The barriers to a Republic of Britain

In this piece for a new collection of essays commemorating the death of Thomas Paine, Brendan O’Neill says republicans face two problems today: the elite’s continuing distrust of the electorate, and the electorate’s distrust of itself.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of Monarchy; it first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required. The state of a king shuts him from the World, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore the different parts, by unnaturally opposing and destroying each other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless.’ (Thomas Paine, Common Sense.)

More than 200 years ago, in his short, anonymous, scintillating pamphlet that changed the course of American history, Thomas Paine made the killer argument against monarchy.

Not only did he expose the foolishness of hereditary rule (‘we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary’, he said) and the way in which monarchy undermines equality (‘all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever’). He also ridiculed the fact that a monarch is expected to be both aloof and political, to sit above the grubby democratic process but also to get stuck into it when necessary, whether to strike down certain Bills, to dissolve pesky parliaments, or to have weekly meetings with the prime minister in order to bore him rigid with stories about ‘What Winston would have done’.

This contradiction – the requirement that the monarch remains tight-lipped about her political preferences coupled with her symbolic power to demand audiences with prime ministers and to set up and dissolve governments – cuts to the heart of the problem with monarchy. The existence of an ostensibly external sovereign who retains powers of political intervention shows what the monarchy really represents: institutionalised distrust of the people and our elected representatives.

In Britain, the constitution’s preservation of a monarch who sits outside of the political realm, yet who has political powers, is really a guard against the stupidity of the people and those we vote for. The monarch embodies the state’s power to step in if we the people make the ‘wrong decisions’. The investment of sovereign power in the monarch is a profound snub to the idea of popular democracy and to the political choices made by the people.

This non-political individual – ‘shut off from the World’ – represents the ability of the British state to, in extreme circumstances, elbow aside politics and democracy in order to restore calm, restore respect, or whatever. Today’s queen is not ‘non-political’ because, as we are often told, she is so sensible, dutiful and essentially meek; she is non-political, ‘excluded from the means of information’, because she represents the state’s higher, above-politics, above-democracy power to grab democratically elected representatives by the scruff of their necks and beat some sense into them.

The institution of monarchy has changed a great deal since Paine’s day. Yet today’s queen still has some extraordinary powers. She has the power to appoint whomever she wishes as prime minister. She has the power to dissolve parliament at any time and for any reason. She can also dismiss governments at any time for any reason. She can strike down any Bill passed by parliament – nothing may become a binding Act of Parliament until it receives royal assent. The Royal Prerogative, meanwhile, allows the prime minister to do almost anything he pleases ‘in the name of Her Majesty’, including declaring war, without consulting parliament, far less the people.

Many argue that these monarchical powers of intervention and dissolution are rarely used today, and therefore they don’t really matter: they are just quaint, archaic oddities of the British constitution, which help to make this country such an intriguing and eccentric place to live. But that is to miss the point. The Royal Prerogative is frequently used, allowing the PM to behave effectively as a monarch. And the very fact that the queen’s vast powers still exist – and more importantly, the fact that they are frequently evoked as a kind of warning to our elected representatives – is bad enough. The powers are held on to as an expression of distrust of the people, and are sometimes cited almost as a form of political blackmail and pressure against elected representatives.

The seriousness with which the monarch’s powers are still treated became clear during the MPs’ expenses scandal this year. As it was revealed that numerous MPs exploited their expenses system to furnish second homes or live relatively lavish lifestyles, and as many started talking about a complete collapse in public respect for parliament, monarchists sniffed an opportunity to promote the non-political queen as the potential saviour of the nation.

A former adviser to one-time Conservative PM John Major demanded that the queen use her immense powers: ‘[She] should invite all the party leaders to Buckingham Palace and tell them that she is using her constitutional powers to call an election.’

In a long pro-monarchy piece in the Daily Telegraph, the newspaper that first exposed the expenses scandal, Simon Heffer argued that the queen should step in and ‘steady the ship’ of British politics. He described the queen as an ‘umpire’ and said she should act in order to prevent the British political system from descending into chaos: ‘No one has yet marched on parliament; an extremist party has not yet triumphed at the polls; the public has not yet boycotted elections to an extent where their outcome is rendered invalid. But who is to say those things will not happen, with potentially shocking consequences…? The queen [has] the authority to act.’

This perfectly captures the attitude of monarchists, and of sections of the British state itself, towards the democratic process. They see it as fickle and unpredictable, given to potential collapse and chaos. With corrupt MPs on one side and strange, unknowable voters on the other side, who might elect an extremist party or march mob-like on parliament, we clearly need a cool-headed, non-political ‘umpire’ like the queen to restore order. Support for the monarch and her powers is underpinned by an overblown fear of what the people, left to their own devices, might get up to. Monarchists want the monarch to retain her powers of ‘highest judgment’, as Paine described it, because they distrust the judgments of the people and our representatives.

The expenses scandal showed us that today, in 2009, the powers of the queen are still cited as being preferable to leaving MPs to fix their own problems or trusting the people to make the right choices. The powers are used as a kind of threat against the people and a form of fearmongering about the future; the message is: ‘You have all screwed up. Now the queen might have to intervene.’ Yet problems in a democracy can never be fixed by allowing an unelected figurehead to throw his or her weight around; in fact the very opposite is required: more public debate and democratic contestation, not less, so that the people can assert their authority over their elected representatives and express their political desires.

But there is another problem today. Alongside the British state’s niggling and longstanding distrust and self-distrust of the democratic process, as embodied by its continued elevation of the non-political queen as the true sovereign power, today we the people tend to distrust ourselves, too. Some Britons support the monarchy today, not because they have a great deal of respect for a lazy, money-grabbing institution packed with unimpressive individuals, but because fundamentally they do not trust their own judgment to elect a better alternative to the queen.

Frequently, in debates about what might replace the monarchy, people will say: ‘We’ll only end up with a horrible president like Richard Branson. Or Tony Blair.’ This is effectively an expression of concern about our own decision-making capabilities, driven by a fear that we will make the wrong choices. But the point is, if we have the power to decide who should be the head of the British state – as we most definitely should – then it is up to us who that person should be. If you don’t want Blair or Branson, you can argue tooth and nail against them, and campaign for somebody else instead, including yourself. Or even Elizabeth Windsor, if you so choose (though I would definitely campaign against her).

This is the double-whammy problem that republicans face today: first, the traditional problem of institutionalised anti-democracy, which is built on a fundamental distrust of the people, and second, the newer problem of people’s own self-distrust and a fairly widespread belief that the queen is probably a better alternative to having more unpredictable elections. The monarchy today thrives, not on any widespread respect, but on political distrust and cynicism; it is parasitical on the suspicions of the elite and the uncertainty of the electorate. To challenge this state of affairs, we will have to continue exposing the corrupt, anti-democratic nature of the monarchy, and also put a positive, people-oriented case for a future republic. A republic requires that people have self-respect, confidence, vision and a trust in their own political abilities. Only then will we, rather than a monarch, exercise what Paine described as the ‘highest judgment’ over politics and the future of the UK.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and a supporter of Republic.

This essay appears in Good Company: Ideas on Modern Republicanism, a collection of essays produced by Republic to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Thomas Paine. The book can be ordered directly from the Republic website here.

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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