It’s not all computers and finance and suchlike technical talk in the Rodgers household. A recent debate around the dinner table about the monarchy reached a decent level of volume too.
I should probably say right here and now that I am a republican. Not that I have any animus towards the royal family – by and large they make a very decent fist of a supremely difficult job that they did not choose – but, rather, I have a problem with the very idea of monarchy. A nation where only a tiny handful of people can – by birth – become head of state automatically entrenches class and privilege as being natural.
But, my monarchist friends cry – how would you change it? If we had a President you might get a terrible one or, even worse, Tony Blair. It’s a conundrum. So here is my proposal. It has zero chance of ever happening, I confess, but it could keep both republicans and monarchists happy.
Support for the monarchy in the UK waxes and wanes with the passing of time, spurred by events, by the personality and public perception of the monarch or by mere fashion. As a nation, we have been lucky in the 180 years since 1837 to have had three good and extremely popular monarchs (Victoria, George VI and Elizabeth II) whose combined reigns lasted 145 of those years. In that time we have arguably only had one ‘bad’ monarch (Edward VIII) but his reign lasted only weeks.
But what of the future? How can the UK arrange its constitution to take account of the concerns of republicans that the monarchy represents an anachronistic symbol of inherited privilege but also the views of royalists that the monarchy is a well functioning (and traditional) part of British life? How, as a nation could we cope with a truly ‘bad’ monarch? How can we make the succession more fitting to modern views? Are we destined to have a monarchy forever?
I present a proposal to answer these questions – a monarchy based on democratic assent with the means, if assent is withdrawn, to elect a monarch.
The main components of this proposal are:
- The monarchy will remain unchanged in all its duties and symbols. No change will be needed to the bulk of our constitution. The monarch’s head could still appear on postage stamps and banknotes. There could still be a Royal Mail. The national anthem could still be ‘God save the Queen’ (or King). Most importantly, the monarch will still have the duty of calling on the leader of the largest party after a general election to form a government in his or her name.
- The monarch will appoint and nominate an heir (and an heir to that heir) as he or she wishes. This ‘line of succession’ will be known to the public and will be at the discretion of the monarch. The heir could be the first born son (as has been traditional) or may be any other British citizen. The monarch could choose to skip a generation in their family or could nominate a first-born daughter or could nominate a ‘commoner’.
- On the death of the monarch in office, the heir would take the throne.
- At every general election, all voters would be invited, on a separate ballot, to answer yes or no to the following question, “Do you assent to the continuing rule of the current monarch until the next general election?”
- If the majority of voters vote ‘yes’, or if the number of ‘no’ votes is less than one half of the number of eligible voters the monarch’s reign would continue until the next vote of assent at the next general election.
- If a majority of ALL eligible voters vote ‘no’, then there would be an election to the monarchy three months after the general election. Any British citizen born within the UK could stand as monarch (including the previous monarch if they wish) provided they received the support of a pre-determined number of citizens. All candidates would be required to name their heirs in advance of the election.
- The nation would vote on the various candidates and the winner would become monarch. Various voting mechanisms could be used for this election but these details are not important. Whether the winner underwent a coronation would be at their discretion as would the use of the various symbols of royalty. At the next general election, the process of assent and, possibly, election would repeat itself.
What are the advantages of this proposal?
- The traditions (and pomp) of the monarchy could be retained within a framework where the monarch’s rule was by assent, thus pleasing traditionalists.
- Any republican would be free to argue that assent should be withdrawn and so a proper democratic debate about the virtues of the current monarch would be set in motion.
- The legislative changes needed to make the proposal work would not be unfeasibly extensive (unlike a transition to republic) given that the powers and duties of the monarch and the place of the monarch in the constitution would be unchanged. The costs of the electoral machinery needed would also be small.
- Merely by doing nothing (i.e. by not filling in the assent ballot since an active vote of ‘no’ would be needed to withdraw assent) the British public could retain the monarchy in its age-old form should it wish to. Likewise, by nominating the first-born male son as heir, the Royal family could continue to organise the succession as normal.
- But the proposal also allows flexibility in the succession. For example, if a person who would normally be in line to the throne was not considered suitable for some reason, or simply did not want to do the job, it would be possible to pass over them to a more suitable or willing candidate.
- However, the proposal is much more powerful than simply allowing the current system to continue by inertia. By making the rule of the monarch dependent on the assent of the electorate, any excesses by any future ‘bad’ monarchs could be subject to democratic censure.
- At the extreme, should public opinion eventually change to the point that inheriting the monarchy is no longer favoured, the process of withdrawal of assent and a subsequent election to the monarchy could become commonplace. In this event, the monarchy could resemble a presidency in all but name with ‘political’ candidates paired with ‘heirs’ as running mates. Note, however, that the powers of the ‘presidential’ monarch would be no different to those of the current monarch. No executive authority for the monarch, no matter if elected or not, is planned under this proposal.
- The proposal has the further advantage that, should the British people tire of an elected ‘presidential’ monarch, it could have the choice (by electing an heir of the current Royal family and then continuing to grant assent) to ‘restore’ the inherited monarchy with no bloodshed or turmoil.
Above all, this proposal has the supreme advantage of flexibility at low cost: flexibility to continue the current constitution if the British people wish it, or to change it at the ballot box if they do not.