July 16, 2003

Let's be really radical and not change the monarchy
Vernon Bogdanor
Critics of the status quo are playing fast and loose with democracy

The British Left - with just a few exceptions - has traditionally supported the monarchy. The reason is obvious. As a fixed point in a changing world, constitutional monarchy renders innovation legitimate. A radical government, therefore, needs the monarchy no less than one committed to the status quo. The Fabian Society is the intellectual wing of the Labour Party. Its commission on the future of the monarchy, whose report was published yesterday, proposes not to abolish but to "modernise" the monarchy. This is to be achieved by depriving the Sovereign of her personal prerogatives, involving discretion, such as the appointment of a prime minister and the granting of a dissolution of Parliament. The Fabians also propose the abolition of the Queen's position as Supreme Governor of the Church of England and head of the Commonwealth. The Queen would then become in reality what Baron Stockmar, the adviser to Prince Albert, thought, mistakenly, the monarch was 150 years ago: "nothing but a mandarin figure which has to nod its head in assent, or shake it in denial, as her minister pleases".

That is precisely the position in Sweden, the Fabians' preferred model. The Swedish Constitution of 1975 devolved the King's powers to the single-chamber parliament, the Riksdag. Proportional representation means that nearly every parliament in Sweden is a hung parliament, but it is the Speaker, not the King, who proposes a candidate for the premiership to the Riksdag.

The Fabians do not appreciate the dangers of politicising the Speakership. In Britain, the Speaker is wholly impartial. In Sweden, by contrast, the Speaker is generally part of the majority bloc, and the reform of 1975 has turned the office into a political prize. There is at the moment a fierce debate about the Speaker's role. One professor has pressed the current Speaker to resign if he does not reveal the issues discussed at his secret meetings with party leaders, and, in particular, his links with the ruling Social Democrats. The office has become a plaything in the party battle, and there are many who think that Sweden is becoming a talmanocracy, talman being the Swedish word for the Speaker.

The Speaker, were he to be given the constitutional powers proposed by the Fabians - to recommend a prime minister - would be far more likely to abuse them than the Sovereign who, almost alone in the country, has no political history. Indeed, the central argument for constitutional monarchy is that, since the head of state is free from party ties, she is in a better position to represent the nation to itself than a politician who may represent, at most, only half of the country.

In the Commonwealth too, the Queen plays an indispensable role. Those early Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in their Constitution for a Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain, published in 1920, concluded that, for the Commonwealth, "a titular or ceremonial headship" was "almost indispensable". Today, the position of head of the Commonwealth is less an office with a separate constitutional standing or capacity than a symbol of a personal union. It is true, as the Fabians point out, that the title is specific to a particular Sovereign and not hereditary. But it is difficult to see who, other than the Sovereign, could evoke a symbolism that is accepted by all the Commonwealth's 54 members. The Fabians suggest the possibility of a rotating headship. But that could involve an Idi Amin or a Robert Mugabe becoming head of the Commonwealth.

It is odd, perhaps, that the Fabians decided to tackle this subject at all. Hegel once said that an organisation which concerns itself unduly with procedures has lost faith in its ultimate aims. If one joins a cricket club, one does not expect to spend one's time discussing the club's constitution. In the days when Fabian socialism was the wave of the future, the Fabians concerned themselves less with changing the constitution than with changing society. Perhaps indeed, the report tells us more about socialism, that prime ideological casualty of the 20th century, than it does about the monarchy.

The Fabian analysis, however, is not only superficial. It is also spectacularly mistimed. Last year, around one million people - nearly 2 per cent of the population - thronged The Mall to celebrate the Golden Jubilee. They were voting for the monarchy as it is, not for a Swedish-style monarchy where the King can be stopped at the Swedish equivalent of the Co-op and asked to validate his credit card.

As Bagehot noticed, good government tends to be dull government. There is no evidence that the public want a dull monarchy as well. The most sensible words in the report come from Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth, the former Clerk of the Parliaments, who, in a dissenting memorandum (confusingly labelled a "note") says that, for critics of the monarchy, "after the excitements of the jubilee, a period of silence would be wise".

In the modern world, constitutional monarchy and democracy are complementary rather than conflicting notions, as King Juan Carlos of Spain showed in 1981 when he helped to defeat a coup aimed at destroying Spanish democracy. That would not have surprised the best-known Fabian of them all, George Bernard Shaw. For, in Shaw's play, The Apple Cart, published in 1930, King Magnus terrifies his ministers by threatening to abdicate and stand for election in the Windsor constituency. That very constituency will be vacant when its MP, Michael Trend, stands down. If the Fabians appear indicative of a trend, the Queen might well be tempted.

The author is Professor of Government at Oxford University and editor of The British Constitution in the 20th Century.

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