The United Republic

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On Monday 6 February 2012, Queen Elizabeth the Second will celebrate her diamond jubilee – 60 years on the throne (though she was actually crowned in June 1952). The main practical significance of this is that we get an extra public holiday (for this year only). Cynics will note that royal events always seem to take place during times of economic trouble and may even be cunningly planned to divert a discontented people by nationalist displays and celebrations. Last year’s royal wedding might conceivably have been part of that plan, as could the Charles and Di show of 1981 (a terrible year for the British economy, briefly referenced in the film “The Iron Lady”).

But the government was hardly able to plan for the Queen’s anniversary to fall in a year when the economy is likely to contract or barely grow and average living standards face the toughest squeeze in decades.

The republican point of view

It will be interesting to see how much people care about this event. Those who, like me, would like to see a republic replace the monarchy, are in a minority and most of us don’t really feel that strongly about it. I should emphasise that I have no ill feelings towards the Queen, who I sort of met when I was a school child and she visited the Royal Air Force college at Cranwell, close to where I grew up. I have had close encounters with three of her children at various times, though I can’t claim to be on speaking terms and none of them has asked me to be their Facebook friend.

Like even the most belligerent republicans, I admire the Queen’s tireless service to her country, a remarkable example of putting duty above personal concerns. Of course her weirdly dysfunctional family might disagree about this, especially her oldest son, who regrettably seems eventually destined to become King, at least if he can outlive his own mother, whose genetic inheritance of longevity is impressive.

My hostility to the institution of the monarchy arises from believing that a modern and democratic Britain should appoint its head of state (which is what the Queen actually is) in a modern and democratic way. The current “constitutional monarchy” has evolved over centuries and works reasonably well, which is why there is no groundswell of discontent or move for radical change. (When Charles gets on the throne we might see a different attitude, but that could be years yet.) I would prefer an elected non-elected President along the lines of Ireland or Germany but not like the US or France.

The evolution of parliamentary democracy – with a bit of violence along the way

The English and then British monarchy has evolved from the tyrannical near-absolutism of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century to the powerless and symbolic Elizabeth II of today. It was during the seventeenth century that most of the transition occurred. Parliament, representing the wealthier classes and particularly the merchants of the City of London, rebelled against Charles I’s attempt to impose higher taxes and religious practices that were too close to those of the Roman Catholic church. Charles lost in the subsequent civil war, escaped imprisonment, started another war and for that was executed – though most people were opposed to such a revolutionary act. The first English republic lasted from 1649 to 1660, led for most of that time by Oliver Cromwell, whose head lies somewhere in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he was a student. (I was a student there too but I don’t think that explains my nostalgia for the republic).

Charles’s son, Charles II, became King in 1660 because the country wasn’t ready for or couldn’t agree on any other way of choosing the country’s chief executive. Outright democracy was too radical for the rich and powerful, who had glimpsed some very radical expressions of democratic principle during the civil war period. (Some of these radicals went off to found New England, with interesting consequences.)

But the real shift of power was in 1688 when Charles II’s son James alarmed the elite by threatening to bring back the Catholic Church. The merchants of London “invited” Prince William of the Dutch province of Orange to invade England and, when James fled to Paris (an act guaranteed to lose him support in England) they offered him the British crown. William was conveniently married to Mary, who had a valid claim on the throne as James’s daughter, so it was vaguely constitutional. But since the still living James insisted from Paris that he was still King, this was really a revolution, known later as the “Glorious Revolution” because nobody actually died.

From that point, the power of the monarchy rapidly ebbed. William got support from the merchants to defend the protestant Dutch provinces against the Catholic French. But he had to get permission from them through parliament when he wanted to spend money and had to sign a list of principles which was known as the Bill of Rights, much of which ended up in the constitution of the USA nearly a century later.

The German connection

After Mary and William died, Mary’s sister Anne took over as Queen till 1714, but despite seventeen pregnancies the poor woman had no surviving children. At that point the ancestors to the current Queen were imported from Hanover in what became Germany. From the first King George onwards (he spoke no English) Parliament was increasingly in control and the role of Prime Minister emerged as the true chief executive of the country.

The fact of outsourcing the monarchy to Germany was a bit embarrassing at the onset of the first world war, against, er, Germany. The royal family quietly changed their name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. It’s good to see that re-branding has such a fine and distinguished history.

Arguments against abolishing the monarchy include that it neutralises otherwise siezable power. I don’t think this really holds, because the Prime Minister can exercise very strong powers if backed by Parliament, though the old principles of Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights do provide some constitutional protection against tyranny, as does membership of the EU and the European Charter of Human Rights. Margaret Thatcher showed what a determined Prime Minister could do with what has been described as an elected dictatorship. But the key to democracy is the ability to vote the rascals out and that remains our main safeguard.

Another argument is that the monarchy is a hugely valuable source of tourism revenue, but I think that would remain so long as the buildings and trappings were left intact. The history of the monarchy, endlessly entertaining and fascinating, would still draw the crowds. There is no need for public executions or anything unpleasant, the royal family could be given a reasonable pension to live off. I imagine the Queen could rebuild her fortune on the US lecture circuit. If Tony Blair can do it, I’m sure she could.

Since very few people agree with this view, I’m confident that on the public holiday of 5 June, we will all celebrate or at least acknowledge Her Majesty’s remarkable contribution to British life in peace – if not in prosperity.

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