An elective monarchy, again

I was reminded of my recent post when I watched Thursday night’s The Big Bang Theory. It was the episode where they try to recreate a high-school prom — at their originals of which, all of them but Penny had bad experiences, of course.

Sheldon refers to the possibility of him being “elected Prom King,” and goes on to say that he’ll point out that kings aren’t elected.

He’s smart, but not that smart. Prom Kings and Queens, by definition, are elected, and in that context, that’s what the words mean.1

And words mean what we make them mean, and meanings change all the time.


  1. People often say that parliamentary elections “shouldn’t become a popularity contest.” But that, of course, is exactly what prom ones are. []

Sir Gawain and the Green Night translated by Bernard O’Donoghue (Books 2014, 15)

This is an unusual choice. It was a present; I do like poetry, but I probably wouldn’t have chosen it for myself.

But it’s great. I really enjoyed it. It’s a strange story. Set in King Arthur’s round table, of course — at least at the start. The titular hero (Gawain, I mean) is said to be the noblest, bravest, most humble, etc, knight.

A mysterious, supernatural, green figure interrupts the New Year feast at Camelot and issues a challenge. Gawain takes it up, and has a year to complete his side of the deal.

He’s clearly the top procrastinator of the round table, too, because he leaves it till after the following Christmas before he sets off to find the Green Knight.

The noble hero is tested and tempted, and (spoilers) wins through. It’s short, and fun. Oddly (or not) I remember the story, but nothing of the poetry. I could go and get the book and quote you some, but I think I’ll just leave it at that.

Oh, except to say, of course, this is an ancient work, and Tolkien also did a cover version of it. But I expect you knew that.

How to fix the UK constitution

There is a solution to one of the great constitutional questions of our age, and I have it.

Not, I might add, the question of making parliament more representative (that’s actually quite an easy one, and we even had a referendum on making it a bit better in this parliament, but we voted the wrong way). Nor indeed the one triggered by the Scottish referendum. It’s not even the most basic problem of our constitution, though I’ll answer that in passing: write it down.

No, I’m speaking of the problem of the head of state. Now it seems to me to be uncontentious to say that we need to move from a hereditary system to an elected one. The existence of a hereditary element to the government of a democracy is anathema; this is plain.

But if you suggest this to many (perhaps still most) British citizens,1 they will speak of a great affection for the Queen; maybe for the monarchy as an institution; and for the pageantry, and how great it is for tourism. Plus they’d point to recent less-than-impressive examples of US presidents, and say something like, “I wouldn’t want President Tony Blair.” Well, I could argue against any or all of those. But there’s no need to. Here’s the thing: as soon as we want to, we could switch to having an elected head of state, without losing any of the positives there, or introducing the negatives.

Well, we’d have to lose the Queen; the actual, current one, Elizabeth II. But that’s no problem: there won’t be any serious talk of change in her lifetime anyway. And probably not in Charlie’s for that matter. But at some point in the future we could have an elected head of state, and still keep the monarchy, the pageantry, and the palaces.

How? We just redefine the words “monarch”, “king”, and “queen”. We redefine them to be the title of the elected head of state in the UK. We elect one every few years — four, six, eight, it doesn’t really matter — and we keep everything else exactly the same. Because of course, we’re a constitutional monarchy. The monarch has no real power, officially,2 except to ask the leader of the party with most seats at a general election to form a government.

The rest is window-dressing: pageantry and symbolism. The individual doing the job could as easily be one chosen by the electorate as one assigned the task by chance of birth.3

Sure, such a person would be a president — a powerless president — in all but name. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the name is — to a lot of people, at least — what matters. Or at least that the concept referred to by the name does matter to many.

We would let the Windsors live on in reasonable splendour, in some of the Royal Palaces. We would only require one — and realistically it should probably be Buckingham Palace — to be the official residence of the new monarch. The others would still be owned by the state, of course, but the descendants of the last hereditary monarch would be allowed to live in them for a few generations at least.

Now, what sort of person would stand for election to a position with a fair amount of responsibility (state visits, and so on) and very little power? I don’t know, but that would work out over time. The principle works well enough in countries like Germany, where the president — yes, Germany has a president; who knew? — has a similar status to that of our elected monarch — and gets to live in a state-owned palace.

Furthermore, one power that the monarch does have is being the entity to whom members of the armed forces, the police, and indeed, MPs take an oath. But event that wouldn’t be a problem. Those oaths are worded something like, “to Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors.” The new, elected monarch would indeed be the “successor” of the last hereditary one.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that this idea has been thought of before. There don’t appear to have been many examples of it, and slightly disturbingly, one of the few examples of one that’s currently in use is the Vatican. But in that case the Pope is head of state, head of government, and sole executive power; an elected dictator-for-life, in fact (and by a tiny, restricted electorate). My version would be much more limited in what they could do. And they wouldn’t think they had a direct line to anything more supernatural than the prime minister’s office.

When looking into the matter, I also found this forum discussion wherein people keep saying things like, “It’s a contradiction in terms: monarch means hereditary ruler…” Do they forget that English is a changing language, always growing, expanding, shifting meanings? If we want to redefine a monarch as being an elected person, we can.

Oh, and hey — there’ll be nothing to stop a Windsor standing for election. You never know, they’d probably win. But at least then they’d have a mandate.


  1. Which we are, despite what confused people think; just look at your passport. []
  2. Charles’s “black spider” letters notwithstanding. []
  3. They could be assigned it by lottery, by random choice, as with juries; but that’s a whole different thought. []

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: the Final Chapter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook (Books 2014, 14)

I read the original version this a few years back, when my sister bought it for my son. It was good, very interesting and informative. And I wanted to read this expanded edition when it first came out. Although it’s called “The Final Chapter”, as if it were purely an additional piece, it contains both the original book and the new work — which is a lot more than just a “chapter”. But it was always just ferociously expensive.

Like, old-school hardback price for a large-format paperback. And it never seemed to come down, or come to in a smaller-size, mass-market paperback edition. So it always just felt too daunting.

Then eventually I saw it was on Kindle for what seemed like a more reasonable price, so I grabbed it.

It’s nothing more or less than an edited, long, email conversation between Davies and Cook. Sometimes several emails a day, in which Cook asks Davies questions about the latter’s writing process and other aspects of making Doctor Who (and to a lesser extent Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures).

And it’s absolutely fascinating read, especially if you’re at all interested in the creative process, in how writers write, and so on. It also feels a bit like you’re eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation at times, Somehow that’s not a problem, though. After all, it’s an interesting conversation, and we’ve been invited to listen in.

It’s clear that Davies enjoys sharing his thoughts on his process in this way, and it sort of makes you wonder why he doesn’t blog. But then, if he had been writing these emails as blog posts at the time, he couldn’t possibly have shared as much as he did with Cook, and with us several years after the events.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Books 2014, 13)

This is the one that’s won them all: BSFA (jointly), Clarke, Nebula, and more recently, the Hugo Award. Never before has a single book had such a sweeping effect on the world of SF awards.

And does it deserve them all? Does it live up to the effusive reaction of the community?

Err, well… no, not really.

Which is not to say it’s bad. In a sense, nothing could live up that level of praise.

However, my personal problem with it — at least at first — was this: I like my super-intelligent spaceship minds to be the good guys. To be part of, and defending, Utopia. In short, I want The Culture. And I guess I hoped that Ann Leckie might sort of take Banksie’s place.

Obviously there wasn’t much chance of that, and it isn’t fair to judge the book on those terms.

So, back to its own terms. In any case, these super-intelligent spaceship minds aren’t necessarily bad guys; but they’re in the service of a pretty unpleasant empire. Though things get ambiguous. And interesting. And of course, there’s the gender-blindness of the viewpoint character, which is great. So yeah, it was fun, I enjoyed it, it goes to some interesting places, and it sets things up nicely for a series.

Oh, god, a series. Does nobody write books in ones any more? I was just looking at the current crop of so-called “Black Friday” deals on Kindle. There were quite a lot of books for crazy-cheap prices. Except… there weren’t really that many if you count a series as one.

C’mon, folks, write a book that doesn’t have a sequel, hey?

But I digress. Go read about Ancillary Justice: you’ll find reviews of it all over the place. Then go and read it. It’s great.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Books 2014, 13)

This is the one that’s won them all: BSFA (jointly), Clarke, Nebula, and more recently, the Hugo Award. Never before has a single book had such a sweeping effect on the world of SF awards.

And does it deserve them all? Does it live up to the effusive reaction of the community?

Err, well… no, not really.

Which is not to say it’s bad. In a sense, nothing could live up that level of praise.

However, my personal problem with it — at least at first — was this: I like my super-intelligent spaceship minds to be the good guys. To be part of, and defending, Utopia. In short, I want The Culture. And I guess I hoped that Ann Leckie might sort of take Banksie’s place.

Obviously there wasn’t much chance of that, and it isn’t fair to judge the book on those terms.

So, back to its own terms. In any case, these super-intelligent spaceship minds aren’t necessarily bad guys; but they’re in the service of a pretty unpleasant empire. Though things get ambiguous. And interesting. And of course, there’s the gender-blindness of the viewpoint character, which is great. So yeah, it was fun, I enjoyed it, it goes to some interesting places, and it sets things up nicely for a series.

Oh, god, a series. Does nobody write books in ones any more? I was just looking at the current crop of so-called “Black Friday” deals on Kindle. There were quite a lot of books for crazy-cheap prices. Except… there weren’t really that many if you count a series as one.

C’mon, folks, write a book that doesn’t have a sequel, hey?

But I digress. Go read about Ancillary Justice: you’ll find reviews of it all over the place. Then go and read it. It’s great.

Thin

We used to call this “thin clients”; or just a terminal logged on to a server or mainframe. Jason Snell writes of something newish that Adobe and Google are doing with Chromebooks:

This week I got a demo of Photoshop running inside Chrome, and while it was really interesting, some of my assumptions were faulty. It turns out that when Adobe says Photoshop is a “streaming app,” they mean it—it’s much more like screen sharing than native software. Photoshop runs remotely on a Windows-based server, and video of the app’s interface streams to the Chrome browser.

via Six Colors: Adobe streams Photoshop to Chromebooks.

Hijacked

Can anyone explain to my why this is resignation-worthy?

Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, … told the Mail Online it was “like the Labour party has been hijacked by the north London liberal elite, and it’s comments like that which reinforce that view”.

The comment was, “Image from #Rochdale.” It was a picture of a white van outside a house covered in English flags. And that can drive a shadow cabinet member to resign. What?!?

Warning: contains language from the outset