Sunday, 14 October 2012

Why I'd have no objection to President Boris or Pre-Bo

No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses. I haven’t changed my political spots.

It’s just that I’m fed up with people articulating their objections to a British republic on the basis that popular will could deliver a head of state that they as individuals wouldn’t approve of.

Yes, of course this is a silly argument more often than not trotted out by monarchists, but it’s also cited by people who might refer to themselves as “theoretical republicans”.  An oxymoron in my view. There are still others who wouldn’t let it stand in the way of the principle but never the less fret about it, and wonder what we could do to ensure certain “undesirable” candidates didn’t get elected.

Jenny Jones and theoretical republicanism

Jenny Jones, the Green Party mayoral candidate and MLA appeared to fall into that middle camp when she gave an interview to the London Evening Standard in January. Explaining her participation in the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the Thames, she said: “I'm not a royalist by any stretch of the imagination...I would be a republican if it weren't for those two words: President Blair.”

The inference was clear: what we have now, despite is flaws, is better than a system with a remote chance of delivering former prime minister Tony Blair as head of state. Except that she’s got it all back to front. There is no danger of the “wrong” candidate with the system I favour. But the danger is inherent in a system based on a bloodline. 

A president as the embodiment of popular will

Let me be clear, I would approve of any candidate who was elected by popular will following a free and fair election campaign. And that includes Boris Johnson. That person, whoever they may be would be the living embodiment of a principle that republicans hold dear. So yes, even if the person elected isn’t my candidate, in a sense s/he very much is.

So what has got me started again on all of this? In part it’s re-reading Jonathan Freedland’s Bring Home the Revolution (1998), particularly its penultimate chapter Ten Steps to the Revolution. 

There’s much I disagree with in terms of what works and doesn’t work in the US model of government. But in this chapter he writes with exceptional clarity about applying republican principles consistently, such as the “sovereignty of the people”. 

A sovereign people and the death penalty question

Freedland quite rightly argues that this means doing more than paying lip-service to principles. And this is what he boils it down to: you have to accept the possibility that the “popular will” might deliver the death penalty. 

He does this because polling seems to show a majority of Britons favour its reintroduction. I do accept Freedland’s assertion - as repellant as I find the death penalty - though many of particularly on left in this country might not. But objections, I think, do not stand up to scrutiny. 

Some of these seem to be predicated on the notion that somehow parliamentary sovereignty protects us from these sorts of outcomes. It simply does not. There’s nothing inherent in the system that would do this. Westminster instead asserts the sovereignty of parliament giving assent to all sorts of things that the public didn’t get even a whiff of via a party manifesto at election time. In other words the whim of crudely-elected representatives. A whim that should it wish could quite easily pass legislation to reintroduce the death penalty without any reference to the people. 

Furthermore, a true democracy allows individuals to express competing values. So, those same individuals who seek the re-introduction of the death penalty may also demand strong protection of human rights, which may ultimately trump and stymy a preference for the first policy. 

It’s also worth reflecting on the idea that polling on issues such as the death penalty may be the result of the fact that such issues are not being debated. As Freedland points out, the idea of the people as sovereign relies to a degree on fostering a spirit of open public debate. 

Keeping Westminster at bay

But I digress. The second main impetus for raising the issues of a British presidency and personality objections comes from a long-running debate I’m having with my 95-year-old gran after I gave her a copy of the Republic publication 60 Inglorious Years: A provocative reassessment of the Queen’s record. While she’s not - at this stage at least - a republican, she’s keen to learn more about the argument and to engage.

One of the things I’ve been trying to impress upon her is how I believe a directly-elected ceremonial president would improve upon the role of monarch. In my previous blog post I talked about  many republicans and monarchists both see their approach as providing an antidote to a deep disenchantment with Westminster politics and so I’ve been discussing my preference to see at the very least presidential candidates untouched/untainted (depending on your point of view) by our parliamentary system. 

My gran - and those who share her scepticism - believe that any British president may ultimately fall short of this ideal. I agree. But I cite the example of former Irish President Mary Robinson and how she was able to rise above her party political background to achieve popularity ratings of 93 per cent halfway into her term. Rather more prosaically I ask her to consider the role of The Speaker in the Commons and how, more often than not, the incumbent goes out of their way to transcend party of allegiance. 

No mandate? Get on your Boris Bike

But neither of these examples are entirely satisfactory. Which leads me onto Boris Johnson. In the London mayoral election I believe we have a reasonable proxy for any near-term British presidential election. The nature of the contest and the use of the Alternative Vote ensure that parties fielding candidates - and let’s not forget that the contest attracts independent candidates - have to reach beyond their core support to win. 

Whatever you may think of Boris Johnson winning a second term in office back in early May he has a popular mandate. There is no fluke. He had to win people’s second preference votes and he did this at a time of deep unpopularity for the Conservative-led coalition. But Boris is no kowtowing party-first politician, and this is key because as I keep saying, it’s not just Conservatives who are unpopular, it’s traditional politicians in general. 

He makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t see eye to eye with David Cameron, a man, as with all prime ministers, who is elected by his own party rather than having a direct popular mandate. And less than three weeks ago Boris admonished Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative chief whip, for his unseemly row with police officers in Downing Street. I do not believe he could have won as a party man. 

Mayoral race as presidential proxy

Similarly, Ken Livingstone won his first time as mayor as an independent, and even though he’d reconciled with Labour by the time of his second victory his was still no traditional party man. The need to reach beyond traditional party boundaries has also been recognized by the Liberal Democrats in the choice of Brian Paddick as their representative. While they could quite easily have picked a candidate from the Westminster village they went instead for a former Met Assistant Chief Commissioner. 

So we have already in the London mayoral election a contest in which even traditional political parties recognize that the Westminster model of politics is not a good fit. And it will continue to evolve I’m sure. 

I’m not saying that the rest of the UK would necessarily vote in a manner similar to London, but if we were to have a presidential election tomorrow, I’m pretty sure Boris Johnson could be a leading candidate. What I’m even more confident about is that whoever that president be, the choice of the people would be infinitely preferable to Queen Elizabeth II or whoever the Windsor bloodline might throw up to provide us with a head of state.

Twitter: @andrewjchild

1 comment:

  1. Electing BoJo President would get him nicely out of the way in a job where he can do no harm

    I'd jib a bit at President Bliar - as Head of State we'd never get him to the Hague.