A proclamation to all republicans: careful what you wish for

If future British heads of state had the sort of powers usually associated with presidency they could go to war more easily, and the Commons would lose its status

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“President Bercow yesterday welcomed President and Mrs Obama to Buckingham Palace on their state visit to Britain. In his welcome, Mr Bercow stressed that the recent change to a republican system of government in the United Commonwealth of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would not alter the transatlantic alliance. Mrs Bercow did not attend the ceremonies. Mr Bercow later opened a new hospital wing in Milton Keynes, and awarded ‘people’s knighthoods’ to the nurses.”

Well, it might happen, if not quite like that.

Even the most ardent monarchist might have found some of the recent coverage of the Queen’s record-breaking reign a little over the top. That’s not to take anything away from her lifetime of selfless public service unparalleled in the monarchical history of the nation. If one were to apply something as crude as a set of managerial metrics to Elizabeth II for a performance appraisal, she would score highly on: Constitutional Propriety; Hard Work; Being Regal; and Symbol of Unity.

But at 5.30pm on Wednesday, when she surpassed Queen Victoria as our longest reigning monarch, she was given the same sort of billing as when, at 9.25 pm the previous evening, Wayne Rooney scored his 50th international goal and surpassed Sir Bobby Charlton’s record as England’s all-time leading scorer (Sir Bobby being football’s answer to Queen Victoria). So maybe this is also a moment to wonder: would a republic be all that bad?

Well, life would go on, and the tourist trade with it. After all, many thousands of visitors to Versailles don’t wonder why there aren’t any Bourbons around. And Washington DC’s gracious and expanding inventory of monuments attracts crowds despite the fact that the descendants of George III are no longer head of state. And, by contrast, not many go to Thailand to catch a glimpse of King Bhumibol, who has been on his throne for even longer than HM the Queen. (He started work in 1946.)

For better or worse, under a republic, the Windsors would lose much of their celebrity value, and the newspapers and magazines would miss some great copy. By the same token, the “royals” might be relieved to be released from the pressures of the paparazzi and the constant intrusion into their private lives.

Probably the most concrete argument for the House of Windsor’s continued existence, and one rarely commented on even by the pro-monarchy lobby, is that the Queen keeps interest rates down, and thus the cost of your mortgage and our Government’s international borrowings. As Britain has a long-established democracy, with a constitutional monarchy that can trace its roots back for centuries, and little in the way of revolutionary tradition, investors are that little bit more willing to lend to us than to other, less stable places.

In a way – and one would not want to make too much of this – the monarchy in Britain is quite a democratic institution. With her sure touch, the Queen has always, in various terms, conceded that her role exists only with the consent of the people; if and when that evaporates, as it has in so many of her Commonwealth realms, then she would accept the new reality. She graciously has had to do so in Sri Lanka, Malta, Ghana, Guyana, South Africa and Kenya, to name a few that began their independence as dominions but in due course became republics. She’s still Queen of Antigua and Barbuda, Canada, New Zealand, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Grenada, Tuvalu, Barbados, St Lucia, Belize, St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and, less securely, Australia.

In fact, Australia provides a powerful illustration of why Britain might never turn republican – even if people wanted to in principle: no one would be able to agree on precisely what kind of presidency we’d want. (After all, we can’t even work out what to do with the House of Lords.) The Australian republican movement is split on whether to have a directly elected president or one chosen by the parliament. Nor can it decide how powerful the head of state should be. That was one reason why the referendum to abolish the monarchy failed in 1999 (with a 55 per cent vote against).

Similarly, the biggest argument about a British republic, or “Commonwealth” to recall the 17th-century experiment under Oliver Cromwell, would be about whether we should have a “strong” presidency, as in America and France, or a weak one, as in Ireland and Germany, say. If it were to be a strong one, we would have to get used to our already powerful prime ministers, who would become presidents, having even more power, to the detriment of parliament.

Indeed, the whole parliamentary nature of British democracy would necessarily be undermined by a powerful presidency. We would have been ruled and governed by the likes of President Blair, President Thatcher, President Wilson (Harold, not Woodrow) and President Churchill. Some of those sound more plausible than others. If future British heads of state had the sort of executive powers usually associated with presidency they could go to war more easily, and the House of Commons would lose much of its status and influence across policy. Would they be commander-in-chief of the armed forces? Would they have the power to dissolve parliament? To veto laws? To dismiss leaders of administrations in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? The relationship between President Cameron and First Minister Sturgeon would be even less comfortable, too.

And then, one or two might end up like Richard Nixon, which naturally leads to the question of how we could get rid of a president we didn’t want.

A ceremonial-only presidency also has its drawbacks. Betty Boothroyd as head of state was a popular notion for a while in the 1990s, when the monarchy was going through a bad patch over taxes and divorce, as she was elected Speaker by the House of Commons to perform a similarly ceremonial role (as well as some more substantive duties). But then again, we might have had President Michael Martin and now, the aforementioned President John Bercow (and Vice-President Nigel Evans, presumably). A ceremonial president might thus be just as divisive, or more so, as a hereditary monarch who did the job properly.

Of course, as we all know, the hereditary principle is flawed. No one put it better than Tony Benn: “If I went to the dentist and, as he started drilling my teeth, he said, ‘I’m not a dentist myself, but my father was a very good dentist’, I think on the whole I would go somewhere else.” Britain has been hugely blessed with having the Queen and her father, George VI, in the job; but the emergence of that 1933 home movie featuring her uncle giving the Hitler salute was a reminder that the Windsor gene pool, like any gene pool, contains unpredictable elements.

Handsome, modernising and popular as he was when Prince of Wales, the man who went on to become Edward VIII was a disaster during his brief reign. As his father George V, whose harmless eccentricities included having his trousers pressed so that they had a crease at the sides rather than the front, famously remarked: “After I am dead the boy will ruin himself in 12 months.” He did indeed, and this apparent Nazi sympathiser could have ruined a great deal more than he did had his Prime Minister not pushed him out of the way.

The question about whether Britain becomes a republic really turns on whether the present Prince of Wales ruins things. As Charles III or perhaps the more solid-sounding George VII (he can choose a kingly name from the long list he was given at birth), he will be in precisely the same position as all his predecessors – each and every one of whom has been a “make or break” king or queen. Some, like James II, have been replaced with another monarch. (I pass no comment on the merits of William of Orange as a substitute.)

One, Charles I, was of course followed by a republic, which the nation “enjoyed” (if that’s the right word for a regime that banned Christmas) for the best part of a decade under Cromwell as Lord Protector, followed, ironically enough, by his useless son Richard (“Tumbledown Dick”). Cromwell is often painted as a great parliamentarian, but he had more warts than met the eye, and developed into a cruel despot who was addressed as “your highness”. He really doesn’t deserve that big statue of him outside parliament.

All the signs are that Charles will interfere more than his mother, but on irrelevancies – as his published “black spider” correspondence to ministers revealed. He will probably be a little odd, but hardly reckless. He will most likely be a more palatable alternative to President Bercow, President Cameron or President Corbyn.