The Queen should abdicate: this is the right time. Not because another scandal has broken out, with police probing allegations of Saudi cash-for-honours donations to the Prince of Wales’s charity. Not because of Prince Andrew’s disgrace.
Nor should she abdicate for the reason given this week by my friend and colleague Simon Jenkins: he calls for her to withdraw gently from public life to spend her declining years in dignified tranquillity, and allow a “planned transfer” to Charles. In other words, let there be no perilous moment when people ask themselves why no one asked them first. Allow no possible pause for thought between her last breath and the shout of “vivat rex”. Make sure it’s a fait accompli with his royal posterior already cemented to the throne.
It is indeed a good time to bow out gracefully, as this platinum jubilee celebrates her 70-year reign with all the pomp of a four-day bank holiday and a new pudding. But let it mark an end to monarchy itself, those feudal centuries drawing to a peaceful close. The Queen has held the monarchy together skilfully through tempestuous scandals, from the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the divorces of three of her children to the flight of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, once heralded as royals for the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo era.
This jubilee would make a cheerful ending to all the royal folderol. What better time to return the sovereignty promised in Brexit to the people to whom it belongs. Elizabeth the Last should get a historic send-off, her golden coach and crown retired and her six palaces opened as fine museums. (No, tourism is no excuse for monarchy: Versailles gets many more visitors, and so does Legoland down the road from Windsor Castle).
In death or abdication, her passing will be an emotive memory marker in every family, the last link to the second world war, to remnants of empire and to that old black and white world of Pathé newsreels with their jolly jingo voices. “Thank God for the Queen”, proclaims the Sun’s front page today, absurdly. It’s doubtful she returns any thanks to Rupert Murdoch, whose lèse-majesté arrival here shattered that old reverence for royal mystique.
The crown and constitution are no longer abstract debates. The need for an elected president has become urgent now Boris Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street tests conventions, laws and civil rights beyond their limits. John Major expressed that constitutional outrage eloquently on these pages, listing Johnson’s abuses: deliberately breaking international law; tearing up the ministerial code; ordaining police stop and search “without any cause for suspicion”; removing British citizenship at whim, while waging war against the civil service and the BBC, those national safeguards.
The Commons Speaker turns out to be powerless against lies told to his face. There is no voice to admonish, check or protect against elective dictatorship by a wrecker of a prime minister with a strong majority. His MPs are shockingly derelict. Until now, monarchy was defended as dignified and powerless, a harmless decoration that never interferes with parliament. Embarrassing lapses – the Guardian’s revelations of the Queen’s consent preventing laws that may reveal her wealth or Charles’s “spider letters” leaning on ministers – are relatively trivial. The constitutional problem is not the monarch’s power, but powerlessness. Presidents around Europe protect constitutions and guard against overmighty politicians breaking basic law. A president would have stopped Johnson illegally proroguing parliament: it takes the authority of election to take action as a vital backstop in a constitutional emergency.
Our monarchy has handed all royal prerogative to the prime minister with no check or balance, bar a House of Lords almost as weak as the monarch for the same bad reason – lacking the authority of election. Look how Johnson engages in voter suppression: his proposals for compulsory photo ID and abolishing colleges registering their students will deliberately deter the young and poor from voting. Look how he moves to curb the electoral commission’s power to prosecute illegal political donations protecting his own party’s pelf. There is no brake on an errant prime minister in a country without a written constitution, where a warped electoral system denies fair representation and there is no effective head of state to guard against law-breaking. The unelected Queen must do what the prime minister tells her to.
Monarchists speak with revulsion of who an elected president may be. The royal historian Robert Lacey, in a recent debate, asked in tones of horror, “President Lineker? President Street-Porter?” But, urges Graham Smith, CEO of the Republic pressure group, look around Europe at dignified presidents who understand their ceremonial duties and the political limits to their role, while acting as constitutional guarantors. Former politicians take on a presidency with as much independence as our Speakers in parliament. Look across the Irish Sea at Michael D Higgins, Mary McAleese or Mary Robinson and ponder why British voters are too wild or daft to be trusted to make equally sensible choices.
Support for this antique dysfunction wanes with each generation and it has become fragile. A majority of under-25s expect it to be gone in 25 years. Monarchy is a cast of mind blocking reform. Monarchy is a feudalism of the imagination that stamps approval on inheritance, inequality and privilege, all growing rampantly right now.
“Take but degree away, untune that string, And, hark, what discord follows!” Shakespeare has Ulysses warn, eulogising “degree, priority and place” in Troilus and Cressida: no one knows if this deep conservatism aligning the planets with aristocratic order was his own view. The point is this: that string is untuned already. The crown decorates a riot of constitutional disorder. Abolishing it would open windows into every aspect of how we choose to be governed and how we think of ourselves.
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