How to set up a republic

Remove the Lords, disestablish the Church and make the royals redundant, says Nick Cohen
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BRITAIN, unlike every other modern democracy, does not have a written constitution. It makes do with "constitutional experts" instead. There is Lord Blake, a Conservative peer, Lord St John of Fawsley, a Conservative peer, and Vernon Bogdanor, who, unaccountably, has yet to be ennobled.

The experts agree that republicanism is a dangerous ideology. Mr Bogdanor, reader in government at Oxford University, warns in his new book The Monarchy and the Constitution that it "has the potential to unleash political forces whose contours can at present be only dimly discerned". When an umpire is needed, a monarch, allegedly above politics, "is likely to prove a safer guide than a president, who is necessarily the outcome of an electoral process."

But to the astonishment of anyone who remembers the Windsor worship of even 10 years ago, the strictures of the learned peers and commoner mentioned above are no longer holding back republican sentiment.

Respect for the monarchy has collapsed. After years of scandals and public slanging matches, only 32 per cent of people polled for the Independent on Sunday last week thought that the country would be worse off if it were a republic. Monarchists, frightened at what would happen if Charles were to be crowned while his war with his wife continued, comfort themselves with impertinent and faintly grotesque speculation about the Queen coming from a long-lived family and having another good 20 years in her.

All set for Britain to move to a republic, then? Not really, for modern British republicanism has an apparent paradox at its heart.

On the one hand, its justification is not the preposterous behaviour of the Royal Family but the central role of the Crown in keeping the British as subjects rather than citizens. The Queen, we are repeatedly assured, does not have much real power. This is not strictly true. Her ability to decide, with the help of her constitutional experts (that noble Lord Blake again), who is called to form a government in a hung parliament worried Neil Kinnock before the last election. Nor should her influence on politicians be underestimated. Sir Robert Rhodes James, the former Conservative MP, and archetypal member of the establishment, was indiscreet enough to say that it was "nonsense" to pretend that the monarch was powerless. Power was there but "for obvious reasons we do not and perhaps should not know too much about it".

But the republicans' central argument is not a personal attack on the Queen - many feel rather sorry for her - but that the monarchy's very existence underpins all too real secret and class-ridden centres of power in public life.

The House of Lords, the royal-prerogative powers of ministers to stuff quangos, impose laws, sign treaties and declare war without reference to Parliament, the oaths civil servants, judges and soldiers swear to the Crown rather than to the people or Parliament, are legitimised by monarchy.

Put this way the monarchical system seems like an octopus whose tentacles hold back every tentative move towards greater democracy. And yet slaying this monster is meant to be as easy as swatting a fly. Professor Stephen Haseler, chairman of the rapidly growing Republican Society, brushes aside doubters and proclaims that "replacing the royal state and its monarchy overnight would be fairly straightforward".

How can monarchical government be at once so strong and pernicious that abolition is necessary, and so weak that a republic can be achieved without the pain of civil war or revolution?

Professor Haseler can make his seemingly glib assertion precisely because the monarchical, centralised British system gives unfettered power to whichever party wins a parliamentary majority with a minority of the vote.

If the political support were there, Britain would not even need to produce a written constitution. Parliament could simply pass a Bill to remove the monarch and dare the Queen to refuse to sign it.

When pressed on who would replace her, the name that most republicans use is the Speaker of the House of Commons. The careers of Betty Boothroyd and every other modern Speaker show that as soon as party politicians take the Speaker's chair and pledge themselves to be neutral umpires, their standing soars.

Alternatives include keeping the Speaker away from receiving foreign dignitaries and electing a president either directly, by national vote as in Ireland, or indirectly, from a vote in either or both Houses of Parliament, as in Germany. As Britain is a parliamentary democracy, most constitutional reformers believe that if the country wanted to move to a republic then the president would be a referee like the Irish president Mary Robinson (who, incidentally, gets 93 per cent levels of approval from the Irish compared to the 73 per cent the Queen received from the British in our poll) rather than a figure of real power like the American or French president. The likelihood that a British president's role would be non-executive - confined to making sure that electoral rules are followed - answers the saloon-bar platitude, "I would rather have the Queen than President Thatcher".

The lack of checks and balances in the British system allowed Prime Minister Thatcher to exercise far more control in Britain than any existing president can in other Western democracies. Lady Thatcher abolished the Labour-controlled GLC because it annoyed her. President Clinton cannot abolish US state legislatures, however often they defy him.

Successful constitutional change, however, requires legitimacy and popular support. Using the monarchical system to abolish monarchy may be a pleasingly ironic tactic, but it is also deeply undemocratic.

Culture cannot be transformed by a Bill pushed through the Commons, for all Professor Haseler's bluff confidence. And the greatest power of the British monarchy is cultural: its ability to present itself as the embodiment of the British nation.

As our poll suggested, the young, who have not known conscription or empire, do not feel that the monarchy somehow defines them. They are part of a changing and diverse country which, with globalisation and a European Union, no longer sees itself as a homogeneous nation state. Even if the Windsors were a family of chaste geniuses, it is difficult to imagine any one of them as a convincing figurehead for such diversity.

But many from the generations that fought for king and country have an emotional loyalty to the Crown. You can risk a clip round the ear by suggesting that they are the victims of a con trick by one of the richest families in the world, but you cannot ignore them. Their devotion has stopped all crypto-republicans in their tracks for 130 years. Any hint that the monarchy would be removed could be expected to provoke a popular backlash.

Even today, no senior politician will risk his career by proposing abolition. When MPs from all parties are hauled into television studios to discuss Prince Charles's latest visions of architecture, the inner-cities, the teaching of Shakespeare or whatever else is troubling him, their frequent complaints of "who the hell does he think he is" and mutterings about his suitability for the throne are off the record.

Their reticence is understandable but it ignores firstly, the rapid decline in deference to the Royal Family, and, secondly, how important that deference is to the survival of the monarchy. Tom Paine, England's greatest republican, wrote: "I have always considered monarchy to be a silly, contemptible thing. I compare it to something kept behind a curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss, and a wonderful air of seeming solemnity, but when, by any accident, the curtain happens to open, and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter."

Two centuries on, the curtains are being tugged and the mockery is growing. The press will continue exposing the private lives of the Royal Family. (We should not dismiss the tabloids: what they write is generally true, and from It's a Royal Knockout to the Dimbleby and Panorama interviews, royals have collaborated readily with the media.

Meanwhile, the Labour, Liberal Democrat and nationalist parties are promoting constitutional reforms that inevitably question the legitimacy of the monarchy. Proposals to devolve power from Whitehall and demands for greater accountability are motivated by the republican virtues of democracy, openness and a sovereign people.

In particular, the Opposition's plans to remove hereditary peers from the House of Lords will leave the Windsors isolated as the only family in Britain holding political power by an accident of birth rather than merit or the "electoral process" of Mr Bogdanor's nightmares. Labour leaders are well aware of this but do not think concern that the royals will appear illegitimate is a good enough reason for continuing to allow aristocrats to legislate in the Lords.

The example of Australia's long and bloodless march to a republic shows how the growing demands for more democracy can be rationally used without alienating monarchists. The country is in the middle of a debate about what it means to be an Australian, which we should admire and envy. Paul Keating, the prime minister, has promised that at the end of the century there will be a referendum to ensure there is considered, popular support for a republic and cross-party consultations to ensure Australia does not divide into republican and monarchist camps.

If Australia, which owes its history, common law and parliamentary government to Britain, decides to remove Elizabeth II as head of state, the lessons for the mother country will be obvious. Buckingham Palace frequently says that the Queen would not mind if Australians chose to reject her. This is disingenuous. The first Australian republic could provide a greater boost for British republicanism than all five French republics put together.

But if Britain were to follow Australia, the knock-on consequences would illuminate the all-pervading nature of the mon- archy in our society.

Changes in style and substance would be needed in every area of public life. The armed forces would no longer swear allegiance to the Crown but to the people or constitution. The Privy Council of senior politicians who advise the Queen in secret - and which, as Alan Clark's diaries show, reduces normally hard-headed MPs to fawning courtiers when they think they have the chance to join - would go. The Church of England would be disestablished and become an institution for true believers, not a remnant of a monarchical state religion. The vast array of prerogative powers which encourage government to do whatever it thinks it can get away with will have to be clearly defined and clearly vested in accountable institutions.

Any division of the royal fortune would also be revealing. The wealth has at least eight fuzzy legal statuses which allow the Windsors to shift their assets between what is public (and therefore exempt from tax) and what is private (and therefore exempt from scrutiny). As the joke had it when Windsor Castle was burning, it was theirs when it was up and ours when it was down.

Windsor, Buckingham Palace and Holyroodhouse appear to be public buildings but they have been defined as "vested in the Sovereign" and inalienable. Balmoral and Sandringham are clearly the private property of the Windsor family. But what about the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, the royal art, jewel, furniture and manuscript collections, the Crown Jewels, and the grace-and-favour houses? Ours or theirs? They appear to belong to the nation but have been treated as the Windsors' private property.

Any attempt to resolve the argument while a republic was being set up would bring out the deals made by generations of deferential governments to cunning courtiers.

Australians face no similar complexities. As Elizabeth II lives on the other side of the globe, they do not arise. More importantly, nor does Australia have to decide what to do with the Royal Family when and if it moves on to being a republic.

The British would have an "unemployed royals" problem. The traditional solutions from European republicans have been execution and exile. Neither option is favoured in polite republican circles today.

Labour's plan for the hereditary peers provides a less drastic alternative. When the aristocracy is removed from the House of Lords, peers will retain their wealth and be able to stand for election and call themselves Lord This or Lady That.

The same would apply to the monarchy. They would be citizens. Enormously rich citizens but citizens none the less. They could stay in Britain or move to Canada or any other Commonwealth country that wanted to keep a Windsor as head of state. If they remained, they would be free to stand for election, free to keep calling themselves King, Queen, or the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. But then, so would everyone else.