The question of monarchy

“Well, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you.”

I don’t think any of us would have invented our current constitutional setup from scratch. It is something that has evolved over hundreds of years, emerging from a bloody history that includes the execution of monarchs and civil war, as well as the Glorious Revolution. And like all evolved creatures it bears redundant remnants of its past.

However there are some very beneficial features of the system that we have inherited:

  • It has given us a stable parliamentary democracy, which is rightly envied, and copied, across the world. The formal power of the aristocracy and the wealthy are severely curtailed.
  • There is clear separation between the Head of State and Government, to the extent that the Head of State is effectively banned from taking part in any political activities. This is coupled with clear separation between Government and Judiciary.
  • The smooth transition of power from one Government to another is pretty much guaranteed.
  • The (normal) longevity of the Head of State gives them a perspective on the nation and the world that few others can emulate, and this can inform Prime Ministers (who are, of course, free to ignore it).
  • The ceremonial and historical aspects of the monarchy are hugely popular and act as a focus for community cohesion.

However there are still some problems.

  • The legacy of Empire is still problematic, marked as it was by slavery, abuse and cultural annihilation, and for many the monarchy represents all that was wrong with imperialism.
  • The House of Lords still exists in a form that has echoes of its feudal past. Its scrutiny role is essential, and the inclusion of cross benchers with real expertise is undoubtedly a good thing. The question is how to create an elected chamber which is not just a pale reflection of the Commons.
  • Members of the Royal Family (as opposed to the office of the Monarch, which is funded by income from the Crown Estates) have accumulated vast personal wealth.
  • The wealthy from all sectors of society can still wield substantial soft power over Government.

The Founding Fathers in the US had an amazing opportunity to invent a constitution and establish a stable liberal democracy. However the conflation of the roles of Head of State and Head of Government does, to a certain extent, depend on the goodwill of participants and, as we have seen, does not prevent a rogue President from staging a power grab. On top of that the constitution permitted a politically influenced Judiciary. So their model is not perfect.

Some of these issues around the separation of powers are played out at the level of local government. As a party we oppose directly elected Mayors, preferring the distinction between representative leadership and political leadership. Having been a (representative) Mayor myself I can recognise the importance of the role of the mayoralty in acknowledging and encouraging all the activities that create and sustain healthy communities – it’s a local echo of the role of the Monarch in our national life.

So what could be put in place of monarchy that would sustain all the hard won benefits of our constitutional system but reduce the negatives? Here are some of the options:

  • A Head of State selected from among MPs (just as a representative Mayor is selected by councillors). This would be for a fixed term, but longer than the usual Parliamentary sessions – at least 10 years.
  • A Head of State elected by citizens. If possible there would need to be some mechanism to prevent this becoming a political contest, encouraging nominations from well-known politically-neutral public figures (David Attenborough? Judi Dench? David Beckham?)
  • A pared down Royal Family alongside a stringent re-examination of the costs of running the monarchy.

On Sunday, at a civic service, I sang the second verse of the National Anthem with the new pronouns for the first time. I was struck by these lines:

May he defend our laws and ever give us cause to sing, with hearts and voice “God save the King”.

In other words, if he doesn’t defend our parliamentary law-making processes then we won’t acknowledge him as King – a clear statement of the constitutional pact between Government and Head of State.

 

 

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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21 Comments

  • Lots of interesting ideas Mary, and worthy of consideration, but if I’m honest I don’t quite feel ready for a rational discussion on this subject right now. Not (just) because of the emotions around the death of the Queen, but too many republicans have filled my social media timelines with very bad faith arguments, and I need a break.

    On paper a hereditary monarchy doesn’t suit a modern country, and yet it has served us well, in part because we all understand that it’s a ceremonial role and not pretending to be actual democracy. Meanwhile, the House of Commons, elected by undemocratic FPTP, is held up as democracy. Yet we have Prime Ministers who wield power entirely disproportionate to their support.

    IMO campaigns to remove the Monarchy, or even big changes to the House of Lords, could be a damaging distraction from much needed electoral reform.

    The process to select an elected head of state fills me with dread in the current political climate. I definitely support plans to ensure that person remains politically neutral, but when polled most people would have voted for The Queen, and the top non-royal was Attenborough, who I doubt would want the role.

    I happily support a pared down official monarchy (something Charles suggested years ago) and getting rid of the remaining hereditary lords if that can be done without too much drama. But I maintain we should save our democratic energies to push for electoral reform.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Sep '22 - 1:17pm

    Utterly sensible and thoughtful, Mary! Excellent from comments thread contribution, from Fiona.

    We ought to reform every institution. Only reform is the answer to a flaw. Replace completely only that with nothing good in it.

    The NHS is not a great institution in practice. It has good in it but needs to be improved greatly. We ought to reform it. So the EU, the fault of Remain was Clegg and co, asked how you see it over the years, in its development ahead, “much as now,” Clegg said! Then the BBC, abolish the licence fee, department of Culture should fund it like all our DCMS institutions. Nobody says the RSC, or National Gallery are not independent of government! Similarly the House of Lords. I do not want to abolish it. Keep an appointed strong section. Cross Bench, independent peers are best for the task they are there for. A totally elected house would usurp the commons.

    So to the Monarchy. It can be slimline, modern, cheaper. But it is more popular, independent, and less expensive than the US and French President role.

    Abolish that which is bad. Reform that which is good, to make it better, and great.

  • Thank you both for your comments.
    Fiona – as you can imagine the LDV team had quite a discussion about the best time to publish something on the monarchy. Some of us would have preferred to delay, but it was clear that many people had already raised it on social media. Many of our contributors have tried to write about it over the last two weeks, and we had to moderate their comments in keeping with the “no politics” line. Hopefully we can now have a courteous conversation in line with Liberal Democrat values.

  • Tristan Ward 22nd Sep '22 - 1:29pm

    Mary rightly point ot the expertise and independence of the House of Lords a a strength. I suggest that making it an elected chamber would inevitable mean these benefits- vitally important in drafting effective legislation – would be lost.

    In addition two elected Chambers would undoubtedly leade to conflict between the two, so it becomes more difficult to achieved legislation. See gridlock in the US. While the Loeds is not elected, or must always bow to the authority of the elected chamber.

    We already have one elected chamber that is surpreme. It is not a pretty sight. I am not persuaded we need another.

    Ahoqevwr a second d chamber that is expert indwpendent and which has an overriding duty to protect the country’s (written) Constitution would be Good Thing.

  • Hi Mary. Compliance with the word limit means I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. I merely meant that I personally lack the enthusiasm for any detailed wrangling over the monarchy right now but appreciate the value in a thoughtful piece such as yours that raises aspects of the discussion at the right time.

    The bit about the legacy of empire is important too. It was something Charles touched on earlier in the year as representative of the Queen, and while I don’t expect anything soon, I think it’s plausible he will say something more authoritative as King. It would be a good time to consider changing MBEs+ to something without the BE too.

    While it’s interesting to see what the US did starting a republic from scratch, we need to remember the republicans writing their constitution were thinking only of white men when they wrote here ‘all men are created equal’, and many of them continued to own slaves. Republicanism is not an antidote to the horrors of slavery or imperialism.

  • Thank you, Mary, for providing such a thoughtful and comprehensive commentary with which it is very difficult to disagree.

    Yes, we’ve been fortunate indeed with such dutiful monarchs as Elizabeth11 (and with her father- who I can just remember). Hopefully, this will remain the case with King Charles 111.

    But the problem with any system based on the hereditary principle is the chance that this may not always be the case. If, by mischance, Charles had been younger than his next brother down what would the situation have been then ? Would it be satisfactory these days to have a monarch so strongly opposed to female suffrage as was the case with Queen Victoria ? It’s also clear now that we (and the Security Services) had a very lucky escape with Edward V111.

    Indeed, it’s a conundrum, but I would happily abolish the hereditary Lords tomorrow. LLG got it right in his famous Limehouse speech.

  • Paul Barker 22nd Sep '22 - 4:26pm

    Thanks for the article.
    My objections to Monarchy are based on two simple grounds –
    Democracy,
    many of Britains problems stem from a lack of Democracy not an excess of it. One of the saddest defences of Monarchy is when a Democratic alternative is seen as a threat – usually summed up with the example of “President Thatcher”.

    Symbolism.
    The monarch is the peak of the visible class system, the most Aristocratic of the Aristocrats. How can Liberals think that is anything but wrong ?

  • nvelope2003 22nd Sep '22 - 4:34pm

    There seems to have been a mechanism for removing unsuitable people from the throne. It is very difficult to get rid of unsuitable elected Presidents, especially the really bad and therefore dangerous ones as we must all be aware by now. Most people live under republican regimes which are not at all democratic. A few live under monarchies which are undemocratic. Even some of the European republics are not democracies in the way that we would find acceptable. As regards the rest of the world , what can one say ? The word dictatorship springs to mind.

  • nvelope2003 22nd Sep '22 - 4:45pm

    Paul Barker: Britain lacks democracy because of its electoral system. We must not judge by appearances. President Trump was elected fairly as far as we know but the US has a history of interfering with the democratic process and the electoral boundaries so he has some grounds for suspecting that the election he lost was not fair but we do not know although many people, myself included, hope that it was.

    If something works and is accepted by most people it would need a very good reason to change it. I would prefer to use my energies on dealing with the government which has just come to power. I hope I am wrong but I suspect that things could go very badly with the implementation of its policies. There might even be riots.

  • Joseph Bourke 22nd Sep '22 - 6:11pm

    Mary writes accurately that there is clear separation between the Head of State and Government. However, as head of the Church of England there is no clear separation between Church and State. As far as I know the UK and Iran are the only two countries that appoint churchmen to its Parliament by right. Strictly speaking the UK could be considered a partial ecclesiocracy, as some positions in the House of Lords are allotted exclusively to Church of England Bishops.
    Constitutional monarchy clearly suits the British public. One of the most common refrains I heard during the period of mourning for the Queen was the sense of constancy that people felt during the reign of Elizabeth 11. She was a living link from WW2 during a period that saw the break-up of the British empire and great social change. I expect it will become more difficult for future Monarchs to sustain the loyalty that the Queen engendered and the potential dissolution of the United Kingdom may see greater change still; perhaps even a written constitution and bill of rights at some point.

  • Trevor Smith 22nd Sep '22 - 6:28pm

    A balanced article, but the final point about “defending our laws” is key. Unfortunately, it’s proved to be a weak point. Queen Elizabeth did not appear to do much about defending our laws when Johnson was found to have prorogued Parliament illegally. This constitutional outrage should have been the one time she spoke up, if not dismissed his then minority government altogether. As it is, it appears there is ultimately no sanction for governments that are found to have broken the laws she – and now he – are pledged to defend.

  • We must remember what the situation was when the now former queen was growing up. There is no doubt that she was very aware of the circumstances of the abdication of her uncle, making her father king and herself as the future queen. There has been much discussion about how a group of powerful people “persuaded” her uncle to abdicate. The question must be faced as to how great in reality the separation of powers is.
    My main interest though is the issue of where power and sovereignty come from. My reaction is that it should come from the people. At present we do not make enough effort to educate our young people in the skills of joint decision making. In fact I question whether there is a real effort to develop real decision making skills, consisting of things like gathering evidence.
    Going back to our constitutional arrangements, we need to start with an agreement on what the government is for, and then go through a rational process of discussion and evidence collection.

  • @Joseph Bourke – I’m a practicing member of the Church of England but I agree that it should be disestablished. However the presence in the Lords of Bishops (by right) and other faith leaders (by appointment) adds to the rich cross-bench diversity. Of course, if they had a direct route into Government that would be shocking, but their function in the Lords is to scrutinise legislation proposed in the Commons.

    That is very different from the situation in Iran where the country is run by religious leaders.

  • Agreed Mary. Suggestions that Bishops in HoL is comparable with religious rule Iran is the kind of bad faith argument that puts me off these debates.

    I think it’s a strength that particular interests are represented in HoL, but I would welcome a reduction in the number of Bishops and increase to places reserved for other community leaders, which would include representatives of other faiths (and denominations). There are peers like John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue who makes a great contribution as a cross-bench peer.

  • Joseph Bourke 23rd Sep '22 - 11:16am

    Wholly agree, Mary. Iran is not comparable to the UK; and it is unfortunate that the UK remains among those few countries where Church and State are not seen to be fully separated.
    An established Church is something of an anachronism in a society that guarantees freedom of religion. The Anglican Bishops make an important contribution to social and cultural debates in the country, but this seems to be largely through press releases and public speeches rather than debates in the House of Lords.

  • That’s a fair point about their point being made through the press, but I wonder if the press or government of the day would pay any attention to them if they weren’t also voting members of the House of Lords. I think we should have enough Bishops and equivalent representing other aspects of society so that the government of the day does have to listen, but their votes shouldn’t come close to dominating which legislation passes.

  • Laurence Cox 23rd Sep '22 - 11:41am

    @Mary

    As another practising Anglican, I am not sure that disestablishing the Church of England is the most important issue; I am more concerned about the power of the Prime Minister to choose which of the the candidates from the Crown Nominations Commission to recommend to the Monarch (and the PM can reject both and ask the Commission to think again). This power was used by Margaret Thatcher to block Jim Thompson’s appointment as Bishop of Birmingham. A future Prime Minister could follow a non-Christian religion or be an atheist, yet still have the power to dictate who should become a Church of England bishop. Could we even trust Truss to put forward the name of a liberal bishop to Charles III?

  • John Lib Dem 23rd Sep '22 - 12:01pm

    Presidential systems are absolutely atrocious. Were we to get rid of the monarchy, some sort of appointed Head of State for fixed term periods (though I’m not convinced that fixed term period needs to be anywhere near approaching 10 years but am open to hearing the argument) makes the most sense to me.

    To whoever raised it above – the House of Lords needs serious reform but I agree with you on the whole. Unless its replacement was to be some sort of senate of nations in a proper federal UK – in which case that’s as a part of a complete restructuring of how the UK actually works – I’m no longer convinced it needs to be elected. The HOL currently works extremely well as a scrutiny chamber. It lacks the naked politicking of the commons and currently doesn’t challenge its supremacy. There seems to a bit of an ‘any change is good change’ attitude amongst some people, but as we’ve seen with the proposed electoral ‘reform’ in the Welsh Senedd, that really isn’t always the case. I fear an elected upper chamber, especially one that will almost certainly be viewed by voters as at the very lowest end of second-order elections, won’t necessarily be a great positive. If people want to convince me otherwise, they need to be less vague in how they present the argument.

  • One advantage of the monarchy that was especially so of ERII was that everyone knew who she was. If a head of state is to cut ribbons and hand out gongs then that person has to be able to make the event and people feel special. Being well known helps, and in that respect a longer term is better.

    Dare I suggest we have a head of state and a deputy – an heir if you like. That way we have a chance to get to know the heir before they take office.

  • William Townsend 24th Sep '22 - 10:40am

    Why is it not democratic? No one holds a gun to my head when I vote telling me to vote for a candidate that supports the monarchy. If I want a republic I can vote for a republican and if at some point in years to come republican leaning MP’s form a majority view we can have a vote on it. What do you replace it with? The American system or for that matter the French one. Would a UK Parliament give actual power to a President. What happens if a President decides they don’t like what the parliament sends over for his signature? Imagine a President Johnson, do you really think he would be able to resist putting the cat amongst the pigeons? And don’t think for one minute that if we had a Presidential election now a Johnson or some other has been Politician wouldn’t be going for it and what you get might be something you seriously regret.
    I respect republican views but if you think it will improve the lives of the people you are kidding yourselves. And I doubt it would save money based on how PM’s and MP’s like to splash taxpayers cash. Item one, A president’s yacht! I can see Rees-Mogg now, he would be in his element. I believe that becoming a Republic would be a far greater self inflicted wound to the United Kingdom than Brexit and that was really bad! And you can say goodbye to the Union as well!

  • Peter Hirst 29th Sep '22 - 3:02pm

    There is a role for the monarchy if it wishes to accept it though with all political powers withdrawn. Oversight of our democracy should be left to an elected second chamber and our legal system. It could alongside its ceremonial role, act as an important part of civil society arguing for more pubic engagement in our political life and expressing compassion for those who are disadvantaged while promoting this country overseas.

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