Until recently, most UK politicians and commentators have claimed they believed in constitutional monarchy. A constitutional monarch with a series of important powers used, at-a-pinch, to resolve constitutional crises, was, it was argued, an important protection against tyranny. In combination with a vibrant, organic, evolving Establishment class, a lifelong head of state could provide much more flexibility and strength in negotiating events than more brittle alternative constitutional arrangements, such as written constitutions.
As a fan of constitutional monarchy myself, and a believer in the importance of the constitutional protections and flexibility such a system provides, I was naturally an opponent of ritual monarchy: a system in which the head of state is purely symbolic. In my view, constitutional monarchy and ritual monarchy are virtually polar opposites as systems. In the former, there is an individual, protected from political pressures and empowered to intervene when required. In the latter, there is no-one with any intervention powers, not even an elected President, so the Executive has greater freedom to impose its will, for good or ill.
There is one key danger or weakness in constitutional monarchy. If it works too well, no crises arise, so the constitutional monarch may go long periods without needing to intervene. If that process goes on for too long, questions may arise as to whether the constitutional monarch still does truly have the right to intervene. In that way, the role of constitutional monarchy can atrophy, and a constitutional monarchy can accidentally turn into a ritual monarchy.
I have feared for some decades that that was happening in the UK. I argued that it was important that we find some small matter for the monarch to intervene in more regularly, so as to continually re-assert the right of the monarch to intervene. I suggested appointing the head of the judiciary as an example, but something else might have done just as well. Without maintaining that principle, eventually some crisis would arise, and then we would discover whether we still truly had a constitutional monarch or not.
Well, now a crisis has arisen, and we have our answer. No-one could dispute that debates about the cancelling of Brexit, with questions about the overturning of democracy, Parliament suspending its own standing orders, questioned key judgements of the Speaker, a Prime Minister who cannot carry her central policy is not a constitutional crisis. If this is not a matter for the constitutional monarchy to help us navigate, nothing will be.
Some say “but the monarch should not intervene in controversial matters”. That is absurd. The only matters she should intervene in are the controversial ones. If a fascist government were elected and passed a bill through Parliament suspending elections and oppressing minorities, do folk seriously imagine it would have no fans – that if the monarch stood up against it that would be uncontroversial? Constitutional monarchy is solely and only about the resolution of the controversial situations, those in which the best way to proceed is unclear.
The push to cancel Brexit is the perfect example of such a case. If the monarch is not even strong enough to intervene one way or another — for example by saying (in respect of some specific measure such as the Cooper-Letwin bill) that in her personal judgement the best way forward is to postpone leaving for eighteen months and revisit the issue then, or that her personal judgement is that the referendum determined we must leave, so we must leave now — then it is ridiculous to assert that the monarch could stand against Communism or Fascism.
So it transpires that we now have a ritual monarchy. Since I’ve always been opposed to ritual monarchy and believed it was important for someone to hold at-a-pinch power to intervene to resolve crises and protect the constitution, my view is that our ritual monarchy should be abolished and replaced with a head of state that does have those powers. That is simply a re-statement of the position I have believed in and argued for, uncontroversially, for 30 years.
Yet somehow in our social media age, this position has come to be seen as extreme. When I have expressed it recently, thousands upon thousands of people, including many respected figures, have tweeted patronising mockery, and there has been a stream of newspaper articles denouncing the view. I presume that many people thought that when politicians and commentators and philosophers of all stripes argued for the virtues of constitutional monarchy, that was some kind of theatre. They didn’t really mean it. What they meant was that they liked ritual monarchy, and they told a pretty story about the constitution to justify why.
Well I didn’t. When I said I thought it was important to have a head of state with at-a-pinch powers to intervene to resolve crises and protect the constitution, I always meant it. And when I said I disliked ritual monarchy, I meant it. There will never be a clearer case for a constitutional monarch to intervene, one way or another, than Brexit. If the constitutional monarchy cannot intervene in this situation, it is clearly nothing more than a ritual monarchy. C’est la vie. That is where we are. In that case I say: abolish the monarchy. Consistency demands I can do no other.