London, United Kingdom - This year Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. Is it time for Britain's republicans to stop worrying and learn to love the Crown?
One of the more reactionary Oxford colleges used to serve famously boring food to its undergraduates. There was no obvious reason for it. The college had plenty of money and the fellows - the academic staff - enjoyed a superb cellar and the ministrations of an excellent chef. One day a young student asked his tutor why he and his contemporaries had to put up with such needlessly monotonous and unappetising fare. "Oh, it's very simple," came the reply. "It's to stop you complaining about anything important."
I am often reminded of this story when the subject of constitutional reform comes up in Britain. All too often the discussion is framed around the person and personality of the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Those who support reform complain that the queen is a symbol of unearned privilege, a reminder of our feudal past and a Thoroughly Bad Thing. Meanwhile, defenders of the Crown insist that she is a paragon of public duty, a symbol of continuity and a Thoroughly Good Thing. The more intellectually resourceful monarchists, like Matthew Taylor at the RSA, for example, suggest that she a good deal less snobbish than many of her sophisticated, metropolitan critics.
There is no doubt that the monarchy plays an important role in British politics. This becomes obvious when the prime minister, David Cameron, tells us we should see ourselves reflected in the eminently British qualities of the queen:
"As we welcome the world to the best Olympics ever and as, in the 60th year of her reign, we honour our queen as the finest and most famous example of British dedication, British duty, British steadiness, British tradition, let us use these things as a mirror of ourselves, too, a mirror of the nation."
But as well as the symbolic and emotional resources that Cameron is eager to exploit, the monarchy offers something far more important to the defenders of the established order. Like the food given to the undergraduates, the Crown's continuing existence diverts attention away from more serious matters. Constitutional debate narrows down into a spat about whether or not to have an elected head of state.
The current constitution is a shambles that serves the interests of a relative handful of insiders. We have an unelected second chamber. The executive has wrapped its tentacles around the legislature and drained it of authority and independence. The financial interest has its own pocket borough in the shape of the Corporation of the City of London. The main avenues of information are silted up to the point where only a trickle of useful knowledge ever reaches the public. The Bank of England operates in a state of permanent ambiguity, nationally owned but operationally independent. And the queen as hereditary head of state provides a wonderful distraction from all this.
Picking the wrong fight
A constitutional reform movement in Britain called Republic calls for "a democratic alternative to the monarchy" because they believe that the Crown is at the heart of an unwritten constitution that frustrates meaningful democracy. And when most British people think about republicanism, they think about Republic and similar campaigns to replace the queen with an elected president. But the focus on the monarch allows their opponents to use Elizabeth II's considerable personal popularity to protect the unreformed and unwritten constitution.
A republic is a form of government where the state is the shared possession of a defined public. Republicans are committed to notion that individual freedom can only be secured through participation in government. We reach civic adulthood when we exercise control over the state. In Abraham Lincoln's words, "allow all the governed an equal voice in the government and that, and that alone, is self-government".
Britain is not a republic because the state is the possession of Parliament, which is to say, of the Commons, the Lords and the Crown. Parliament, not the people, is sovereign. Replacing the queen with a president would not suffice to change Britain into a republic. A republic would have to subordinate the institutions of Parliament to a sovereign public.
But it is possible to secure public sovereignty, and hence republican government, while retaining the Crown. Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish Nationalists, has shown one possible way. He has said that he would like Queen Elizabeth II to be Elizabeth, Queen of Scots. In other words, an independent Scotland would be a republic with a crowned head of state. There is no reason why the other nations in the Union couldn't adopt the same approach, with or without Scottish independence.
Those who support public sovereignty for the British face two challenges. The first is to shift the focus of constitutional debate away from the person of the monarch and onto the origins of sovereign power; do we wish to be self-governing citizens, or occasional voters in a Parliamentary regime with popular characteristics? The second challenge is to work out the new institutional forms that would make public sovereignty meaningful. After all, replacing a 17th-century constitution with an 18th-century one would constitute progress, but it would be progress measured in yards.
A properly sovereign public would have to understand and control the systems of communication and credit. It would have to shape the productive economy to protect the freedom of the individual and to ensure an equality of participation in government. It would have to educate the young to prepare them for life as free citizens. Its citizens would have to exercise a permanent and jealous surveillance of the state.
A renovated republican programme that recognised this would unite anti-capitalists, environmental activists, and those who agitate for information freedom. It also stands a chance of winning popular support. A campaign to get rid of Queen Elizabeth II, on the other hand, looks like precisely the wrong fight to pick.
The monarchy is not to everyone's taste. Some find the continuity reassuring, while others are bored by it. It is a fairly minor matter, much like the quality of the food in a college refectory. A republican is someone who wishes to give substance to the idea of public sovereignty. This is a difficult task. It is not made easier by arguments about the palatability of our head of state. If a republic is our goal, then let it be a crowned republic.
Daniel Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year's winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize.
Follow Daniel Hind on Twitter: @DanHind.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.