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 even 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. []

Oncoming independence?

A Scot abroad

For at least a couple of years people have been asking me what I think about the Scottish independence question. At least since the Edinburgh Agreement, I suppose. People down here in London, that is.

I, of course, don’t have a vote, as I don’t live in Scotland — indeed, I’ve lived in London for more than half my life. But we don’t stop being from the place we come from, and we don’t stop caring about it; so it’s reasonable to suppose I’d have an opinion.

And I do. In fact, I have a whole range of them, at different times. Sometimes I have more than one at the same time. Which is partly why I haven’t written about the independence referendum here before now.

I have been scathing in the past about people who give their political opinion as “don’t know” or “undecided”.1

But that’s exactly what I am, what I have been for the last several years: “undecided”.

Back in the 70s, when there was the original referendum, I would have voted “Yes” at the drop of a thistle, had I been old enough — indeed, I did, in the mock version we had at school. My reasoning in those days was purely based on emotion, and tied in to football and being the underdog.

In the years, the decades since then, if you had asked me whether I thought Scotland should be independent, I would probably have said yes. Most likely, most of the time. And though I stopped caring about football (and let’s face it, Scotland stopped being anything like a force in football), it was still an emotional reaction, still about national identity, about the fact that we as a country felt overwhelmed, repressed by the relative behemoth to the south.

At some point, of course, I moved there. London called and I answered yes. It didn’t change who I was, how I felt about Scotland. But it did, perhaps, give me a new way to think about how I felt about England.

Going back to the football/underdog business, it was always an us-and-them thing: we Scots always saw ourselves as different from, in opposition to, the English. And yet, when I met English people, they were perfectly fine — or a mixture of fine and not, of good and bad, of interesting and boring: the same as people in Scotland, or anywhere.

Plus, we were all British, linked by citizenship, by the NHS, by the BBC; by our shared history of literature, music, art.

(Though it was and remains (and always will be) annoying when people say “England” or “English” when they mean “Britain” or “British”. It’s not hard; the difference is quite clear.)

Constitutional matters

There’s something I left out of that list of linkages above, of course. Scotland and England were joined by two unions. The Acts of Union, in which both parliaments legislated to become one parliament, is the more important one, and the one that may be overturned on the 18th of September. But before that there was the Union of the Crowns, in which Scotland very kindly agreed that England could share its monarch.

Now, if they were going to dissolve that one (and I had a vote) I’d vote yes in a heartbeat — as long, of course, that separating the crowns meant Scotland moving to a democratically-elected head of state (or none; they’re not strictly necessary).

Yes, I would happily be a citizen of the Republic of Scotland.

But that was never on the table, of course. I don’t know whether Alex Salmond or any of the other SNP luminaries are republicans — some of them must be — but they had to keep the bluenoses on side. That’s Rangers fans, in case you don’t know; protestants; loyalists, unionists.

It must be one of the strangest states, actually: to be a Scottish person who believes in independence (and so is against the Union); but who also looks to the Scottish protestant/Rangers-supporting tradition, and is in favour of the Union of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Do such people exist? They must, really. Indeed, I saw a video a few months back of a Rangers fan who was so pro-Union, so anti-independence that he was wearing an England football shirt (yet he was undeniably Scottish), and saying that if the vote went yes, he’d move to England.

That’s an unusual reaction, that. Here we go. “You can stick your independence up your arse,” apparently.

But on constitutional changes: I frequently find myself frustratedly wondering, how can we be asking people to vote on such matters without this kind of thing being decided first? Shouldn’t a new constitution have been drafted, the discussions on currency and European unions held, decisions made in advance? So that people would go to the polls knowing exactly what they were voting for or against.

Wouldn’t that make more sense?

I did hear someone on the radio saying essentially that my thinking was foolish, because there are some things that can only be decided after a yes vote. But I don’t think he really made the point.

The original referendum, Labour, and Thatcher

In reading up on various things Scottish for this piece,2 I discovered that part of the fallout from the seventies referendum that I linked to above was the Thatcher government. The “40% Rule”, which caused the referendum to fail (the majority had to comprise 40% of the electorate) was brought in by a Labour MP’s amendment; and when it fell, according to the Wikipedia article:

the government’s decision to abandon devolution for Scotland led the Scottish National Party to withdraw its support for the government. A subsequent vote of no confidence led to the resignation of the Callaghan government, and an election was called.

That election was the one that got Thatcher elected.

Maybe she’d have been elected at the next election whenever it happened; but maybe not. And I can’t help but think that the Labour party has a disturbing sideline in betraying the people it should be serving, and this — and the current Labour party’s staunchly pro-union stance — is an example of it. Labour should support democratic freedom and the right of small countries to govern themselves. Trouble is, so many Labour MPs are Scottish, and they can see power at Westminster slipping further and further from their grasp if they don’t have the effect of all those Scottish seats.

I can understand that, though. that aspect of potential independence worries me, too: selfishly, I want to keep Scotland as part of the UK because I fear the effect of it leaving and us losing the balancing power of its more left-wing nature. Without Scotland, the rest of the UK could be doomed to near-permanent Tory governments. Or worse; UKIP along with the extremely anti-EU rump of the Tories when they split (it will happen, the only questions are when, and how many MPs will go).

Being stuck in an RoUK that votes to leave the EU? That is distinctly unappealing

Just as a minor aside, something I had totally forgotten was that the 1979 referendum wasn’t for independence: it was only to have an assembly, which sounds a lot like the Scottish Parliament of today.

The Rest?

I used the term “RoUK” above. That’s the way people have been referring to the “rest of the UK”, meaning what’s left of the UK after Scotland leaves. But I’m not so sure that there should really be any such thing.

See, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland came into existence when the Republic of Ireland got its independence from Britain, leaving Northern Ireland still connected. But the “Great Britain” part (as a political entity, as opposed to the island): that came into existence with the Acts of Union.

Repeal those Acts and arguably Great Britain ceases to exist as a political entity; so how can the UK exist after that happens?

So rather than debating whether an independent Scotland will be able to remain in the EU will have to rejoin it from outside, we should be discussing what, exactly, will be left if Scotland leaves the union.

Salmond and the anti-personality cult

It disturbs me how many Scots seem to be basing their decision around personality. “Salmond’s a wanker”, and all that kind of thing. If the vote goes yes, Salmond can retire (arguably the SNP will no longer have a reason to exist, in fact). But anyway, governments change, they can be voted out; people die. It’s not like you’re voting to make Salmond president for life. Rather, you’re voting for the type of country that your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren will inherit.

Other voices

Before I end, some other pieces that I’ve been reading on the matter. As Irvine Welsh has said, this is a great time for political engagement in Scotland3. And Billy Bragg adds that it might be good politically for England too.

And here’s a blog by an English guy who favours Scottish independence. He also favours English and Welsh independence, it seems: the complete breakup of the UK; just look at his masthead. His blog has the slightly disturbing title of “Upholding English Honour”, but he doesn’t seem to be the little Englander that name might imply.

Mark Millar is undecided, but calls for better behaviour all round in the debate. And Jack Deighton considers the effect that the referendum might have on Scottish literature.

In conclusion

In the end, of course, my opinion means nothing. But here it is anyway. If I were living in Scotland, I’m now fairly sure that I’d be voting yes. And speaking as an attached outsider, I’m coming round to hoping that the vote goes that way; if only to see what happens next.

After all, it could be the beginning of a great adventure.

  1. That post is actually about floating voters; not quite the same thing, but not unrelated. []
  2. Weirdly, when I searched Amazon for Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, the second hit was My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future Worth Sharing, by Gordon Brown []
  3. That link is showing “Service unavailable” at the time of writing. But then, it’s the Evening Standard: I wish it was permanently unavailable. []

Why Devilgate?

I always expect people to ask me about my use of the handle devilgate, but they almost never do. But an old friend did recently, and I wrote him the answer, and I think it belongs here.

So sit back and relax, and I’ll fill you in on the whole story.

You’re familiar with the origin story of the comics character Daredevil, I assume? Well it’s almost exactly like that, except with less radioactive material/eye interaction, blindness and skintight costumes. But with added rock ‘n’ roll.

So, back around the time I was in primary 4 or 5 (age 9-10), Suzi Quatro, as I’m sure you know, had a song called ‘Devilgate Drive’ (or so I thought for decades; I was telling a colleague at work this story a few years back and we looked for it on Spotify, and couldn’t find it; until we split it into two words: ‘Devil Gate Drive‘; somehow much less satisfying). I didn’t actually know the song back then, but some of my classmates did, and started calling me ‘Devilgate’, precisely because I was decidedly non-devilish (or so I assume). I was seen as a bit of a goody-goody, because a) my Mum was a teacher, and b) I was a bit of a goody-goody.

As nicknames go, it was a lot better than it could have been. I remember once another kid asking me what it meant, and I said, “Devilgate: the gate full of the devil.” Which is kind of embarrassing, but considering how goody-goody I actually was (altar boy, and all that), it’s surprising that I wasn’t more bothered by the diabolical nature. Perhaps further evidence that all children are naturally without belief, until and unless they’re indoctrinated into having some: I probably didn’t really believe in the devil.

Anyway, spin forward a few years and I got online and was looking for a handle somewhere — Slashdot might have been where I first used it, and I was just trying to find out whether you can find the creation date of your Slashdot user ID, but it seems you can’t. I have a vague feeling, actually, that I used it somewhere else first, but I can’t imagine where that might be.

Anyway, having established it, it became my go-to handle. Wherever there’s a web service, if there’s a devilgate (or Devilgate: I see that I capitalised it back in the Slashdot days), it’ll almost certainly be me. Except for eBay, where I’m devilgate_real, because some bampot had nicked my name by the time I got there.

And so when I finally got round to registering my own domain, it was obvious what I’d choose.

The First Three Books of the Year

The first three books of 2014 were:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman’s fantasy inspired by his own childhood experiences is fun. It is short, however, and strangely unmemorable after just a couple of months.

It by Stephen King

I read some King when I was younger, but hadn’t in several years apart from On Writing, until a couple of years ago when my beloved gave me 11.22.63, his time-travel fantasy about going back to save JFK. I throughly enjoyed that, and was reminded that he had a vast back-catalogue that I could catch up on.

A significant portion of that catalogue is contained in the single volume of It. It is a monolith, a vast behemoth of a book, at around 1300 pages.

It’s good, though, and I shouldn’t fixate on its size. King uses the space to let his characters breathe and grow. They have the strange limitation as adults that they have almost totally forgotten their childhoods, as a direct result of their encounter with the titular creature. Though not, as you might suppose, because they were traumatised. Rather it seems to be a feature of interacting with the supernatural entity that haunts the town of Derry, Maine, in the primary guise of a scary clown, that, if you face it and live (few do) you forget the encounter.

I had met Derry before: in 11.22.63 the protagonist spends some time in this strange town, and the effect in the book was so jarring — it felt obvious that here was a place with a history — that I looked it up. Turns out he’s used the fictional town as the setting for several stories (and presumably couldn’t resist routing his time-traveller through it).

Anyway, getting back to the book at hand: I spent weeks embroiled in King’s small-town America, its characters and its horrors. And I thoroughly enjoyed it, but am in no hurry to go back there soon.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Wow. Just wow. This is an awesome book. Atkinson manages to tell the same woman’s life story again and again and keep it interesting and gripping every time (well, there’s a slight longueur during a German period in one iteration, but the undercurrent of terror — she is living in the Führer’s holiday home — keeps it from being a problem).

As you probably know, it’s the tale of a woman who was born in 1910 and died — at various times, and in various ways. We are told the story of her life as she repeats it, again and again — or through multiple parallel timestreams. As the iterations go on, she starts to have some awareness of her past lives. She doesn’t understand what they are at first, of course, especially as a child. At first she’ll just have a sense of dread as she nears an event that killed her before. Later they are clearer memories of the future.

It is utterly fascinating and a joy. And not SF, though if had read it soon enough I’d have nominated it for the BSFA Award.

I read Kate Atkinson’s first, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, years ago, and likened it to Iain Banks’s The Crow Road (hard to to think of higher praise). I read one other, but wasn’t so impressed, and rather lost track of her, apart from watching the TV adaptations of her detective stories. I think maybe I need to go back and catch up on her work.

Another Lost Month, and Unpublished Posts

Another Lost Month, and Unpublished Posts

OK, so not content with the last post celebrating the fact that I missed a whole month, I then went on and missed February, too. These months just go by so fast.

Anyway, a couple of things. I noticed that I have a few posts sitting in draft form but that are more-or-less complete, so you may shortly see some slightly-non-timely things.

And I’m thinking I might have another go at blogging about the books I read. I appear not to have done that regularly since 2009 (these years go by so fast…) I might not give every book its own post, but put a few into a summary. As I’ve only read three so far this year (one of them was Stephen King’s 1300-page behemoth It, so I don’t feel too bad about the count) I’ll start with those.

This might just encourage me to post regularly, if not frequently.

Meanwhile, here’s a picture of Arthur’s Seat to keep things visual.

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Missing Months

Missing Months

I missed all of December. On this blog, that is. No posts at all. V bad. And nearly missed January as well.

But not quite. Here’s a photo to remind us what January’s weather has been like.

And I’ve just done my tax return.

Welcome to the end of the first month of 2014.