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Royal wedding: Save the throne

A modernized, slimmed-down constitutional monarchy can be preferable to an elected head of state. Let's hope William and Kate have the good sense to head in that direction.

April 28, 2011|By Timothy Garton Ash
(PAUL HACKETT, Reuters )

If things continue as they are and Britain's Prince Charles succeeds his mother to reign as king until his death at a ripe old age, then sometime around 2040 the young couple getting married in Westminster Abbey on Friday will be King William V and Queen Catherine. By sheer accident of birth, William will then be the head of state of whatever is left of today's United Kingdom. Would that be all right? My answer is: In theory, no; in practice, probably yes.

If William and Kate behave themselves, unlike some of the gamier members of Britain's royal family, and contribute to the development of a modernized, slimmed-down constitutional monarchy, this can actually be better than the likely alternatives. As I look across Europe, I don't think countries such as Sweden, Holland, Denmark and Spain, all of which have monarchs, are worse off than those that have party politicians directly or indirectly elected to be president. Or would you rather have Buckingham Palace occupied by a President Tony Blair?

With one brief interlude in the 17th century, when English revolutionaries experimented with decapitating one of them, there have been kings and queens for more than 1,000 years. That is an amazing thing. It is the stuff of poetry. Imagine Shakespeare purged of all references to kingship. Before you abandon 1,000 years of poetry, you should be very certain that you will fare better in prose.

As we see again with the world media invasion of London for this week's royal wedding, this history, legend and mystique is also a significant contributor to Britain's soft power (the power to attract) and its earnings from tourism. I don't think anyone goes to Berlin to watch them changing guard at Bellevue Palace, or to catch a glimpse of President and Frau Wulff, and the little Wulffs. "President who?" is what most of the world would ask, if reference were made to the current head of state of Europe's most powerful country.

That's OK, if you make lots of BMWs, Mercedeses and machine tools to export to China. Britain doesn't. Instead, it has the queen, and William and Kate.

These arguments from history, poetry and soft power would have to yield if a constitutional monarchy seriously distorted the democratic process, made impossible an open society with life chances for all, and held the country back in a stuffy past of hierarchy and privilege.

In theory, it does all those things. These are among the reasons the British newspaper the Guardian has declared itself for a republic, and why many Guardian readers — though not, as a recent Guardian poll revealed, most Brits — would favor abolition of the monarchy.

In practice, however, I believe it does these bad things only marginally, and far less than it did 30 years ago, when Charles and Diana married. There are damagingly undemocratic elements in the British political system — above all, the unelected upper chamber of the legislature, the House of Lords — but the monarchy is not high among them. If we are talking about the power of a single unelected individual, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch is a far greater threat to British democracy than our hereditary head of state.

According to the constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor, no British monarch has refused his or her assent to legislation since 1707. Some undemocratic obscurantism still results from "Crown prerogative," and the constitutional doctrine that sovereignty resides in "the Crown in Parliament," but the lawyer Richard Gordon has shown how Britain could have a thoroughly modern written constitution, firmly based on popular sovereignty, and still keep a hereditary monarch as head of state.

Queen Elizabeth II may have some limited political influence, but there is no evidence that she has used it in a worse way than presidents do in other countries. Such presidents can sometimes lift themselves above the party political fray, as Richard von Weizsäcker did most impressively in Germany, but they will always be at least residually associated with a particular party. Somewhere in the past, these leaders will have had to do what politicians have to do in order to get to the top.

Of course, monarchs and royal consorts can get into trouble too, as Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands demonstrated when he became embroiled in the Lockheed bribery scandal. But there is less chance of that happening with monarchs, precisely because they don't have to elbow their way up the greasy pole.

Countries plagued by "cohabitation" conflicts between presidents from one party and prime ministers from another — and there are many such in Europe — must often wish they had a head of state who was genuinely neutral and a personification of national unity.

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