Republic in the UK campaigns for “the abolition of the monarchy, an elected head of state and a new democratic constitution that really puts power in the hands of voters”.
It is pleasing to see an organisation that appears to challenge the status quo and is happy to break with convention. Last year during the Queen’s jubilee, the profile of Republic was raised and many people probably joined or at least supported the movement. Indeed, I was very tempted to join. However, in the end I didn’t. Here I lay out the four key reasons that Republic failed to convert me from being interested to being a committed supporter.
Republic make the assumption that parliament is not sovereign. This is a fatal flaw. The plain fact is that if there was sufficient will in parliament to abolish the monarchy, it could and would. It is simple to understand that whilst we wouldn’t expect the monarchy to support their own demise, there is little the monarchy could do to prevent an Act of Parliament ending the monarchy. The unwillingness to replace the monarchy comes from the people, albeit not fully appraised of all of the facts, and their elected representatives. It is unfortunate for Republic, but it is “democratic”, the majority of the people like the monarchy.
One of the benefits of hereditary public office, and it should be noted that whilst there are not many there are some, is the lack of popular mandate. Put another way, if the post of head of state, such as Republic advocate, is largely ceremonial, although some reserve powers will remain with the head of state, it appears that a mandate achieved by popular election is unnecessary. For example, if a pool of suitably qualified people were formed, lets say for the sake of the discussion six people, then the drawing of lots rather than an election would appear to achieve an equally, if not more, desirable outcome. After all, it is difficult to see how a dispute between an elected head of state in conflict with an elected head of government could easily and quickly be resolved. The great strength (amongst many weaknesses) of the current constitutional arrangements is that the crown cannot prevail against parliament. It may be medieval, but it’s a working constitutional arrangement.Republic are in danger of re-introducing a problem that had been settled.
Part of the problem with Republic’s stance is that in its dislike of the institution of monarchy, it loses sight of the possibility that there may be something of value in an enduring constitutional arrangement. This leads to claims that are too easily rejected by most people. For example, “the monarchy is a broken institution.” Most people I suspect would disagree. It would be a bit like saying “steam trains are a broken technology” which it isn’t. However, steam trains have been replaced, not because they are broken, but because there is a better alternative. Similarly with the monarchy, it needs to be replaced, not because it is broken, but because better alternatives are available. This may seem like unnecessary hair splitting, but if the premises are rejected it is doubly difficult to win the argument.
Republic also appear to confuse certain aspects of constitutional reality. We cannot hold the Queen and her family to account at the ballot box. Equally, we cannot hold judges, the government, the civil service, utilities providers, the fire service or large supermarkets to account at the ballot box. I deliberately include the government because in the UK we elect a parliament, not a government. Parliament holds the government to account on behalf of the electorate. Nothing in Republic’s proposals alter this.
Inconsistent and unclear presentation
Republic’s position is one of disliking the current arrangements followed by a proposal for an elected version of the current arrangements. It is unfortunate for Republic that successful constitutional arrangements, by which I mean relatively stable, tend to persist.
Item 1 of the Republic model assumes a state, a head of state and nationality. These three assumptions are old , if not quite medieval. No apology or explanation is offered for these assumptions. Can they be left unchallenged? There appears to be no good reason offered in item 2 that the head of state sign an Act of Parliament into law. The speaker of each house could do that job, if it was deemed necessary at all. Republic offer no argument why someone who is not in Parliament should sign an Act of Parliament. Item 3 raises the tricky issue that the Queen has taken an oath to serve the people, uphold the law and protect the constitution. As such, neither the current head of state nor as proposed an elected head of state would be in a position to suggest changes to the constitution. Republic’s proposal appears to demand that the head of state be elected to a position of impotence, which seems to be an unwelcome “democratic” solution. In item 4, the term of office is to be fixed with a maximum of two terms. I cannot understand why a constitution would seek to limit the number of times an outstanding individual could be elected to a job. If the electorate wanted to return a Labour dominated parliament on three successive occasions, surely that was their democratic wish? Would Republic suggest that such a restriction be placed on the head of the government? If not, why not? If yes, again, why?
It is obvious that any model will have strengths and weaknesses, but I contend that Republic’s model is inconsistent and incoherent. The most obvious flaws are not addressed, which means that supporters of the status quo can conduct the argument on their own terms. Republic have been tactically inept.
Even though I agree with Republic that monarchy is an outmoded institution and should be superseded, the monarchy is popular as an institution and a number of members of the Windsor household are held in particular affection by the public. Whilst I accept that it is not Republic’s public stance to be disrespectful towards individuals within the Windsor household, nevertheless it is obvious that some supporters of Republic are not so disciplined. This I believe is a grave tactical error. The lofty ideals that Republic attempt to espouse are supplanted by seemingly small minded, petty comments about what individuals said or did. Whether Prince Charles should or should not be the next King is a debate worth having. As it stands, it is a fact that he will inherit the Kingdom, most probably on the death of his mother. It does not diminish the reality simply because some people, including Republic and their supporters, find this fact unpleasant. Equally a personal attack on the man will not alter the fact either. He may be a joke, he may be a trenchant defender of various issues, he may have dubious values, he may have an untenable job: for Republic, I suggest, Prince Charles should not be an issue, the institution that is the monarchy should be the issue.
Finally, but most importantly, the reason I have not supported Republic is they are ultimately too timid, their ambitions are somewhat limited. Republic remain happy to see competing elites rotate power between themselves. Although important, the monarchy is a totemic rather than a real issue and Republic offers very little on what I might regard as the real issues. Republic could advocate greater direct involvement in political affairs, by online polling, greater representation, a move away from purely geographic representation. Largely silent on House of Lords reform, the established church, the nation state, the role of the EU, Republic is somewhat less than a one trick pony. Republic does not propose a new politics, it is solely focussed on the mechanics of how to appoint a future head of state. with such limited ambition it will retain my sympathy without gaining my support.
In conclusion, Republic could be part of a substantial political shift, one that I would both welcome and be keen to support. But both strategically and tactically I feel that Republic take a step back for every advance they make; they propose the same monument, just lit by different coloured lamps. At the same time their solution does little to tackle the day to day issues that are most people’s concerns or make real inroads on the constitutional issues where they have attempted to set out their stall.