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Friday 09 January 2009

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This week:

Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican view,
particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.

All these newsletters will be catalogued on the website


  • King Charles III, To Gag Or Not To Gag. That Is The Question - For Some. But Perhaps We Should Not Be Afraid To Upset The Apple Cart

Peter Kellow, DRP Leader, writes

[With the current brouhaha concerning the publication of the 'black spider' memos, I am reissuing NEWSLETTER NO 18 Friday 09 January 2009. I have nothing to add on this subject.]

It is rare in this Newsletter for the monarchy to be mentioned. Civic Republicans are interested in republicanism not the monarchy. As well as seeing the monarchy as an irrelevance they well be just bored to tears by it. But every now and then an issue involving the monarchy seizes the headlines, that demands a comment.

Writing in the Sunday Times in November 2008, Jonathan Dimbleby said that “there are now discreet moves afoot to redefine the future role of the sovereign so that it would allow King Charles III to speak out on matters of national and international importance in ways that at the moment would be unthinkable.

“The Queen has for more than 50 years adhered to the tradition that the monarch’s views are heard only in private by the prime minister and the Privy Council.”

Dimbleby continues in his piece “To breach this convention, however cautiously, would represent a seismic shift in the role of the sovereign.” It “has the potential to be constitutionally and politically explosive”.

Exactly what form the explosion referred to might take is not quite clear, but nevertheless this sentiment has been echoed by many. Surely we have gotten used to a monarch that judiciously avoids saying anything that is political, so the argument goes, and that must not change.

It was not always so. Until about 1900 the monarch continued to influence and meddle in the affairs of the country. Politicians and others would always know what Queen Victoria thought about an issue. No one knows what Queen Elizabeth II thinks that is not party to her private conversations with the Prime Minister and the Privy Council.

So why did things change at end of the 19th century? Surely the main reason is that the Monarch has such overwhelming constitutional power that the establishment does not want people to think about it too much. The very fact of the monarch saying anything of importance reminds everyone of their very real power – a power that seems almost god-given in its magnitude (an assessment that the previous two King Charles’s would have whole-heartedly concurred with and supported).

The result is that we have a mute, dumb, gagged all-powerful monarch and we are told that this is a good thing. Although a YouGov poll for The Sunday Times suggested strong public support for the an ungagged, talking monarch. Those believing the monarch should have “a voice on current political controversies” outnumber those opposed by 49% to 38%.

Those who want a gagged monarch are often those who are unsympathetic to the monarchy and may even call themselves republicans. A monarch who speaks or a monarch who doesn’t speak. What should the republican position be?

The answer is quite simple and obvious. Republicans do not want to choose between this or that type of monarchy. We want to choose republicanism not ANY kind of monarchy. To attempt to make a choice would be to compromise our republicanism. Who cares if the monarchy speaks out? If a monarch really tried to interfere with the running of state this would provoke a constitutional crisis and whatever the outcome, the monarch would loose.

In fact, while we are lumbered with a monarch, things might be a bit livelier in the political life of the country if they did speak their mind. Currently the level of political and economic debate in Britain is hardly exciting. In fact, it’s sterile. If Gordon Brown had to deal with “noises off” from a distracting monarch with an independent point of view, then it might cheer things up.

Our main vision of active monarchs is formed by historical monarchs but a very interesting portrayal of how an active contemporary monarch might behave is contained in George Bernard Shaw’s underrated play The Apple Cart, in which King Magnus fires off against the democratically elected politicians with some resounding speeches and nicely turned arguments. It is far from any reality we are likely to have but it makes you think about this supposed preference for a mute monarch.

From the Civic Republican point of view there is a further, quite different and much more serious, reason for not resisting an ungagged monarch. An essential aspect of Civic Republicanism is the belief in Human Rights and primary among such rights must be freedom of speech.

A future King Charles III will be a citizen like any other and so is imbued with the basic right to speak his mind.

Lord Taverne, the Liberal Democrat peer, told the BBC’s Today programme “I think Prince Charles should use the occasion of his 60th birthday to pronounce a vow of silence [my italics] on issues of public controversy because it is incompatible with the role of a constitutional monarch. If he doesn’t, he will certainly bring the monarchy into disrepute.”

A “vow of silence”? Charles is not a monk.

Under what principle of constitutionalism or political philosophy is freedom of expression “incompatible with the role of a constitutional monarch”. If there were any validity in this equivalence, then it only shows up the absurdity of the office of constitutional monarch. The idea of having this all-powerful person who at the same time has limited human rights should be telling us that we have a form of government that makes no sense at all. It might be added that the monarch (or an heir to the throne) cannot vote in elections and so is deprived of a democratic right as well (and in doing so finds itself in the singular company of prisoners and the mentally unfit).

The only sensible way out of this mess is to abolish the constitutional position of the monarchy and have an independently elected president who actually speaks and, yes, votes. Republicans should have no truck with choosing between this or that type of monarch. We want to choose our president.

Meanwhile as long as we have a constitutional monarchy, then the theatre will continue and that being the case let’s have a bit more drama with characters that actually speak lines and hold opinions. If the ungagged monarch talks himself or herself out of a job, so be it.

Real life might even get as entertaining as The Apple Cart.


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