On Tactical Republicanism

I’ve always been an apathetic republican. I don’t like the hereditary principle, but overthrowing it has never been a political priority for me. When said leader seems to have only symbolic power, it just seems low on the list of key issues after, say, housing, low wages, unemployment, climate change etc. I reckon most of the population feels similarly. If they were designing a system they wouldn’t start from here, but given where we are they can’t see why they should bother getting excited about republicanism; they feel the current setup is eccentric, but basically inoffensive. As a result republican campaigners fail to get much traction – they are seen as cranks pursuing a faintly irrelevant cause, or worse, people who have a personal animus against the queen, almost universally seen as a nice old lady doing her best for the country.

The trouble with this state of affairs is that it rests on the assumption that the monarchy has no real power and the queen is only a symbolic head of state. This is not the case. The monarchy still holds a range of powers – which are rarely used, but the threat of them constitutes power regardless. There are a whole range of royal powers which are no longer held by the monarch but which allow the prime minister to act in a dictatorial manner, bypassing parliament. And the role of head of state means that in a crisis situation or a political vacuum, power would ultimate rest with the monarch.

1) Royal Assent – the monarch has to sign every bill in order for it to become law. While most people assume this to be a formality, recent reports have shown this not to be the case. The Government has been fighting a legal case to prevent the Guardian releasing large amounts between Prince Charles and government ministers. These are letters in which Charles debates large areas of government policies – and unlike letters from the general public which attract standardised responses, Charles is given the full attention of the minister in his attempt to initiate policy. This is not simply an act of polite deference – it stems from a) the possibility that Charles could deny royal assent to certain pieces of legislation once he become monarch b) the current powers he enjoys to veto legislation that might damage the business interests of the Duchy of Cornwall. The latter is a remaining feudal power, and is made all the more extraordinary by the recent revelation that the Duchy receives the proceeds of all estates in Cornwall from those that die intestate. Recent FOI requests have revealed that the Queen is regularly consulted (on more than a symbolic level) on a range of bills that might affect ‘the interests of the crown’ (including issues of child maintenance and National Insurance). While it is hard to imagine the Queen vetoing legislation outright, the power to discuss and shape legislation before it is drafted is immense, and one that many lobbyists would kill for.

2) Most powers are held by parliament – in order to govern a prime minister requires a parliamentary majority. There are however a range of powers that are technically held by the monarch but are now exercised by parliament, bypassing the monarchy. The most important is the royal prerogative, most famously the ability to make war and peace and sign international treaties, but also includes the right to grant pardons or cease legal proceedings (not subject to judicial review), issuing and revoking passports and the right to dissolve parliament (and thus hold the next election at the most convenient time). A whole other set of powers reside within the ‘privy council’ – a kind of parallel source of power to parliament, a purely appointed body, the discussions of which are secret. Amongst its powers are the issuing of royal charters (such as that created in the wake of the Leveson media report) – forms of legislation that are not accountable to parliament, and thus autocratic. Famously, Tony Blair discussed the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ evidence with Ian Duncan Smith and Charles Kennedy under privy council terms – ie in secret. It is not that the privy council has real powers of its own; like royal prerogative, it is a means for the prime minister and the cabinet to exercise power whilst bypassing parliament.

3) In the event of a power vacuum, with no clear prime minister, power rests with the monarch. It is the responsibility of the monarch to choose the prime minister. Where there is a clear majority the constitutional convention is clear – the queen calls on the leader of the party with a majority. This can be problematic when there is no clear leader – before 1965 the Conservative party had no system for electing a leader – the theory was that the right one would ’emerge’. So when, while in office, Anthony Eden resigned in 1957, it was up to the queen to decide who should succeed him, which she did by consulting advisors and senior politicians. The same happened in 1963, and Rab Butler was passed over on both occasions, with Macmillan and then Douglas-Home favoured respectively. The queen is also involved in the event of a hung parliament. Although the queen would normally choose the leader of the largest party to be prime minister – there is no clear convention for this – it is ultimately up to the monarch’s discretion. In the event of hung parliament in which there is real difficulty forming a coalition, the queen could easily take on role similar to that of the Italian President, coordinating the talks process and empowering a prime minister who is not a party leader if it believed that they could form a coalition.

4) In the event of a real crisis – a war in which the prime minister and cabinet were killed, or a revolutionary situation the queen would assume power and control of the army. It is even conceivable that if a government behaved in a radical way the queen could marshal the army to overthrow them in a coup. At an ultimate level the queen functions like the army in Egypt – being the ultimate source of power and holding the ability to seize control if they see fit.

Now clearly republicans are aware of all of this – it is probably why they are republicans. The trouble is that these substantive issues rarely get a hearing, because the focus is immediately on the figure of the queen – are you for her or against? The republican argument is thus met with either anger (how dare you be so mean about the queen!) or derision, because they focus ends up being on the symbol rather than the substantive powers, making the cause seem like an irrelevance.

I suggest that republicans should shift focus: concentrate on criticising the structural issues whilst leaving the symbol (the monarch) in place. The Queen would remain, with absolutely no powers. There would still be coronations, and royal weddings, and jubilees (the things people really like about the monarchy) but all the powers held under royal prerogative, the privy council and royal assent would pass to parliament. Such a move would necessitate creating some kind of British constitution but this would be no bad thing – the British people have long lacked a document that could protect their rights against an overbearing state.

Republicans regularly come up against the ‘what’s the alternative’ argument. An elected president is held up as the straw man, with the suggestion then made that ‘we’d end up with someone like Tony Blair, so we’re better off as we are’. There are many presidential models ( Germany, Ireland, Israel to name a few), but I fail to see why we need a president at all. If the aim is to create proposals that can command popular support it is surely wise to draw upon existing institutions rather than inventing new ones. On that basis I suggest taking the institution of Speaker of the House of Commons and transforming it into a quasi presidential role. The office already has suitable qualities, the speaker is politically neutral, whatever their previous party affiliation, and their role has become one of representative of the people in parliament. Previous speakers have come to be highly regarded by the public, Betty Boothroyd in particular. The current speaker John Bercow frequently criticises parliamentary bad behaviour by reminding MPs that “the public don’t like it”. Given this I think the speaker is extremely suitable to hold the following powers:

a) The giving of ‘assent’ to bills that have passed through parliament. This would be an automatic process.

b) All royal prerogative powers would pass to parliament, but there would be times when the executive needed to act quickly, mostly in times of war. In such cases the Prime Minister would have to apply to the speaker to be granted special powers, which would be granted only on a case by case basis.

c) In the event of a clear parliamentary majority, the current constitutional convention would be continued ( and codified) – the leader of the majority part would become prime minister. In the event of a hung parliament the speaker would have ultimate responsibility for choosing a prime minister, asking the person most likely to be able to form a government to try first, then asking another candidate to do so if the first fails. This is precisely the process in many republics. The speaker’s oath would require them to be politically neutral, and to safeguard the democratic process and the stability of the country.

In addition the state opening of parliament would no longer involve the monarch. Reforming the bizarre spectacle in which the monarch reads a speech they have not written and do not necessarily believe in, the opening speech would be instead given by the leader of the house, a far more suitable person to articulate the government’s programme for the year ahead. This would simply build on the current choreography for the state opening of parliament, created in the wake of the 1688 Glorious Revolution – which is premised on the Queen symbolically, and temporarily being denied access to parliament by ‘Black Rod’. This reform would simply take this pageantry to its logical conclusion – with the monarch simply being absent.

What would remain of the monarchy? All the pomp – the coronations, the weddings, the celebrity culture, the obsession around royal babies. Hell, even the televised christmas message. All this may be a bitter pill for republicans to swallow. But it may be precisely what allows some monarchists to accept such reforms – by accepting the continuation of the monarchy on a purely symbolic level we will gain the ability to strip he institution of its remaining constitutional power. . Yes the hereditary principle remains – but it remains in other much more tangible ways – the continuation of inheritance for example. Above all I think this is good tactical politics – focus on the most important issues and avoid needlessly offending those who could be your allies. Allow them to retain the elements they care about most whilst changing the structures that are most damaging. The symbol remains but the substance is transformed.


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