Unlike monarchism, republicanism has almost never played well in Britain. There are some generally accepted reasons for this, but they would come under closer examination if the head of state issue revives after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Nothing’s going to happen before then.
So far the British have been content to see a throne and to see on it successive descendants of Egbert of Wessex (and,let us not forget, the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), through the Kings of Portugal: citation). Any English kings which got out of line were browbeaten (John), driven into exile (James II), threatened by mobs (Richard II, Henry VII, Henry VIII), subjected to assassination attempts (Victoria), killed in battle (Harold II, Richard III), murdered in prison (Edward II, Richard II, Edward V), killed ‘by accident’ (William II) or executed (Charles I).
Over time, the role of kings and queens has shrunk even as the number of territories they ruled has risen and fallen: from 1688 onwards, no more than, in Paul Johnson’s phrase, part of a ‘tolerated oligarchy.’ The last monarch to sack judges and imprison bishops was James II in 1688; the last one merely to consider dismissing the government was William IV, who died in 1837.
The British have always preferred their monarchs to be on the non-intellectual side. This good-natured rule will be challenged by the accession of Charles III who will become the first genuine intellectual to occupy the British throne since James I.
Apart from the pomp and circumstance arguments for it, another reason for keeping the monarchy is that it would be too much trouble to abolish it. Constitutional change happens slowly over time. The role of the alternative to a hereditary monarch, a president, is not always clearly understood. The monarchists in Australia won the referendum on the monarchy in 1999 partly by persuading enough people that the president, if voted in by the legislature, would always be some government retread or tired political hack. Maybe so, but is a system that has elected exemplary non-executive presidents such as Mary Robinson in Ireland and Sandro Pertini in Italy, and the alternative, that of an executive president like Sarkozy would surely not be agreeable here.
The mechanics for formally putting the question to the people are surely not that difficult. Referenda would have to be carried out separately in each of the 16 Commonwealth realms, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Dominions such as Canada, right down to St Kitts and Nevis; and then in the remaining overseas territories such as St Helena.
Speaking only of England from now on, the, if we were to stipulate that the first elected president be British-born, no more than 80 years old (which would exclude Tony Benn and the Attenborough brothers), and in good health, and if, first time round, we initially exclude anyone from the worlds of entertainment and the performing arts, the list of possible candidates as they would be today might look something like this (in descending order of age):
Shirley Baroness Williams of Crosby (born 1930)
David Lord Ramsbotham (1934)
David Lodge (1935)
Jacob Lord Rothschild (1936)
Sir Bobby Charlton (1937)
Nicholas Lord Phillips of Worth Maltravers (1938)
Frank Dobson (1940)
Paddy Lord Ashdown (1941)
Lord Rees of Ludlow (1942)
Sir Richard Sykes (1942)
Roger Cashmore (1944)
Sheila Forbes (1946)
David Blunkett (1947)
Jonathan Lord Sacks (1948)
Helena Baroness Kennedy (1950)
Tanni Lady Grey-Thompson (1969)
A crucial precondition would have to be agreed. A referendum in England could only be carried out if the abolition of the monarchy had been thoroughly discussed during the previous general election, the campaign for which would establish where each party stood on the question.
I doubt it will ever happen in the foreseeable future. If it doesn’t, the superiority of the word ‘citizen’ over the word ‘subject’ will not be properly acknowledged and enacted in our constitutional arrangements. The Royal Prerogative will continue in force, as a tool – or weapon – in the hands of an elected government and the clear codified listing of citizens’ rights and responsibilities will be as elusive as it is now.
A pity. The English have long outgrown their need for a hereditary monarchy and deserve a constitutional reform which provides them with an elected head of state presiding over a true democracy and, one sunny afternoon, formally opening the new Museum of the British Monarchy in Windsor Castle.