Okay I know that it’s probably not the best time to try to start a discussion about the monarchy. With a popular prince wedding his celebrity sweetheart in a lavish event resplendent in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, it might be best for dissidents like myself to keep our republican heads below the parapet.
Then again, with the nation’s attention focused on the royals because of the wedding, this might be just the time to ask how long we can go on like this.
And to be clear, I wish Prince Harry and Megan Markle every happiness. Indeed, I wish no ill will towards any members of the Royal Family. This is not a debate about the merits of the individuals involved. I don’t know any members of the Royal Family but have no reason to suggest they are anything other than thoroughly decent people.
The point though is whether it is right as we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century that the head of state should be determined by accident of birth into the principal aristocratic family in the land – rather than be elected by the citizenry.
There’s something very medieval and undemocratic about that and in these times of respecting diversity and reaching for social inclusion it seems just odd that the position of head of state is to be forever the choice of just one family. My grandson has just turned three. It’d be nice to think that in 50 years’ time he and all the other grandkids in the country might have the right to be the head of their country.
Monarchists argue that the Queen or King has no actual power anyway, their role is purely ceremonial. So, what’s the fuss about. Well, that’s not true. The Monarch does play some roles that usually an elected president would play in other parliamentary democracies: to appoint governments, dissolve parliaments, and sign off legislation.
Most importantly, the role is the public face of the country to the world; who holds that position and how they come to be there says a lot about our character and what we stand for. Besides, if the Monarch really had no power then it wouldn’t matter if they became disestablished and played no formal role in the government of the country.
I believe that we ought to be able to elect those who have power over us. That’s why I campaign for the abolition of the unelected House of Lords. It’s why I campaign to change the voting system so that representation in parliament is in line with the votes cast at an election. And it’s why I say our head of state should be elected by popular ballot.
Britain is a country that has much to be proud of. But our unfair and unequal class system isn’t one of them. The Monarchy sits at the apex of a system of power and privilege based on subservience and deference – reforming it is key to having a more open, inclusive and democratic society.
The Queen is 92 and may well live longer than her mother who died in her hundred and second year. I think she should be allowed to retire now after a shift that has literally lasted a lifetime. But the rules say she can’t and so it is likely that the current queen will be obliged to go on with her duties for years to come. That would mean that Prince Charles could be well into his 70s before he becomes king.
It seems to me that when the current queen finishes her reign it would be an opportune time to consider whether the time has come to catch up with history. I’d like to see the proposition of an elected head of state put to the people in a referendum. I might well lose the argument. The people might prefer to leave that job in the hands on the House of Windsor in perpetuity. But at least that would be the people’s choice.
The Windsors are one of the richest families in the world. They’ve amassed billions in personal fortunes. Even if they ceased to run the monarchy they would still be an exceptionally wealthy aristocratic family. But the state assets which they hold in trust could be put to another purpose. After all, the Irish didn’t get rid of Dublin Castle when the governor departed. I’m sure that Buckingham Palace and other royal palaces would remain a huge draw for tourists – in fact, I’d open them all year round to visitors not just for two months. And imagine the tour guides explaining not only how they were the preserve of the monarchy for centuries but how eventually the people decided to allow the national trust to run them for the benefit of everyone.
This isn’t an argument about money. I’d favour changing to an elected head of state even if we got the royal family for free. But it’s hard not to comment on the celebration of conspicuous wealth and inequality which royal events involve. How could I possibly think it’s right to spend £30 million of public funds on a wedding when health and social services for my constituents are stretched for funds.
I, of course, am a campaigner for Scottish independence and I've heard it said that that means I shouldn’t have a view. Not so. For starters until Scotland becomes independent it will remain part of the UK and its representatives should have the same right as others to argue for reforms in how the UK is governed.
There’s no direct connection between the arguments for independence and an elected head of state. If Scotland were to become independent that doesn’t mean that the country would become a republic. That’s a choice the people who live here may want to consider further down the line. But it should be their choice. And in order to win our independence and get the right to choose on this and so many other things I will happily continue to campaign hand in hand with monarchists who will have a different view than I on this matter.