Introducing an electoral system of proportional representation should take priority over conversations about the future nature of Britain’s head of state, writes AC Grayling
Sign up for our weekly Behind the Headlines email and get a free copy of Byline Times posted to you
The Coronation of a monarch in the 2020s is guaranteed to inflame emotions either of loyalty or opposition.
The operative word is ‘emotions’ and it is an apt one in certain respects, given that one of the functions performed by heads of state is to serve, in both human and symbolic form, as a point of focus for a national community.
But, in most other respects, the emotions engaged by the question of monarchy, especially in the United Kingdom given that it is the most salient of the world’s surviving monarchies, obscure rather than advance the constitutional implications of having a head of state – which all states have, save some of the most dysfunctional ones.
‘Heads of state’ come in two kinds: executive and non-executive.
The former combines governmental authority with the ceremonial and formal functions of the constitution, such as signing-off on legislation, presiding at major military funerals, presenting honours to persons of high achievement. The model here is the president of the United States, who in addition to his executive authority, performs what has been well described as the ‘decorative functions’ of the US Constitution.
As the American presidency has developed since the US itself became an imperial power after the First World War, the trappings of quasi-monarchy – state corteges of many vehicles with police motorbike outriders, flags, salutes, military parades – has grown around it, amplifying its ceremonial aspect and demanding formalities and rituals in recognition of it. With as much pomp and as many medals, the same is true from North Korea to Venezuela.
A non-executive head of state, by contrast, has exclusively the formal and decorative role and, in many places, shares with the political head of government some of the ceremonial aspects. They also come in two varieties: elected and hereditary.
The advantages of an elected head of state, as shown by Ireland, is that a popular neutral figure can fulfil the thankless task of standing about on ceremonial occasions, smiling and shaking hands, as a harmless symbol of the nation and a figure above and separate from its fray (in every democracy or quasi-democracy there is fray; only tyrannies are fray-less, at least for a time).
Elected heads of state generally come cheaper than hereditary ones and, if they prove an embarrassment, they are considerably easier to remove.
But hereditary heads of state have their advantages too. A major one is that, once they are installed (and providing that the monarchy is a ‘constitutional’ one with no actual power), the formal and ceremonial functions of the constitution are performed without interruption for as long as they live, without repeated elections and the divisions they bring.
It is an interesting reflection to ask who in the UK today would be a candidate for an elected president – popular neutral figures are rather hard to come by in the fractious and bitter country ours has turned into. David Attenborough is the only name that springs to my mind and he is far too intelligent to accept the role. On the other hand, the flesh crawls when contemplating a Boris Johnson or a Jacob Rees-Mogg as president.
In the sometimes ill-tempered objections to the pomp and circumstance of Charles III’s crowning, a major point is lost: that the British monarchy is almost the last thing that needs fixing in the UK.
Its broken and dysfunctional constitution makes the country schematically a sort of Tara (the plantation in Gone With The Wind) – the political classes and their paymasters up in the big house with the veranda-to-roof Corinthian columns, and the toilers in the fields – the rest of us – with scarcely any say, and such say as we have restricted to periodic elections between which we essentially live in a one-party state. The party in question being the one with a majority in the House of Commons.
The frustration and anger felt by those who bother to take note of what is happening there has its roots in the fact that almost all majorities in the Commons (and hence one-party state governments) are put there by minorities of voters. This is the key constitutional issue: proportional representation. Beside it the question of whether the motorcade to the state opening of Parliament carries non-executive President Boris Johnson or King Charles III is an irrelevance. My preference is for the latter.
So also is the argument about the House of Lords, except in one respect: how it is constituted. An elected second chamber would replicate the Commons, making it another focus of political wrangling full of career politicians and requiring formal adjustment of our constitutional arrangements to provide for resolutions of disputes between the two elected, and therefore democratically authoritative, legislatures if they were to disagree.
A look across the Atlantic does not inspire emulation. Stuffing the Lords with cronies, political donors and retired MPs (save for those with something genuine to offer in the way of experience and insight) is a perversion of the idea of a senate – the idea of a revising chamber, otherwise legislatively powerless, recruited from across society among those with real experience and mature insight.
The shallow thought about constitutional reform is to throw out the dressing-up box part (Crown and Lords) without realising that they might be replaced with something worse, or merely tawdry, while failing to think about what really matters: our electoral system, careerism in politics, the party whipping system which makes MPs representatives of a party line and not their constituents or the interests of the country, the reliance of political parties on donors and interest groups, the fact that party politics in our system does not invariably attract the best and brightest (there are unquestionably some, and all honour to them) but too often the greasiest and most opportunistic.
Don’t Miss a Story
The proof that our constitutional arrangements do not work at all well is plain to see: it is the state of the country, the embarrassment that is the government, the horrendous mistakes that have been made as rational restraints and former conditions have been lifted since 2016 (reprising what Adlai Stevenson said on losing the US presidential race to General Eisenhower in 1952, “the car dealers have taken over from the New Dealers”).
If one tries to reform everything all at once, one is in danger of reforming nothing – or just making things worse.
Fabius Cunctator, the original ‘Fabian’ of cautious steps, had a point. What we need is to pick out the poisoned thorn – the First Past the Post electoral system – so that a legislature can result which more genuinely represents the spectrum of interests, preferences, needs and desires in the nation.
There is no natural majority for anything in a society – societies are congeries of minorities and individuals, forced into temporary and artificial majorities by elections. That diversity needs to express itself in a more consensual and inclusive politics, against which a FPTP system militates.
The illusion of a binary in the political character of a nation is promoted by political parties in two-party states (the product of FPTP voting) because it serves their interests. Two-party politics generates one-party government, and we see where it has led us. At least we have been spared the added futility of quarrels over the election of a non-executive president to add to the general noise; and, if memory serves, it is the Lords who have striven to protect our civil liberties against a grotesquely illiberal Government and the cruelty of its policies on refugees and asylum seekers.
We need reform, yes – but we need to also pick our fights.
AC Grayling is a philosopher, Master of the New College of the Humanities, and Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College at Oxford University
OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU
Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.