LEADING ARTICLE: Time for a republic

Would it not connect us to a better strain in our history if we abolished the monarchy to proclaim the final triumph of the people?
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"IT is in principle wrong and absurd," Tony Blair said in his John Smith Memorial Lecture earlier this month, "that people should wield power on the basis of birth, not merit or election." The Labour leader was talking about the need to reform the House of Lords but Conservative MPs were quick to point out that an argument against hereditary peers is also, by logical extension, an argument against the monarchy. "Is the monarchy going to be safe?" asked Toby Jessel, MP for Twickenham. The answer is that, in the medium-term at least, it will be safe from a Labour government. But it ought not to be.

Abolition of the monarchy would be an undertaking so far-reaching, so drastic, so controversial that it would daunt any politician. That, however, is precisely why the subject needs to be addressed. The Crown is part of the fabric of British life: the national anthem, the opening of Parliament, the Christmas broadcast, the Royal Variety Performance, Remembrance Day, the royal presence at major sporting events, the royal imprimatur borne by many charities - in these, and so many other ways, the monarchy defines who we are and how we see ourselves. Every time we post a letter or spend our cash we gaze on the Queen's head. We rely on agents of Her Majesty to collect taxes and check school standards. If we are accused of crime, we are tried in the Crown Courts and, if found guilty, detained at Her Majesty's pleasure. We speak of the Queen's English and of Queen's Counsel, of Her Majesty's Government and Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Soldiers swear an oath of loyalty to the monarch and die for Queen and country. As Michael Portillo has put it, "the monarchy is the personification of the nation" and is, therefore, "vital to our national well-being".

Is the monarchy still capable of bearing that role? Should it? If Mr Portillo is right, the nation is in peril and no politician can have much hope of rescuing it. If Britain's identity is indeed bound up with the monarchy, we have tied our future to an institution that looks increasingly frail. Hardly a day goes by without at least one newspaper - and, more often, half-a-dozen - headlining some new "royal" controversy, concerning the marital troubles of the Prince and Princess of Wales or the lifestyle of the Duchess of York. Royal coverage is like drugs or pornography: once the appetite is whetted, higher and harder fixes are needed. Thanks to Andrew Morton, Anna Pasternak and others, we now know about the private lives of royalty to an extent that would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago. Once, we were thrilled to learn that the Queen could wash dishes or that her husband could cook sausages. Now, we demand more intimate details. How long before we are treated to details of, say, the Prince of Wales' sexual performance? How long before one of the younger female members of the royal family appears as a Playboy centrefold? How long before some of the wilder rumours about the Queen and Prince Philip themselves - touched on by Sarah Bradford in her recent biography - become the common currency of journalistic speculation?

The royals, partly through their own actions, have become part of the showbusiness industry, and showbusiness is a voracious monster. Some may blame the tabloids for intrusion. But monarchy has always depended on popular fascination, on our childlike thrill at learning what royal personages say or wear or eat. We are expected to dance with joy at the romance of a royal wedding; we cannot then be expected to avert our eyes when the romance turns sour.

WE have, then, a series of anomalies. What is supposed to be the dignified part of the constitution becomes daily more undignified, with its debts, its disreputable lovers, its toe-sucking antics, its televisual confessions. What is supposed, in the words of one Tory minister, "to help us to have a vision of what we should be" is now associated with greed, extravagance, bad faith, exhibitionism. What is supposed to unite us increasingly divides us, with the country forming into Prince's and Princess's parties. What is supposed to give us a sense of continuity itself suffers from an uncertain future; as our poll shows, the number of people expecting the monarchy to disappear within the next 50 years now exceeds the number who expect it to survive. All these anomalies, it may be argued, are just the result of Elizabeth II's misfortune in bearing wayward children - temporary difficulties that may be overcome as triumphantly as the abdication of Edward VIII was, and no reason to end a thousand years of history. But what might be described as surface anomalies inevitably direct our attention to more deep-rooted ones: the monarch's position as head of an established Church which is now attended by only a tiny fraction of the population; her position as head of a Commonwealth which many regard as a diversion from Britain's true future; the sheer cost of maintaining royalty in a country that doubts that it can any longer afford a welfare state. It is as if (to borrow a metaphor employed by the scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn) we were flicking through a pack of cards, in which some of the spades are coloured red, some of the hearts black. For a time, so fixed are our expectations, that we do not even notice the anomalies. But after a time we ask: is there something wrong with the whole pack of cards?

Anthony Barnett of Charter 88 has argued: "The monarchy has ceased to be a coherent representative of contemporary realities. A large gap has opened up between its values and our society's realities, a chasm which is also a constitutional crisis. For the monarchy has now become a symbol for the resistance to reform by the politicians who occupy the throne of winner-take-all-politics and utilise its powers and prerogatives for themselves. We cannot confront them, we cannot democratise the British system, until we first separate out the role of the Crown." The truth is that, though the Queen herself has no political power, Britain is still governed by royal prerogative, exercised on the monarch's behalf by her ministers. The result is that, in many areas, ministers have near-dictatorial powers which cannot be checked or even properly scrutinised by Parliament. They may sign treaties or declare war, set interest rates or alter exchange rates, appoint BBC governors or hand out peerages - all without reference to MPs.

The entire patronage system of honours and quango appointments is outside democratic control. Civil servants are appointed and employed under prerogative powers and, therefore, have no obligations other than to the government of the day, even if it orders them to lie, cheat and conceal. Over vast swaths of national life - the school curriculum, university funding, distribution of lottery money - ministers, using their so-called "Henry VIII powers", can do almost anything they like. Many of the ministerial actions scrutinised by the Scott report last week - the issue of Public Interest Immunity Certificates, for example - derive from Crown privilege. Above all, the prerogative allows Prime Ministers to choose the dates of general elections entirely according to their own party political advantage.

Can these prerogative powers be abolished, or at least reduced, without abolishing the monarchy itself? Can Britain become republican in its politics while still preserving the fun, glamour and glitter of princes and princesses? Yes, in theory. In reality, however, republicanism and democracy go beyond written constitutions and bills of rights. They also require an attitude of mind, a belief that every citizen has the right to a hearing, a sense that no doors are closed to talent and energy. As Matthew Parris, a former Conservative MP, has put it, British royalty "asks us ... to show deference for which there is no honest basis ... deference to qualities other than merit". The whole paraphernalia of the Royal Court, with its Silver Sticks in Waiting, its Women of the Bedchamber, its hereditary carvers; the closed, incestuous nature of the royal circle, drawn from an extraordinarily narrow social stratum; the elaborate rules about how to address royalty; the orders of chivalry - all this nonsense merely confirms the British in what Aneurin Bevan called the poverty of their aspirations. Royalty is of its nature exclusive; we cannot all hope to become intimates of the Queen, and she can hardly be blamed if she prefers to surround herself with old family friends, people of similar background and education who know the rules. The Crown's survival re- inforces the impression that British society is shaped like a pyramid and that, at its apex, birth counts for more than merit. This is the greatest anomaly of the British monarchy: every post-war government has professed a commitment to meritocracy and equal opportunity, yet here is an institution that declaims, shamelessly, that, at the heart of the Establishment, nothing has changed.

THE defenders of monarchy fall back on the argument that, if nothing else, it is a tourist attraction. So it is, but it is hard to believe that tourists would cease their pilgrimages to Buckingham Palace, the Mall, the Tower or Windsor Castle, simply because a monarch no longer rules. People are not deterred from visiting Stratford-upon-Avon because Shakespeare is dead. Indeed, the removal of the monarchy might actually improve them as tourist attractions, allowing greater access to the palaces, to say nothing of the royal art collection.

The stronger argument is that the monarchy connects us to our history, that it gives us pride in our past, faith in our ability to achieve peaceful change and, therefore, confidence in the future. We should keep the monarchy, the argument runs, because it reminds us of how we got here, rather as the electoral college that chooses a president reminds Americans of how their nation began. Yet it has become almost a commonplace of post-war political debate that Britain is too weighed down by history, that, in becoming a truly modern nation, we might have been better off with a revolution or even a catastrophic defeat in war. And nations can re-invent themselves successfully: both Germany and Japan were forced, in effect, to jettison their histories and to start again. They, by general consent, are the success stories of the post-war world. In any case, British history should not be about the glories of its kings and queens; rather, it should be about how the people wrested and defended their liberties from the Crown - liberties, it should be noted, that have often been threatened by the executive's recent abuses of the royal prerogative. Would it not connect us to a different, but better, strain in our history if we were to abolish the monarchy and proclaim the final triumph of the people?

THE British tradition is evolution, not revolution. Winding up the monarchy is not the work of a day, a week or even a year. The Queen, who has performed her duties admirably, should remain on the throne until she dies or until she chooses to step down; the interim period may be used to reform the constitution and re-define the role and powers of a head of state. The Royal Family need not go into exile or be stripped entirely of wealth and property. Like any other citizens, members of the Royal Family would be free to stand for the position of elected president. Most important of all, the question of a republic should be put to a referendum; so great a constitutional change must not be implemented without the explicit consent of the people.

The argument for a republic has been curiously muted in this country. No current frontbench MP has publicly advocated one, nor (until now) has any national newspaper. Republicanism is still felt to be somehow in bad taste - not least because the word has associations with odious terrorists, who know little and care less about democracy. Yet our poll, published today, shows that opinion in favour of a republic is growing, particularly among the young.

This newspaper believes that strain of opinion should be encouraged, that it deserves a voice and a champion. In future issues, we shall try to take the debate further and to explore how a British republic might work. Asked if Britain should abolish its monarchy, Rupert Murdoch once replied: "I think you'd have to say No, because I don't think the country has the self-confidence to live without it." It is time to prove him wrong.