Forum for Debate

SCT’s Forum for Debate provides protagonists on either side of an issue or public debate  –  including think tanks, commentators, academics and campaigners – with an opportunity to set out their well-considered, rational arguments and then allow a limited number of exchanges between them. Rather than then hosting an open forum or blog, the debates are designed to encourage visitors, guided by links provided by the British Library, to seek out further information about the issues and engage in face-to-face debate themselves. The  debates could also provide material around which Speakers’ Corner Committees can organise their own local events.

The latest in the series appears below. Previous debates can be found in the archive.


The Monarchy – Continuity or Change?

Queen's SpeechThe monarchy has been at the centre of British national life from the beginning of our recorded history. The ruling dynasties and the shape and size of their kingdom may have fluctuated over the centuries and the extent of their powers has certainly diminished in modern times. But the institution remains intact.

Its supporters ascribe much of the stability and continuity of Britain’s political system to the limited but important constitutional role of the monarch as head of state. They see the current queen as a highly popular focus for national identity at home and of Britain’s prestige abroad. They argue that the pomp and pageantry associated with the royal family generates considerable income from visitors to this country.

But its opponents ask how an hereditary monarchy can be compatible with a modern democracy. They regard the royal family as the pinnacle of the class system, an expensive symbol of unearned privilege and a brake on progress. They see the royal family as remote from the experience of the vast majority of their subjects and largely irrelevant to the conduct of the nation’s affairs.

Is the monarchy still an essential feature of the British way of life or is it now time to reform the institution – or perhaps abolish it altogether?

Professor Dawn Oliver

University College London

Dawn Oliver is Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law at University College London and a former Dean of the Faculty. She is author of Constitutional Reform in the UK (2003) and has been joint editor of eight editions of The Changing Constitution, the most recent of which was published in June 2015.

She was a member of the Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords 1999-2000 and of the Fabian Society Commission on the Future of the Monarchy 2002-2003. She was Chair of the UK Constitutional Law Group 2005-2010 and Honorary President of the Study of Parliament Group 2010-2015. She was made an Honorary QC in 2012.

Professor Oliver’s research interests are in the fields of UK constitutional law and in particular UK constitutional reform and the Human Rights Act.

For almost 200 years, UCL Laws has been one of the leading centres of legal education in the world. It combines a strong theoretical foundation in the law with practical teaching from world-leading academics and practitioners.

Ranked first in the UK for its research environment, its research helps to shape government policy and national and international law and its practice. As part of Legal London, UCL Laws attracts the leading figures in the field to contribute to its vibrant programme of events, informing public debate around social, legal, environmental and economic issues.

Graham Smith

Republic

Graham Smith has been chief executive of Republic since 2005. He originally joined the group in 1990 before moving to Australia where he was involved in community and charity work. On his return he stood for election to local government and has graduated from the Open University with a degree in International Studies.

Graham first worked with Republic as a volunteer in 2003. Since then he has transformed the campaign group, building a strong supporter base and raising the campaign’s media profile.

He has also played a leading role in establishing and nurturing the Alliance of European Republican Movements.

Republic is a membership-based pressure group campaigning for the abolition of the monarchy and its replacement with a directly elected head of state.

The group represents all Britain's republicans, bringing the case for a republic to a wider audience while scrutinising the actions of the royal household. It is strictly non-party political and has the support of over 30,000 republicans.

Republic is a democratic organisation, led by its members and underpinned by a set of core principles. It is an inclusive movement, with members and supporters from across the political spectrum and from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Proposition

The modern monarchy - effective and popular

The British monarchy consistently has the support of some 80% of the public.

The monarch is Head of State. But under the British Parliamentary system she exercises very little actual political power. She does however fulfil a number of important legal functions. For example, the Queen gives assent to Acts of Parliament, appoints the Prime Minister and other Ministers as well as judges and many other public officials; she awards peerages, grants honours (knighthoods, CBEs, OBEs, MBEs, etc.) and performs other formal acts. Most of these powers would have to be exercised by the Head of State of the UK even if the monarchy were abolished.

However, in doing these things the monarch is only rarely allowed to exercise her own choices or discretion: she must act on advice from individuals who are democratically accountable, normally her ministers. By convention the monarch does not participate in party politics.

Real political power is exercised by the Prime Minister as Head of Government and by ministers accountable to Parliament. The clear principle behind these arrangements is that those exercising political power should be directly or indirectly accountable to the electorate. Since the monarch exercises very little political power, the case for election of the Head of State on the basis of that principle is weak.

In practice, the role and functions of the Head of State in the UK are much greater than the exercise of formal legal powers on advice and therefore rather wider than the roles of Heads of State in other countries.

The Queen is Head of the British Commonwealth. Her daily public activities and those of other members of the royal family include hosting or making state visits in which the Head of State is not associated with any political party - for instance the symbolically very important royal visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011. Members of the royal family establish or act as patrons of a range of charities (for example, The Queen’s Award for Enterprise, the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, the Prince’s Trust) and thus support their fund raising campaigns. They open new public buildings and institutions (hospitals, universities etc.) and visit civil society institutions; they express the public’s appreciation for the service rendered by citizens at many levels, recognising military distinction (Victoria Cross) and the suffering of survivors of members of armed forces killed in war (Elizabeth Cross).

These activities - and there are many others - are about supporting civil society and understandably they contribute to the popularity of the monarchy.

The same is true of much of the royal pageantry surrounding formal state occasions. The institution is a reminder of the country’s history and an example of the duty of public service that people expect of the state generally.

The monarchy has evolved and been modernised over the years in response to social developments and changes in public opinion: the rules of succession no longer discriminate on grounds of gender; the bar on marriage to a Catholic has gone; the monarch’s formal power to choose the date for a general election has been removed.

The institution will continue to evolve and there is, indeed, need for further reform. Like all public institutions the monarchy must keep up with the times. The requirement that a new Privy Councillor must kneel to the monarch and kiss her hand is an example of an archaic custom that is now in question.

The remaining scope for the monarch to make personal choices when exercising her formal legal powers should be removed. The choice of Prime Minister should be made by the House of Commons. The Prime Minister should not have the power, through advice to the monarch, to exercise unregulated ‘royal prerogative’ powers and patronage which should be subject to formal statutory regulation. The relationship between the monarchy and the Church of England should be kept under review.

The institution, though not perfect, works well. And it is popular.

Proposition

An archaic institution - costly and undemocratic

Many people support the monarchy because they see it as a powerless remnant, a historic left-over that connects us to our past and which by happy coincidence brings in revenue through tourism and trade.

The problem is that the monarchy is neither powerless nor harmless and the balance sheet shows a significant net loss to the taxpayer.  Yet that last point – the cost – is not really the point at all. It is another symptom of the bigger issue: that the monarchy is unaccountable and committed to the pursuit and protection of its own vested interests.

The monarchy lies at the heart of the British state, symbolising power and continuity, while the monarch plays the role of head of state, claiming to represent the nation.  Yet it is the antithesis of the democratic values this country cherishes and which we have fought for at home and abroad.  It is an unprincipled institution, one that fails to represent the real Britain or the values we hold but instead represents a fantasy Britain that never existed, one of benign kings and fairy tale princesses.  For this reason alone the monarchy should go.

But this issue goes well beyond simple principle.  The monarchy as an institution is not fit for purpose: it fails completely to live up to the standards expected of other public authorities.  Because it is undemocratic and unaccountable, because the members of its incumbent family insists on staying put no matter what their behaviour or proclivities, it must also demand secrecy.  The British monarchy is one of the most secretive institutions in the country, outside the remit of the Freedom of Information Act and beyond real scrutiny.

The royals routinely and wilfully abuse their positions to spend public money on private travel, accommodation and other expenses while seeking to exploit access to government ministers to protect their own interests and push their own agendas.  Research by Republic estimates the annual cost of the monarchy to be around £334m a year – a staggering amount for an institution required to provide the country with just one head of state.

Much has been said about Prince Charles’s deliberate attempts to influence government policy, whether on health, education or military spending.  Less has been said about royal influence to tighten up royal secrecy laws or secure for themselves favourable funding arrangements.

The biggest problem though is neither the waste of public money nor the abuse of position by the royals.  It is the political impact of the monarchy on our whole body politic.   The monarchy is not simply a decoration brought out to dazzle the crowds.  The Crown is the centrepiece of the constitution: it grants power to the government and Parliament that is unheard of in most democratic societies.  The Crown makes Parliament sovereign when that privilege should belong to the people. Yet Parliament is by and large at the beck and call of government.  As a result, we lack any real system of checks and balances while the powers of the monarch are exercised by the prime minister.

Through royal powers and the Privy Council the Prime Minister can wage war, sign treaties and confer a bewildering array of official appointments and honours.  That power of patronage alone gives the PM considerable sway over Parliamentarians.  The Queen’s and Prince’s Consent rules which require royal consent before issues affecting the Crown's prerogative can be debated in Parliament give the government the power to kill off any backbench Bill it doesn't like while at the same time giving senior royals the power to insist laws don’t adversely affect their interests.

This is principally an argument about power and politics. But I should also note that the oft-made claims about tourism and trade revenue generated by the monarchy are simply unsupported by evidence.  The monarchy only represents a cost to the British people, and the greatest is the loss of democratic spirit and the ceding of power to those in Westminster.

The good news is that there is an exciting and democratic alternative, one that is successful across Europe, not least in our nearest neighbour the Republic of Ireland - a constitution that puts the people in charge and lets us elect our head of state.

Response

The depiction of the monarchy as a purely self-interested institution that is not fit for purpose is not borne out by the facts. Important values, including belief in shared interests, commitment to public service and support for civil society, are epitomised in many of the activities of the monarch.

Concerns about the operation of the government and other public bodies in the name of ‘the Crown’ and royal prerogative powers should be resolved by Act of Parliament. They are not the fault of the Queen. If a new written, entrenched UK constitution were to provide expressly for the sovereignty of the people instead of Parliament, it need not abolish the monarchy. After all, other Commonwealth countries and other monarchies manage this.

In sum, concerns about the monarchy can be resolved without abolishing it.

What might be lost if the UK were to abolish the monarchy? Replacement of the monarch by an elected Head of State could politicise the role and give rise to conflicts with Parliament and government: a President who was empowered to act independently and not, as the monarch is, only on advice, would inevitably be accused by critics of political bias.

Moreover, the valuable tradition of and respect for the neutrality of the office of Head of State would be damaged both at home and abroad and with it public confidence in and support for the institution.

Much of the pageantry of major state occasions would end. The strength of emotional ties between members of the Commonwealth would weaken. The UK would need a name change.

Each of these changes would be regretted by the many members of the public for whom the monarchy is a focus for their values and for their affection for the country and the uniqueness of the British institution of Head of State.

Response

Dawn’s key claims seem to be that the monarchy has little power and should have less, that it is popular and that it ‘works’. They do not provide a strong basis on which to ground a modern constitutional settlement.

The transfer of Crown power to the government and the impotence of our head of state are central to the problem. It is because of the Crown that the government enjoys far too much power and is faced with far too few checks and limitations.

In a Parliamentary democracy power should be limited, the people sovereign and the head of state should have a key role in defending the constitution. It is because the monarch is unaccountable that she can’t play that independent role. If we go in the opposite direction and strip the monarch of all her residual functions, then what is the point of her? Monarchy is an institution which symbolises all the worst traditions and which sets itself against all our best values and principles.

The popularity of the monarchy meanwhile is overstated and superficial and rests on a bedrock of secrecy, spin and the management of public image. Popular support for any individual head of state should be tested and proven through free and fair elections.

‘It works’ is never a strong argument. The Chinese would say the same about their system of government. But the claim always raises two important questions: in whose interests does it work and how should it work? The monarchy works for those in power, it serves the interests of the government not the people. It provides and defends power structures that are exploited by the government to bypass and control Parliament and limit challenges to its authority.

There is an alternative that not only works better in real terms but which works in line with our most cherished values, those of democracy and equality.

Conclusion

Surely ‘it has public support and it works’ is a strong argument for an institution.

It is patronising to attribute the popularity of the monarchy to the gullibility of the British public. To its supporters the monarchy represents many positive and unifying elements of British identity, values and culture. Whether politicians and the government support the monarchy because they consider that it serves their own interests is another matter and one that is for Parliament and the people to resolve.

The Irish Presidency has been held up as a model for Britain. Some Irish Presidents have been exemplars of apolitical public service. However, election of the President in Ireland can be fractious and dominated by party competition and party interests, as in 2011. The presidential exercise of powers as defender of the constitution can generate partisan conflicts between three electorally accountable institutions - the Parliament, government and President. The Irish Supreme Court - not politically accountable of course - has the final say in constitutional disputes. Would the British public welcome this degree of politicisation of constitutional arrangements?

Graham’s wish is for abolition of the monarchy to form part of a modern constitutional settlement. There are of course strong arguments for many reforms to be made to the British constitution. Some of them are not only controversial but also interconnected and legally and politically difficult.

Abolition of the monarchy and ‘the Crown’ would require redefinition of the sources of and limits to governmental and Parliamentary powers and of their relations with the new elected Head of State. Issues about the role and possible politicisation of judges as umpires in conflicts between institutions would have to be resolved. Reform of the membership, powers and functions of the second chamber of Parliament would no doubt be part of the settlement. Agreement would have to be reached about relationships between the Union and the four countries from which it is formed. Disagreements about the protection of human rights would have to be resolved.

Securing the necessary democratic consensus over such a wide range of issues in order to achieve the settlement envisaged by Graham would be extremely difficult - in my view impossible. Without such consensus reforms are unstable.

A heavy burden rests on the monarchy to be responsive to concerns about its operation and to reform where necessary. It will then continue to have public support and to work well.

Debates, often heated, about constitutional reform will continue. Piecemeal reforms will be made from time to time. For better or worse constitutional reform in Britain takes place incrementally, not in revolutions or big bangs. The fact of the matter is that the extensive modern constitutional settlement envisaged by Graham is not going to happen.

Conclusion

The idea that we can strip out all the powers and constitutional purpose of the monarch and yet retain the monarchy raises one obvious question: what’s the point?

The position of head of state is there for a reason: it is supposed to have a purpose. In Britain that purpose has been subverted to serve the interests of the government - which gives the lie to the claim that the monarch is in any way neutral. The Queen is entirely partial to the interests of the prime minister.

Impartiality must be both transparent and accountable. Having an elected head of state allows for an independent, impartial and neutral figure who will be constitutionally bound to perform their functions in a certain manner and accountable should they act beyond the remit of their office.

This isn’t a radical departure from common practice: it is how things usually work. The BBC Trust, judges and police officers are all expected to be impartial and they are all accountable if they stray from the limitations on their positions. The same should be true of the head of state.

There would only be a conflict between Parliament and president if Parliament were to try to do something unconstitutional. That’s one key purpose of the head of state in a Parliamentary democracy: to ensure Parliament stays within the limits of its powers as provided for in the constitution. The head of state would have neither opportunity nor right to challenge Parliament on political grounds.

Dawn claims that the depiction of the monarchy as self-interested is not borne out by the facts. But the evidence is there for all to see: the wilful and routine abuse of public money, the insistence on secrecy, the resistance to scrutiny, the misuse of privileged positions to lobby and influence ministers.

The values of the British people are not the consequence of the royal family. Rather than the public being inspired by the royals to support charity, it is the other way around. The royals support charitable causes to endear themselves to the public.

Most countries in the Commonwealth are republics and more will be in the next couple of decades. There is no reason to think the alliance would weaken without the monarchy.

There is no reason why state pageantry would end either and the UK has changed its name every hundred years or so for the past few centuries, so that’s hardly a significant point.

None of this would be regretted by many given that the move to a republic would only be achieved by a popular vote.

Instead, the change would be a profoundly exciting, inspiring and historic moment which we’ll all be celebrating for centuries to come.

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