Leading Article: Listen to Australia, look at Holland: get on your bike, Ma'am

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The Independent Online
The Australians have done it: why can't we? Not become a republic, which they have not, yet, despite yesterday's big step in that direction. But why can we not have a grown-up debate about how we ought to be governed, in the way that they have? Why can we not have an intelligent debate about, for example, why the hereditary principle is wrong when it comes to choosing members of the House of Lords but right for selecting a head of state?

The Constitutional Convention in Canberra voted yesterday by 73 votes to 57 that Australia should cut its umbilical cord - its constitutional link with the Queen. The decision, which is likely to be ratified by a referendum next year, will set off a wave of revision throughout the Commonwealth which surely cannot stop until it has washed through and over the Palaces of Westminster and Buckingham.

Once a British statesman talked about calling in the New World to redress the imbalances of the Old. In the Eighties the Australian courts did just that in the Spycatcher affair, forcing even Thatcherite Britain to regret the excesses of executive power. Here is another chance for Oz radicalism to shame us into the modernisation of our Parliament and the prerogatives of the Crown.

Last year, thanks to Labour's rapid delivery of election promises, the Scots and Welsh tasted the fruit of direct decision-making about their constitutional future; Londoners have their day in May; all of us, sooner or later, will need to assent - or not - to British participation in European monetary union. Those decisions, all of them important, do not exhaust the agenda of change. Conventional wisdom says people are uninterested in constitutional change. But listen to the way people talk about the Royal Family, let alone the House of Lords, and about the relevance of politics to their daily lives. It is nonsense to say the British are essentially wedded to what was.

Since the death of the Princess of Wales there has been an intermittent conversation about royalty and its rights. Tony Blair has counselled the Queen and her heir about their behaviour - with the clear implication that unless they become more user-friendly that rumbling mood of discontent so palpable in the week after Diana's death might turn nasty.

One result is the new-found willingness of the Queen's household to open its books to public inspection. And yet few fundamentals have changed. It is not just the continuing penchant of the Prince of Wales and his mistress for engaging in a sport detested by large numbers of his subjects. It is the way that word - subjects - has not been challenged and subverted. The monarch remains the signer of our laws, at the apex of a system of pre-democratic government.

What the Australian experience underlines, however, is that the debate starts to be both more difficult and more fruitful when alternatives to a monarch are considered. Support for a republic dropped sharply in the Canberra Convention, while remaining a substantial majority, once it was forced to choose between a constitutional monarchy and the most popular system for choosing a president. The idea that will be put to the Australian people in the referendum is that the president should be appointed by agreement between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, and approved by parliament. This has offended the democratic purists who think the holder of the post should be directly elected. But it is not a bad idea. As Andreas Whittam Smith argued in these pages last week, it is only when you are forced to think through the alternatives that they can really be judged.

And in our situation, which is quite different from Australia's colonial past and Asian future, there are positive features to a hereditary monarchy. The answer to the objection that it is inconsistent with abolishing the rights of hereditary peers to speak and vote in the Upper House is that they perform different functions. The hereditary principle should be taken out of law- making; it has, however, a kind of legitimacy when it comes to choosing a symbolic and unifying figurehead.

But that means reforming our monarchy, being clear about what it should and should not do. The last vestiges of royal prerogative should be abolished. The monarch should not have the power to choose who shall be prime minister when the party balance in the House of Commons is uncertain. The paraphernalia of castles and palaces and country houses and titles should be trimmed or justified, and the same goes for the taxpayers' subvention. On the other hand, the Royal Family should use its prestige to promote the values and causes which bring us together as a nation, much as Diana tried to do. There is a balance to be struck between the Royal Family preserving its dignity and showing that it is in touch with the lives of its fellow citizens.

Monarchists tend to mock such attempts to modernise the rather recently invented pageantry of royalty by saying that we would not want a bicycling monarchy like that of the Netherlands, would we? Well, we would, actually. The message to the Queen that the Australians should give us the courage to deliver, in the politest possible way, is: on your bike.

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