I found myself debating the Good Old Cause on the radio recently with Thomas Mills, chairman of the British Monarchist Society.
I always enjoy a debate. It is a cornerstone of our democracy. Nevertheless I am acutely aware that such occasions can descend into the acrimony of name-calling and crude stereotypes.
When this happens it only serves to further polarise two seemingly very opposed camps of thought. And ultimately neither side will advance its position one iota. It seems to me that in some ways the debate between republicans and monarchists is locked in a stalemate, largely because both camps are often viewed as extreme by the majority - the 50 per cent or more of the public who are unpersuaded either way. Exactly the people who need to be won over to advance either position.
It is not hard to see how this has might have happened. The most vocal among these polar opposites sometimes seem engaged in permanent battle to demonise the other side. Monarchists often times portray republicans as dangerous lefty-anarchists, intent on disrupting our social order and depriving the country of a prime asset. For their part some republicans characterise monarchists as dumb, unthinking, brainwashed “sheeple” oblivious to tyranny in all its forms. On other occasions they are viewed as something more thuggish, tribal in the crudest form possible.
Myself and Thomas both came armed with stories of misdeeds and wilful misunderstands perpetrated by the other side. But we both attempted to raise the level of debate above this. Thomas seemed like a friendly, upbeat man. I found no reason to dislike him on a personal level, and I think that feeling was reciprocated.
And as we embarked on mapping out our respective positions, in a reasonably respectful manner, I got to thinking about an increasing realisation of the common ground we share. If the emotion that surrounds the debate is cast aside for a moment, it’s staring us all in the face. We both feel that our politicians and the system of which they are a part have failed us. Politics, it seems we both believe, is broken and beyond repair in its present form. It fails to represent the will of the people on a consistent basis, it feels disconnected and unresponsive. Worse still, our elected representatives, often seem more interested in narrow self interest than in the democratic ideal of duty and service.
Witness the expenses scandal which afflicted politicians of every major party. Witness the grubby relations revealed between politicians and media tycoons revealed by the phone hacking saga. Yet politicians get to investigate themselves, and then choose whether to accept the findings and recommendations of inquiries. Or to put it in the words of Republic’s chief executive Graham Smith: “There is no limit to the power of our politicians other than those limits they place upon themselves.” Any wonder that politics has become a dirty word?
Anyone listening to the debate between Thomas and myself would have have heard complete agreement on this issue. So I want to take this common ground as a starting point for building a new conversation about monarchy. I want to use it to reach out to the unimpressed, disinterested majority, many of whom I believe feel exactly the same way about our politics. I want to highlight the positive message of republicans: that we want to do something to fix what is broken. We are not so much against something as for a positive alternative, which we think will help to put things right.
And it is really in our respective responses to our broken politics that your see the real and important differences between republicans and monarchists.
Most modern British republicans want a directly-elected ceremonial president who can act as a referee of the political system. Someone with clearly circumscribed powers who can hold politicians to account when required, but who can be held to account themselves, not least through the transparency of their actions. But that is just the start. We would want root and branch reform of our corrupted system, including a modern written republican constitution which would enshrine the equality of citizens and set out the rights and responsibilities of all, including our politicians. We would want an overhaul of our Upper House so that it could do a better job of scrutinising the work of our politicians. We would want to redesign our honours system so that it recognised the genuine community heroes in this country and the genuine acts of bravery, rather than acts of cronyism. In short we would hand power back to the people and in doing so hold our politicians and our system to account. We would get it working again.
By contrast the monarchists’ response to our broken politics seems to be to turn their backs. Rather than holding our politicians to account for their actions and inactions, monarchists abandon the stage altogether, instead basking in the “otherness” of monarchy. The simple fact that the Queen and her family are not politicians - as they see it at least - is justification enough. Qualities of magic and mystery attributed to monarchy - both terms used frequently by Thomas - are seen as some kind of antidote. From my rational standpoint I cannot imagine a more inappropriate, wrong-headed response.
What monarchists seem to be completely ignorant of most of the time is that monarchy encourages unchecked, unaccountable behaviour. It hands numerous so-called royal prerogative powers to the prime minister who is able to, among other things, appoint ministers, bishops and heads of public bodies, go to war, sign treaties, and change the law, all without reference to parliament or challenge in the courts.
The most famous recent example of this was Tony Blair’s controversial decision to commit British troops to Iraq in 2003 despite concerns raised at the time by the government’s top legal advisers. Advocates of the Iraq war often counter that the decision was subsequently ‘ratified’ by parliament. But this was entirely retrospective. And the decision was made by Blair with the knowledge that having put British lives on the line, most MPs would find it impossible not to back the move in a vote. Had Blair sought the permission of parliament first, it is not at all clear Britain would have gone to war. Opinion polls showed beforehand that the public felt the case for war had not been made and in subsequent years it came to be opposed by a large majority.
Despite the muted acknowledgement for some reform of monarchy in certain monarchist circles, noone on that side of the argument seems to be advocating abolishing or reforming such royal prerogative powers. Indeed, during our debate Thomas suggested the Queen should directly reclaim and exercise these powers in order to carry out the will of the people. He thought for example that she should be given the powers in order to remove Britain for the Lisbon Treaty, which was signed at the end of 2007 and provided a revised constitution for the European Union.
That the Queen, a remote figure who severely lacks a formal education, could divine the will of the people is frankly absurd. It would certainly rely in spades on the kind of magic quality - and a good deal else - that Thomas mistakenly ascribes to this highly privileged 86-year-old woman.
Thomas’s desire to see a beefed-up monarchy flies in the face of reason. Despite the unchecked powers handed to our prime minister, there is at least the chance that s/he can be held to account at the ballot box. There would not be the remotest possibility of holding a monarch to account in the same way. Indeed such a desire contradicts the monarchists’ principal argument against republicans, which is to assert that the Queen has no real powers.
There is a discontent - to put it mildly - with politics among a clear majority in Britain. Republicans can harness this and make a strong case for change for the better. The response of monarchists is not just irrational, but dangerous. It lets politicians off the hook when they should be held to account. It detracts from the real, unchecked power of politicians.