Civil liberties campaigners need to look at the bigger picture


9:17 am - January 23rd 2009

by Graham Smith    


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The Convention on Modern Liberty has a packed agenda, and I hope it is an event which will lead to some real substantial action. Our liberties have been under attack like never before, yet so far the response has been woefully inadequate and timid, with a few notable exceptions.

But, the biggest problem is that everyone is busy fighting fires and few are standing back to wonder how the whole thing caught alight in the first place.

I’m the first to commend fellow campaigners for their extraordinary efforts, and my hat goes off to the campaigns against 42 days and, just recently, against the secrecy of MPs’ expenses (not strictly a ‘liberty’ issue, but a symptom of the same problem). However, there is no clear narrative being built up about what is really the problem.

The focus is usually on the specifics of the issue at hand, about the pros and cons of CCTV, the strengths and weaknesses of 42 days detention or whether ID cards are a useful anti-terror tool or a waste of money. At the centre of these debates however, is one simple question: why does the government have unlimited power to do as it sees fit, tempered only by the faint prospect of losing power?

Few people are offering answers about where the main fault lines in our constitution lie.

This power exists not because we, as a nation, have deemed it to be the best way to run this country, but because our constitution has simply evolved from one based on the rule of despots. The British constitution is based not on popular sovereignty, not on the rights of the citizen or the principles of democracy. It is based on enabling the state to rule and control.

In a TV debate recently I suggested that all we have here in the UK is a poor imitation of democracy, in which the people get just the occasional vote and, in between elections, the government has all the power – all of it. Former Tory MP Patrick Nicholls, also on the panel, cried out: “that’s democracy!” No, Patrick, it’s not.

Our constitution has enjoyed some superficial changes, certainly, particularly over the past eleven years, but it is essentially the same constitution we’ve had since the inglorious Glorious Revolution in the late 1680s. It is based on the sovereignty of Crown and parliament. The powers of the monarch – who for most of her reign is constitutionally pointless – now reside either in the Commons or in Number 10. Number 10 controls the Commons save for the occasional rebellion, and so unlimited power is granted to whomever occupies the office of Prime Minister.

Democracy is about ‘the people’ being the boss – an idea they understand in the US only too well. In the UK all we get is the chance, every four or five years, to influence who will be our boss. Lord Hailsham (not a typical republican radical) put it succinctly back in his 1976 Richard Dimbleby lecture:

the powers of our own Parliament are absolute and unlimited. And in this, we are almost alone. All other free nations impose limitations on their representative assemblies. We impose none on ours. Parliament can take away a man’s liberty or his life without a trial, and in past centuries, it has actually done so.

Hailsham famously added: “We live in an elective dictatorship, absolute in theory, if hitherto thought tolerable in practice.”

The source of this situation is the monarchy. Parliament gets its ‘absolute and unlimited’ power from the Crown. It is our status as subjects of the Crown (subjects still, despite various ‘citizenship’ Acts) which makes parliament our master, not our servant.

This constitutional arrangement corrupts and corrodes any sense of democracy we may have, it leaves otherwise intelligent and educated people like Patrick Nicholls to believe that what we have here is democracy. His cry that occasional elections equals democracy – rightly greeted with astonishment from some in the audience – is a sad indictment on the health of British democracy and our understanding of it.

It is in this context that our rights are being eroded while so many are willing to sit in silence, often applauding the attack on their own liberties.

Those in power will always seek to control and to manipulate those they govern. It is as inevitable as death and taxes. This is why written constitutions, based on sound democratic principles and containing strong defences against authoritarianism, are essential in any modern society.

There is no room for the Crown or for a sovereign parliament in such a constitution, only for the sovereignty of the people and the rights of the citizen.

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About the author
This is a guest post. Graham Smith is campaigns manager and executive officer for Republic - the campaign for a democratic alternative to the monarchy.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments


1. douglas clark

Graham,

I will surrender to your greater knowledge, but I thought we were all called citizens these days?

http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/britishcitizenship/applying/

I’m going to be a bit pissed off if I’m back to being a subject again.

The monarchy is still popular and I suspect most people don’t feel that their liberty or right to vote is infringed by this.

Trying to tie a civili liberties campaign to republicanism will backfire, it will simply alienate public opinion. Indeed, many monarchists support the institution because they consider it to be a guardian of our liberties.

The idea that the Monarchy has any control whatsoever about Parliament, and that abolishing the Monarchy would do anything to change the situation we’re in, is very lofty as far as ideas go.

Lee – who said the monarchy controls anything?

Richard – are you suggesting we only support things that are popular? Regardless of the success of the palace spin machine, the constitutional argument remains valid. If we don’t address the fundamental problem with our constitution then any attempts to deal with attacks on our liberties will be superficial and temporary.

True enough Graham, I misread a part of your post, my second part stands though.

You mean the bit about not changing anything? I disagree. The point here is that the entire British constitution is based on the Crown. Get rid of that and we treat ourselves to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to write a new democratic constitution. It could change everything.

Graham, it would be rather difficult to implement something without popular support or the support of the Government.

What sort of “sound democratic principles and containing strong defences against authoritarianism” are you talking about?

The class divide in this country is a direct reult of being subjects to a higher authority. We can never be truly free until we abolish the constitution we have that allows a select few to wield influence and power over others by right of birth. I agree with everything Graham says. It is an infringement of my civil liberties that I am bound to pay tax to a government that lets some of these royals off the hook when it comes to paying tax. We need to move towards a democratic head of state who could be of any race, colour or religion.

I fundamentally agree with this, but while “the sovereignty of the people and the rights of the citizen” must indeed be the centrepoint of any modern constitution, I’m not convinced that necessarily means becoming a republic.

There are several examples across Europe of constitutional monarchies that have written constitutions and are effectively rooted in popular sovereignty. We don’t have a proper constitutional monarchy, just a feudal system that has had a series of conventions heaped on top of it to take the hard edge off. That system is indeed in need of urgent overhaul, and goes to the heart of why so many members of the establishment treat us as subjects of the Crown (which is what we technically are).

But you can have all that – and still have the Queen. My perception of the public is that is broadly where they are at. And writing as a republican myself, I’m not prepared to spend a lot of time and energy engaging in whether we should have a monarchy, as opposed to challenging unaccountable executive power (regardless of whether it is formally invested in the Crown or the State).

We could redesign the whole constitution from the ground up. We still need a head of state. The question a lot of republicans avoid is this:
Do you want a directly elected executive?

If yes, well done, you’re giving the elective dictatorship to someone answerable to the people every 4 years, a system that’s not got a good track record over the world.

If not, then you need a ceremonial head of state and a prime minister. Redo the powers, redefine where they come from, start again from scratch. Happy with all of that.

What do you choose as the ceremonial head of state? Why not pick a model that works successfully in many of the most succesful European countries, is credited with the reestablishment of Spanish democracy after the Franco years and is popular domestically and overseas?

Graham’s right to observe the problem is constitutional. But his monomaniacal obsession with who the head of state is instead of where the power comes from is offputting and devalues the debate. Constitutional reformers need to stop getting sidetracked from the actual objectives.

If you want an elected executive, say so. I can debate you on that easily, it’s a stupid idea. If you don’t, then sort the real problems out.

The simple fact is, regardless of everything else, many of us do not want a queen (I refuse to draw any importance to her by giving her a capital letter), or any royal family at all. Unfortunately, we are a silent majority who do not get given a voice in a media which is complicit in the whole game (Royals sell newspapers etc.) I personally view them as benefit claimants on an extreme scale. I really would like to see them have to try and make their way in this world through hard work alone like most of the other people in this country.

Unfortunately, we are a silent majority

As someone once observed with reference to the ‘moral majority’ in the US, you’re neither silent nor a majority.

many of us do not want a queen… or any royal family at all.

Granted, I’m a liberal, many people disagree with me.

Unfortunately, we are a silent majority

You got evidence for that? Polling data? No? Thought not. If you can change the opinion of the country, fine. Until then, stop claiming to speak for a majority that isn’t there.

Royals sell newspapers etc.

Why d’you think that might be then?

Seriously, I don’t care who the ceremonial head of state is. If most people want to replace it with some lofty old worthy (President Blair anyone), that’s fine by me. But I don’t see any evidence that points to your view being popular. And I’d rather concentrate on more important factors, like how we’re actually governed and how the system distorts the polity.

14. Mike Killingworth

First (although I agree that it’s a side issue really) I don’t think that the monarchy is popular: the present Queen undoubtedly is. FWIW I suspect that this is also the view that “The Firm” (as Phil the Greek calls it) itself takes.

The issue itself relates to the way in which – in contrast to America and France, to name but two – this country became a parliamentary democracy. There is no effective narrative of successful struggle, with the exception of the Suffragettes. Everything that Parliament fought for in the Civil War was surrendered after Cromwell’s death (if not before). The coup d’état of 1688 provided a successful narrative of struggle for the aristocracy which still sustains the ruling class (e.g. David Cameron).

The nineteenth century provided a narrative of co-option, not of struggle. Our “betters” retained power by making concessions, notably on the franchise but also on religion and freedom of organisation which drew the teeth of the self-confidence of ordinary people and their leaders. Yes, of course peaceful change is to be preferred to violent upheaval, here I merely want to note that it also has a downside. Not the least of the reasons that we’ll never have a British Obama is that he was able to make associations in his Inaugural Address that simply don’t apply here.

There is a case that, as a people, we no longer desire nor deserve freedom. Its price is constant vigilance, and there is little evidence that, outside the “chattering class” of which I suppose we are part, there is any great willingness to exercise that vigilance.

Recent events, which have shown that power in our society lies with bankers, not politicians, are likely to re-inforce this.

When 1000 hours are spent debating the regulation of fox hunting and no hours on the regulation of banking something is going badly wrong. We have not any Parliamentary scrutiny of economic policy since last November , whats the point of that . Most laws emanate from the EU anyway and the delicate balance of the constitution has been torn apart by labour gerrymandering in Scotland and delaying the boundary commission . Conservatives now need 8% more to get a majority. Meanwhile the wishes of the people on immigration , crime , education and much more are habitually ignored by a self serving elite .

It is now such a comedy that far from getting the rid of the Queen I would be happier to get rid of Parliament .

God save the Queen

MatGB:

“What do you choose as the ceremonial head of state? Why not pick a model that works successfully in many of the most succesful European countries, is credited with the reestablishment of Spanish democracy after the Franco years and is popular domestically and overseas?”

Why not pick a model that works succesfully in the rest of Europe? A truly democratic one. Once you “Redo the powers, redefine where they come from, start again from scratch” even a largely ceremonial head of state will have important discretionary powers. Therefore they should be accountable to the people on whose behalf they may exercise those discretionary powers.

ukliberty – yes, popular support is necessary for implementation, but it should not guide decisions about what is right or wrong, what should be campaigned for or shouldn’t. Many authoritarian ideas can be popular, that doesn’t mean liberals should not campaign against them.

The democratic principles I’m talking about are those of popular sovereignty, the notion that the state is there to serve us, not the other way around. The defences include a more robust parliament, limits to the power of government and a greater chance for the people to hold parliament and government to account (better elections, recall, citizen-initiated referenda on constitutional issues and a head of state who can play a role as guardian of the constitution and the rights of citizens.)

Hi James. We either have popular sovereignty or we don’t. We either have complete control over our public institutions or we don’t. There is no room for a monarchy in a constitution based on popular sovereignty. If the monarchy remains in place it must have a function in the constitution. If it doesn’t then it’s entirely pointless. And quite why on this issue we should bend over backwards to accommodate current public opinion, rather than seek to persuade people, is beyond me.

MatGB – Republicans do not avoid the question of an elected head of state at all. Quite the opposite. Republic does not advocate a directly elected executive head of state, we advocate a model similar to Ireland. Having said that, many of our members do support a US-style system. But that system is not an elective dictatorship. The US president is considerably weaker domestically than our PM.

What is this nonsense about a: “monomaniacal obsession with who the head of state is instead of where the power comes from is offputting and devalues the debate”?? My article is about where the power comes from. As I said to James, if we’re to have a constitution built on popular sovereignty there is no room for a monarchy. Popular sovereignty requires the people to have complete control and accountability over public institutions, it also is based on the notion that we are all equal citizens. There is simply no room for monarchy in a democracy based on popular sovereignty. What’s the point of it?

The point is clear: our constitution is based on the Crown. Replace the Crown with a written constitution based on popular sovereignty. In doing so the monarchy is removed from the constitution. The head of state can then play a role (not an executive one) in representing Britain, holding reserve powers and acting as a guardian of the constitution. An extra check on parliament and government if one is needed.

What is the point of the monarchy in a democracy?? Answer me that.

Silent: Grabted I am not silent here but anybody with views such as mine is highly unlikely to receive cover by newspapers or major media netwroks such as BBC, ITV etc.

Majority: I have no figures to back this up but base it on the people I come into contact with in day to day life who in the majority seem to hold the same views.

Newspapers – yes, quality newspapers like the Sun, Daily Mail and Telegraph like toserve up either gossip or fawning articles for the people who read such papers. This does not mean they are popular because it sells papers. The Jonothan Ross/Russel Brand scandal sold lots of papers but it does not mean that they are popular with the majority of the population.

how the system distorts the polity.

The primary problem is that by controlling the left and centre a’ progressive’ minority use money they take from one group of enemies to pay off another group establishing the appearance of a Liberal majority which has no basis whatsoever in reality ( See Polls on immigration law and order international aid , EU etc. ). The point of PR would be to further concentrate power in the hands of this elite whereas now at least the prospect of being personally removed necessitates some responsiveness .

I think open primaries are worth looking at and more frequent use of referenda .We have technology to have a far closer control over our representatives and while sudden wholesale change is usually a mess by slow increment we could adapt from where we are to the address obvious abuses of the LIberal elite

Absolutely correct Graham. There is a huge link between civil liberties, true democracy and the monarchial system that burdens us all.

One need look no further than the invasion of Iraq. We were taken to war by the then Prime Minister exercising his power to do so under ‘the royal perogative’, a power given to him by the queen, not by us the people. Even Parliament was not consulted. A Prime Minister should indeed have the power to go to war without consultation in an EMERGENCY but that power is ours to give and not in the remit of the current leading member of an unelected family. There is no greater civil liberty than the right to life and many, many, of our young men and women in the armed forces lost life and limbs, not to mention 600,000 Iraqis.

“What is the point of the monarchy in a democracy?? Answer me that.”

What’s the problem with a monarchy in a democracy, when the monarchy have no practical power? Answer us that.

“We were taken to war by the then Prime Minister exercising his power to do so under ‘the royal perogative’”

The Queen and monarchy has nothing to do with this. It may have done once-upon-a-time but now the Prime Minister decides to do this. Whether the Monarchy was there or not he would still have been able to do it. Blame parliamentary process that allows some individual to declare war, and the centuries of parliamentarians that have not contested such a rule, they are the culprits here.

We either have popular sovereignty or we don’t. We either have complete control over our public institutions or we don’t. There is no room for a monarchy in a constitution based on popular sovereignty. If the monarchy remains in place it must have a function in the constitution. If it doesn’t then it’s entirely pointless.

Well, I argued for a constitutional monarchy (I’d prefer a republic but I just don’t care enough), why by definition would be defined in a constitution. And its function would be the formal head of state. But it would be popular sovereignty in that the constitution would be owned by the people. Surely if the people want a monarch they should be allowed one?

And quite why on this issue we should bend over backwards to accommodate current public opinion, rather than seek to persuade people, is beyond me.

Because there are bigger battles to fight?

I was in a rush – my last post was a bit rambling. I’ll come back to those points if they’re not clear.

On the question of a majority – I wish it were so, but unfortunately most people at the moment would support the retention of the monarchy. However, as I’ve said, support for the monarchy is not a reason to support the monarchy.

Part of the problem here is that too many people just think of the monarchy as ‘palaces and princes’ and do not make the connection to power and politics. The republican movement is not principally about the Queen, although she would certainly have to look for a new job in a republic. It is about the constitution and the Crown.

There are essentially two parts to the republican movement: firstly there is the question of how our constitution works, where power comes from, how much of it is concentrated at the top and how little the power the people have. This is all connected to the monarchy as the basis for the current constitution.

Secondly there is the question, which gets much more attention due to the nature of the point, about how best we can choose a head of state, what hereditary public office says about our society and our politics and what role the head of state can or should play.

They are two different but related points – both of which conclude with the republican argument that we need a new republican constitution.

“What’s the problem with a monarchy in a democracy, when the monarchy have no practical power? Answer us that.”

Try answering a question with an answer, rather than a question. But let’s distinguish between the monarch and the monarchy. The monarch has very little power (but does have some, as we may witness if we have a hung parliament). The monarchy and the Crown is the basis of our constitution. That is what is the problem with it. You can introduce what ever laws you like to protect liberties, but they are all worthless if the Crown remains in place and sovereignty remains with parliament.

All the powers of the Crown have either passed to the PM or to the Commons. The Commons is essentially controlled by the PM. Therefore the PM has all the power. If the PM wants to change a law he can and will. This is why our liberties are under such an assault, there is no protection against the power of the government. There can’t be while our constitution remains as it is.

You can argue that we can write a constitution based on popular sovereignty and retain the monarch as head of state. But if the head of state then has any role whatsoever, then the ‘popular sovereignty’ is very superficial indeed, for we clearly have our sovereignty limited when it comes to choosing our own head of state.

Let’s be absolutely clear: popular sovereignty means the state is ours. We get to choose who does what job. It is not chosen by birth and kept out of reach of the people.

If we did remove the monarch from the constitution, so she has no role, even as head of state (or even if she had the position but absolutely no role to play) then I would ask again – what is the point!?

The position of head of state can actually play a useful and practical role in representing the country and holding reserve powers that are independent of the government. Retaining the monarchy means we cannot have such a head of state.

Graham,

ukliberty – yes, popular support is necessary for implementation, but it should not guide decisions about what is right or wrong, what should be campaigned for or shouldn’t. Many authoritarian ideas can be popular, that doesn’t mean liberals should not campaign against them.

You’re teaching granny to suck eggs.

My point is that without sufficient numbers there is no chance of getting any change. It seems to me the monarchy and the constitution are the least of our worries. I think the underlying problem is that sufficient numbers simply don’t care.

And that’s one of the reasons I’m attending the Convention on Modern Liberty, because I want to discuss with people how to get the numbers we need, how to act in order to get them to care.

“But it would be popular sovereignty in that the constitution would be owned by the people. Surely if the people want a monarch they should be allowed one?”

See my last post – if the monarch is head of state that popular sovereignty is an illusion. It is the people’s state. We are not the state’s people.

“Well, I argued for a constitutional monarchy (I’d prefer a republic but I just don’t care enough)”

This is an odd response. Doesn’t really make sense. If you’d prefer a republic then argue for it. If you don’t care enough fine, don’t do anything about it (there are plenty of things I believe in that I don’t campaign on). But that’s ok, there are others who will campaign on it. But that’s no reason to argue for something you’d prefer not to have!

“Because there are bigger battles to fight?”

Such as? If you’re going to say ‘civil liberties’ or ‘parliamentary reform’ my answer would be this: any such reforms will always be piecemeal and temporary so long as we do not have a republican constitution. The reason is because the Crown gives sovereignty to parliament and all power to the PM. What one PM does another can undo.

Again – this is to do with the fundamentals of the constitution, not who we elect as head of state. The head of state is a feature of the constitutional arrangements advocated on either side, but it is not the basis for the debate.

ukliberty – I agree with you mostly and I didn’t mean to teach granny to suck eggs. My principal job in Republic is to get people to care!

Where I disagree is on the view that the monarchy and the constitution is the least of our problems. I’d say it is central to our problems. It is our constitution which dampens the democratic spirit, which limits the power of the people and therefore disconnects what they do and believe from what parliament and government does. It is our undemocratic constitution (and a society that wallows a little too much in sycophancy) which is at the heart of ‘people not caring’.

In fact I’d say it’s less to do with people not caring and more to do with people not seeing a point of acting. Our constitution doesn’t encourage engagement.

Graham

I agree that the problem is the unlimited power enjoyed by Parliament and nowadays, effectively the Executive. I think though that you could replace the monarch with an elected head of state and still have effectively the same problem.

I think Patrick Nicholls is right. Electing a government every five years and leaving them to get on with it is democracy. You seem, like so many others, to be conflating liberty with democracy and this is a dangerous mistake to make. We suffer from a surfeit of democracy and a lack of liberty.

The monarchy is a red herring here (although I’m not averse to losing it). The issue is how to restrict the power of Parliament and the Executive who wield the real power, leaving the maximum possible space in which individuals can be free of power and politicians. A written constitution is probably a good way of doing this, but only if it is about creating liberties (freedoms from government) rather than rights (duties enforced upon others. As soon as talk of a written constitution starts, every pressure group in the country starts trying to hijack it for their own narrow ends – witness Friends of the Earth calling for a written constitution to include “the right to a clean environment” the other day.

Might I suggest as a starting point, the American constitution, but unlike the Americans, actually enforcing it?

People often argue in debates like this that they would rather have a monarchy than someone like Blair or Bush as their head of state. The difference is of course that every four years we would get to change this. Look at America this week. They have chosen a new president and the country is uniting around him. Yet even a president with that much political capital must still negotiate with congress, must still pay attention to the constitution. He even had to take his vows twice just in case because the constitution is king.

We have established what little democracy we have in this country only by dragging the political establishment very much against their will. Eleven years of Labour in power and we still have an unelected House of Lords. Why? Because it suits them. The monarchy is the same. They pay lip service to democracy but rather like having a head of state who has no real power and allows everything to go through on the nod. Only in Britain can the Prime Minister give a seat in parliament to someone and then put him in his government and effectively make him deputy Prime Minister.

The monarchy is blocking much needed reform in this country. Parliament is supine except when it comes to their own expenses. The Prime Minister is like a president except he can get the job without having to stand for election. He or she decides when to hold elections. They can decide to bulldoze people’s homes to build a new runway to Heathrow without holding a vote in Parliament. This is because we have a PM whose power is derived from what used to be an autocratic system. No wonder they like it so much.

Our democracy is not functioning as it should. We need to start again with a clean sheet of paper and start right at the top.

Only in Britain can the Prime Minister give a seat in parliament to someone and then put him in his government and effectively make him deputy Prime Minister.

Care to remind us of the democratic process by which the American people elect their Secretary of State?

The source of sovereignty is of interest to political philosophers, and makes no difference to the situation on the ground. You can have a monarchy in which the people have effective recourse against abuses of power, and a democracy with a written constitution in which they don’t. If you’re objecting to the current situation in the UK because Blair was able to go to war without the consent of The People, how did Bush get that consent before the start of the Iraq war?

“The class divide in this country is a direct reult of being subjects to a higher authority. We can never be truly free until we abolish the constitution we have that allows a select few to wield influence and power over others by right of birth. ”

You are saying class divides wouldn’t exist without a monarchy? I personally have never that I am unfree just because the head of state wears a Crown and inherits his/her position.

“It is our constitution which dampens the democratic spirit, which limits the power of the people and therefore disconnects what they do and believe from what parliament and government does. ”

How? Do you really think that out in the country people think “we’re a monarchy so I won’t bother to engage in the political process”? We had much larger membership of political parties and a great deal more political activism decades ago when we were a monarchy.

“Yet even a president with that much political capital must still negotiate with congress, must still pay attention to the constitution.”

See the last 8 years to see just how much rubbish that statement is, sorry.

The article reminds me somewhat of a quote from Rousseau, in ‘On The Social Contract’:-

‘The people of England believes itself to be free; it is quite wrong: it is free only during elections of Members of Parliament. Once they are elected, the people is enslaved, it is nothing. Seeing the use it makes of liberty during the brief moments of posession, it deserves to lose it.’

Never mind the syntactical context, I think this encompasses quite well what comes through in the article. As head of a republican organisation, Graham can be forgiven for having a rather anti-monarchist stance; but this doesn’t mean that it’s misplaced. If we are to effectively prevent the risk of abuses of our democratic voice by governments which are primarily influenced by elections and opinion polls, we need wholesale constitutional reform, and something more concrete than the ‘unwritten constitution’ we have.

It cannot be denied that a key reason for this is the fact that as a nation the citizenry have been somewhat inactive in allowing the mere evolution of a feudal system to our current state, of which the status of the monarchy is a key part and the source of the powerful parliamentary executive, no matter how toothless the monarchy is. A statement for republicanism should not, therefore, be a merely anti-royal jab, but a proclaimation of the sovereignty of the people and the desire for the democratic accountability of which Rousseau speaks. Supporting the monarchy simply legitimises the unaccountable and undemocratic elements of the British polity.

Andrew,

The American system elects a President and he then appoints various people to run the departments of state. They have to be confirmed by the Senate. There are checks and balances. We have a Prime Minister who can give a seat in our equivalent of the senate to whoever he likes despite the fact that man has had to resign twice. You aren’t really comparing like with like.

I’m not arguing for a moment that the American system is perfect. No democracy is as Churchill pointed out. Bush went too far on many issues. But democracy can correct for that as it has done with the election of Obama who is now reversing much that Bush did. Here our bankrupt and unelected Prime Minister can struggle on for another year and we the electorate and our head of state get no say in the matter.

Our system is broken. We should design a new one. Nobody is suggesting we should copy the american system which also has its flaws but the constitution there hasn’t done badly considering it was written 200 years ago. The irony is that much of the thinking behind it came from this side of the Atlantic and we still haven’t caught up.

#22

Lee – I can’t give many specifics and for that reason don’t treat this as a campaign priority myself. However, don’t you think the monarchical establishment has a conservative influence over the mood of Britain? It’s certainly a convenient rallying point for conservatives in a crisis. And undoubtedly members of the royal family get privileged access to the PM, senior civil servants etc – it can’t be healthy for a family with their background and particular interests to have such influence.

Personally if we were to get rid of the monarchy I would want to keep a system where an elected figure had no more power than they have now, and played a purely ceremonial role. I don’t want a system like the US where competing branches of government can always blame the other for the lack of change. Perhaps changing the head of state every year so that they couldn’t build up too much informal power either. Part of me says (with tongue partly in cheek) why not treat it like jury service and draw lots for it every year?

also, I’m not sure about quoting Rousseau – who wrote before universal suffrage. Bevan was fond of saying that democracy in Britain was only 40 years old and that it would continue to evolve as it settled down.

That continuing evolution is one reason why I am against a written constitution – I don’t want power to be vested in a document which will inevitably become outdated. In the US their constitution has reified their political culture. I would much rather power rested in the hands of a Party given a mandate to govern by the people. For that reason I think people criticising Brown for being “unelected” – like Paul above – don’t understand our system and its advantages properly. The people elected the Labour Party, not Blair or Brown. They elected the Party on a manifesto and both Party and manifesto bind the PM. I like that fundamental principle much more than the system in the US which allows Presidents to get away with not implementing the programme they were elected on because members of their own Party in Congress and Senate are too independent of them. Even if the US were to elect a working class socialist who was way to the left of Obama there would be no chance of her getting a popular agenda through. In the UK the possibility is at least there.

For that reason I think people criticising Brown for being “unelected” – like Paul above – don’t understand our system and its advantages properly. The people elected the Labour Party, not Blair or Brown. They elected the Party on a manifesto and both Party and manifesto bind the PM.

What proportion of those who voted for a particular party read that party’s manifesto?

Tim, the theory is that we elect parties but we all know the reality. Our politics is increasingly presidential. Blair promised at the last election to serve as PM for most of the term and was then effectively unseated. Has Brown stuck by manifesto pledges? He has not. What about the Lisbon treaty? What about the fact that they have had two votes in one parliament about detention without charge? Last year the Labour party seriously considered deposing a second Prime Minister in one parliament. They would have been under no obligation to call an election. There would have been pressure to do so but they could have ignored it. The queen, who ought to be the arbiter in such a situation as this, is powerless because she too is unelected and purely ceremonial. We need urgent reform.

Don’t be so patronising. Most voters may not have read, compared & contrasted and written a GCSE essay on them but they were certainly aware of some of the points they made and where a party does not keep even one of its manifesto commitments it comes in for a lot of stick. If you don’t think manifesto commitments are taken seriously, refer back to the banning of foxhunting & how much parliamentary time was given over to it to make sure the promise was kept, and the delaying of the introduction of top-up fees to make sure a promise was not broken. (Of course the spirit of the government’s actions was contrary, but the point is that the manifesto did have a binding effect on them.)

If you have as little faith in voters as you evidently do then there’s no point in any kind of democracy and all forms of it are roughly identical in practice.

Care to remind us of the democratic process by which the American people elect their Secretary of State?

Easy. They elect a president through electing members of the electoral college, the remit of the president being to appoint an administration to implement their policy and generally see to the running of the country. Amongst the members of this administration is invariably the Secretary of State, until such a time as that position is abolished.

sorry, last comment aimed at ukliberty not Paul. However, I disagree with him too – the comment is self-contradictory in a number of places. Firstly, Blair’s vague statement about serving a term was not a manifesto commitment. Secondly, if he was effectively unseated by the will of the PLP as you state then that shows our system isn’t as presidential as you think. Your view on whether the European Constitution manifesto commitment was kept or not depends on whether you think the Lisbon Treaty was similar enough to the European Constitution to be covered by the commitment, and most people who think it was are just relying on what the Sun tells them.

In the UK parties are still more important than personalities and I welcome that. Can you imagine how right-wing a directly elected Blair would have been compared to a Labour Blair? Just read Alistair Campbell’s diaries to get a flavour of how Blair thought the LP held him back from pursuing a right-wing agenda.

However, don’t you think the monarchical establishment has a conservative influence over the mood of Britain? It’s certainly a convenient rallying point for conservatives in a crisis.

Yeah, but an elected head of state won’t solve that. Look at the USA for the past week. People who have a need for this sort of thing will latch it onto whatever happens to be in place.

I remember listening to Helene Hayman banging on about how marvellous it was that when the Lords Speaker position was created (in 2005), it magically came with all the trappings of office. Personally I found the idea that there is a cabal of individuals who make such decisions (even if they are purely symbolic) more than a little unnerving, but one thing The Establishment has proven itself to be over the past thousand years is infinitely flexible.

I’m all for a written constitution, human rights et al, but I’m all too aware that culture is dependent on a lot more factors than whatever the shape of the constitution happens to be. The US for example has formal seperation of Church and State – yet it is more religious than many countries (including the UK) with a recognised church. Some of the countries with enviable human rights records and cultures happen to have constitutional monarchies, which is why I don’t buy this argument that a republic is necessary for an informed and educated political culture.

Tim f, I did not intend to cause offence and I apologise for doing so. My point really is that you describe how our system is supposed to work but in practice voters tend to vote based on who they trust to look after the issues most important to them, rather than what the party’s have said in their manifestos. I’m sure voters have seen the pledge cards and so on but the detail? I don’t think so – even the people who are going to turn up have better things to do with their time.

And I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t make a difference whether or not the PM is personally appealing.

The advantage of the manifesto was the Salisbury Convention but nowadays the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats say they no longer feel bound by it.

party’s^W parties. terrible.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if comments had an ‘edit’ button?

Tim F, I said that our politics was increasingly presidential not completely. Blair made a promise in an election campaign. It wasn’t in the manifesto it’s true but it had it was clear and it was explicit not vague as you assert. But in part I agree with you. Our politics is not yet fully presidential and this is a good thing. One of its strengths is that it can unseat Prime Ministers I wholeheartedly agree. But it doesn’t happen often. Parliament is rarely so assertive and tends to be a rubber stamp most of the time. Look at the fiscal stimulus package and contrast the way ours was adopted with the debate and deals done to get a rescue package through congress.

Your remark about The Sun is extremely patronising. The Lisbon Treaty is the same document as the constitution. It was deliberately designed to ensure that governments could call it different so as to avoid referendums they knew they would lose. We even had the government arguing that they were different because one had fewer words in it. It was a cynical exercise to get around a very specific commitment. That is undemocratic. I and many others think that and I have never bought The Sun and would be embarrassed to do so.

Parties are not more important than personalities. That is fantasy. We live in a world obsessed with celebrity. That is how the royal family survives. That is also how politics works. People vote for leaders to a great extent. People on a site like this may know about the theory of representative democracy and Parliamentary sovereignty but we are atypical.

Go canvassing and you’ll find out different. The proportion of people who reliably vote for a party election after election even if they don’t like the leader is huge in the UK. Over 50%. Admittedly there’s a problem in that resources are then targeted at people who don’t make their decision that way, but there’s a benefit in that every politician knows they would be very unlikely to get elected without their party.

James, agreed. I’m sure my spilling and grandma used to be more betterer.

tim f,

our view on whether the European Constitution manifesto commitment was kept or not depends on whether you think the Lisbon Treaty was similar enough to the European Constitution to be covered by the commitment, and most people who think it was are just relying on what the Sun tells them.

I don’t want to get sidetracked here, but while you are possibly right about what the Sun told most people, it seems fair to point out that the House of Commons Library said “The content of the [Lisbon] Treaty, though not its structure, is similar in a great many respects to the EU Constitution”, the Foreign Affairs Committee (nothing to do with Ugandan relations) said, “there is no material difference between the provisions on foreign affairs in the Constitutional Treaty which the Government made subject to approval in a referendum and those in the Lisbon Treaty on which a referendum is being denied”, and the European Scrutiny Committee said that “for those countries which have not requested derogations or opt outs from the full range of agreements in the Treaty, it [produces an effect which is substantially equivalent to the Constitutional Treaty]”.

I’ll try and put in the edit plugin over the weekend.

My point is that without sufficient numbers there is no chance of getting any change.

I think the point is – this is something we should be aiming for, regardless of what popular opinion is like now. In a generation, the royalty is unlikely to have any sort of widespread popular appeal.

And from a democratic point of view – I’m totally with Graham – we need a fundamental overhaul of our democratic system. We need to think of ourselves as autonomous citizens, not subjects of a higher power, legally and psychologically.

The presence of the Monarchy, though, is independent of politics now in everything but name. I’m not really too fussed either way, but simply getting rid of the monarchy as part of any democratic overhaul seems to simply be the actions of people that also happen to not like the monarchy, not solely because of democratic ends.

Tim F, once again you misrepresent what I said. I said people vote for leaders to a great extent. You may well be right that lots of people vote for parties regardless. But they are not the ones who decide elections. Swing voters do that and many will be deciding according to the personality of the leaders. That’s why polling organisations specifically ask about the people’s perceptions of leader and their performance. To argue otherwise is to deny basic human nature.

I acknowledged your point about swing voters, but I also pointed out that there are very few individuals who could get elected without their party and so the people who vote solely according to party (which is the majority of voters) are just as important, if not more so. Of course personalities have an effect, but parties are still more important.

Of course there aren’t many people who could get elected without their party. That is obvious. Parties are set up to support politicians. But the electorate then takes a look at the personalities of the leaders, what they say, how they say it, how they conduct themselves etc. That’s why Labour was in the doldrums under Foot and Kinnock. Remember the 92 election? Don’t tell me that had nothing to do with personality. Similarly the Conservatives have chopped and changed their leaders four times in eleven years. The party stayed more or less the same but the personalities at the top changed.

Firstly – if you want to overcomplicate things then this thread has done it.

The vast majority of the UK population want to retain the monarch – I, even though an expat, don’t – I feel a Republic would be better, so let that point stand.

50% of the people polled – I don’t know where that poll is so if you could give me a link, great! – think that they are voting for MPs? Well that means that 50% don’t and that they are voting for the leader of the party. This leads directly to the fact people need education on how the British Constitution works in schools if needs be.

We as a group of people, I think, understand that there needs to be constitutional change in the UK to give power to the people – to make parliament accountable to them – and that is the right way to go.

But that has to be a matter of firstly giving those MPs more power, not less, first. It is they, as our representatives who will be able to change power – a sweeping written constitution will not happen without the wheels of parliament turning.

Straw says that they are still writing the Bill of Rights – you can guarantee that the wording of that will be so ambiguous that it will mean nought but the status quo remains – parliament does not want to give up the power it has!

I don’t say it is perfect, I don’t think that any written constitution can be, but read the Canadian constitution, hell, even read the Australian one. The EU thinghy was just a mish-mash of nothing – the reason I disagreed with it.

You can, once a constitution is in place, amend parts of it with the relevant power to do so being constitutionally sound.

But just advocating from the get-go that the monarchy must fall means that the reform of parliament and a legal, binding constitution will never happen.

@ Paul 55

Don’t tell me that had nothing to do with personality. Similarly the Conservatives have chopped and changed their leaders four times in eleven years. The party stayed more or less the same but the personalities at the top changed.

It did, and it does.

What we now find is that personalities are attacked just as much as policy – Britain now, whether you like it or not, fights an election much the same as the US – hell, look at Drapers LabourList – it is all about who the person is rather than the policy.

Part of the deal here for us is spotting the link between the government’s power, much now wielded with little or no check by Parliament, and the monarchy. These are the royal prerogatives and statutory instruments beloved of Henry VIII and Charles I. This royal power to make laws without Parliament is what allows present-day rule by ministerial diktat, and this is the constitutional problem behind the current attack on our liberties. I fully support Graham Smith’s call for a true democracy grounded in popular sovereignty, with a written constitution and bill of rights that make the government answerable to us. Although such a move does not necessarily require the undoing of monarchy in this land, it does require the redistribution of monarchic power from cabinet to the commonality as represented in Parliament.

58. Shatterface

I’m a republican and would gladly see the institution of the monarchy consigned to history but I think we are kidding ourselves if we believe that abolishion would lead to the dismantling of the CCTV state.

59. Justin Smart

I am a proud republican Brit, long live the Republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. One thing that stands in the way of a perfectly evolved country and us stuck in medieval times, that is the “monarchy”. The so-called queen says that she represents all Brits. I don’t need anyone representing me apart from me. All of our problems start from the top, why do you think the likes of Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity are so so popular? Because they see the latest outrage of the “royals”. And we FUND them. 65p per taxpayer, is it? What did they do to deserve MY money, yout money, etc? 0.65 x 60 million = £39 million per annum, without bodyguard expenses, free air force rides to golf junkets or stag nights, luxury train rides, cutting ribbons – closer to £150 million per annum. One way of weakening them is to refusse to pay them money that they are not entitled to. And they use spin because they know that they are on their last legs. This family is dying from the inside, and the major weak link is Harry. Bonny prince Charlie is the other who will bring our country to its natural evolutional state. Kings, queens, monarchies, sovreignties, they all belong in a museum – away from doing our country any harm still doing its service to our economy. Also, they do not even know who the real people are. They are racist, classist and regionalist, anyone outside does not matter. They are used to their brown-nosed aristocratic friends’ thoughts that they almost believe in divine right. And the family spits its dummy out when a few cameras are flashing in front of them, but aren’t they the ones who want to become Head of State? It is time for Britain to embrace its future, its evolution into being a 21st Century country, and to make Britain GREAT once again.

60. Gareth Robson

This is the most urgent matter facing Britain. Nothing can improve if we cannot re-make our constitution in a way that put us all, the people, in charge. We need proper constitution design and reform, not the various watered-down offerings the government has trotted out over recent years. And the biggest single obstacle is the monarchy. Let’s abolish it.

If one were to set out to create a democracy, one probably would not include a Queen, one probably wouldn’t have a Mace in Parliament and one probably wouldn’t have an established Church.

But these things are part of our constitution and they exist. What is the point of taking a wrecking ball to them?

Do you think an elected President will increase liberty? I think this exceedingly unlikely. The biggest threat to liberty in Britain comes from our elected representatives, not from Her Majesty the Queen, who discharges her duties with magnificent selflessness.

This article tries and spectacularly fails to make a connection between the authoritarian nature of the Labour party and the Crown. The two are separate – it’s not the Queen that wants you to carry an ID card.

62. Mike Killingworth

[15] Cicero, upthread I drew the distinction between attitudes to the present Queen and to monarchy. In fact, what people are objecting to is not the monarchy as such as to the historical baggage of Crown immunity, Crown privilege and so on – I haven’t seen anyone defend those.

Your approach simply churns up the mud. The reality is that no British politician can begin a speech as Obama began his Inaugural: “my fellow citizens”. If you think it better to be a subject than a citizen please provide a reasoned, as opposed to an ad feminam argument.

If you think it better to be a subject than a citizen please provide a reasoned, as opposed to an ad feminam argument.

The argument for being a subject is not based in reason. It is based in historical continuity, tradition and aesthetic quality. As an immigrant, I find the idea of being a subject especially pleasing. It makes me feel part of the nation if my allegiance is to the same Crown as everyone else.

Burke once said that manners are more important than laws. What he meant was that society cannot be constructed along lines of rationality alone – illogical customs, superstitious/religious (take your pick) traditions are also important.

In Britain, liberty is protected by the 1688 settlement (see Sean Gabb’s writings on why libertarians should support monarchy). The threat to freedom comes from the elected government, not from a selfless, dutiful monarch.

64. Mike Killingworth

[64] I expected you’d say something like that. However, as someone who regards patriotism as a moral failing*, I may not be the best person to argue with you!

And for the life of me, I don’t see what the relative significance of manners and laws has to do with the question in hand.

*I derive this from Martin Buber’s distinction between “I-Thou” and “I-It” – in more expressly political terms, the distinction is between relationship (to be welcomed and supported) and transaction to be suspected and restrained). Nations, like markets, are necessary evils precisely because they promote “I-It” over “I-Thou”. Nationalism does this by legitimising the demonisation of the Other – in psychological terms, it excuses the Shadow.

As we all know, republican governments NEVER infringe the liberties of their citizens.

I really don’t see a connection here. The monarchy is a bonkers institution, of course, but it isn’t where the rot has set in. This is attempting to marry the crucial issue of civil liberty with a partisan hobby horse.

Nick, if you don’t see the connection you perhaps haven’t read the article.

Our liberties are under threat because our constitution allows our government to threaten our liberties. Our constitution is the monarchy, the Crown is the basis of power in this country. It is where the PM gets his power, it is why that power is essentially unlimited.

This is nothing to do with the monarch, it is to do with the monarchy and the Crown – these institutions are the constitution of Britain and are the reason why governments can attack our liberties at will.

I do not see under any situation under which a government would exist and not be able to attack our liberties, given there is a European directive AND a UK act regarding our liberties and they constantly get overlooked when laws are written.

The situation would arise if there were a written constitution based on popular sovereignty rather than sovereignty of the Crown. If such a constitution were clear in limiting the power of the government the government would be unable to do as it pleases, as it currently can.

The reason why our government can overlook the HRA is because parliament is sovereign. No Act of parliament can limit parliament’s power for this reason. Parliament is synonymous with government in this country, so that sovereignty essentially resides in 10 Downing Street.

There is also the Privy Council, one of the great scandals of our democracy – worth reading http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/02/civil-liberties-lords and the report from JUSTICE which it refers to. The Privy Council can make law without any need to go to parliament.

Again..I’m failing to see how it will change anything, unless you’re proposing to not give the government power to make laws, nor parliament the power to stop them being made?


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