I’m a monarchist. I’m not a royalist. Royalists have the sentimental attachment to royalty which republicans insist is all there is to monarchism. Monarchists believe that the British Monarchy is the finest solution that has ever been devised to the problem of how to organise society along Utilitarianist lines, that is, in the interests of providing the greatest good to the greatest number.
We utilitarian monarchists are a dry-eyed lot. We don’t care much what the King has for breakfast, nor what Kate’s latest outfit ‘says’ about this, that or the other. We expect our monarchs to perform the largely thankless task of embodying the nation, neither saying nor doing anything that could be construed as ‘political’, while holding in reserve the power to break the deadlocks to which even the finest parliamentary systems remain prone. And we’re prepared, if they step out of line, to chop off their heads – metaphorically, of course, these days. Utilitarian monarchists are generally disapproving of Royalists, whom they suspect of giving republicans a cheap shot. We tolerate them, however, because we know that royal pageantry, certainly in Britain, pays for the upkeep of the royal family many times over.
I’m also an Australian, and unlike the Britons who may now be tempted to flirt with republicanism, I’ve lived through a nationwide attempt – three long years of it – to devise a model of a Republic that stood a chance of winning a referendum. That attempt failed, as it deserved to.
Despite the best efforts of lawyers and political scientists, it proved impossible to graft onto the Westminster system a satisfactory presidency. The urge to a republic being essentially a meritocratic one, the choice of a president ought naturally to be made by some form of plebiscite. But no matter how they sliced it and diced it, the republicans couldn’t come up with a form of presidency that did not foreseeably rival the legitimacy of Parliament.
No parliamentary system has yet been devised which cannot be brought to deadlock by politicians who are sufficiently determined to do so. Because all parties know that there is, in the form of our monarch, a politically opaque hand ready, in extremis, to step in and break the deadlock, such deadlocks have been rare in the Westminster system. Vesting in an elected president the reserve powers currently held by the monarch is a recipe for increasingly frequent, and increasingly rancorous instances of deadlock.
It thus became clear, during the tortuous process leading up to the 1999 Australian Republic Referendum, just how astute had been the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution, and that, if we wanted an elected presidency, we would have to transform our parliamentary system into something closely resembling what they had cooked up. That was an unappetising prospect for voters back in 1999, and I suggest that recent American history has made it no more appealing.
That left the prospect of a head of state appointed by some parliamentary formula, which merely invited the question, ‘if we’re going to have an unelected head of state, why not stick with the one we’ve got?’ Unlike a president, however chosen, our monarchs can pretty well be relied upon to know their constitutional place. They know that they owe their throne to an accident of birth, and behave themselves accordingly, and we, their subjects, are relieved of the ineluctably invidious task of choosing them.
So, republicans, be careful what you wish for, and don’t say you weren’t warned.