The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee should be the occasion for more than a few half-hearted street parties and a second-rate pop concert. If the Monarchy chooses to place itself in the public gaze, then it should be prepared for proper scrutiny, not just bunting, cheering, singing, and drinking. And Duran Duran.
Discussion about the Monarchy usually falls into an exhausting, binary spat: God Save the Queen versus Off With Their Heads, cringing servility or red revolution, Ingrid Seward versus Kevin Maguire, in a never-ending back-and-forth about tourism receipts, the magic of ceremony, and the cost of all those carriages, crowns and castles. It makes for great TV, but it takes us nowhere fast.
The real question is not whether the Monarchy costs a lot of money (it does) or whether it has too much influence in our politics (it has), or even whether a presidential model would be preferable to a hereditary head of state (it would). The real question is the one posed by the Putney Debates, by Milton, by Shelley, and by the sainted Tom Paine: are we subjects or citizens?
Unlike most democracies, which were forged bottom up through revolution, civil war, independence from colonialism, or succession from another state, the United Kingdom is a grudging, half-finished democracy where power has been passed downwards from the King or Queen when the pressure became irresistible. This absence of a democratic moment, a blissful dawn, or a founding congress or convention, means we have no national day, no pledge of allegiance, no developed sense of citizenship, and crucially no written, codified constitution.
I can hear Labour voices rising in the familiar chorus – constitutional reform is the ultimate bourgeois distraction, beloved only by the quinoa-munching, Birkenstock-wearing, Guardian-subscribing denizens of artisan organic coffee shops in Crouch End. But when Boris Johnson rewrites the Ministerial Code to retrospectively exonerate his own law-breaking, much like the pigs in Animal Farm, it highlights the real dangers of an absence of a written set of rules.
How we are governed, where power lies, how our institutions are shaped, and what we do in extreme situations, is something that effects all of us, vegan or not. The Chartists well understood this, without a sandal in sight. Let’s avoid the kind of hyperbole deployed by SNP MP Mhairi Black – we are not sleepwalking towards fascism. But once Prime Ministers start to change the rules to get away with shockingly poor behaviour, it never ends well.
Anthony Albanese, the new Labour prime minister of Australia, has celebrated the Jubilee by appointing a new ‘minister for the republic’. It is impossible to imagine the British monarch being the Australian head of state in 20 years’ time, nor head of state in New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, or many of the other dozen or so countries where the House of Windsor still reigns.
Last year, Barbados removed the Queen as their head of state. Modern Barbadians swear allegiance to their country’s constitution, not a British King or Queen across the Atlantic. The Labour leader and prime minister Mia Mottley stated at the time of transfer: ‘This is the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving’. Surely she is right? Despite all the pressing political issues faced by Barbados, from rising sea levels to global trade, the social democrats led their nation through a massive constitutional reform, casting off the legacy of colonialism and placing themselves on the pantheon of democratic nations. And they did it without bullets, barricades or bloodshed. Prince Charles was there to wish them luck.
I know, I know. I understand that British public opinion is solidly behind the Monarchy, and that the Queen is held in enormous public esteem. But public opinion is mercurial. In what Antony Giddens called a ‘post-traditional’ society, every institution must justify itself daily. No institution should be free from scrutiny. I know this because the Queen told us so in her annus horribilis speech thirty years ago. When we witness the crowning of a new King at some point in the next decade, the daylight will shine brightly on our dusty, creaking, arcane constitution.
We need a new spirit of republicanism if not an actual new republic. In his recent book Labour and Republicanism Ken Ritchie suggests some sensible reforms: revising the Parliamentary Oath so that our representatives at Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont can choose to swear allegiance to the people who elected them, not ‘her majesty, her heirs and successors’; subjecting the royals to freedom of information laws; ending the weekly prime ministerial audience; removing the royal prerogative which allows ministers to behave like Henry VIII. We need to unearth what Peter Hennessey calls the ‘hidden wiring’ and let Parliament to properly hold Power to account.
At the height of Britpop and the ascendancy of New Labour, I published a pamphlet for the Fabians called Long to Reign Over Us? I proposed my own set of reforms to take us on the journey to democracy. I suggested that the constitutional revolution that New Labour was about to unleash must include the Monarchy. A Swedish-style figurehead, but no political role. No Queen’s Speech or La Reyne le veult. A hypothecated tax to pay for the Crown, with an end to the bloated civil list. A new Department for the Crown and no more ‘Royal Household’. No more silly honours harking back to the days of Empire. Disestablishment of the Church of England, so no more state religion with the King or Queen as ‘supreme governor’; perhaps best of all, a new national anthem which reflects our love of country, not our staunch loyalty to the Hanoverians and their heirs. And a ten-yearly referendum on the Monarchy to allow the people to choose.
Needless to say, Labour’s then-leaders distanced themselves from Long to Reign Over Us? like a friend of Prince Andrew invited over for a BBQ. A quarter-century later, the Monarchy is Labour’s second-most taboo subject. Its leaders from left or right have treated the Crown as the classic ‘third rail’ issue – touch it and you die. Corbyn dodged it. Blair embraced it. Starmer writing in the Telegraph says setting up the trestle tables and scoffing scones is our ‘patriotic duty’.
Surely, we can do better than this? Subjects or citizens, that’s the question this weekend, not ham or egg and cress. Let’s consider how happy we are to see Prime Ministers daubing ‘some animals are more equal than others’ on the walls of the Cabinet Room. Let’s consider Christopher Hitchens’ question ‘why, when the subject of royalty or monarchy is mentioned, do the British bid adieu to every vestige of proportion, modesty, humour and restraint?’ Let’s ask why, almost alone in the family of nations, the United Kingdom has no written constitution. Are the other 190 countries all wrong, and somehow we, like Principal Skinner, are singularly right? Let’s think, amid the trifle and coronation chicken, how happy and glorious it is to be less democratic than younger countries like Barbados. Have a great weekend.
Last month’s Paul on Politics recapped Labour’s strong results in the local elections. Read it here.