Life is full of surprises in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (or UKOGBANI as it is affectionately known). Today, in a breach with time-honoured tradition, the Queen will attend the funeral of one of her Prime Ministers in what is not, officially at any rate, a state funeral. Since Churchill Britain’s six of her PMs have been seen off without a royal wave. Thatcher is, apparently, a special case. The constitution here is much praised for its suppleness, but an unofficial state funeral is pushing things.
This follows recent revelations about the political activities of the monarchy. Thanks to John Kirkhope’s determined use of the Freedom of Information Act we now know that the monarchy is consulted on legislation much more regularly than we would otherwise have thought. This follows the discovery that Prince of Wales is in the habit of writing letters to Ministers about matters that excite his interest. Though the conventional wisdom has it that the Crown is a purely decorative and apolitical reminder of the country’s glorious history, the reality is a sight more complicated.
We can at least comfort ourselves with the fact that we are a democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Or rather we could if it were true. The country is, as a matter of boring old fact, neither. In UKOGBANI, the Parliament has managed to secure effective control of most of the Crown’s powers and rules in the Queen’s name. Sovereignty derives from the Crown, not the people. Parliament has given itself a democratic character of a limited kind through legislation that it could, in theory, repeal. The only thing superior to Parliament is the Crown, which retains the notional power to dissolve it.
And this is not a matter of symbols and subjectivities only, though they matter a good deal. The Queen’s presence at Saint Paul’s today hints at something normally passes unremarked. The state in Britain is not neutral. To take only one example, in different ways the Bank of England and the City of London Corporation are highly effective guardians of the financial sector’s interests. Tackling the country’s economic problems will require constitutional change. And many in the permanent administration find it difficult to distinguish between effective reform of the state and subversion. From where they stand they look very similar. Preservation of the existing arrangements, on the other hand, is the very summit of sound common sense.
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All this presents a dilemma for democrats. The current arrangements are intolerable but the monarchy is enormously popular. Less than a fifth of the population support its abolition. Not only that, but mere abolition would not be enough to establish anything other than a very weird and ukogbanish republic, in which Parliament continued to rule without reference to a sovereign people. Aha, say modern republicans, that’s why we must have a new, properly republican constitution. UKOGBANI must become a modern country! Like France! Or the United States! Presented with this option most people seem happy to stick with the lash-up they know. It is difficult to blame them. Actually existing republics are not a terribly convincing argument for republicanism.
But perhaps there is another way, one that addresses the stated concerns of most republicans while avoiding the need for outright abolition. What if we were to take seriously what 80 percent of the public say that want and campaign for a constitutional monarchy that was formally subordinated to a sovereign people? Such a move would necessarily set limits to Parliamentary power. But more importantly, it would align democratic republicanism with majority opinion and create an opportunity to consider how we can improve on existing republican constitutions. Constitutional reform can then become central to the cause of deep structural change in UKOGBANI.
Republicanism means popular ownership of the state. If we are to avoid the problems of elite domination found in contemporary republics the public must secure a range of new powers. Republican rule in a large and complex society requires that we oversee our institutions and have a share in determining their conduct. The systems of communication, subsidy and credit should be at the heart of our constitutional thought. We will not be forgiven if we push them to the margins in our obsession with the mere fact of a crowned head of state. And in these matters the theorists of republican from previous centuries have little to tell us. The world of Jefferson was closer to the world of Solon than it was to ours.
But how can a republic have a hereditary head of state? Here the ancients can help up. In democratic Athens the Eupatrid clan once dominated government. After Solon’s reforms they retained hereditary responsibilities relating to purification from the guilt of murder. If Athens, the prototype of radical democracy, could tolerate this, then there is no reason why we could not make some similar arrangement here. After all, if we want to achieve something without precedent, a large egalitarian republic, then a bit of tradition seems a small price to pay. It is fun to shout defiance at inherited privilege, but, like so many things in this strange country, it is an enjoyable way of missing the point.
When asked, most people in UKOGBANI say that they want a constitutional monarchy that is also a democracy. Shrewd advocates of radical reform will work to secure just that.
Dan Hind is the author of The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His essay Maximum Republic is available on Kindle.
A version of this article first appeared on openDemocracy.