Keep the palaces, but stand for election

The public is in favour of a glamorous but more accountable Royal Family
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Support for the British monarchy has been in long-term decline. But what would a considered verdict of the British people be on their monarchy, based on detailed information and balanced arguments about its pros and cons, its role, its history, its costs and benefits, rather than on the usual tabloid headlines and endless, soundbites?

We tried to answer precisely that question in an unusual experiment - a "deliberative poll" - televised last night on Channel 4

We began by selecting and interviewing a national random sample to elicit their "prior" opinions and knowledge about the monarchy and its alternatives. All those involved were then invited to spend a weekend in a series of discussions when they could question selected "experts". Some 261 people attended.

After almost two days of discussion, they were asked to complete the questionnaire a second time. Not surprisingly, things had changed. One half of the sample had said "the monarchy should remain as it is" at the initial interview, around a third believed it should be reformed and fewer than one in 10 favoured abolition.

After the weekend's discussions, considering various alternative forms of governance, the notion of a British republic still had no more appeal, but the balance of opinion between the status quo and "reform" of the monarchy almost reversed itself. After deliberation, by a margin of 50 to 39 per cent, the public said that reform of the monarchy was possible and desirable.

Just what kind of reform did they have in mind? They certainly did not favour a less extravagant image. Far from desiring a shift from a "Rolls- Royce" monarchy to a "bicycling" monarchy, along Scandinavian lines, the considered view was that Britain got good value from its much more glamorous version of a royal family.

So what reforms did they want? With characteristic pragmatism and an apparent wish to reconcile Britain's past with its present, this newly- informed microcosm of the electorate wanted instead to introduce greater accountability and democracy into its historical system of monarchical rule, blending the principle of heredity with the practice of democracy and helping to ensure that the monarchy of the 21st century will remain well adapted to its more modern purpose.

There was a shift from 55 to 65 per cent in support of the proposition that any future king or queen who could not win popular support should relinquish office. There was a shift from 46 to 56 per cent in support of holding a referendum on the monarchy, and a similar increase in support of the notion that the British public should in future have a say in who succeeds to the throne (even if, in effect, only Windsors need apply).

The weekend's deliberation had the effect of making its participants both more critical of and more impressed by their monarchy. For instance, the proportion believing a monarchy was important in "uniting people throughout Britain" rose by around 10 points, as did the proportion who felt that the monarchy made them "proud to be British".

In contrast, the proportion who believed that the monarch should pay taxes "on the same terms as everyone else" rose from an already high 86 per cent to a near unanimous 94 per cent, and those who felt that the monarch should no longer serve as head of the Church of England rose even more steeply from 26 per cent to 56.

What is the significance of this experiment? Why take a random sample of the British public, make them demonstrably more informed than they were about an important national issue and then measure how their views have changed?

In short, the deliberative poll is, an attempt to see and hear a representative, thoughtful and informed debate among a sample of the electorate in an attempt to promote wider discussion and consideration of an issue. It is thus more than just an ambitious piece of social research. It is also an attempt to combine the forces and techniques of opinion-polling and of television - both having been blamed for making political debate more superficial - to encourage a deeper democratic dialogue.

The experiment was conducted by James Fishkin, professor of government, University of Texas and author of 'The Voice of the People' (Yale University Press), Roger Jowell and Alison Park, respectively director and research director at Social & Community Planning Research (SCPR) London.

The pre-weekend sample was a random sample of 857 electors within Great Britain selected from the postal address files within 50 postal sectors. The weekend sub-sample consisted of 261 electors whose answers were weighted by age and party to represent the characteristics of the original sample. The survey design, interviewing, focus groups and analysis were all carried out by SCPR.