Archive for May, 2011

Republic of Great Britain?

25 May 2011

Yesterday, 24th May 2011, saw the odd coincidence of what used to be Empire Day and the arrival in the UK of the president of that empire’s first escapees, the USA.  Big Barry meeting the Queen and addressing both houses of the UK parliament seems a good opportunity to consider whether and how Britain could become a republic.*

The monarchy

First off, it’s worth considering whether it is worth getting rid of the monarchy. Personally, I don’t think that this is something that we should do. I understand the arguments for it – the cost and inequity of the current situation, but think that the monarchy is part of the whole image of the UK as a country, its heritage and all that. In his first autobiography, Stephen Fry refers to his crooked nose as similar to the British Royal Family: something that he doesn’t like but which part of the way that people identify him.

A popular choice seems to be the ‘The Queen’s OK, but we should get rid of them after her’ option, which I think is unfair on Prince Charles.  It’s true that he is more outspoken than seems right for a hereditary figurehead, but this could well be a result of his not having a specific role: if he was the monarch he would not be able to speak out in this way, or if he did it would be a much bigger problem and he would have to shut up or go.

The arguments against the monarchy are strong, but I would prefer a more streamlined model rather than abolition.  Perhaps King Charles III will move in that direction and gain some popularity for it.  The image people have of the Dutch Royal Family’s informality is probably too far to go (as well as being out of date, they are not like that now), but perhaps a few massive houses fewer and less of an entourage would be good.  A sense of majesty and honour should be attached to their state visits – that is part of the point – the difficulty is balancing that with (more) acceptable levels of cost. Any cost will be unacceptable to some, but I think that there is a balance to be struck.

The republic

If, however, we did become a republic, how might it work? As I see it, there are (at least) three options of how we could have a Head of State in a British republic:

1 – Bumping up the PM to be a president

The easiest choice would be to make the Prime Minister the Head of State. This has both immediate appeal for its ease and immediate repulsion (if the PM is someone you dislike). Frankly, it seems to me a pointless option; as Simon Jenkins points out (somewhere, I can’t find the link), the Head of State does all sorts of ceremonial and largely pointless stuff that it would probably be best for the political premier not to waste his or her time with. Added to which, such a move that increases the personal power of the prime minister without reforming the rest of the executive and legislative parts of the constitution would further increase the personality-driven nature of British politics and reinforce the growth in personal power accumulated by prime ministers of the recent past – most notably Thatcher, Blair and Brown.

2 – Separating the legislative and executive branches of power

A more reasonable but much less likely option would be to reform the system of government to be more like that of the USA, with separate elections for the legislature (Commons) and for the executive (the President and Government).  As anyone who has studied comparative UK-US politics will know, there are advantages and disadvantages of this system.  On the plus side it would free up the 150 MPs who are in the government and allow either more legislators or a substantial cut in the size of the Commons. It would also allow the government to be formed of experts without being confined to MPs and Peers.

The biggest disadvantage, though, is the stalemate that strikes when the legislature and government are controlled by different parties – as seen under President Clinton and now with Obama (but not so much, it seems, when Democrats control Congress). The Westminster (prime ministerial) system tends towards electoral dictatorship because the opposition can scarcely ever defeat the government, the presidential system runs the risk of deadlock.

It seem unlikely that this change will ever happen without an all-out revolution though because it means getting rid of both the monarchy and the entire system of politics in the UK.  It might be an improvement, but it is not going to happen.

3 – Having a different figurehead

The third option, which I think is the most reasonable, is for a new figurehead to be chosen by the people to perform the many of ceremonial and constitutional roles of the British monarchs but without the enormous expense. This president could then be the person who opens parliament, signs off new laws and ‘appoints’ a new government when the prime minister is able to command a majority of MPs. They would not need all the carriages, vast property holdings, or large staff.

All three options raise the question of who the president would be, but this is the only one where the answer is not ‘the same person who would otherwise be prime minister’.  One of the arguments against a republic is the idea that someone like Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher would become president (depending who is speaking) and that would be awful.  This is true of the president-types outlined above, but not necessarily of this one. If we look at who Germany and Iceland have had as ceremonial presidents, we find that the incumbents tend not to have been heads of government: in Iceland it is a former finance minister, in Germany a former state-premier.

Perhaps we might consider that a British President on this model would not be a former prime minister. A leader from a sub-national parliament would seem appropriate, particularly if the majority of the population had these parliaments; in fact Donald Dewar, if he was still alive, might be the type of person who would be elected. From the other side of the political aisle, perhaps Lord Patten. An important position but without great powers would probably be better filled by (and more appealing to) politicians like these rather than the Blairs and Thatchers of this world.

So, there are options of how a British Republic could work, with varying degrees of disruption to the existing structure of our political system. I do not see that replacing the monarchy with a different system is necessary, but if it happens it will be an interesting opportunity to reshape our political system.


* I say Britain because it seems unlikely that a new British republic would be called the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.