Republicanism is a principled objection to hereditary power that stems from a clear belief in equality and in good government – government that is good for all of us and which must mean representative of, and accountable to, all of us. Yes, the royals are up to no good and the monarchy is secretive and corrupt – yet that’s a symptom of a rotten system and it is the system that is at the core of the republican message.
The monarchy is a source of considerable prime ministerial power, power that – Theresa May’s predicament notwithstanding – makes the PM one of the most powerful leaders in the democratic world. It is this centralisation of power that the left and right should be equally concerned about. When power is exercised by so few, too few people are represented by the decision makers and so the interests of many are ignored. The power of those who are unrepresented in Downing Street is limited and their voices muted. And, at the heart of this centralisation of power lies the Crown: the source of political power and authority. The Crown’s powers are in the hands of the prime minister, and the whole system is skewed toward government being in full control of the political agenda.
What’s the alternative? Well, it’s not that difficult to work out: a parliamentary democracy that is genuine in its democratic credentials in practice as much as on paper. If we go back to basics, re-think parliament not as sovereign but as the representative body of a sovereign people, then we can imagine some simple ways to radically improve how our politics works.
The essence of democracy is that we are equal citizens with the right to govern our own lives. So we elect representatives who are relied upon to work in the best interests of their community and the nation as a whole. And, they’re accountable through regular elections.
Parliament then is the starting point, the cornerstone and the foundation of our democracy. In the family of institutions that make up our constitution, it should be paramount, deferring only to the will of the people. Rather than taking on an air of pomposity and grandeur, we should cast our parliament as a simple assembly of representatives, there to do a job.
So it is time we renegotiated the contract between the people and our representatives. That contract, in the form of a written constitution, should be clear about who has what power, how they got it and how we get rid of them. And a new written constitution can set limits on the power of politicians, government and parliament alike, such as saying they can’t change the constitution without a referendum, can’t call a referendum on the whim of a prime minister and can’t rob us of our hard won rights.
Let’s take a step back and look at the system as a whole: a written constitution, a contract between people and parliament; a fully elected parliament; a government without Crown powers but with limited power – enough power to govern effectively but not to govern unchallenged; a shift in power from government to parliament, underscored by an elected upper house the government doesn’t rely on for its majority and can’t rely on for support.
Here, I would emphasis that a government has a mandate to govern – but it is the whole of parliament that has a mandate to legislate. So if government wants to pass a law it must persuade and convince MPs, not instruct them.
And then we come to the role of head of state. The job of head of state is important and it needs to be done by someone who is genuinely independent of the government and above day-to-day party politics. That can’t be the Queen, because all she can do is what she’s told by the Prime Minister. And it can’t be the Speaker of the House of Commons either, because he’s already got an important job, but one that’s not independent of MPs.
This role is one of defending the constitution by acting as a non-partisan check on the power of government and parliament, as the president does in Ireland and elsewhere. The president can also steer a country through political crises and deadlocks, as we’ve seen across Europe over the past decade. An elected head of state can do all this independently, and also represent the nation as we truly are, speaking for us and to us at times of celebration and tragedy, in a way the Queen never can.
Republicanism leaves no room for a secretive and corrupt monarchy, but a republic is so much more than an absence of a royal house. The democratic republican cause is the cause of democratic reform taken to its final and logical conclusion: a fully reform constitution founded on the simple idea that we are an equal, sovereign people.
Graham Smith is head of Republic, the UK’s national republican campaign. Republic is fast growing into a serious campaign for change. Republic is routinely in the press, supports local campaigns and holds national events around the country. In November, Joan Smith will be delivering the annual John Campbell Lecture on the threat King Charles poses to our democracy (see www.republic.org.uk)