Comment: Why I lost the debate over the Monarchy

Andreas Whittam Smith in search of a credible president
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You always learn something from a full-scale debate, with many speakers and a vote at the end. At the Oxford Union recently, I came to see clearly the point at which the arguments in favour of a republic fail to convince. It was not such a solemn occasion as the Australian constitutional convention on the Monarchy which has started this week, but it was a good test because we were not debating in conservative territory. Students filled the chamber literally to the rafters. I suppose the average age was 21 years and I imagine that a majority voted left-of-centre in the General Election last May.

Undergraduate speakers were interspersed with outsiders. Bill Emmott, editor of The Economist, spoke in favour of the motion: "This house believes that the Monarchy has outlived its usefulness". He was supported by the secretary of The Republic and I wound up. Against us was Winston Churchill, who was MP for Davyhulme until the last election, Edward Heathcote Amory, associate editor of The Spectator, Bob Houston, editor of Royalty magazine and Frederick Forsyth, novelist and wit.

We lost. To my surprise, I must say. That is why it was an interesting evening. For substantial arguments in favour of the motion are easy to mount whereas our opponents had to make do with the magic of the Monarchy, with its role as an icon, even with the threadbare appeal to royalty as a tourist attraction.

The difficulties for the republican argument did not lie in any discussion of the Monarch's role during a constitutional crisis. Under our present arrangements, on those extremely rare occasions when, after, say, an indecisive election or some upheavals involving the leadership of the governing party, it is not obvious who should be prime minister or whether there should be a fresh election, the sovereign alone decides, taking such advice as he or she chooses.

Somebody has to make a decision! But I can think of many people - or bodies - better equipped to arrive at a satisfactory answer than the sovereign of the day, who may or may not have the personal qualities required. Instead it could be the Speaker of the House of Commons, or it could be a standing commission. Personally I would rather entrust the task to Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards than to the Queen or Prince Charles.

Likewise I am not impressed with the notion that the Monarchy is the ultimate safeguard of our democracy. This point came up only by implication in the Oxford debate. The argument is put clearly by Professor Vernon Bogdanor in his excellent book The Monarchy and the Constitution. He writes that at the point at which the constitution itself appears to be under threat, it may be suggested that the sovereign has the right to exercise his or her discretion to act as a constitutional guardian

I wish I could believe in this. But imagine that some future House of Commons wished to extend the life of parliaments so that general elections were held not every five years but, say, every eight years. If such a Bill were debated, and carried through both Houses of Parliament, there is nothing in our constitutional arrangements to prevent such an undemocratic measure becoming law - except the refusal of the sovereign's assent. No royal signature, no law. But can we be sure that the royal assent would be withheld? I would not like to take the chance. A written constitution would be a much stronger safeguard.

No, it is not here that the republican argument becomes unstuck. The first point of difficulty is whether the sovereign really does or does not, in some sense, represent the nation. Professor Bogdanor argues this strongly, writing that constitutional monarchy settles beyond argument the crucial question of who is to be head of state, and it places the head of state beyond political competition. In doing so, it can represent the whole nation in an emotionally satisfying way. It alone is in a position to interpret the nation to itself. That is its central function, its essential justification and rationale; everything else is but embellishment and detail.

For me the refutation of this point came late last summer, in the week of Princess Diana's death. The Queen did not then represent the nation in an emotionally satisfying way. She had to be chivvied along by public opinion. At least, that is what I saw.

And this view leads on to the objection that instinctively comes to the mind of most people confronted by arguments for a republic. Who on earth would make a good president for our country? Nobody can ever think of a satisfactory answer. Whatever name is put forward is poo-pooed. Never mind that many nations with parliamentary democracies ( leaving out countries such the US and France with directly elected presidents exercising considerable powers) seem perfectly capable of choosing admirable presidents - Ireland, Germany, Israel to name three. The British remain deeply averse to anybody they can think of being president, whatever their qualifications. To make the point, Mr Churchill commented on the candidates for mayor of London whose names have been discussed. He said that they were precisely the sort of people who would be put forward for president. As he read out their names - Ken Livingstone, Jeffrey Archer, Trevor Phillips, Richard Branson - everybody laughed. The very idea!

Which means, I think, that those of us who would prefer a president to a monarch, are going have to start at the end of the argument, rather than at the beginning. That is what I learnt in Oxford. Instead of showing that there is no constitutional function of the sovereign which would not be better carried out in some other way, we have to concentrate on devising a method for choosing a president and on demonstrating that there are lots of suitable candidates available in a country of 55 million people. Can readers think of any names which would not be laughed out of court?