I want to talk about the monarchy. Although not my intention this may upset some people. But before you reach for the keyboard to condemn me, please at least hear me out.
I’m a republican. Have been all my adult life. I don’t demand that other people be republicans but I do ask that we have a civilised exchange of opinion.
I respect the views of those who disagree with me. I know that many people, including Scots, have great affection for the royal family. It’s clear that many get joy and a feeling of belonging from identifying with royal occasions, such as last weekend’s wedding.
And for the avoidance of doubt let me say clearly I wish Prince Harry and Meghan Markle health, happiness and all good wishes. But when their honeymoon is over we still need to ask whether the monarchy is compatible with 21st century democratic values.
Is it right that the head of state in this country should be forever in the hands of just one family – or would it be better to elect someone to that position?
Her majesty Queen Elizabeth II has been a remarkable public servant. In my view she ought to be allowed to retire after literally a lifetime of service. But the rules don’t allow that so she must continue. It’s likely therefore that Prince Charles may become king well into his seventies. Surely at that point it would be reasonable to consider whether we wish the monarchy to continue.
There are compelling reasons to make a change. For starters we ought to build our society on democratic participation. People ought to be able to have a say in who governs them. And perhaps more importantly to get rid of them.
Secondly, there are many things to be proud of in Britain, but the class system and the inequality it spawns is not one of them. The monarchy sits at the apex of that system of patronage and privilege. If we strive for an open and inclusive society where everyone is valued and respected, we need to leave this outdated and anachronistic institution behind.
Some will argue that the monarchy embodies tradition which cannot be challenged. But traditions evolve. Rightly so. We can respect and celebrate our history without being imprisoned by it.
No one, for instance, is suggesting we knock down Buckingham Palace. On the contrary I’d argue it should be open to visitors all year round, rather than the two months it is at present. People would visit and of course be fascinated by the history of the royal family over centuries past. But they might be impressed too at how eventually democracy bore out over inherited wealth and privilege and kept this remarkable historic site for the benefit of everyone.
The arguments for moving to an elected head of state are not about money – although it would surely be cheaper to maintain an office for a ceremonial president that the £345 million it costs to up keep the extensive royal family.
Having put my head above the parapet on this subject over the last week I’ve been a little shocked at the level of vitriol and abuse I’ve received from those who disagree with me. Hurling insults won’t make the argument go away.
So I earnestly hope that in the years ahead we can have a respectful discussion about whether we continue with an unelected head of state or not. Opinion is divided with a poll this week showing 41% of people in Scotland in favour of the monarchy, 28% against and rest with no view either way. So my view is (just) a minority one. But I hold it not because I’m disrespectful, or jealous, or have sour grapes, but simply because I’m a democrat.
Written for Edinburgh Evening News - 24th May 2018
Four weeks ago I was worried about writing this column on the eve of the last major parliamentary debate on Brexit. Anything could have happened, rendering my speculation obsolete by the time you read it. I shouldn’t have fretted. Anything could have happened but nothing did.
Here I am again. Groundhog day. It’s Tuesday. There’s a big debate tomorrow.
Tuesday. Another day spent discussing Brexit. Another day of my life I’m not getting back.
We are no further forward. As the clock ticks down to exit it’s only fair to ask: What the hell is Theresa May playing at?