Leading Article: Sorry, Ma'am, we'd prefer a `republican monarchy' now

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BEFORE SHE died, the Princess of Wales made an audacious reverse takeover bid for The Firm, as the Royal Family calls itself. In her Panorama interview, she suggested that the succession should skip her estranged husband and pass straight to Prince William, with a role for her as Queen Mother of People's Hearts. It would not have been the first time that the strict rule of primogeniture had been abridged by the higher authority of public opinion. James II, most famously, failed to pass the opinion- poll test of his day.

As the Queen herself put it last year, a hereditary monarchy "exists only with the support and consent of the people". And, as she acknowledged less directly this week, she had learned a thing or two about how to cultivate popular support from Diana - and from the response to her death. "We have certainly learned lessons from the way the Princess carried out her engagements. We have tried to incorporate a greater informality into the planning of royal events," a Palace spokesman said.

It takes neither a deep understanding of British history nor a great deal of political cunning, both of which Elizabeth possesses, to realise that the monarchy has been seriously undermined by Diana's popularity. On the eve of the first anniversary of her death, the House of Windsor is still fighting for its constitutional life.

It was not Diana's intention to diminish the monarchy as an institution - she wanted the Royal Family to behave differently, but she wanted her son to inherit an office that mattered - but then it was often the case that the prerogatives of the Crown were curtailed by those who protested the most royalist of intentions.

One year on from her death, then, it is time to reassert the principle of consent upon which the survival of the monarchy rests. That should mean the final separation of the monarch from political power. In place of the outdated idea of a "constitutional monarchy", the British people should assert their rights in what is already pretty nearly a republican constitution with a ceremonial monarch as head of state - a "republican monarchy" even.

Most of the remnants of royal authority are, like the monarchy itself, largely symbolic. But if Diana's death reminded us of anything it is the power of symbols, and the British people should take courage from the welcome erosion of the habit of deference that followed her death.

There is no need in the 21st century, indeed it will come to be seen as rather demeaning, for people to wait for "royal assent" before laws become valid, or for a prime minister to have to go to the Palace to ask for parliament to be dissolved. And the Crown also retains real powers, no less substantial because they are rarely used, to invite someone to attempt to form a government when the party situation in the House of Commons is inconclusive.

The conservative argument, and it was trundled out by the "Palace spokesman" again this week, is that the Queen is the essential glue of our unwritten constitution. But the idea that the British constitution is largely unwritten is a myth. Most of it is contained in Acts of Parliament, and all of it could be. The remaining political roles of the Crown could be exercised by the Speaker of the Commons. It is a measure of the change of attitudes that such policies would have provoked outrage 10 years ago but will seem mainstream when they are floated by the eclectic think-tank Demos next week.

There is no need, however, to ditch the monarchy altogether in favour of an elected presidency. History, tradition and symbolism are all valuable - the people of Omagh certainly thought so when Prince Charles visited. Other countries have been able, over the years, to invest elected presidents with an aura of unifying impartiality, but the United Kingdom has a ready- made model for the functions of empathising with the bereaved, opening hospitals and greeting foreign heads of state.

But surely it is time to throw off the last vestiges of the mysticism of the divine right of kings. We have moved on from the mindset that prompted the revolutionaries of the civil war to offer the Crown to Oliver Cromwell, and should be able to assert self-confidently the doctrine first expounded three centuries ago that sovereignty lies with us, the people.