Time for a referendum on the monarchy

01.12.00 Publication:

“What, you a republican?!,” exploded a Tory peer recently when the subject of the Economist´s anti-monarchical views came up; “but you are intelligent, you think things through.”

I could simply have returned the compliment, but the grilling swiftly moved on, as it often does on this topic, to a claim that I could not possibly have thought of a better constitutional arrangement with which to replace the crown.

It cut little ice when I protested that countless other democracies seem to rub along perfectly well with either an American- or a German-style president. Although my friend and accuser is a very internationalist, even pro-European Tory, he remains gripped by the idea that Britain´s constitution has somehow been shown, by the test of time, to be ineffably superior.

I disagree. Britain has simply been lucky – or unlucky, depending on your point of view – that neither war nor internal turmoil has yet challenged its peculiar constitutional arrangements, so it has stuck with the legacy of history. Fair enough, up to a point: as Australia´s referendum on the monarchy showed, it is hard to muster support for a change when there is no crisis. So why did we, in October 1994, declare on our cover that the monarchy was “An idea whose time has passed”?

Simply put, it was because I had become editor only in 1993 and the autumn of 1994 brought the first pretext for me to hold forth about this subject. It was the height of the warfare between Charles and Diana, and in response to questioning about Jonathan Dimbleby´s biography of Prince Charles, Prince Philip had said, quite sensibly, that a republic was a perfectly good alternative, and that if the British people were to want one then that would be fine by the royal family.

Well, since you asked, we said, we would indeed prefer a republic. Why? Because the Economist´s philosophy has always been liberal, not conservative. As such, monarchy of any sort is, I wrote, “the antithesis of much of what we stand for: democracy, liberty, reward for achievement rather than inheritance. Surrounded as it is by privilege and patronage, the crown even has a certain, though not inevitable, bias against capitalism. It may be a symbol of unity but it is also a symbol of aristocracy, of feudal honours, of baseless deference.”

But didn´t we support Margaret Thatcher? Yes, because she acted to disperse the power of the state and of anti-democratic concentrations of muscle such as the trade unions, and republicanism is a logical extension of that pro-market, pro-individual view – even though the lady herself did not follow her own logic. But wasn´t Walter Bagehot your editor, in the 1860s? Yes, and he defined the role of the monarchy in The English Constitution as a “dignified” channel for popular support, behind which the “efficient” parliament and administration could run the country. This depended on the idea that an uneducated populace could not then be relied upon to use power constructively. Now, with an educated populace, such an elitist position would be, to me, indefensible.

That is the argument in principle: a paper that believes in individual freedom and meritocracy ought not to favour a monarchy. In practice, also, the crown has had bad constitutional consequences: through the fiction that it can act as a check on the government, it bears guilt by association with the steady centralisation of power in the hands of the prime minister and his cabinet, especially a prime minister with a large majority in the Commons. The Lords has been neutered as a check since 1911, though it has revived a little since the (absolutely justified) abolition of the hereditary peers. With no constitutional court and a meek judiciary, the only checks are general elections and the media. That is nice for the media, and adds fuel to our natural pomposity and self-importance, but it is not a good way to run a democracy.

And what of the arguments against? To my mind, there are two bad ones and two that should be taken more seriously. One bad notion is that the monarch really does provide a constitutional safeguard, that its role is not a fiction. Although it is not impossible to imagine a monarch playing such a role, just as Juan Carlos did in Spain, my feeling is that in practice, just like the old House of Lords, monarchs will always be constrained by their lack of democratic legitimacy in confronting an over-mighty but elected government. The second is tourism. Gimme a break, is my response: the crowds still flock to Versailles two centuries since the tumbrils rolled.

The two better ones begin with sentiment. Perhaps the monarchy is just something that people like, an institution that may be crusty and not very modern, a bit like an old building, but one which people would rather keep than lose. that would not be my taste, but no democrat can consistently argue that people should have to get rid of the monarchy even if a clear majority still like it.

And then there is perhaps the strongest argument of all: that, abolishing the monarchy would simply not be worth the bother. We at the Economist agree with that, at present: other efforts to introduce checks and balances into Britain´s constitution matter more, so let´s get on with the second stage of reform of the Lords (including the abolition of all those ridiculous titles), with introducing a more proportionate electoral system, a proper freedom of information law, a more independent judiciary, and so on.

But that does not alter the principle of the matter. And, together with the argument of popular sentiment, it leaves me strongly in favour of a referendum on the monarchy at the next appropriate and logical moment: the succession.