Leading Article: Modern democracy does not need this royal performance

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The Independent Culture
TODAY THE "Queen's Most Excellent Majesty" presents "Her" government's legislative programme for the new parliamentary year. Amidst the pomp and flummery, fancy dress and walking backwards, she will put her voice to the elected government's bills. But we should pause to ask a simple question: why?

Britain is, of course, not actually a democracy but a constitutional monarchy. Despite one revolution and four and a half centuries of gradual evolution, the Queen remains head of state. As such, she will not only read out today's speech but must give her assent if any bill is to become law. This is either a quaint, but irrelevant tradition or an influential and important role. Either way the Queen should give it up.

If our constitution is to evolve a little further towards democracy, her Majesty should be relieved of these tasks. Bills and laws should be the product of a democratic process: voters express their views on party manifesto pledges and so choose their representatives for the Commons to make their law.

The Queen and the Government, we were told, are aware of this problem; today we will see some minor changes. A lady in waiting and one or two gentlemen ushers will sit out today's show. Silver, though not Gold, Stick in Waiting will stay away. But such tinkering does nothing to modernise the constitution and encourage voters to take an interest in what their representatives are doing.

Ironically the Queen will read out legislative proposals that will significantly change the British constitution: reform of the House of Lords, a new electoral system for European elections and changes to the legal system. As the constitution modernises around her, the Queen's role looks increasingly anachronistic. The public needs to know that the government is not hers but ours. Government should be responsible to the citizens and voters of the country, not to the Queen and her subjects.

So who should read out the Government's proposals? The obvious candidate would be the Prime Minister: it is he, after all, who has ultimate control of the speech's contents. Would this be seen as partisan: a party, rather than a government, document? Would it be indistinguishable from party conference, or election stump table thumping? Probably so: but, after all, it is the programme of a political party, so why pretend otherwise? Since it is Tony Blair's Government proposing laws, why not have Tony Blair reading the speech? If that were seen as too presidential - the American president is entrusted to present his own State of the Union address - then the Speaker of the House of Commons could take on the task. Either way the Queen should ad lib a line today: "My Government can do without this royal performance."

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