Who wants a republic?: As the royal revelations continue, the call grows for abolition of the monarchy. But what would replace it? Nick Cohen reports

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IT IS more than a century since the British last talked seriously of republicanism. In 1871, Charles Dilke, then a rising Liberal MP, made a speech in Newcastle denouncing Queen Victoria. 'If you can show me a fair chance,' he said, 'that a republic here will be free from the political corruption which hangs about the monarchy, I say, for my part - and I believe the bulk of the middle classes will say - let it come.'

Now, as the public is regaled with further details of the unhappy marriage between the Prince and Princess of Wales, republicanism stirs again. About 40 per cent of Labour MPs, according to an Independent on Sunday poll carried out last week, want a republic, either now or when the Queen dies.

Last month, the Liberal Democrats held the first serious debate in any party conference since the Second World War on the future of the monarchy. The Economist, which leans heavily to the pro-market right, comes out for a republic in its latest issue. Opinion polls show that between 70 and 75 per cent of people still want a hereditary head of state. This does not represent a catastrophic loss of support but it shows significantly less support for the monarchy than 10 years ago, when polls showed 85 to 90 per cent favouring its retention. And, regardless of their own views, the majority of people now believe that Britain will not have a monarchy in 50 years' time.

John MacDonald, QC, an eminently respectable constitutional lawyer (he drew up Liberal Democrat proposals for modernising the constitution), said: 'I used to think the future of the monarchy was a red herring but their behaviour has led to me changing my mind recently. They are out of touch with ordinary people. The intellectual case for retention is becoming very weak. I think it will go; indeed, I hope it will go.'

A leading Shadow Cabinet member, talking last week about Prince Charles, said: 'If the Queen were to fall under a bus tomorrow there would be a real constitutional crisis. I and a lot of people would be asking why should this berk become king?'

Republicanism, in short, is no longer a taboo subject. But these are still, for senior politicians, dangerous waters. The Shadow Cabinet minister did not want to go on the record.

Perhaps he was mindful of the fate of Charles Dilke, who was humiliated and forced to retract when the Victorian establishment turned on him, with the Times leading the way. 'Nothing was further from my mind than to impute blame to Her Majesty,' he told an elector three years after his Newcastle speech. 'I never for a moment thought my words to be so understood and I am heartily sorry that they were so understood.'

A MODERN Dilke may be more successful. Charles Windsor is almost conceding the republican principle by joining his estranged wife in the tactic of baring his private life and asking for public sympathy.

Buckingham Palace and Prince Charles's friends are quite explicit about his motivation although they do not like the idea of an appeal for support put bluntly.

A spokeswoman for the Prince said last week that Jonathan Dimbleby's biography was designed to counter 'inaccurate, sensational and distorted accounts of his life' which would 'inevitably have appeared on the 25th anniversary of his investiture as Prince of Wales'. The Prince wanted his own story to be told by a 'respected and independent journalist'.

Jonathon Porritt, the Prince's adviser on the environment, said: 'The book is a determined effort to draw a line under all that has gone before. To say here I am, this is a job I can do and want to do and want to get on doing properly.'

Reaction to the publicity is being carefully monitored. The palace has counted all the letters received after the 29 June television film about the Prince and proudly says that 6,500 people wrote in saying that they did not realise how much good work he did until they saw the documentary.

The result of all the claims and counterclaims is that the Royal Family is split. There is a Prince's party, a Princess of Wales' party and a Queen's party, all of which seek to influence the press and politicians. Out of this confusion slip dangerous truths about how the Royal Family sees its role. In an interview in the Daily Telegraph on Monday, Prince Philip not only criticised Charles's decision to authorise a biography but said that the monarchy had helped Britain 'get over . . . the development of an urban industrial intelligentsia reasonably easily'. What the Queen's consort meant, in the view of Labour MPs, was that the monarchy had helped to tame the Labour movement.

But the real danger lies in the very idea of a monarchy appealing for support.

Stephen Haseler, professor of government at the Guildhall University, London, and chairman of the Republic pressure group, said: 'If we're going to have people campaigning to be head of state why not do it properly and have an election? At the moment there's only one candidate and the only people with a vote seem to be newspaper proprietors. The last days of the British ancien regime are very strange.'

BRITISH republicans foresee little difficulty in removing the monarchy. They rule out the traditional method of having a revolution and either executing the sovereign (England, 1649; France, 1793; Russia, 1918) or driving him or her out of the country (Germany, 1918; Italy, 1946).

'It would be simple to pass a bill through Parliament changing the head of state or to have a referendum,' said Professor Haseler, who, like every other serious republican in Britain, favours the appointment of a non-executive head of state.

For Tony Benn, the veteran left-winger, the obvious time for change would be when the Queen died. Instead of the Privy Council proclaiming Charles king, it would refer the succession back to the Commons, which would, Benn hopes, then begin the work of constructing a democratic constitution.

Virtually all republicans want a president with limited powers, who would act as formal head of state and follow the rules laid down in a new, written constitution on how and when governments could be formed and elections held.

Few argue for a strong executive president who, like the French or American president, can initiate legislation and control policy. A British president would be a figurehead and honest broker, chosen by a college of politicians, as in Germany, or elected directly by the people, as in Ireland.

Members of the Royal Family would be free to stay in Britain, just as members of the Hapsburg royal family are free to live in the Republic of Austria. But the wealth and buildings they held in the public name would be taken away.

The armed forces, MPs, civil servants and judges would swear an oath to defend the (written) British constitution rather than a 'tribal' oath to protect the Crown. Whenever the possibility of a British republic is discussed, the bogy of a President Thatcher or President Kinnock or President Enoch Powell is raised. But, as other countries with non- executive presidents show, there would be no need for such contentious political figures. The election of the Speaker of the House of Commons shows that it is perfectly easy to find a senior politician who can be widely trusted and relied on to ensure, without partiality, that rules are obeyed.

The Republic group has proposed John Biffen, Baroness Williams and Lord Callaghan as well qualified presidential candidates.

If, as in Eastern Europe, the net is cast wider - none of the liberated countries of the Soviet bloc has chosen to become a monarchy, republicans are fond of pointing out - numerous avenues open up. The Czech Republic has a writer- president. Vaclav Havel could be matched by British figures from the arts or sport or industry. Sir Michael Horden from the theatre, Sir Roger Bannister from sport and Sir John Harvey-Jones from industry, were proposed, half-seriously, in a recent issue of Republic.

Australians are trying to make British republican dreams a reality. The Australian Republican Movement, supported by the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, wants a president nominated by the government of the day whose appointment would be ratified by both houses of Parliament. He or she would have the limited powers currently held by the Governor- General. When Australians swear an oath of loyalty it will be to the Australian constitution and Australian democracy, not to Elizabeth II.

A victory for Australian republicans would clearly have a deep impact in Britain. But, in Australia, republicanism can be presented as a patriotic reaction against a foreign head of state who spends most of her time on the other side of the world. Britain is likely to be different. A move to a republic here could well create a divided country, with an embittered royalist movement. French royalists contested the legitimacy of the republican state for a century after the abolition of the monarchy, and a few still do.

THE REAL challenge, many reformers argue, is not to abolish the monarchy but to reduce the dictatorial powers in the unwritten, therefore unenforceable and perhaps unknowable, British constitution. The Labour and Liberal Democrat parties contest the hereditary principle by calling for the reform of the House of Lords. The prerogative powers of the Prime Minister, the rights of patronage that allow ministers to stuff the second chamber and quangos with political appointees and the first-past-the-post electoral system are all being questioned.

This call for constitutional reform can be seen as a movement for what used to be called republican virtue. It is an agenda that includes democratising the British state, devolving power from its centre, bringing accountability to its government and rights to its citizens. As European monarchies show, republican virtue and a democratic written constitution can coexist with a hereditary head of state.

Draft constitutions drawn up by the Liberal Democrat Party and the Institute of Public Policy Research keep a hereditary head of state but set out the monarch's roles and responsibilities clearly for the first time. The present burst of constitution framing - four respectable parties and think-tanks are circulating drafts - reflects growing unease about the perceived archaic nature of the British state. Constitutional reformers in the Labour and Liberal Democrats, high-profile pressure groups such as Charter 88, academics ranging from Marxists such as Tom Nairn and Conservative thinkers such as Ferdinand Mount, Margaret Thatcher's former adviser, share a common desire for republican virtue if not a republican state.

Put simply, their analysis runs like this: the 17th-century revolution passed power from an absolute monarchy to an absolute House of Commons.

Because Britain, unlike North America and European countries, has had no subsequent democratic revolution, a 20th- century prime minister can do what he or she wants if their party is too frightened or complacent to question Downing Street. There is no bill of rights or written constitution to protect the citizen or limit government, no Freedom of Information Act to allow the citizen to find out what the government is doing and no strong local or regional government to check Whitehall.

The only checks are European legislation and the House of Lords. The Lords, filled with hereditary nobles and prime ministerial appointments, is the last surviving aristocratic chamber in the world, and is no check at all.

Peers backed down on the poll tax and rail privatisation and will certainly again fail to use their powers to delay Michael Howard's Criminal Justice Bill because, as peers have often said, they do not have the legitimacy to contradict the democratic House of Commons.

The Prime Minister's powers of patronage - to create peers, appoint quangocrats - are exercised in the name of the Crown. So, too, are his prerogative powers to declare war, conduct foreign policy and sign treaties without reference to Parliament. Appointments to the Civil Service are crown appointments - as the GCHQ workers found when their assumed 'rights' to union membership were arbitrarily taken away.

In theory, none of these absolute powers has anything to do with the real work of the House of Windsor. In theory, too, a written constitution that proclaimed the ideals of republican virtue is not incompatible with a hereditary head of state. Denmark has a monarch and a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, association and assembly.

But even moderate reformers founder on the undeniable reality that the Royal Family and the 'monarchical' absolute powers of those who control government in Britain are two sides of the same coin. Time and again they find that reform of one part of the absolute state means reform of it all. If prime- ministerial patronage, the Lords and a bill of rights are to be tackled, the monarchy cannot escape scrutiny.

In January 1993, Jack Straw, then Labour's environment spokesman, made a strong call for Labour to lead a debate on the constitutional role of the monarchy. At the time it frightened the party leadership. He saw that the use ministers were able to make of the Crown to further party interests was tied up with the issue of monarchy.

Mr Straw said he wanted a debate to question the royal prerogative that gives 'ministers the privilege of making decisions for which they are not fully accountable', and the honours system 'which gives not the Queen but her ministers the right to reward benefactors of the Conservative Party, and subtly to pressure decision- makers from stepping too far out of line'. Last week Mr Straw was made shadow Home Secretary and put in charge of the party's constitutional reform programme.

Charter 88, the energetic pressure group that has helped push constitutional reform from the sidelines to the centre of political debate, is not formally republican; it wants the people to decide who should be head of state.

But although it can see the monarchy coexisting with a written constitution, its leadership views the Royal Family as a reactionary force.

'They are in the way of real reform,' said Colin Darracott, organiser of Charter 88. 'It's not just all the hangers-on which go with them, but their existence makes all the other patronage in Britain look less absurd. It would be harder for the government to justify stuffing appointees into everything from the BBC to the health service to the British Museum if the monarch were not at the head of the system.'

As our poll shows, there is nothing unusual in such sentiments. Labour MP after Labour MP spoke to us of 'ending the nonsense of the Queen opening Parliament', of the monarchy being 'out of line with modern society' and 'out of tune with the times'.

The interdependence of reform of the constitution was best put by the playwright David Hare, at a conference on the monarchy last year. Abolition of the monarchy was a test of whether the British had the courage to tackle 'any radical undertaking'. At the moment, he said, 'because we do not have the guts to sweep away the monarchy we instead, like the powerless critics we have become, do the only thing we dare: mock them until they wish they had never been born.'

THE AGITATORS TONY BENN 'Any criticism of the system has been fended off by presenting it as an unfair attack upon the person of the monarch. So successful has this technique been that it is almost impossible for any serious discussion to take place on how we might wish to be governed'

THE ECONOMIST '(There is) a central contradiction at the heart of a constitutional monarchy: that an unelected institution, redolent of authority and selected by accident of birth depends for its legitimacy on popular will'

MICHAEL MANSFIELD, QC 'Britain is becoming a Third World country with 11 million people on low pay and 3 million unemployed . . . yet has at its heart an institution with billions at its disposal'

LORD DORMAND, Labour peer 'Despite what some people say now, the class system is as strong as ever.

The monarchy and all it entails is a central part of it. I resent the expenditure and the perks associated with the monarchy. I find the deference to the Royal Family rather sickening'

SUE TOWNSEND, author 'I wouldn't say the working class genuinely loved the Royal Family. You didn't question it. It was part of the mythology of childhood just as you were brought up to think that no policeman told a lie in the witness box. It is a ridiculous institution'

DAVID HARE, playwright 'Because we do not have the guts to sweep away the monarchy we, instead, like the powerless critics we have become, do the only thing we dare: mock them until they wish they had never been born'

(Photographs omitted)