Wizards, Fairies and Dragons
by Elias Blum
“You guy still have royalty?! How embarrassing is that? You have queens and dukes and princesses… …do you have wizards and fairies and dragons? For god’s stake, is this a country or a renaissance festival? What kind of Dungeons & Dragons bullshit is that?”
I have consistently opposed the current form of monarchy in the UK, operating without a clear, legitimate and enforceable set of constitutional rules to restrain it. My principal objections focus on the unaccountable prerogative powers of the Crown, the ambiguous and secretive relationship between the palace and the Prime Minister, and the presence of an undemocratic keystone of power at the apex of the state.
I have also always opposed the pomp and circumstance of monarchy, the gilded coaches and the silly robes. Besides that, I find the hero-worship and adulation of the royals – the bowing, the scraping, the doffing and the deferring – to be immature, unseemly, idolatrous, and unworthy of a free and self-respecting people.
Besides, there’s not a single member of the royal family who appears to me to possess the qualities of character and ability that would qualify them for even the lowest public office (except perhaps for Charlie, who I think would make a reasonably good chairman of a County Council somewhere in an English shire).
Yet, for all that, I’ve always been fairly ambivalent about monarchy as such. Indeed, some of the world’s best parliamentary democracies (Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, etc) have figurehead monarchs, whose job, narrowly defined and constrained by their respective written Constitutions, is to smile, wave, cut ribbons and make speeches. They perform a symbolic and ceremonial function, representing the identity and unity of the country in a way that is non-partisan. It seems harmless, and maybe even benign – if only because it prevents a Prime Minister, or any politician, identifying themselves with the state-as-such.
These European democratic monarchies address the problems associated with the British monarchy in a pragmatic, sensible, democratic way. When the Grand Duke of Luxembourg tried to refuse assent to legislation, the power was swiftly taken away by constitutional amendment. The King of Sweden does not even nominate the Prime Minister; that task falls to the Speaker of Parliament. The degree of pomp and circumstance varies, but nowhere does it reach British levels of idolatry. The Norwegians, when they celebrate their nationhood, celebrate the Constitution that grounds and establishes their democracy, not the King who presides powerlessly over it.
In a Scottish democracy, with a written Constitution clearly limiting the powers and role of the monarchy, such an arrangement (not so much a hereditary ruler, as a hereditary national mascot) seems acceptable. Indeed, in the context of a newly independent Scotland, keeping the monarchy, at least for an interim period, is probably a wise move. It maintains a link, valued by many Scots, with a wider ‘British’ and ‘Commonwealth’ identity; it reassures those of conservative and unionist sympathies that not all they have known and loved is lost, and that they too have a place in an independent Scotland; it provides a source of legitimacy to the Scottish state in the eyes of those who voted against its formation. After all, an independent Scotland cannot be a Scotland just for Scottish nationalists or for Yes-voters; it has to be a Scotland for everyone.
Recently, however, I have becoming increasingly uncomfortable with hereditary monarchy as such. This is, in part, a reaction to the whole Will, Kate and George soap opera, and the sycophancy of royalism that surrounds it. Even if we eliminate its unacceptable and non-constitutional powers, even if we treat monarchs with ordinary respect rather than fawning adulation, and even if we make them live in smaller places and ride bicycles (all of which I would be in favour of) the basic problem of heredity still remains. Why should Charlie, Billy and Georgie be marked out from birth to a life of privilege? Why should the office of head of state, even if it is a purely symbolic and ceremonial office, be held by the members of one family, and not be open to any citizen? Wouldn’t it make more sense to periodically elect a retired ambassador, or some such good and worthy citizen, to perform these duties? Wouldn’t such a person, crowned by election, better represent and symbolise the country, its people and its values?
If we vote YES for independence, these are just some of the questions that the constitutional convention, outlined in Section 33 of the draft interim constitution, will have the opportunity to address.