The death of Prince Philip led to the voicing of some predictable views about the future of monarchy. Favouring the split infinitive, Bagehot in The Economist wrote that “the only way to fully modernise the monarchy is to abolish it,” and also, with reference to “recent rows about Meghan Markle,” suggested that “the monarchy fosters division as well as healing it.” Others were less polite.
The choice therefore is between monarchy by inheritance, monarchy by election, and monarchy by seizure
There were of course deep ironies about timing, not least that, as an instance of a more general ‘pick-and-mix’ approach to the past, that issue of the Economist led with a call to hold the United Kingdom together. A more pertinent element of timing was the imbroglio surrounding David Cameron. There is no inherent reason why a republic has to have a president, but it is by far the norm. The choice therefore is between monarchy by inheritance, monarchy by election, and monarchy by seizure, the last two these days usually adopting the term president, though the Pope is a reminder that monarchy by election can continue. It was more frequent in the eighteenth century. For a democracy, monarchy by seizure, on the pattern of Napoleon, is out. Nevertheless, the jokes that past, present and doubtless future offer cynics include the democratic claims of many totalitarian states.
Monarchy by election therefore appears the answer, whether the election is by popular vote or some sort of process within the existing political order, which you might call a fix and I would agree. What will the SNP eventually settle on once they have pursued independence under the fig-leaf of monarchy? And what would Sturgeon do if Salmond won a presidential election, or, rather, in Putinesque fashion, what system would she devise to keep the post for acolytes and, eventually, herself.
Back to David Cameron. Like many modern British and other politicians, most egregiously so Tony Blair, he favoured speaking of the verdict of history as a form of vindication. Bad news, David. Fear of litigation may protect the few remaining shreds of your reputation, but, once that is removed by your death, the archives are open, and others can speak without fear or favour, I would be surprised if you do not emerge in a way that makes a joke of your autobiography and the currently available biographical studies. This of course was the figure we were being lately urged to consider as part of the “talent” Johnson should call on, notably as Foreign Secretary. I do not notice those who took this line retracting their opinion, but it underlines the specious nature of much political commentary including in supposedly reputable outlets, notably The Times. The Cameron return was part of the more general critique both of Johnson and of the government’s willingness to respond in and to culture wars. Whatever you think of these issues the solution was risible.
So, how does that take us to republicanism. Well the case for monarchy, like most things, rests not only on its advantages but also on the alternatives. The latter have to include unanticipated consequences, as with the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, or, possibly, the rise of corrupt fiefdoms (well more corrupt fiefdoms) and extremist parties, had the electorate not had the sense to referenda-reject elected regional assemblies and proportional representation. The presidential (and vice-presidential of course) choice offered by political parties would have probably been from within their ranks, and, if you find that encouraging, look at some of the delights in the House of Lords. Its composition makes for the rich black comedy show that so often is British politics.
The House of Lords’s composition makes for the rich black comedy show that so often is British politics
Could Tony have fitted the presidency in with lobbying for Kazakhstan or George with his plethora of pluralities? Or, if non-politicians, possibly a run-off between Jeremy Clarkson and Stephen Fry would have added to the gaiety of nations? Presumably there would have to be multiple rounds, and endless qualifications, classifications and litigation to ensure diversity. Indeed, as all of those I have hitherto suggested are men, I have already signed an agreement freeing The Critic from litigation brought on the grounds of the offence caused.
And not only here of course. There are monarchs who are or become useless, think Juan Carlos of Spain for example. Yet, continuity of service can be valuable and valued, and even more so in comparison with the political order, including in Spain where the political order is both fragmented and unable to deliver a stable government. The Japanese imperial family has not been involved in the money politics of the politicians there.
The death of Prince Philip therefore provides an opportunity to reflect on the value of continuity and public service. Neither may be fashionable in a world predicated on change and instant gratification, but the contrast between the Prince and David Cameron tells you a lot about the shallow self-interest of the latter, both the individual and the age.
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