SINCE 1066, the monarchy has faced a wave of criticism every time a sovereign has sat on the throne for more than 40 years. Time, which caused the problem, has always cured it, and will do so again. The origins of Parliament date from a rebellion in the 42nd year of Henry III's reign. Elizabeth I was said to have a mind 'as crooked as her carcase'(sic), and the Essex rebellion came in her 42nd year. Edward III held out till his 49th year before Parliament invented impeachment and imprisoned his mistress for corruption. George III and Queen Victoria, coming after the demilitarisation of politics, escaped simply with verbal and not physical discontent.

The present discontents are a result of the spirit of 1968 reaching the palace. The change in sexual behaviour that goes with safe contraception and the equality of women is perhaps the biggest change in 2,000 years of social history. So far, it has been less painful in Britain than in America or France, but the necessary adjustments are far from over, and the palace cannot be immune from them. We cannot require our monarchs, or our rulers, to live by a different standard from the rest of us. We should not make the monarchy the scapegoat for the muddle of our own morality.

Before abolishing the monarchy, we should remember it has been done before. In 1649, it was not a success. It took England four years to realise that it could not do without a single person as head of state. We still need one. He or she might be a president in the style of the French Fourth Republic, or of the Fifth. In other words, he or she could take over the powers of the monarchy, or of Downing Street. If the president took over the powers of the monarchy, could we imagine Baroness Thatcher, Mr Kinnock, Lord Owen or Sir Edward Heath not trying to increase those powers? The ghost of Gough Whitlam would haunt Mr Major if he set up such a system.

If he set up an executive presidency, he would find, as Cromwell did, that the common law could only accommodate to it by treating it as a monarchy. Calling the King's Bench the Upper Bench did not prevent the court from treating Cromwell as enjoying the powers of a monarch. In 1657, the Lord Chief Justice urged Cromwell to take the Crown, because this was the only way of discovering the limits of his powers. If we settle all the prerogatives of the Crown on a president enjoying the legitimacy of election, we will have to begin again the struggle to control these powers that began with Magna Carta. We can only avoid this if we give up a precedent-based system of law, work that would last a whole Parliament and beyond. We would have to remodel, not only every statute, but every legal principle and every rule of procedure. Is this a more urgent task than restoring our shattered economy?

The writer is Professor of British History, King's College London.

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