The 'heredity lottery' that produces our monarchs

Electing heirs to the throne might be good for democracy, writes Ben Pimlott
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The Independent Online
ONE year into Cool Britannia, can it be that a revolution is beginning to happen after all? A speech this week about the Monarchy, amplified in an article in yesterday's Independent, certainly indicates a mood shift in unexpected circles.

Canon Eric James, who delivered a lecture in Westminster Abbey on Thursday obscurely entitled "Spirituality, Shakespeare and Royalty", is a member of the exclusive club of former royal chaplains, a breed not given to iconoclasm. The Canon gave no quarter. But does what he said stand up? Once, such a peroration would have been dismissed as maverick. But times have changed.

In any case, much of what he said rang true. Because of the mass media, he pointed out, psychological pressures on royalty - especially on Diana, and now on her children - have become so intolerable that a normal emotional life is virtually impossible. Yet heirs and heiresses are given no choice about their "vocation". Heredity is a "lottery": there is no guarantee that any particular monarch will be up to the job. Meanwhile the "defender of the faith" role of the monarchy in a post-Anglican society needs re- examining.

With some of this, it is hard not to agree. Nobody apart from tabloid editors would quarrel about the pressures. Nor are they new: the great constitutionalist Walter Bagehot made a similar point in the last century, when he argued that a Prince of Wales could be expected to be worse behaved than other people, because of the exceptional temptations of his position. Nor would many (apart from bishops, with bums on House of Lords seats) defend the exclusive relationship between a minority sect - the Church of England - and the head of state.

It was not these points, however, that excited the press, but a single sentence in the middle of the sermon. "In England, until 1213," declared the cleric, "the monarch was elected. Maybe the time is returning for election to the task and role."

Fingers tapped, cyberspace hummed. Well, why not? If we are going to elect Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, and a London mayor; if we are to have plebiscites on everything from local government to the future of our currency - why not go the whole hog? Above all - to paraphrase the Canon - it is surely illogical to abolish the hereditary principle of Lords, and not re-consider it in relation to heads of state.

However, the cases are not quite the same. The House of Lords is a law- making - or at any rate law-initiating, law-amending, and law-delaying - body. The Monarchy, by contrast, has become almost entirely symbolic. There is also an additional difference. Being hereditary is neither a defining quality of a second chamber, nor a necessary one. It is, however, both a defining and necessary feature of a monarchy.

Cannily, Canon James links his idea to ancient tradition. The comparison is false. In Saxon and Norman times, though successions were often disputed, the eldest son had a prima facie right, and -where there was a tussle - candidates were restricted to a tiny gene pool. Succeeding kings were not elected by the populace, but "acclaimed". Thus, when a new ruler presented himself in the capital, citizens of London would roar their approval - a ritual maintained in the modern Coronation Service, which ends with the congregation shouting "May the Queen (or King) live for ever!" But those who had the power to affect a succession were powerful barons, not villains-in-the-street. Today the idea of business moguls (or ministers) making the decision wouldn't go down well.

Neither would a fight between the supporters of rival royals in the hustings. The prospect of fans of the Prince's Trust versus backers of the Save the Children Fund doesn't sound promising. There is the option of a completely open contest for Buckingham Palace, in which anybody could stand either for a fixed-term occupancy, or as Monarch-for-life. The latter system, however, would entrench out-of-touch gerontocrats, while the former amounts to settling up a republic. That is one option, but it shouldn't be confused with reforming the Monarchy.

For if the institution has any point (and most people still think it has) it is in providing a Head of State who - though subject to regrettable psychological pressures - is not subject to everyday political ones. A King or Queen who had to worry about re-election would be a president by a different name.

And yet ... There is in the minds of many middle-of-the-road pro-Monarchy people a sense of unease about current arrangements. The system is certainly a lottery - it always has been. Indeed, it is the arbitrariness of heredity as a guiding principle that makes it tolerable. Nevertheless, the notion of elevating an individual to supreme formal authority, without any involvement by the public, maybe regarded as anomalous in a society increasingly preoccupied with democratic principles.

So perhaps James's words shouldn't be dismissed. The Canon is surely right to say that abdication should be regarded as an honourable choice. Could he also be right in thinking that the Monarchy would be strengthened, not weakened, by a formalised display of public feeling at the beginning of a reign?

Arguably, the referendum - an instrument liberally used for other purposes - could be employed following a royal death to test and reinforce the Monarchy's legitimacy. At present, the throne passes from incumbent to heir at the moment of decease. But what if, hypothetically, the heir or heiress was judged by a majority of the public to be unsuitable? In modern conditions, the lack of any opportunity to voice dissent could seriously undermine the viability of the system. On the other hand, an open vote on the succession would encourage a healthy civic debate.

The beginnings of new reigns are almost always the time when the Monarchy is most popular - nostalgia and hope tend to mingle, in a royalist cocktail. So the risk to a new incumbent would be small, unless of course, there was a serious problem. Thus, medieval royalty may have relevance after all: a revived version of popular acclamation could tie the Monarchy even more securely into our democracy.