President Branson? It's possible: An elected head of state is quite feasible and candidates are plentiful, says Matthew Hoffman

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TWENTY-FIVE years ago, when I first came to Britain from the United States, what surprised me most was the unquestioning acceptance of the institution of the monarchy. Even among my 'counter-culture' and 'revolutionary' Sixties friends, there was absolutely no desire to abolish or even reform the monarchy. A quarter of a century on, books, radio phone-ins, conferences are all asking if the time has come to create a republic. It is seriously proposed - and not only by Tony Benn - to put the matter to a referendum after the Queen dies. The primary cause of the change seems to be the behaviour of the younger members of the Royal Family. But disillusionment with the House of Windsor goes deeper. And as the Queen ages, the question of her successor looms larger.

Among the many reverberations set off by the Prince of Wales's latest confessions has been a reminder of the traditional criticisms of inherited office. They are three: there is no way of avoiding a lemon; there is no way of removing someone whose performance disappoints; and, most significantly, in a democratic age in which power is understood to flow from the people, there is no legitimacy for authority without an electoral mandate. So is there another, better, way we could choose our head of state?

The idea of an elected president is usually scorned on the grounds that we would be electing only a superannuated politician, a pop star or a television personality. Two words, 'President Thatcher', are enough to close the argument for some.

But would a President Julia Neuberger be unimaginable? Surely a distinguished figure from the judiciary, such as Lord Scarman, would be able to represent the country's better self as well as King Charles III. Names such as Mary Archer might bring a smile, but our current Speaker of the House, Betty Boothroyd, would not be an embarrassment to the nation.

Among businessmen, Richard Branson or Sir John Harvey-Jones could attract popular support, as could the Governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George.

The military could offer General Sir Peter de la Billiere or Lt-Gen Sir Michael Rose. The clergy has Lord Runcie, David Sheppard (England cricketer and bishop) and the soon-to-retire Archbishop of York. Media is more of a problem: do we want a President Jimmy Savile or Kate Adie? But Sir Richard Attenborough could probably garner some support, as no doubt would Sean Connery. And sport could give us a President Bobby Charlton. My own guess is that if the job of successor to the Queen were open to election, it would go to the Princess Royal (or Ms Anne Windsor, as I imagine she would have to be styled).

The problem is not a lack of suitable candidates; surely Britain is no more lacking in these than other nations who manage to find men and women of proven worth to be head of state. The Czechs have Vaclav Havel, a writer of global distinction; the Poles, Nobel Prize winner Lech Walesa; and the Irish, in electing Mary Robinson, have discovered that they share far more progressive social attitudes than they themselves had previously noticed.

Even embarrassing choices, such as Austria's Kurt Waldheim, can lead a nation to come to know itself better. Fixed terms of office would mean that if a dud choice were made, it could be corrected soon enough.

What would a president of the UK be expected to do? An Australian commission reported last year on how a monarchy could be turned into a parliamentary republic. The Republic Advisory Committee noted that the constitutional duties currently assigned to the monarch (signing legislation, opening parliament, presiding over ceremonial functions and inviting the leader of one of the political parties to try to form a government) could all be performed equally well by an elected head of state. The commission also examined the main methods of choosing such a person: by parliament, popular election or an electoral college; and recommended a two-thirds vote of both houses of their federal parliament.

In Britain, I believe, sentiment would favour popular election, if only because distrust of the political establishment is so great. Perhaps candidates could be offered by petition of a million or more signatories, with a prior vetting by the Privy Council to weed out people with too little relevant experience.

The need to wage a campaign just to get nominated, followed by a subsequent nationwide election, would kindle a profound debate every five or 10 years that would be of great benefit to a country immersed in a continual struggle to understand itself. Imagine the arguments that would rage as supporters of Alan Bennett argued the toss with backers of London's Chief Constable, Sir Paul Condon. And if it were generally known that the First Job was open to all people of talent for five- or 10-year terms, rather than one previously selected person for a term of up to 50 years, there would be no end of creative ferment as people strove to earn the office.

Could we ever overthrow our Royal Family? My own suspicion is that if a referendum were held now on abolition of the monarchy, it would be rejected.

The lives of the Windsors and their predecessors are still so deeply embedded in the imaginative life of the people that even today they could hardly contemplate loss of the institution. But, on current form, in another 25 years the British people will be so fed up with the dissonance between their desire to be represented by accountable people of real accomplishment and the reality of a Royal Family that embarrasses them at every turn, they will enter into the creation of a republican presidency. They will do this with a creative energy that will carry them past their threadbare baggage of regret and nostalgia towards a new millennium of national reinvention.

(Photographs omitted)