British Crown Is Under Tepid Fire
But opposition's bill to abolish throne and scrap the House of Lords gets stone-cold reception
LONDON — DOES Britain need the queen? That touchy question surfaced in the British Parliament May 20, when Tony Benn, veteran leader of the opposition Labour Party's hard left, introduced a "Commonwealth bill."
The measure would end the 1,000-year-old monarchy, abolish the House of Lords, and sever the ties between the Church of England and the state.
According to one Conservative member of Parliament (MP) who saw Mr. Benn's bill nodded through on its first reading, "it will enjoy the same fate as a snowball in a very hot place." The bill was "just another move by the loony Left."
The closing stages of Queen Elizabeth II's highly successful tour of the United States did seem an odd moment for even an avowed republican like Benn to argue - in a bill of 54 clauses - that constitutional perestroika was needed to turn Britain into a "democratic, federal, secular society."
There was no surprise when the measure attracted only a handful of Labour radicals in its support and was deferred for consideration at a later date.
But questions about the role of the monarch, who turned 65 on April 21 and has sat on the throne for 39 years, refuse to go away.
Benn, who 30 years ago renounced a peerage as Viscount Stansgate to become plain "Mr.," begins to win some sympathy for his views when he points to the cost of the monarchy and the personal fortune of the queen.
The British monarch draws more than British pounds7 million ($12 million) a year from the Civil List - an allowance, underwritten by taxpayers. She owns shares worth British pounds3 billion, land and property worth another British pounds3 billion, and art that would fetch an estimated British pounds9 billion on the open market.
She has a "company boat" (the royal yacht Britannia), fleets of planes and limousines - not to mention a team of Corgis.
Where the queen is perhaps most exposed is in her tax-free status. If she were a commoner, her estimated daily earnings of British pounds1.8 million would net the taxman British pounds700,000 every 24 hours. But the queen pays no taxes - something that 8 out of 10 Britons in a public opinion poll last February described as wrong.
The royal family has also shown itself to be sensitive to criticism of the lifestyle of some of its younger members. In an editorial last February, the Sunday Times accused them of "upper-class decadence and insensitivity which demeans the monarchy."
The paper drew attention to the fact that, in the 25 days after the United Nations ultimatum to Iraq, members of the British royal family carried out only six Gulf-connected appointments. In the 11 days after the article appeared, Gulf-connected appointments by the royals numbered 26.
The nub of Benn's argument against the monarchy is that it is difficult to talk about modernizing Britain when, under the Constitution, people are legally subjects, not citizens. The royal prerogative, Benn argues, enables governments during times of emergency to make decisions in the name of the crown, without recourse to Parliament.
Under his bill, the queen would be forced to retire and be replaced by an elected president. Her jewels, castles, and other wealth would be handed over to the state. She would cease to be head of the Church of England.
In addition, the hereditary House of Lords would be replaced by a "house of the people," and the voting age would be lowered to 16.
Despite nagging concern about the habits of the royal retinue and the high cost of maintaining the institution, there are persuasive voices ready to argue that the monarchy is among the great glories of Britain.
Robert Rhodes James, a historian and Conservative MP for the university city of Cambridge, describes the queen's role as "central to the Constitution." The heart of the matter, he says, is that while governments come and go, the crown remains as a symbol of comfort and stability.
Hugo Vickers, a royal biographer, thinks it unlikely Elizabeth II will heed calls to abdicate in favor of her son or scale down the pomp and ceremony of the monarchy. Partly, he says, this is because she sees herself as much more than a head of state. She heads the Commonwealth, a loose association of more than 50 former members of the British Empire. She heads the Church of England. Above all, she has come to be seen as a symbol of continuity for the British people.
A senior Conservative MP recalled that last February, as British troops were about to go to war in the Gulf, the queen made an unscheduled 45-second television broadcast to express "pride and confidence in our armed forces."
"Nobody else could have said it so well, or made such an impact. Critics underestimate the sheer mystique of the monarchy," the MP added.
The royal clout can hit home in unexpected ways. Fourteen years ago Neil Kinnock, now leader of the Labour opposition, refused to be present to hear the queen's speech to Parliament, outlining planned legislation with which he disagreed.
Last month, however, questioned about his absence from the House of Commons during an important debate, he replied: "Her Majesty gave me the enormous privilege of asking my wife and me to spend the night with her at Windsor Castle."