The Independent View: Liberals must embrace republicanism

Ever since the notorious Whig party, and her revolutionary platform, liberals have always embraced the very notion of constitutional reform and the democratic defence of Britain. The modern paladin of liberalism, Nick Clegg and his colleagues, must now take up the challenge and argue the formation of a British Republic.

The Monarchy is old-fashioned, undemocratic, unrepresentative of society, and lumpen. Prince Charles’ ambition to be a “political Monarch” not only violates the constitutional monarchy, but undermines the sovereignty of Parliament. Labour’s administration remains silent, as Prince Charle damages construction projects, and contradicts government health and environmental policy. Monarchists need to understand the concept that no member of the Royal household can give a public political opinion. It’s against the constitution.

To declaim the monarchy, and advocate its removal, is still a political taboo. But the threat of King Charles III should be challenged, especially if this individual is proclaiming the introduction of a political king. Britain cannot afford to turn back 400 years of reform by refusing to question the accountability of the monarchy.

Ask to see Her Majesty’s accounts or even the financial status of the Duchy of Cornwall? Notice the wall of silence and the refusal to announce basic, fundamental details. The public expressed deep anguish and antipathy towards Members of Parliament and their expenses, but what about the royal family? Bias towards this out-moded model of governance, especially by the media, denies us the very opportunity to debate accountability and even reform. Parliament, due to an arcane law, still cannot debate the position of the Crown. The population is gagged and forced to become a subject, not a citizen of Britain.

The current head of state is a lame duck. If Her Majesty – at the demand of The Sun – dissolved Parliament and dismissed her government over the expenses scandal, the Crown would be instantly attacked (and removed) via the governing party. Any Royal power would be seen as a provocative act towards Parliament (the Royal veto was last used in 1708). A Presidential system could solve many constitutional problems because, significantly, the President would have a democratic mandate to rule with authority and be political. Liberals may have led the way on electoral and House of Lords reform, but our voice is needed to justify the removal of the Crown. Britain, and her future, is better off under the administration of a republic.

The Royal palaces of the French Republic attract, year on year, more tourists than her British counterparts. And Britain is still a monarchy. This ridiculous argument that tourists would vacate London without a Crown is a puerile reason to maintain the status quo. In fact, the Royal palaces would be more accessible to the general public, and tourist trade, under a republic. The economic argument does not make sense. As for tradition, without sounding utterly facetious, slavery was once considered a British tradition along with discrimination towards religious sects – we relinquished those practices centuries ago. Tradition cannot justify the undemocratic state of Britain: society changes, and the institutions must change with it.

The Liberal Democrats have a political duty to argue against the Crown. Monarchists will, inevitability, deny us the right to question the Crown and propose a counter-system. But we cannot steer away from the debate. A monarchist once asked me to choose between President Blair or President Thatcher, but the beauty is, as I said, both can be voted out of office. Queen Elizabeth cannot.

* Daniel Furr is an independent liberal, not linked to the Lib Dems, currently studying business at Greenwich University. He is also a part time freelance blogger commenting on politics and international affairs.

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  • “The Monarchy is old-fashioned, undemocratic, unrepresentative of society, and lumpen”

    Democracy has been knocking around for several thousand years. Therefore democracy is old-fashioned too.

    As for undemocratic, one could argue that refusing to give the public a vote on every single issue e.g. the death penalty is undemocratic. It is generally accepted that there are limits to democracy – why should the monarch not be one?

    Unrepresentative – as if our MPs are?!

    Lumpen – eh?

  • Yes, lumpen. The very idea of a hereditary system is vulgar (not lumpen in the Marxist sense). Members of Parliament are elected to represent us – is the Monarchy?

    Britain cannot call herself a true democratic nation until the head of state is elected by the people.

  • I’m agreeing with Daniel.

    You should bring this debate to conference.. I’m sure there’d be enough passion on either side of the argument to have a healthy conversation and at least get the argument some more attention, as it so desperately needs!

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Jul '09 - 1:24pm

    Nice rant. I didn’t find anything in it that even pretended to be justified – less of an argument, and more a series of screams.

    I don’t want to call myself a true democratic nation. That sounds American to me. Especially the obsession with electing figureheads.

    You know what’s really undemocratic? Fish fingers. Nobody asked the fish what they thought about the idea.

  • Legitimacy means that power would flow upwards to a president, and away from a PM only elected in a Sedgefield or a Whitney. If you want a president, have the power of your convictions and argue for a US style system with the Commons acting as a House of Representatives.

  • I would like to see all political parties commit themselves to the concept of republicanism. Many countries are republican democracies, they don’t implode, do they?

    Republicanism may not be especially popular, but less and less young people see the monarchy as having any worth.

  • Not sure about monarchy, but surely we need reform of house of Lords, to be only with elected, highly educated people. (I meant not just a bunch of law graduates, variety of educational backgrounds)

  • There was a trope one of the times this was discussed that was designed to close down the argument – “President Thatcher”! However, no one with any sense would be arguing for an executive president in this country. The monarch is the Head of State, and that is all an elected president should be as well – not someone with real power as under the French or American systems of government. I’d have gladly swapped Prime Minister Thatcher for President Thatcher on that basis.

  • I agree it would be madness for this party to adopt a republican slant. The answer is simply that we need a written constitution that will put the monarchy firmly in its (symbolic) place. As for Charles, if he succeeds as Charles III with the Duchess as his consort he may well destroy the institution. He would certainly loose Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The Queen will go on for a few years yet and Charles will be pushing 80 when his turn comes. Which is why I suspect the deal is already done. Charles will give up the throne in favour of William, Diana’s son.

  • I already bought the ticket of republicanism long ago, so this is what I’d propose: have a referendum on the monarchy at the same time as every general election. At least that way if the monarchy stays then its the public’s will to do so. If the monarchy loses the vote, then no more need for a referendum obviously.

    “I’d have gladly swapped Prime Minister Thatcher for President Thatcher on that basis.”

    I never get this fascination with the argument about having a “President Thatcher/Blair”. I have news for you: we already have the bad aspects of the US Presidency! The cult of personality. The overpowerful executive actions.

    I go along with Tony Benn’s argument: the Prime Minister is probably the most powerful man relative to the size of his country in the whole of the Western world. Could you imagine Bush or Obama sitting in Congress while President? Could you imagine Bush declaring war without congressional approval? Could you imagine a US President appointing members into the Senate without any voting or vetting, and appointing members to his cabinet without any vetting?

    The monarchy is a smokescreen to shield how much power the Prime Minister has accrued for his/herself down the centuries. The Prime Minster is no longer “first among equals”, and hasn’t been for a long time.

    Look: if the monarchy is got rid of, the Prime Minister would be head of state. As head of the executive he should get out of Parliament (and take his/her cabinet with him/her). You don’t have to call him the President: call him Prime Minister still if you want, we are after all talking about reconstructing the UK political system, we can our head of state whatever we want, they’re our head of state after all. Make sure Parliament (or maybe just the Commons) has the power to declare war etc.

    If reconstructing the UK in a liberal way means getting rid of the monarchy (which I think it does), that doesn’t mean we have to turn into the United States. We can follow the example of Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton etc, but that doesn’t mean we have to follow their mistakes too.

    And why all the fascination with the US anyway? There are many many republics around the world, and a least one other “liberal” one that I can think of off the top of my head: France.

  • I have no problem with being a monarchy, just dont like the present incumbents. Couldn’t we ask the Dutch or Belgians if they have any suitable candidates.

  • Andrew Duffield 19th Jul '09 - 9:31am

    How it can ever be ‘mad’ to advocate the just, liberal and democratic course? As with so much else, we have a duty to LEAD public opinion and to persuade others of the rightness of our cause. That said, there are vastly more important wrongs in need of addressing than this continuing symbol of deference and injustice. Solve those first, and the institutions of unearned plutocratic power will disappear by default.

  • The monarchy may be popular today, but it won’t be in 20 years time when King Charles and Queen Camilla occupy the throne. Now is perhaps the time to consider what we should do when that happens.

  • As a former member of the armed forces people I know always expect me to be a pro monarchy ( no idea why – do people seruisly believe in the ‘queen and country’ thing?).

    The killer arguement against for me was reading the EU Constitution, it has a ridiculous intro that goes on for ages in the vein of ” In the name of Her supreme holy highness of Blah blah” through all the royalty of Europe. A friend of mine simply said that any constitution that did not simply begin “we the people” was a waste of time and paper. I had to agree. Get rid one and all.

  • Andrew Suffield 19th Jul '09 - 11:02pm

    I kinda prefer the idea that a constitution which I did not have any part in writing and for which my approval was not sought does not attempt to claim to be a statement of the people.

    I also don’t see the monarchy causing any real harm (the expense is tiny) and am disinclined to mindlessly destroy something that old without a really good reason.

    The queen is a figurehead. We do not have a figurehead problem, nor can any of our problems be solved by doing things with figureheads.

  • Moderate Monarchist 19th Jul '09 - 11:03pm

    “Ask to see Her Majesty’s accounts or even the financial status of the Duchy of Cornwall? Notice the wall of silence and the refusal to announce basic, fundamental details. The public expressed deep anguish and antipathy towards Members of Parliament and their expenses, but what about the royal family?”


    Isn’t it all there – expenditure, sources of funding, annual reports, taxation? Before you make assertions like that, check the basic sources!

  • If you want to be a teacher then you should be able to be one, so long as you have the qualifications.

    Same goes for any other job.

    So why is it that if someone wants to be a Head of State in this country, then it doesn’t matter what your abilities are, it only matters who you were born to (and what your religion is).

  • This article will surely re-awaken those who thought the Lib Dems were a serious part to reallity.
    On the one hand, might it be wiser, perhaps, at the time of the worst recession since the 1930s to talk about things that actually matter to people like empoyment and inflation?
    On the other, as an historian, I would like to expose the various lies and half-truths mentioned above regarding the history of the liberal party and the British constitution. First of all, to claim that the modern Lib Dems, the spineless mutilation of a once great Liberal Party corrupted by Social Democrats, have anything to do with the Whig Party, which did so much to establish liberty (and ultimately democratic government) in Britain, is ludicrous. One thing connected the Whig liberals from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to Grey’s Reform Act in 1832: they were all monarchists.
    More importantly, history has bread no form of government with a greater capacity for tyranny than democracy. It entrust power in the hands of the majority of those few who bother to take an interest, and yields little recourse to the minorities they persecuted. In the last three centuries, democracy provided Hitler, Mousilini, Robbespierre, and Napoleon.
    British Constitutional Monarchy produced a spirit of civil and political liberty that led to a system of universal suffrage that did not whither and die in body and soul shortly after its inception. Religious freedom, an embryonic welfare state in the early twentieth century (the project of an actual Liberal Party), economic freedom and prosperity, and the one-time Liberal holy challice of individual rights (defended pretty much alone by the Tories since 1979) were all established under constitutional monarchy. And so was the philosophical legacy embraced by generations of British statesmen, and the American Revolutionaries. We must not forget the Hamilton, Franklin, and Washington began their struggle with a desire for equality with the British Parliament but beneath the same Crown – the same system that connect Britain to the Crown Commonwealth today, leaving a very tangible link to vital allies like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
    This bring s me to the point that the monarchy is not ours to abolish, for the Queen and her successors shall continue to reign in other countries too (for those optimistic of a universal republic, republicanism in Canada struggles to reach five per cent in polls). Hence, the British people could only have a partial say in the matter.
    Finally, we should be profoundly wary of entrusting the very extensive and thankfully dormant powers of the British monarch to an elected figure like a president. Such individuals, driven by their own sense of legitimacy, could not be trusted to overlook these powers. It is far better they remain, in law, the preserve of an individual who will not exercise them. Then, at least there remains one ultimate safeguard against the Prime Minister who exercises these powers in practice; a safeguard no politically appointed supreme court would be fit to provide.

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