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