Change the rules and save the Queen

MPs must grasp the nettle and debate how to make a constitutional monarchy workable, argues Tony Wright

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Reforming Britain's constitution without mentioning the monarchy is like discussing Coronation Street without mentioning Vera Duckworth. Rethinking the Queen's role is not the most important part of a reform programme, but neither is it irrelevant.

Perhaps it is because I have just come back from a few days in Sweden, where constitutional monarchy flourishes in perhaps the most open and democratic country in the world, that I have a renewed sense that the matter of the monarchy in Britain cannot be allowed simply to drift in its own anguished and muddled way.

For this reason, proposals from the Liberal Democrats to remove royal prerogative powers to dissolve Parliament and to appoint prime ministers are to be welcomed. If we continue to treat the monarchy as a no-go area of constitutional debate, we are simply storing up trouble for the future.

Yet politicians resolutely fear to tread anywhere near it. Only crisis prompts belated and inadequate responses. This was the case with the issue of the Queen's taxes. Then there was the response to the separation of Charles and Diana, when the Prime Minister solemnly and absurdly told the House of Commons that this would make no difference to their future roles as King and Queen. If we proceed in this way, there is a good chance that the monarchy will collapse by default, undermined from within by the antics of some of its wayward members and unable to be rescued from without by politicians who are afraid to do what has to be done.

Republicans will welcome this. And in a democracy the republican option should always be a serious and standing one. There should be nothing scandalous in discussing the relative merits of republics and monarchies. Nor is there any great problem in devising a satisfactory method for finding a constitutional head of state. The House of Commons is at its rare best when it chooses a Speaker and would be quite able to find a Mary Robinson by the same means.

It is because a hereditary monarchy is so antithetical to democracy that those who wish to sustain it (and that, for the moment, includes me) need to be radical in thinking about how it should continue. A democratic monarchy is a contradiction in terms; this suggests the need to give serious thought to how the contradiction may be made to work.

Bagehot famously set us off in the wrong direction with his remark that "when there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic."

Now the daylight is well and truly in, courtesy of rival royals and titillating tabloids, and magic there is not.

Constitutionally, the country needs an effective and respected head of state. This is a matter of national and public interest that needs to be disengaged from the transient travails of the Royal Family. Either the monarchy can be remodelled to perform this role, in new ways and on new terms, or the role will eventually have to be performed by somebody else. Inertia is no longer an option.

A royal family that speaks and behaves as if it came from another planet, or surrounds itself with upper-class flummery, will eventually perish in a democratic culture that has thrown off the old deferences. The perennial demand for a more "Scandinavian" monarchy reflects this. If the Queen's iron grip on her handbag could be broken, that would at least be a start.

But cultural change has to be matched by political and constitutional change. The rules governing male and female inheritance are indefensible, as are the rules against Catholic succession. Both need changing, not in the heat of a future constitutional crisis but in the measured tranquillity of a general process of democratic reform. Equally, it is bizarre for a head of state to be the head of one official church in a way that excludes the majority of her citizens. In this (as in the matter of the royal prerogative, the cover for executive tyranny) it is up to parliament to do what has to be done.

It is also time to constitutionalise the "reserve powers" of the monarchy. These powers matter and might come to matter more in a radically reformed political system. Questions about the granting of a dissolution of parliament or the selection of a prime minister are not marginal or irrelevant issues.

Either these reserve powers could be removed from the monarch altogether and given to a new institution, or they could be retained by the monarch but made transparent. Then the monarchy would no longer be contaminated by the politics of the constitution. Bagehot was again famously misleading when he described Britain's constitutional monarchy as a "disguised republic". The truth is that it now really does need to become a disguised republic if it is to survive.

A constitutional head of state does not require an extended official family either, unless they can all find a self-financing role in the market for assorted celebs. We should also celebrate the millennium with a competition for a new national anthem to replace the present doleful dirge, which could then continue as a royal anthem.

A republic will arrive only if the modernisation of the monarchy is not carried through. Republicans and royalists will combine to oppose this. But one of the many ironies of new Labour may be that it will renew the monarchy too.

The author is Labour MP for Cannock and Burntwood and chairman of the All-Party Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs Group.

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