Plot to steal the 'Crown Jewels'

Labour's republicans want a tame figurehead tainted by party politics, says Tristan Garel-Jones
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So Ron Davies, Shadow Welsh Secretary, wants a republic; so, it seems, do a substantial number of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Labour is already putting forward a raft of proposals for constitutional change in Britain, so it is hardly surprising if there is suspicion that abolition of the monarchy may be part of their hidden agenda, or at least a hope for the future.

But we should be grateful to Mr Davies, forbidden as he is by Tony Blair to do so, for speaking out so frankly. It is no crime to advocate a republic and it does provide us with an opportunity to pose a few questions.

There seems to be a consensus among Mr Davies and his fellow sans-culottes that they would not want an executive presidency along the lines of the United States or France, which happen to be two of the most successful expressions of republicanism. That would take away power from the House of Commons. And we can't have that. What they are after is a symbolic presidency - a presidency that would inevitably be controlled by the party machines.

We are invited to trade in one symbol for another. I think we are entitled to ask what kind of new symbol we are being offered, and why.

We are told that a republic is more in keeping with the times. But is it? I wonder if anyone on the Labour front bench could name the president of Germany, Finland, Greece or Austria? No doubt they are all extremely worthy, but no one outside their countries knows who they are. A state visit from our Sovereign attracts more popular, commercial and political interest abroad than would a visit from President Davies.

Presumably our new president would be elected. Would the term of office be fixed or coincidental with a general election? Would anyone be entitled to stand? Screaming Lord Sutch, Major Hewitt, Gazza? One assumes a device would be used to discourage frivolous candidates for the presidency.

The bottom line is that there would be three candidates, Tory (Sir Edward Heath), Labour (Mr Peter Shore) and a Liberal Democrat. As with local government elections, the result would depend on the electoral cycle. The symbol of the nation is thus tossed recklessly into the world of party politics.

Now there is nothing inherently unclean about party politics. But much of what is good about Britain functions untouched by party consideration.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust, the Treorchy Male Voice Choir, the London Library, Britain in Bloom, the Royal Opera House, the Macmillan Nurses, St Andrews Golf Club, The Watford Citizens' Advice Bureau: all of these do credit to Britain and to those who are part of them. All would be tainted in some way if they were creatures of politics.

And so it is with the symbol of the Nation.

For three years I came into moderately regular contact with the Sovereign. Like most politicians, I came to believe that what I was doing politically was important and at times, I confess, I found royal duties a bit of an intrusion. But I suspect that most people might think that it does government ministers no harm to have to take trouble over someone who stands above them, whose authority derives from a source different from their own and who owes nothing to any party.

What would we make of President Shore? It would be him today, of course. Citizen Heath would stand little chance at this point in the electoral cycle. I have the good fortune to know Peter Shore and hold him in high regard, but most of the 50 per cent of the population who would have voted against him do not enjoy that privilege. Europhiles would be as horrified as would Europhobes have been by President Heath.

The truth is that neither Peter Shore nor Ted Heath, serious front-rank politicians, would lend themselves to becoming the nation's senior Rotarians. The post would become a part of the coinage of political patronage handed out by the whips as a pay-off to a worthy second-rank politician who never made it.

Republicanism in Britain is an attempt by those who believe that party politics is the only ball-game in town to take over and debase an institution that stands for the whole country in a way no political party can ever aspire to do. It is stealing the figurative Crown Jewels of Britain.

The writer is MP for Watford and was Minister of State at the Foreign Office, 1990-93.