Representative Monarchy

Glen Newey

Universal rejoicing at the news of the royal engagement may not be shared in one corner of the kingdom: Highgrove. In polls commissioned to mark the announcement, Britons now seem to take a leap-frog view of the succession. According to yesterday’s ICM survey in the News of the World, 64 per cent of Britons want Prince William, rather than his father, to become king when the queen dies. ICM also found that fewer than one person in five wanted the crown to pass to Charles and Camilla. Meanwhile a YouGov poll in the Sunday Times found that 44 per cent of people thought Charles should make way for his son to become the next king, against 37 per cent who thought he should not.

Of course, this is very unlikely to happen. Even if Brenda shows the same dismaying longevity as her mother, and pants on for another twenty-odd years, one may expect an octogenarian Prince of Wales to succeed her, assuming that he hasn’t already gone off himself to muse with the great beanstalk in the sky. At that point even William would be knocking fifty, and would quite probably be on the same spiral into pottiness that has marked his father’s long wait for the throne. By then there will no doubt be a new generation of briefly photogenic Windsors to slaver over.

To try introducing democracy to the hereditary ‘principle’, as these polls do, seems as hopeful as trying to cross a manatee with a camel. There is nonetheless a method of determining the head of state that conforms to what the Greeks called isonomia, political equality. Why not select him or her by lottery, on appointment, say, for a three-year term? Sortition was used to staff public offices in ancient Athens, as well as for the past 800 years or so, in Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions, for jury empanelment.

The objection will instantly be made that such a system could propel any old tit into the purple. But, of course, ‘any old tit’ is the system we already have. Or rather: anyone within a rather tightly banded demographic. The head of state’s functions are, it is true, largely symbolic, and it is not clear that they could not be discharged by a house-trained basset hound, or a stuffed owl, though there are some areas where the monarch still has real power, such as the issuing of Prerogative Orders-in-Council or appointing a government. Monarchists often flip-flop between arguing that the queen has no real power; and that since she does have power in these areas, any old bozo won’t do. But then, for democrats, these are precisely the areas where accountability rather than a rabbit’s foot seems called for.

At least it’s easy to agree with monarchists that symbolism matters. Charles or William will ‘represent’ the nation as a white, multi-millionaire, Protestant, public-school educated scion of the oldest of old money. And this is the great advantage of a lottery. The unthinkability of a black or openly lesbian or atheist head of state could dissolve before the vagaries of chance. It’s longer odds than Charles staggering on to his coronation. But at least we’d be spared more of his misty eco-feudalism.


  • 23 November 2010 at 3:11pm
    Jon Day says:
    'Why not select him or her by lottery, on appointment, say, for a three-year term?'

    This reminds me of G. K. Chesterton's 'The Napoleon of Notting Hill'. The problems start when a randomly elected king begins to take his role too seriously, much to the chagrin of the government.

  • 23 November 2010 at 4:19pm
    orlp says:
    During the time when I had an administrative job there was a period when my secretary changed every year. Train the new secretary in the details of the job required a great deal of additional work. If the monarch were selected randomly, the training required would certainly be lengthy and to have to go through with that every three years would seem excessive and expensive. On the other hand restricting the lottery entry to "experienced" candidates would be self-defeating.

    "Constitutional" presidents (with mostly formal duties), of countries like Germany, do not seem to do so much better than monarchs. Some are wise and revered, but fools are not uncommon. And the expense of keeping ex-presidents in the style they have grown accustomed to does not appear to be that much less costly.

    I am not a royalist, but I think that reform of the house of lords is more important than reform of the monarchy, which, thanks to Prince Albert, is still popular even if some of its members are not.

  • 23 November 2010 at 5:26pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Most younger people are put off a republican Britain, if they are put off at all, by the idea of some old politician or friend of politicians being president and they're right: we'd probably get Lord Julian Fellowes or Tony Blair.

    The best way out is to have an animal. Something strictly symbolic, like a lion or a unicorn. My own personal favourite is a goat. The Welsh regiments have had a goat as a member of the regiment for centuries; they're very used to having to behave well at formal occasions, unlike many well-known humans I could name. Horses would do well too. So would dolphins and fish, though there are obvious practical problems with choosing the waterborne. I could see something like the Chinese new year working too; we could have the year of the parrot followed by the year of the something else -- peacock or ant-eater.

    • 24 November 2010 at 12:25am
      outofdate says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      In Iain M Banks' Culture novels the problem is solved by giving radically different aliens, say inhabitants of gas giants, a sort of micro-habitat in a suit -- he's big on suits -- when they're dispatched abroad, or in extreme cases an avatar. That would allow a flounder to represent the nation even in extreme climates like Saudi Arabia or Luxembourg.

    • 24 November 2010 at 8:50am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ outofdate
      Formerly-royal robes on remotely-controlled wheels could provide a good micro-habitat, except that they couldn't do flights of stairs.

  • 23 November 2010 at 7:45pm
    Joe Morison says:
    Countries no longer need heads of state, their duties can just as well be dealt with by elected politicians and celebrities: the international meeting and greeting by the former, the raising of the nation's spirits in times of trial and disaster by the latter.

    However, in our case, with all that History which is our USP in the world of tourism and international trade, the royals probably make us much more than they cost.

    The one time i've been really glad of them was when Nelson Mandela made his first state visit here as president. I took my children to see him plant a tree in St. James' Park after he'd spent the night in Buck Palace. The planting was at about 7 in the morning, even so there was a hundred or so of us cheering him on: he looked really happy and i remember thinking that where he'd been the night before was about as far from his cell in Robben Island as was possible to get on this planet, and that he liked that.

  • 24 November 2010 at 11:36am
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    By the way, it's funny of the newspapers: conducting polls, and finding the public wish the monarch would do this or that. Polls, that's almost like voting. It's almost like they all think they've got some say in what gets decided.

    • 3 December 2010 at 2:09am
      If Prince Charles *did* decide to forego the honour, then a masterstroke would be to attribute this course of action to the public will ("See? We're modern, we're in touch, we're listening.") It would have to be presented as something wholly exceptional, to reduce the danger of awakening further attempts to intervene.

  • 30 November 2010 at 1:02pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    I want to make a plea for the retention of the monarchy in its present form. My reason is quite simple. Q.E. has done nothing harmful in the past fifty years. She smiles, waves quite nicely, wears odd hats and that should be an example to us all. She has a big upkeep bill, I know but when you look at what the banks do with our money every day, it's peanuts. We have a well-mannered Granny as Queen who knows very well that her son will be a middling disaster with speeches about values and issues and stuff, while the world chuckles over the buffoon. I suggest that the queen be declared immortal and then she can go on for ever.

Read more