A missed debate about the Royals
LONDON — I have long called for the abolition of the British monarchy. Call me a bloodthirsty Roundhead, but I do not believe there is any place in the 21st century for an unelected head of state who assumes his or her position by virtue of the house into which he or she is born. It is about time we Britons were citizens, rather than subjects of a king or queen.
Yet for all my opposition to the monarchy, I take no pleasure from the scandals rocking the House of Windsor. From the revelations that Princess Diana believed someone wanted to murder her to the gossip about Prince Charles's alleged relationship with a male servant, the Windsors are having a true annus horribilis. One British paper said, "This royal family will never again be an object of reverence."
You might think that a republican would relish the Windsors' woes. Alas, no. The current scandal- and rumormongering is the product of a deep cynicism about those in authority, and not a result of a positive political debate about the role of the monarchy. Indeed, it is a measure of the degraded state of British republicanism that the beleaguered Windsors can limp on despite the worst scandals of their reign.
There are many good reasons to criticize the monarchy; the bad behavior of individual royals comes way down the list. It is an outdated institution, giving rise to a culture of bowing and scraping. We're expected to stand to attention whenever we hear the strains of "God Save the Queen" and to follow strict protocol in the presence of a His or Her Royal Highness. Such deference is a hangover from the Middle Ages and sits uneasily at a time when achievement rather than family name ought to earn respect.
The monarchy is profoundly antidemocratic. In the British constitution, the monarch is sovereign, but his or her power has merely been transferred so that it is exercised through Parliament. So the monarch still has the right to dissolve Parliament and to choose any parliamentarian to set up a ruling cabinet. It is hard to imagine a modern monarch exercising such powers (especially the isolated Elizabeth II), but the organization of the Constitution around the monarch remains a powerful snub to the idea of popular democracy.
You don't have to imagine what might happen if some future monarch went power-crazy to see that Britain's monarchy is a barrier to democracy. In the here and now, the sovereign powers of the monarch are used to make important political decisions with scant regard for the democratic process. Britain has a constitutional device called the Royal Prerogative, which allows the prime minister to act like ... well, a monarch.
The Royal Prerogative permits Britain's Executive - the Cabinet or most often the prime minister - to take action in the name of the Crown, without the backing of Parliament, much less of the people. Through this Prerogative, the prime minister can appoint and dismiss ministers, summon and dissolve Parliament, and declare war. It was in the name of the Crown that Tony Blair launched his Kosovo War in 1999.
It's still technically against the law - punishable by life imprisonment - to call for abolishing the monarchy (though that hasn't stopped some of us from doing precisely that); and it's technically illegal even to destroy an image of the queen.
It is time to ditch this outdated, undemocratic, and censorious institution. Yet the only debate we have had recently is about what the butler saw: which royal is sleeping with whom and whether the Windsors hated the Princess of Wales. Republicans and democrats have nothing to celebrate in these scandals.
The monarchy is best challenged by an open, public debate about its role, rather than by whispers about goings-on behind palace doors. Let us leave the individual royals alone, and instead interrogate the institution they compose.
• Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of www.spiked-online.com.