The events of the past week have provided quite a spectacle. We have been witnessing the first skirmishes in the battle to modernise the post-Elizabethan monarchy.
To the untrained eye it may look as if, with the Daily Mail in full flow and the BBC in ill-disguised retreat, the traditionalists have won. The pomp and circumstance of the Queen Mother's funeral on Tuesday will certainly give that impression. But the impression will be mistaken. Modernisation of the monarchy is almost certainly inevitable, and last week will have hastened not retarded it.
What we've been seeing, in fact, is a classic example of one of the characteristic processes of modern society. It's what the sociologists call "detraditionalisation". Some 50 years ago, perhaps even 20, traditions, customs and ancient institutions did not need rational defence. To explain and justify them it was sufficient to assert their longevity and the historical continuity they provided. Traditional practice was defended not according to the usefulness of the practice in question, but in terms of the value of tradition in and of itself.
This traditionalist argument – we have always done it like this, so we should continue doing so – has long underpinned the British monarchy. It was not that the monarchy could not be rationally defended, but that it should not be. Rather like religious faith, the monarchy was essentially mystical: to apply rationality to it was to misunderstand its whole point. As Walter Bagehot, the 19th-century authority on the constitution, wrote: "Its [the monarchy's] mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic."
This is the key to the argument that the right has been trying to make over the past week regarding the treatment of the Queen Mother's death. Things should be done as they would have been 50 years ago when the Queen Mother was still Queen, not for a reason but because that is what the monarchy is: a tradition whose value lies precisely in its unchanging historical existence.
But unfortunately for the right, the reaction of much of the country, not just to the Queen Mother's death but to the row over its treatment, shows that, just as with other traditions, these kinds of arguments simply don't work any more. We live today in a "reflexive" society: constantly examining itself, self-aware, self-critical. Today you can't defend tradition in its own terms, you have to argue for its purpose. Most people no longer see the monarchy as mystical, but as an institution that needs to be justified.
Detraditionalisation does not mean the end of tradition. On the contrary, there are very strong grounds for maintaining historical continuities. We live in a society obsessed with the present, whose dominant culture is transient and whose collective memory seems to grow ever shorter. Perhaps more than ever we need connections to our past to root our sense of identity, to provide stability amid rapid social change. But traditions now must be rationally chosen and defended.
And so it will have to be with the monarchy. The events of last week have disguised this because the Queen Mother was the last member of the Royal Family for whom any kind of traditionalist defence was plausible. But it is difficult to see this happening again. When the Queen dies, and the succession is at issue, a defence of the monarchy simply in terms of its continuing mystical existence will patently not wash. The monarchy will have to stand up for itself in full daylight.
And when this happens, "modernisation" will be inescapable. But what does this mean? Contrary to media myth, it's not about bicycles. It's about the constitution. The monarchy is an amalgam of two different things, and modernisation will involve separating them out. On the one hand there is the family, the hereditary element. On the other there is the job, the constitutional element. It is the latter that holds the key to modernisation. Put simply, we have to define the job of head of state of the United Kingdom.
Such a process has occurred in the other European countries that have retained constitutional monarchies. The role of head of state has been limited and codified. At present, the British monarch's role combines the ceremonial functions common in other democracies with a set of extremely unusual political powers and duties. The monarch dissolves Parliament, appoints and dismisses the Prime Minister, assents to legislation, signs treaties, declares war and appoints judges. In normal circumstances most of these powers are exercised under royal prerogative by the Prime Minister, but this is in itself an extraordinary constitutional structure. The British Prime Minister alone, acting under royal prerogative, can declare war without even a debate in Parliament (and has done so in recent years). When Mrs Thatcher banned trade unions at GCHQ, it was under prerogative powers. Parliament itself technically exists only by virtue of the exercise of the royal prerogative. And so on.
It is this monarchical basis to the British constitution that is the core issue for modernisation. The modern role of head of state needs to be separated from the historical powers of the monarch. In doing this the British constitution can be properly democratised. A written constitution, guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms, would make the British people citizens, not subjects. Allegiance to the constitution would then replace the oath of allegiance in Parliament. The Queen's Speech would be replaced by the Government's programme, announced in the Commons, not the Lords. The Speaker of the House of Commons could take over the monarch's power to adjudicate in the event of unclear general election results and to assent formally to legislation. Prerogative powers should pass to ministers in Parliament. There could even be a new national anthem.
In this way the modernisation of the monarchy should be seen as part of the existing project of constitutional reform. Considerable change has already occurred to the British constitution in recent years: devolution, the Human Rights Act, reform of the Lords. It is entirely appropriate that the role of head of state should be included within this process.
Once this is done it becomes easier to split apart the remaining personal and public aspects of monarchy. New arrangements can be made over issues such as the status of royal property, the state funding of the Royal Family and the taxes they pay. Anomalies such as the prohibition of Catholics and gender preference in succession can be removed. And it would enable a fundamental examination of the relationship between the Anglican church, the state and the monarch.
Such a programme is not, of course, what republicans want. As with most ancient institutions, the reform of the monarchy is almost certainly the route to its survival, not its abolition. But whatever republican advocates would like to believe, abolition is not on the agenda anyway. No party leadership has the political stomach for it, and there is still neither the depth nor the breadth of support for it in the country.
But in any case it is a mistake to locate the republican cause simply within the abolition of the monarchy. The essence of political republicanism with a small "r" is the establishment of democratic citizenship; and this is not dependent on abolition, as many other European countries have shown. Indeed it is precisely what the modernisation project aims to do.
So it may well be that reform of the monarchy can be supported both by republicans and modern royalists. It will be opposed, of course, by those who have sought to use the Queen Mother's death to preserve the monarchy as the ancient embodiment of a Britain that has gone. They will enjoy their moment of glory this week. But their time has passed.
Michael Jacobs is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He writes in a personal capacityReuse content