I was inspired to write this blog after a brief drive through St Ouens past the Parish Hall the other day and saw all of the Jubilee decorations and just felt like puking over how people could be so excited for something so utterly unimportant when there are far greater things we could celebrate. A few weeks ago there was an episode of BBC Question Time where an audience member asked if this would be a good year to abolish the Monarchy and I was astounded by the ignorance of all opinions expressed by everyone (panel and audience) on the basic facts of the Monarchy and how it works as a system.
Let me first start by saying, don't get me wrong, I love the Queen. She's a wonderful woman who has done fantastic things for this country (and the other Commonwealth Realms) and she, as an individual, is a huge asset who has generally done a very good job at what is a rubbish job to have. But this can't be an argument for having all of her heirs and successors to be our future head of state, because there are no safe guards in case one of her children is incompetent or, worse, active and interfering.
This is an issue of democracy and specifically that there is an alternative system that would suit us much better. There are of course the usual philosophical arguments made in favour of abolishing the Monarchy about how it's an unfair hereditary system etc, but I don't really want to dwell on that, because I'd rather focus on the issues of pragmatism.
It is often said that the Queen doesn't possess any actual power, but theoretically this is not the case. All power in Britain is divided between Parliament and the Crown. But the convention is that the Crown does not exercise these powers (known as the Royal Prerogative) and instead it is effectively exercised by the Prime Minister. The Queen only exercises her powers (like declaring war or dissolving Parliament) on the advice of the Prime Minister. She would never dream of unilaterally exercise her powers because she has no democratic legitimacy.
If the Queen decided to exercise power there would be a constitutional crisis and the country would be in chaos. The last time that a monarch vetoed legislation was in 1707. So her power is theoretical, rather than actual. But then this poses the question, why on Earth do we even bother with the title of Head of State when that Head of State doesn't get the opportunity to act like one?
Instead, we have someone who, when it comes to her political powers, is essentially a puppet of a here today, gone tomorrow Prime Minister who only ever uses the Royal Prerogative powers for their own political gain. For example, the Queen retains the right to dissolve parliament and call an election, but she only ever does so on the advice of the Prime Minister. This means that the PM can call an election depending on what he thinks the results will be, rather than what time is best for the country. For example, Tony Blair called the election in 2001 a year early, because he knew he would definitely win it if it was held then. Gordon Brown didn't call an election after the expenses scandal (despite a huge public appetite for one) because he knew he would definitely lose. This is not the basis these sorts of things should be decided on.
If we had an elected head of state, they could be above this petty politics, and decide things like election dates independently of the whims of politicians. And because they wouldn't be intertwined with the parliamentary scandals, they could intervene at select moments to ensure parliament is kept in order. For example, the Queen should have called an election straight after the expenses scandal, but she couldn't because she doesn't have democratic accountability or a mandate. The power to declare war is technically the head of states, but the PM exercises it, so an elected head of state could have avoided the Iraq war like the vast majority of the British people wanted.
Some argue that it is fine for the Prime Minister to exercise all these powers on the Queens behalf, because he was democratically chosen by the public. I retort simply with two words - David Cameron. Our current Prime Minister is pursuing a political agenda which he has absolutely no democratic mandate to carry out. The British people did not pick him to be Prime Minister (if we had a proportionate voting system, Gordon Brown would still be Prime Minister, with Nick Clegg as his deputy... sounds scary, but it would be better than what we have now). If we had a President, they could have overseen the process of forming a coalition, and could dissolve it when they got out of line. Instead, this is left to the Prime Minister who has a vested interest.
One of the panel on Question Time a few weeks ago was David Davis. Now, obviously I have a lot of ideological problems with him, because he is a Tory, but he was someone who I did have some respect for because he was generally quite principled (he resigned his seat and ministers position to fight a by-election on the issue of 42 day detention). But he said something just so inherently ridiculous it really has to be answered. He said that the Monarchy was a "protection against dictatorship". He must be joking, he just has to be. Has he ever heard of a guy called Benito Mussolini? He wasn't the Fuhrer or President of Italy, he was the Prime Minister, under an Italian King who did nothing to stop him. Monarchies can actually be unhelpful for overthrowing a dictatorship. If a dictator rose in Britain, the Queen would do nothing about it, like she has never done anything about anything else, because that's what she does; nothing. An elected President with reserve powers would have authority to throw out a Prime Minister who got too dictatorial.
Our Prime Minister has too much power and is too unaccountable.
Now, obviously there are a million different models of Republic we could choose, and people would be right to point out the flaws in all of them, so there's legitimate debate to be had about which system would be best for us. I'd rule out the American version because it is too different from what we have now and doesn't have enough democratic safeguards. I'd be split between choosing the Irish system or the French system.
The Irish system is a non-executive position for someone who is to be above politics and not a part of the system any more, just to be the representative for the country with some reserve powers for emergencies. Imagine President Joanna Lumley, or President Stephen Fry? How awesome that would be! Or the French system where they still have a Prime Minister and power is split. Or we could have a Prime Minister that focuses on domestic issues and a President for foreign affairs. I am a Labour voter, but I don't particularly like their foreign policies, so when I vote I am voting for a party I only half agree with. With that Presidential system I could tailor my votes for different purposes. Can't get more democratic than that.
Now a few misconceptions....
The Monarchy does NOT bring in tourism. This is just a silly argument that people so often say without any evidence to back it up. One of my favourite places in the world is the beautiful city of Paris. There is nothing I enjoy more than wondering round the Louvres and the Palace of Versailles. I wouldn't be able to do that (and pay a nice entry fee!) if France still had it's monarchy. People visit London and Britain because of it's culture, it's sights and it's attractions (it's not the weather, obviously) and we would still have all of this without the monarchy. People still go visit the Tower of London even though it's not a dungeon any more! Chuck them out of Buckingham Palace and people will flock to London to get inside the building and see what it's like.
We were told last year that the Royal wedding was going to boost the economy, yet the actual figures were negative growth, and I'll bet it'll be the same this Jubilee quarter!
One of the arguments in favour of keeping her is that she is great value for money. This is simply not true. Obviously Presidents with lots of executive power, like the Presidents of France and America do cost more, but most symbolic Presidents (like Ireland or Germany) are far cheaper. The figure is often said that she costs 62p person, but this figure is silly because it doesn't take into account security costs. The President of Ireland is hugely respected and admired and he barely costs the Irish Republic a penny.
So, I wish her and her family well, and maybe they'd like to stick around for those that want them, but so long as they lose all their legal and political roles, Britain (and the other Commonwealth Realms) could do a lot better. Our democracy is severely lacking in certain areas, and this is one simple way problems could be rectified. I know that my point of view is incredibly unpopular right now, so I may as well be banging my head against a brick wall, but lets see how things pan out. King Charles III?.... I think he may one day make my position a lot more popular!