch of politicians whose only talent the majority have demonstrated is the ability to advance their personal careers.

    Should there be disagreement between the two houses the matter could then be the subject of a referendum. [Democracy in Action!]

  • Well this is going to go down well….

  • Kevin McNamara 9th Jul '12 - 2:03pm

    John: I didn’t know any of that! Very interesting and indeed a case of real debate and democracy in action. A few minor gripes – I’m not sure how a President could be appointed without the complications that appointed Lords bring in terms of illegitimacy or a conflict of interests. Secondly, I don’t really think referendums are that democratic unless everyone helps write the question!

  • Kevin McNamara 9th Jul '12 - 2:04pm

    Neil – I fully expect this post to be controversial but I find it strange that we attack the Lords as an anachronism after we’ve just had a boat party for our appointed Head of State!

  • Richard Dean 9th Jul '12 - 2:24pm

    Be real! Power is not concentrated in the monarch. The PM is our effective Head of State. Power is wielded through money, mainly and unfortunately, which means the government has some, the wealthy have a lot, and the population has bits.

    The monarch has emotional and ceremonial roles, but if there is a significant issue to be decided by parliament then the she basically does what she is told.

  • @John Roffey: Interesting to note that the Founding Fathers of the United States (who Thomas Paine was, of course, closely involved with), stressed that the the Union should not be a ‘democracy’ (meaning direct democracy) but rather a republic (representative democracy with strong constitutional limits). The reason? Because they believed, correctly, that the masses would make poor defenders of liberty. Worth remembering, I think.

  • I’ve argued that the real problem with the monarchy is that it sends the wrong message: one should rise according to merit, not accident of birth. The monarchy is the keystone in the edifice of privilege.

    The point about the German presidency is well made: the Queen is constrained by tradition and the uncodified British constitution from intervening directly in politics, not only the German president, but the Italian president have made interventions to the good of the public they serve. It’s rare, but it’s not out of bounds. With the Queen it would be – so how can she be effective as a true Head of State?

  • Kevin McNamara 9th Jul '12 - 3:00pm

    Richard Dean – “The monarch has emotional and ceremonial roles, but if there is a significant issue to be decided by parliament then the she basically does what she is told.”Is that not precisely the problem?

  • Why is it not liberal for the head of state to be unable to overturn the decisions of the executive and legislature? I would argue that the non-partisan, largely apolitical figurehead role of our head of state is the one strength we must preserve regardless of how said head is selected.

    I am reminded of the accusations of unpatriotism that get thrown around within presidential systems whenever certain factions oppose the president’s decisions. The ability of a British citizen to call the government of the day out and declare it to be a failure while remaining unimpeachably patriotic is something worth keeping.

    If you want a counterbalance to prevent the PM from making daft decisions, look to an elected upper house and its spokesperson, not the head of state.

  • Richard Dean 9th Jul '12 - 6:12pm

    It would be a problem if the monarch had power.

    A President with power sounds a lot more dangerous to a parliamentary democracy than a monarch without.

  • John Roffey 10th Jul '12 - 6:14am

    @mpg

    I am not that keen on the system that I proposed here:

    http://theghostofthomaspaine.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/there-is-no-way-back-for-representative-democracy-in-its-present-form/

    however, when those in power abuse their position by seeking to return to Medieval values through improving the lot of the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and weak – the existing structure has to be interrupted to provide a more just outcome – the eventual alternative is rebellion and anarchy.

    The system proposed should strengthen the hand of elected MPs, so that they are not lobby fodder for their party leader, and provide an opportunity for others within the constituencies [not members of the main parties] to demonstrate their capabilities – leading to a broader representation in the HofC including independents.

    This should oblige the government of the day to devise policies that are acceptable to the majority – not just a relatively small group of ideologues.

  • John Roffey 10th Jul '12 - 6:47am

    The problem that Richard North identifies is that the monarch, under the present system, has power [weekly meetings with PM] and wealth without responsibility. History [and Shakespeare] demonstrates that the various Dynasties had a certain life span. Once the existing House produced a few poor monarchs in succession – a new dynasty arose through revolution.

    If the monarch appointed the Lord Chancellor who acted as his/her representative and selected the members of the HofL to provide a body that examined the laws passed from the HofC – with referendums in the rare cases that agreement could not be reached – there would be, by devolution, an effective Head of State. However, if the HofL functioned poorly, the responsibility for this would be the monarch’s – and if this continued there would be calls to change the monarch or, more probably, for a republic.

    The present system allows for a succession of useless monarchs, who, nevertheless, do not lose their position because their true abilities are never exposed.

  • Thanks Rankersbo for that insight, the German system doesn’t sound like anything to admire and aspire to when you point that out.

    A head of state who isn’t directly elected, but does interfere publicly with the directly elected government(s)? Actively makes me glad for Britain’s (effectively) powerless monarchy.

  • @ Rankersbo

    I was not recommending the German system – just that having a head of state who cannot be seen to be influential has serious disadvantages if the executive starts introducing a series of measures that favour a small group at the expense of the majority – particularly the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

    See my previous post.

  • Kevin McNamara 11th Jul '12 - 2:34pm

    John Roffey is miles more articulate than I! Well said. The idea that the monarchy is apolotical is as specious as the idea that the Lords is full to the brim with expertise.

    Simon Banks, agreed.

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