A great day for democracy

The abolition of the monarchy in Nepal should put the fear of god – or rather the fear of man – into Britain’s own crumbling House of Windsor.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘We know Gyanendra is not a god, that he is just a man and that we can end him.’

So said a protester during the riotous uprisings against King Gyanendra’s autocratic rule in Nepal in 2006. And he was dead right. Yesterday, the new constituent assembly of Nepal, elected by the people in April, voted overwhelmingly to ‘end Gyanendra’ and abolish the monarchy. In a 601-seat assembly, only four members opposed kicking Gyanendra and his remaining flunkies out of their ostentatious, gold-plated palace in Kathmandu. Nepal has now declared itself ‘an independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular and inclusive democratic republic nation’. What a brilliant day for democracy.

The question is: how long is Britain going to lag behind Nepal in terms of democracy? When will Britain transform itself from a constitutional monarchy – where the head of state may not be a ‘god-king’ but does believe that she was ‘handpicked by God’ – into an indivisible, sovereign, democratic, republic nation? For all the claims that ‘our monarchy’ is merely a harmless tourist attraction for curious Americans, in truth it stands as a powerful symbolic and real barrier to the institution of popular democracy.

Gyanendra took the throne in 2001 after his brother, a drunken Crown Prince Dipendra, finished off the king, the queen and eight other members of the royal family with an assault rifle. Almost immediately, Gyanendra sought to ‘enforce stability’ by assuming dictatorial powers. He interfered incessantly in Nepal’s parliament, and between 2002 and 2005 he handpicked and later dismissed three different prime ministers. In February 2005, he dismissed the entire parliament and made himself the absolute ruler of Nepal, allowing him singularly to pursue his war against the anti-monarchy Maoist guerrillas (who are now the dominant force in the elected assembly).

But the people weren’t having it. They rose up against Gyanendra in April 2006, carrying out an 18-day general strike that paralysed the small Himalayan nation and fighting sustained street battles with the Royal Nepalese Army and police. As a result, they won the restoration of parliament and the promise of free and fair elections. Now, the first major act of the people’s elected assembly has been to issue a declaration announcing that all royal privileges ‘will automatically come to an end’ and that Gyanendra will become a ‘private citizen’ (1).


Celebrations in Nepal after
the republic was declared

They have given Gyanendra 15 days to vacate his palace so that it can be turned into a museum. This shows how decent and civilised are the people of Nepal – despite the fact that Gyanendra denied them their democratic rights and sent armed police and fighter planes to try to make them submit to his rule, they are allowing him an extremely generous two-week period in which to pack his belongings (though he is forbidden from removing valuable items from what is now the people’s palace) and to move somewhere else. The elected assembly’s graciousness towards Gyanendra is a powerful illustration of the proper morality of ‘the mob’ as against the hysterical, paranoid, violent instincts of tiny unelected elites.

In Nepal, there is a widespread sense of joy and elation over the abolition of the monarchy. People now seem to see themselves, not as the charges of a ‘god-king’ or any other elite ‘betters’, but rather as the makers of history. Despite small bomb attacks and further threats of terrorism from royalists, people are ‘celebrating wildly’ in the streets, according to the BBC. ‘Turning Nepal into a republic is the biggest achievement of the people in the history of this country’, wrote Prateek Pradham, editor of the Kathmandu Post. One 21-year-old student said: ‘I am overjoyed. This is the most important day of my life.’ (2)

And it could be an important day for the rest of us, too… if we are willing to be inspired by what the Nepalese people have done. For a start, we Britons also ought to exercise some self-determination by ditching our own unelected head of state and emerging from the Middle Ages into the twenty-first century.

Of course, Britain’s monarchy is not a self-murdering or dictatorial institution like Gyanendra’s family. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves into believing that where ‘their’ monarchy was backward and barbaric, ‘ours’ is little more than a collection of tiara-wearing clotheshorses who provide good value for money by attracting camera-clicking tourists.

Both the Nepalese and the British royal families are based on the archaic idea of hereditary privilege: in Nepal, being an accidental descendant of the Hindu monarch meant you had the right to boss around elected politicians, while in Britain the queen’s position is still officially justified on the basis that she has been ‘handpicked by God’ to lord it over the rest of us. Both the Nepalese and British monarchies – like monarchies across the world and throughout history – are protected by an armoury of censorious and draconian laws. In Britain, it is still technically against the law to demand the abolition of the monarchy and even to destroy an image of the queen. These laws are very rarely used today (the last execution for treason against the King was held in 1946). Yet the various still-existing laws against insulting or endangering the monarch hang as a permanent warning to the British populace to ‘know its place’ in the scheme of things (3).

Unlike Gyanendra, Queen Elizabeth does not run around dismissing elected ministers and closing down parliament. Yet she still retains the power to do so. The British monarch has the right to dissolve parliament and to choose any parliamentarian to set up a ruling cabinet. The fact that one unelected person is invested with such extraordinary powers is a massive snub to the idea and practice of popular democracy. The powers represent the institutionalisation of elite mistrust of the masses; they are a permanent advert that voters cannot fully be relied upon, and thus a tiny handful of people – one super-rich, super-privileged woman and her coterie of advisers – must cling to their powers of anti-democratic dismissal.

The constitutional elevation of the monarch is not only a threat from above that some future king or queen might carry out anti-democratic activities – in the here and now, the sovereign powers of the monarch are used to make important political decisions with scant regard for the democratic process. It is only 33 years since the elected Australian prime minister and his government was sacked in the name of the queen (who is sovereign Down Under, too) in a constitutional crisis referred to as The Dismissal. Here, Britain’s Royal Prerogative permits the executive – the cabinet or even just the prime minister – to take action without the backing of parliament, much less by consulting the people. Under the prerogative, the PM can appoint and dismiss ministers, summon and dissolve parliament, and declare war. Our monarchical system allows PMs to behave as proxy monarchs. Gyanendra fought a war against Maoist guerrillas in an attempt to preserve his rule; in 1999 Tony Blair used the Royal Prerogative to launch the Kosovo War (600 dead) on the basis that it ‘pleased Her Majesty’ to do so (4).

The British monarchy is sustained today, not by any feverish support, but by a culture of shoulder-shrugging cynicism. At a time of widespread suspicion of the political process, the queen is popular by default – yet where we can ‘unelect’ politicians whom we distrust (often for very good reasons), we have no power to unelect the queen. Many argue that we can’t get rid of the monarch because we would end up with some lying, sneaky president in her place. This, in essence, is a statement of distaste for the electoral mob, which is presumed to be too feckless to be trusted with the job of actually choosing its head of state. Some seem to believe that it is safer to leave the role of head of state in the hands of a cool, calm, apolitical queen because they have no faith in themselves to make wise choices on constitutional matters.

It is time we grew up, as the people of Nepal have done, and trusted in ourselves to determine our destinies in a free, open and democratic fashion. Let us hope that the abolition of the monarchy in Nepal has put the fear of god (or rather the fear of man) into the House of Windsor – and that it has led more Britons to understand that our royals, too, are nothing special, and we can ‘end them’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and a supporter of Republic, the British campaign for an elected head of state. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill asked why the calls for democracy in Nepal were met with ambivalence in the West and said it is time we, like Nepal, called for the abolition of the monarchy. Josie Appleton expressed support for the the pro-democracy movement in Nepal. Mick Hume said Burma needs democratic revolution, not intervention. Or read more at spiked issue Asia.

(1) Nepal votes to abolish monarchy, BBC News, 28 May 2008

(2) Nepal votes to abolish monarchy, BBC News, 28 May 2008

(3) See It’s official: it is now a crime to be arrogant, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) Cameron seeks to limit Blair’s use of Royal Prerogative, Daily Telegraph, 6 February 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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