The Queen could be replaced as head of state by the Speaker of the House of Commons were Britain to become a republic. Before too many red faced retired colonels living in the home counties have apoplexy this is the opinion of veteran left wing firebrand Tony Benn not, alas, a prediction of what will happen come the revolution.
Giving evidence to the commons political and constitutional reform committee as they examine whether or not the UK needs a written constitution, this week he said ‘The problem with a directly elected head of state is you get a conflict between two sources of authority,’ meaning in this hypothetical case between a president and a prime minister. The solution to this, he suggested, would be to maintain the symbolism of an unelected head of state minus the monarchical powers.
Mr Benn went on to add that ‘If you’re looking for a titular head of state I think the Speaker of the House of Commons would be perfect- he’s respected, he understands the constitution.’ I’m not sure those comments could be applied to the present incumbent the pocket sized bundle of self promotion that is John Bercow; but several of his predecessors, Betty Boothroyd for example, certainly had sufficient dignity to carry the role off.
Tony Benn originally made the proposal that the Queen be replaced as head of state by the Speaker of the Commons back in 1991 along with attacking the way successive governments have retained the powers traditionally held by the monarch and used them to impose their will on parliament. He told the committee that ‘we live in a modern parliamentary democracy, but the crown powers have been retained’ making the prime minister ‘in effect the unelected king.’
This, he went on to say, had created a political system that was ‘defective’ and he urged MPs to ensure that whatever conclusion they reach on having a written constitution the resulting document ‘protects the rights of ordinary people.’
To many people on the left Tony Benn is a sort of living history exhibit, an exemplar of values that they feel themselves to have moved on from as they have become more sophisticated; or cynical, about how they do business. Despite this patronising dismissal he, like most members of the awkward squad, has an annoying habit of being right.
However much republicans (and I include myself in that camp) might wish for Britain to grow up and stop playing mawkish nursery games with the toys of empire the monarchy is here to stay. Their presence is too bound up with our romantic ideas of national identity and the Royals themselves are too adept at playing the survival game for their public support to dip low enough to make abolition a realistic possibility.
Where Tony Benn is right though is to express concerns about the way successive residents of 10 Downing Street have used the royal prerogative to ride roughshod over the democratic process. These powers bundled together by archaic habit more properly belong to the people through the parliament they elect, without a commitment to enshrine that principle at its heart any future written constitution will only ever be so much dead prose scratched onto parchment.
Tony Benn is right the current political system is ‘defective’, parliament needs to wrestle back power from the executive, it also needs to shed the sheen of slick professionalism and become more reflective of the Britain outside the charmed circle of Oxbridge and the public schools. Even more importantly there needs to be a rejuvenation of grassroots politics in this country, the power to choose who stands for election to a seat in parliament as well as who wins the contest has to be put back into the hands of party activists and local communities.
Whether or not the monarchy with its faintly childish pomp and circumstance; its gilded coaches and dressing up box uniforms trundles on is hardly important in the larger scheme of things, the real revolution lies in handing power back to parliament and through it to the people. I’m sure that is something Tony Benn would agree with because as he has often said, democracy is the most revolutionary idea of them all.