Can the monarchy cope with modern politics?

Bonfire consumes Isfield’s Jubilee beacon, 2 June 2022

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee has been a happy event in our East Sussex village. On Thursday evening we lit a beacon, and then, this being East Sussex, we burnt it in a bonfire. On Friday afternoon we had a lovely street party. Today it was the village fete, where I won a bottle of whisky in the raffle. There is also a treasure hunt and a scarecrow competition.Everybody was in the mood for a celebration.

But what are we celebrating? Nominally it is Queen Elizabeth II’s remarkable achievement of reigning as monarch for 70 years. And she certainly commands a lot of respect and affection among the villagers here. Most of the bunting features patriotic union jacks. But for many it more of a question of “any excuse for a party”, especially after two years when local events and activities have been badly disrupted. In the grim days of 2020 (when we moved into the village), it was a common sentiment that we should have a big party when it was all over. It isn’t really all over, but for many this is the party. The theme of a number of the scarecrows (which are meant to reflect aspects of the Queen’s reign) were the heroes of the pandemic. Other than that it is mainly pop stars; the Yellow Submarine won.

We haven’t been watching the national events on television, beyond summaries on the news. But that, and the BBC radio coverage, was bad enough. The thing I most hate about monarchy is the obsequiousness that surrounds it. And the BBC, along with many others, is laying it on by the shovel load. This is an ancient tradition, though. The obsequiousness doubtless goes back to our Anglo-Saxon kings of the Dark Ages, and perhaps the Celtic chieftains that preceded them, and it unites them with Persian and Chinese Emperors, Russian Tsars and Thai kings. The strange thing about our monarchy is that the tradition of obsequiousness has outlasted the political power that the institution wields. It makes me yearn for a republic – though that does not always solve that particular problem.

It is a moment to reflect on the institution. The British seem to be quite pragmatic about it. The reason usually offered in the monarchy’s defence, given that few accept that it is divine will, is that it works. Britain has a long-standing and functioning democracy. The monarchy has been part of the web of institutions that has upheld it. It is not obvious to most that republics manage these things any better; the country’s one attempt at being a republic in the 17th century is usually regarded as a failure. Meanwhile all the pomp adds a certain dignity to proceedings. It is surprising how often people justify it on the basis that it is a tourist attraction.

But does it work really? The overwhelming impression of the institution’s standing is one of political weakness. Its actions are dictated by a series of written and unwritten conventions which are designed to keep the institution away from any kind of political controversy. According to Netflix’s highly engaging drama The Crown, the institution has an enduring horror of Edward VIII, the uncrowned monarch of 1936, and Elizabeth’s uncle, who nearly destroyed it. Edward saw a more dynamic leadership role for the monarchy, which included a distinct sympathy for fascism. This drama does suggest that the Queen was a bulwark against any kind of undemocratic coup, even if led by aristocracy and institutionally embedded types. Just how close the country has ever been to such a coup I don’t know, though.

There is something to be said for a weak titular head of any institution. The French and American model of combining the role with that of chief executive is not obviously better, as the role becomes too strong, reminding us of what we dislike about the old political monarchies. Then the obsequiousness was driven by real fear, along with ambition. But if the titular head becomes too weak, there is too little check on the chief executive role – which politically in Britain is that of the prime minister.

This matters more than it might in Britain because the other checks on the prime minister are so weak. Nominally he or she is the creature of a democratically elected parliament. And this is true up to a point. Right now our prime minster is running scared of his Conservative Party backbenchers, who may even be able to oust him from power. But this drama reveals something rather worrying. Constitutional checks on the executive can depend on the internal rules of political parties – which lack proper democratic validation. And there are times when the prime minister has complete mastery over their party. And then there are very few other checks on their power at all.

We had a rather scary reminder about this in the period from 2017 to 2019 when the Conservatives did not have a parliamentary majority. At first Theresa May cobbled together an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (the DUP), and secured a parliamentary majority – the country’s principal means of democratic validation. But, as relations with the DUP proved rocky, and rebellious factions emerged within the Conservatives, Mrs May’s government relied less and less on parliamentary validation. The parliamentary session was prolonged so as to avoid the necessity of a Queen’s Speech, and endorsement of the premiership. The government relied increasingly on executive powers without consulting parliament. Finally Mrs May’s position became untenable and she resigned as Conservative leader. She continued to be prime minister while the party chose a new leader, and then resigned from that office once Boris Johnson was chosen as her successor. She then advised the Queen to appoint Mr Johnson as prime minister, and the Queen complied. What is so wrong with that? Mr Johnson did not command a parliamentary majority, and he had only be chosen on the basis of his party’s internal leadership election process. Mr Johnson then assumed all the massive executive powers of the British state without ever asking parliament to validate his authority. In fact he went to extremes in order to avoid such a validation. In the end he asked for parliament to be suspended so that he could govern without democratic interference, based on the thinnest veneer of a pretext. It was not the Queen that stopped him. It was the Supreme Court. The Court has since been attacked for standing in the way of the will of the people – when its actions were actually based on the opposite notion – that of forcing the government to be accountable. And yet I have heard few people try to defend the Court. Mr Johnson’s version of history risks being accepted by default.

And then there is the elephant in the room. Parliament’s claim to represent the will of the people is a weak one. The electoral system means that governments are usually elected based on a minority of votes. Well perhaps what counts is whether the system used has broad popular consent, and people abide by the results. That is mostly true, with the important exception of Scotland. But how long will this continue? What puts the system at risk is political polarisation. Then parties want to win elections by any means necessary, and then use that power to implement an ideological programme – ignoring the idea of broad political consent, upon which a system such as Britain’s depends for democratic legitimacy. Once that happens there are few institutional checks on the executive – and certainly not the monarchy. And it does not even need a majority of voters to achieve such a result.

That is certainly true of the Conservatives under Mr Johnson. The party’s leaders actively seek “wedge issues” to divide the country and motivate its supporters. It was true of Labour too under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is taking it in the opposite direction, of being an un-ideological party of broad consent. The party that he leads is less sure that this is the right course, having 9in their eyes) come so close to success under Mr Corbyn. Polarisation has already deeply infected the politics of America. France seems dangerously close to it too. An elected head of state, separate from the executive, might act as a check on an overly divisive executive. In 2019 tan elected president might have been able to insist that the prime minister secure a parliamentary mandate or see if somebody else could, and failing that, call an election. That would have been the democratically proper way to proceed.

But then a small voice suggests something else to me. Perhaps the monarchy is helping the country avoid polarisation. The Jubilee celebrations are striking for for the way they are bringing Britons together. Diversity is celebrated. Perhaps the country is stepping back from polarisation after the nightmare of the Brexit years. The Labour Party has become more popular with the country at large after Sir Keir’s change of direction, even if few have enthusiasm for it. Mr Johnson’s wedge issues are failing to get traction. If the monarchy has a single message, it is that we should all get along together as a country (and also to get on better with other countries too).

In that perhaps the institution is a beacon of hope. Let us hope it is not consumed by the bonfire of party politics.

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