Democratically accountable Monarch

I believe the monarchy in its current form fatally compromises the legitimacy of the existing system. I find it impossible to respect a constitution in which the person who in principle has ultimate authority is widely considered to be a figurehead with no real power – a figurehead who presides over a system in which accountability is regarded as paramount but whose own position is unassailable.

The unassailability of the monarchy creates a void at the heart of government. The monarch cannot be allowed any substantial power because the constitution provides no mechanism for withdrawing it. But without an effective Head of State, there is nobody to integrate the different branches of government and nobody to arbitrate when there is conflict between them – nobody, in short, to act as overseer of the whole system, and therefore no single individual for the public to blame when it isn't working.

One result, under our current constitution, is that the Judicial branch fears to infringe the authority of Parliament and therefore feels unable to demand high legislative standards (while the Legislative and Executive branches have become so entwined that the functions of both have become irredeemably compromised).

In my opinion, however, the perception of the monarch as merely a figurehead is deeply flawed: the monarch has the power to refuse to ratify an Act of Parliament, and to dismiss Parliament and force a General Election. These are significant powers and the fact that using them would trigger a constitutional crisis constrains but certainly does not destroy them. And those constraints work for both good and ill: the unaccountable monarch is prevented from interfering (openly) – but is also inhibited in fulfilling the legitimate function of preventing elective dictatorship. The government, meanwhile, would not want to precipitate a constitutional crisis, with all the uncertainty it would bring, and may therefore be wary of introducing necessary legislation which the unaccountable monarch might strongly object to.

A democratically accountable Head of State would be able to oversee the institutions of state with a clear conscience and would also act as the ultimate source of authority for the Judicial branch – which could then be properly independent, allowing the courts to confront negligence or misconduct in the other branches of government more robustly than they are able to at present.

In our existing system, the monarch is both more powerful than is compatible with democratic principles and less powerful than a healthy system of government requires. On the one hand, the erosion of the Crown's power over the centuries has meant that there is nobody who can properly integrate the operations of the different branches and levels of government. On the other hand, the residual powers and privileges of the hereditary monarch mean that the monarchy is regarded by many as an affront to democratic principles.

There is no reason why a monarch should not be democratically accountable but I see no need to subject the office of Head of State to the cost (and questionable benefits) of an electoral cycle. The essence of democratic accountability is the public's power to dismiss its leaders – which can fairly easily be separated from the power to choose them – and, in the Elections section, I have outlined a reform which would allow that with minimal disruption, using the jury system ( ).

If there were a mechanism by which the public could spontaneously trigger the dismissal of the monarch, the problems raised above would cease to be significant. But dismissal of the Head of State does, of course, imply the appointment of a successor. For the most part, my guess is that the designated heir would prove acceptable but it would probably be wise to recognise a cascade of three or four different appointment methods – with a free-for-all election as the final option for when three or four monarchs had been dismissed within a relatively short period of time.

As to whether the designated heir should be the offspring of the incumbent, I see no inherent incompatibility between hereditary monarchy and democratic principles (and there are certainly advantages in having a default successor).

As a general principle, a constitution should allow for the best but guard against the worst. On that basis, I suggest that the best person to nominate a successor is the person who is best placed to understand the demands of the job: the incumbent. And, still looking at the best case, the most suitable successor will very often be the incumbent's offspring; just as a farmer's children are likely to develop a farmer's way of thinking just by growing up with a farmer, so a ruler's children are likely to develop the habits of a mind of a ruler, simply by observing their parents at work. The essence of the hereditary principle is not that there is a right for children to inherit, it is that they are likely to have a familiarity with the requirements of the job which other people lack. As long as there are adequate procedures for rejecting those who are clearly unsuitable, I see no reason to discard the presumption that the monarch's offspring should inherit the throne.

My goal here has been to propose a reform which would address a serious flaw in the existing constitution in a way which would be acceptable to most people and which could be introduced without much trouble. I recognise that some people are totally committed to the monarchy in its current form and others are implacably opposed to it in any form but I regard both those positions as unreasonable and unrealistic.

The reform I've suggested – recognising a mechanism to trigger the dismissal of the monarch – is one which could be integrated into the constitution without significant cost or disruption, and would bring the institution of the monarchy into harmony with democratic principles without breaking with our heritage.


(Parts of the above are reproduced from a submission I made to the Commons Select Committee for Political and Constitutional Reform for their 'New Magna Carta' consultation.)



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edited on Mar 2, 2015 by Malcolm Ramsay
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