No other peace time event in our lives will ever eclipse the global impact of the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It’s possible that she met more people than anyone else in human history – and I consider myself fortunate to have been one of them.
The Sweetest Tea I Ever Enjoyed
As a member of the Privy Council, I always considered it a great responsibility to be invited to Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle for a meeting of the Council. I remember each occasion fondly – although I had a terrible habit of forgetting the horse racing tips that the Queen occasionally shared with me. I was always struck by her remarkable inquisitiveness.
Every politician will know that one of the features of leaving politics is that many of those extraordinary fair-weather friends, who had regularly demanded to clutter their diary, never get in touch again. Not so the Queen. Tea with her Majesty, just one-to-one in the Palace, after I left Cabinet, was probably the sweetest pot of tea I’ve ever enjoyed.
As I said recently on television, Her Majesty’s dying in Scotland almost served as a final parting gift to the nation that she demonstrably loved so much. Scotland has been at the centre of the union of the Crowns for four centuries, and Scotland was centre stage again immediately after her passing.
Royal Deeside looked resplendent, the sun shone, every street and pathway was lined. She was brought across from the Kingdom of Fife where in 1964 she opened the Forth Road Bridge. On her final journey she was taken across the successor bridge. It is a testament to her longevity that she outlasted even the Forth Road Bridge. Flown to London in the care of the RAF, the crowds and queues that welcomed her will long be remembered as an iconic collective moment in our nation’s consciousness.
What might we expect from King Charles?
And now a new era begins. Over the years I have got to know the then Prince Charles reasonably well, although not to the point that I would ever suggest I knew his intentions. But as we all know, he has served as heir to the throne for 50 years – longer than anyone in British history. He was ahead of his time on some of the big issues, especially on climate damage where he has long argued that we must live in harmony with nature. And on another of his great passions – life opportunities for young people – which led him after leaving the Royal Navy to set up The Prince’s Trust. This has helped to transform young lives by supporting more than a million young people across the UK. I’ve seen those twin passions in action during my visits to Dumfries House in Ayrshire, which he has transformed. He won’t stop caring about those issues now that he wears the crown.
Perhaps we’ll see a slightly different approach to the one that he has taken as heir. Over time, perhaps we’ll also witness a nuancedly different approach to that of Queen Elizabeth II. The coronation of 2023 will be in a markedly different country to the coronation of 1953 – one illustration of which is our nation’s welcome diversity. While he recently took the Oath as the Defender of the Faith during the Accession Council, he will also be a defender of faith. I’ve seen this in action myself: whether it was on a grand scale of him welcoming the Pope to the UK for the first ever papal State visit here. I’ve also seen it on a micro level when we welcomed him to Merthyr Tydfil as he visited the Foundation for Jewish Heritage charity (of which I’m a Trustee) to see how we are bringing the historic synagogue there back to life.
The Democratic Case for the Monarchy
Of course, people will understandably now ask questions about the purpose of a monarchy in a digital age largely devoid of deference. Some nations of the Commonwealth may look again at their relationship with the Crown. And those processes will be respected. An important conversation is also about the continued strength and growth of the Commonwealth. Let’s remember that this is a voluntary collection of nations where only a minority have the monarch as Head of State, and where its newest members have no colonial connection to the UK. Queen Elizabeth II did more than anyone to build that institution and now King Charles will lead it with energy.
Looking more closer to home why is it that I – as someone who wouldn’t normally defend inherited power, privilege or ideas – am nevertheless an advocate for the monarchy? For me it’s not about tourism, tradition or trade – although each of those are important. No, my starting point is a fundamental one – I believe in the primacy of parliament. It is that non-negotiable, which leads me to believe in a monarchy with strictly inhibited constitutional powers – those currently granted to the monarch.
Parliament, despite its regular faults and foibles, should remain the centre of our democratic life. In that context our PM is but the first among equals in a parliament of their peers. The PM is replaceable if unable to command a majority in the Commons – as the demise of Chamberlian, Callaghan, May and Johnson – in their different ways – proved. And importantly, in our uncodified system, we don’t a rival external political personality with their own electoral mandate embedded in our unwritten constitution. That balance should be cherished.
Time for an Elected Head of State?
The alternative is an elected (directly or indirectly) Head of State which will, by definition, be a politician, although is equally unlikely to an elected MP fully accountable to parliament. Without a written constitution a directly elected president would be a rival power centre outside of our first among equals parliamentary system. A UK Head of State with their own electoral mandate would inevitably operate above, beyond, or outside of parliament. One alternative often mooted is a titular president appointed by a PM. There are other options such the PM and the UK’s three First Ministers jointly appointing a president by consensus. But both options create accountability uncertainties. Another route is that our PM dual-hats as the head of government and the Head of State. But that would likely eviscerate the idea of our head of state as a domestic unifier and non-partisan international ambassador.
Of course, there are alternatives to our current system, as other nations successfully demonstrate. I am not a defender inherited power, privilege or ideas, and there is much in our politics that must change – but I consider myself to be a parliamentary monarchist. I believe that a constitutional monarchy, in a nation without a constitution, is the most effective way to protect the primacy of the Commons and the accountability that it incentivises.
Long may it continue. God save the King, and continued power to parliament.