Unlike the rulers of old, a constitutional monarch is not supposed to meddle in the affairs of state: she is purely a figurehead, reassuringly above the cut and thrust of everyday politics. Since the days when Charles I literally lost his head after arguing with parliament, no monarch has dared flex their muscles, so it is said. And this simple idea underpins our country’s whole democratic system.
Now we know this to be untrue.
An investigation by the Guardian this month, which found that “the monarch is provided with advance sight of draft laws and invited to approve them”, has cast this fundamental assumption into doubt.
More specifically, the Queen has lobbied the government to enable her “to change a draft law in order to conceal her private wealth from the public for decades”. Or as Norman Baker, the former MP for Lewes and a previous minister, points out: “[Queen’s consent] gives an unelected person the opportunity to require changes to draft legislation in order to benefit herself financially, or to exempt herself from laws she does not like, and to do so in secret without any public accountability.”
It may come as a shock to many that the Queen – one of the richest, yet possibly one of the most trusted, individuals in the country – interferes in the affairs of state. But it seems that agreeing to legislation is not the formality we have been led to believe. Rather, under what is termed ‘royal consent’ (as opposed to the more benign ‘royal assent’) she vets laws and gets them changed. For example, she and Prince Charles blocked the ‘right to buy’ of tenants in the Duchy of Cornwall – rights which apply to council tenants, but not if you have a royal landlord.
Such revelations, had they happened anywhere else in the world, would have been labelled anti-democratic. And yet, add it to the cronyism and – yes, more – lying by government ministers, and trust in the UK’s institutions, at its most shaky, is now further undermined. In fact, trust in government has now dropped to the lowest point in 40 years.
Other European states manage things differently. Almost all have a written constitution – only six countries in the world do not. Almost all have elected second chambers. Almost all have some form of proportional representation to ensure that the views of all but the most extreme are represented. And most elect their head of state.
The British monarchy is parked at the pinnacle of a pyramid of power that stretches down to include lords, viscounts, marquises, dukes and the unelected members of the House of Lords, representing the privileges of the elite: an aristocracy that owns a third of all the land in Britain.
The monarchy is clearly not harmless or powerless. And as for the claim that it binds the people together, Brexit disproved that. Brexiteers and Remainers are still poles apart.
The royals are a tourism magnet, we are told. But £500m annually in tourist revenue is tiny in the scheme of things. Republican France is the world’s most visited country, without the need for a monarch.
Despite this, support for the monarchy remains undimmed, egged on by wealthy media owners. It serves the interests of the rich and powerful who bankroll the Tory party for this to be so: to maintain the useful myth of monarchy.
In our first-past-the-post electoral system, the increasingly right-wing Conservative Party has a systemic advantage. They do not generally achieve anything like a majority share of the vote, and they would struggle to become the majority party in a system of proportional representation. So as things stand, the views, and even the rights, of people can be safely ignored, while our monarch gets to say which laws she does, and does not, like and agree to.
As inequality has risen, with the gap between the richest and poorest widening annually, it is clear that there is one law for the rich and powerful and another for the rest of us. Moreover, there are no legitimate, democratic paths for those who object to the current state of affairs to change things.
Yet we could haul Britain out of its obsession with medieval methods of governance and processes that are increasingly irrelevant if not damaging in our modern 21st-century world.
Do nothing, which seems sadly the most likely course, and it’s very difficult not to conclude that the UK is heading towards becoming a failed state. One where, to all intents and purposes, democracy does not exist. Where it is just a facade – just like the facade of our ‘constitutional’ monarchy.
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