There was a letter from Barrie Singleton in this week’s Newbury Weekly News (I interviewed him and the other General Election candidates earlier this year). His letter was headlined ‘MPs really work for the Queen, not for us.’ I’m not sure I agree with a number of his points.
He complains that MPs ‘pledge solely to the Queen.’ This may well be true: but the Queen is the head of state so I think this can be taken as pledging to the country as a whole. His suggestion that their pledge should instead be ‘to constituency and constituents’ would be an impossible responsibility to discharge, the ‘constituents’ being many people with a wide range of views on almost every issue.
He adds that democracy has ‘no place for monarchs’, the implication that someone elected is going to be automatically better. I don’t see that at all. Some years ago, I was talking to some French people at a dinner party as a result of our visit to Ligueil through the Hungerford Twinning Association. A woman asked me if I thought it odd that we should have a head of state who was hereditary. Well, possibly, I said: but the alternative was have to elect a president and end up with someone like Chirac. She admitted I had a point. Some head of state is required. The only country I can think of which doesn’t have one is Andorra: that has two.
Who the heads of state are matters far less than how their powers are defined. To suggest (as Barrie doesn’t, in this letter at least, but which many others do) that abolishing the monarchy would lead inexorably to increased freedom, accountability or good governance is fantasy. Zimbabwe and Russia have elected presidents; the UK and The Netherlands have monarchs. I know where I’d rather live. There are plenty of examples of bad governance in our history and the period between 29 January 1649 and 30 May 1660 when there was no king is certainly one. Animal Farm has something to say about this subject as well. I’m no rabid royalist but merely think that the current arrangement is expedient, pragmatic and fairly well locked in place by custom (possibly a more effective method of regulating human behaviour than legislation: but now we really are veering off into a different discussion).
If the monarchy has too many powers then these can be curbed but in the UK there’s very little that needs curbing. The last time the Royal Assent was refused was in 1707 which hardly makes the monarch the affront to democracy Barrie suggests. If, however, David Cameron decided to pass a bill making everyone walk backwards on Thursdays or abolishing general elections then the Queen could refuse it, which seems to me rather useful.
I don’t think Britain’s tourism industry would appreciate a president, either.
Finally, he refers to MPs having a ‘feudal allegiance’ to the Queen. This they most certainly do not. ‘Feudal’ has become a general and disparaging catch-all term to describe a practice perceived to be archaic, inequitable or subservient. I presume that’s the way he’s using it here. Technically, a feudal relationship involved holding land in exchange for military service, fortunately not the reality of the bond between monarch and the MP today (nor at any other time).
Where I do agree with Barrie is that MPs are torn between a number of contrary forces which rarely produce the best possible results. In descending order of importance, these forces include the demands of their party leader and whips, the pernicious influence of lobbyists. the voice of their conscience (most have one) and the wishes of their constituents (in so far as these are consistent with each other, or pragmatism, or any of the forces higher up the list). All MPs are ambitious to some extent, perhaps for altruistic as well as self-interested reasons, some overly so. Some are corrupt and arrogant. Some aren’t terribly bright. Many will start off with the highest ideals but find themselves ground down by the demands of the job and carry on doing the best they can in their crumbling and rat-infested HQ at Westminster. Sounds a bit like any other form of employment. A different oath won’t change this and nor will it help attract a different kind of person.
I’m reminded of the old anarchist slogan from the 1970s: ‘whoever you vote for the government’s going to get in.’ The best we can hope to do in this imperfect world is to ensure the MPs control and limit the government’s excesses, although this is to some extent impossible as the government ministers are drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of MPs (unlike in, say, the USA where there is a complete separation of powers). It could be asked whether limiting the applicants to some of the most important jobs in the country to a pool of 650 people who have been selected merely on their ability to ingratiate themselves with local party machines and win elections is going to produce the best candidates. Too many restrictions, though, lead to problems of a different kind. In 18th century Poland the Sejm (parliament) had devised an extraordinary regulation called the Liberum Veto by which all legislation had to be passed unanimously, with predictably chaotic results.
Barrie ends by saying that governance in this country is in a parlous state. He’s right, but not, in my view, for any of the reasons he suggests in his letter. (We could also be a lot worse off, as those in many countries are.) Curbing the galloping power of the executive, introducing a more equitable voting system to replace the nonsense we have at present and a total reform of the House of Lords, a deeply peculiar institution, are far more important than worrying about the monarchy and our MPs’ precise obligations to it. Indeed, of the three parts of the legislature in this country, the monarchy is the only one that is functioning correctly. Perhaps we should try royal absolutism for a year and see if that works any better…