Keep the Queen - But Abolish All the Monarchy's Powers

21/01/2014 09:51 GMT | Updated 22/03/2014 09:59 GMT

On hearing the news that the Queen is to gradually hand over powers to Charles - creating a bizarre kind of monarchical double-act - I ought to feel angry. A hereditary ruler gradually passing on the baton to her son - without a smidgeon of democratic process - should really get the blood boiling. But try as I might I just can't get too worked up about it. I don't much like the monarchy but overthrowing it has never been a political priority. When the Queen appears to have only symbolic powers abolishing them comes low on the list of key issues after, say, housing, low wages and unemployment. I reckon most people feel similarly; they find the current setup eccentric, but basically inoffensive. As a result republican campaigners fail to get much traction - they are seen as cranks pursuing a faintly irrelevant cause, or worse, people who have a personal animus against the Queen, almost universally viewed as a nice old lady doing her best for the country.

The problem with this state of affairs is that the assumption it rests on - that the monarchy has no real power - is just not true. Firstly, there's Royal Assent - the need for the monarch to sign every bill before it becomes law. Recent reports have shown this to be more than a formality. The Government has been fighting a legal case to prevent the Guardian releasing letters between Prince Charles and ministers in which Charles debates large areas of government policy. The attention ministers give these letters stems from a) the possibility that Charles could, once King, deny royal assent to legislation and b) the current powers he enjoys to veto legislation that might damage the business interests of the Duchy of Cornwall. The Queen is regularly consulted (on more than a symbolic level) on a range of bills that might affect 'the interests of the crown' (including issues of child maintenance and National Insurance). While it's hard to imagine her vetoing legislation outright, the power to discuss and shape legislation before it is drafted is immense, and one that most lobbyists would kill for.

Secondly, there's a range of powers that are technically held by the Queen but now exercised by the Prime Minister. Most important is the Royal Prerogative: famously the ability to make war and peace and sign international treaties, but also the right to grant pardons or cease legal proceedings, issue and revoke passports and the right to dissolve parliament. A whole other set of powers resides with the 'Privy Council' (a purely appointed body) - including the issuing of royal charters such as that created in the wake of the Leveson report - forms of legislation that are not accountable to parliament. Tony Blair discussed the 'weapons of mass destruction' evidence with Ian Duncan Smith and Charles Kennedy under Privy Council terms - i.e. in secret. Royal Prerogative and The Privy Council have become ways for the Prime Minister to bypass parliament.

Thirdly, when an election results in a hung parliament, power rests with the monarch. The Queen would normally choose the leader of the largest party to be Prime Minister - but there's no clear convention for this - it is ultimately up to her discretion. If there was real difficulty forming a coalition, the Queen could easily find herself co-ordinating the talks process and empowering a prime minister who is not a party leader if she believed they were best placed to form a coalition.

Finally, in the event of a real crisis - a war in which the prime minister and cabinet were killed, or a revolutionary situation - the Queen would assume power and control of the army. It is even conceivable that if a government behaved in a radical way the Queen could marshal the army to overthrow them in a coup. At an ultimate level the Queen functions like the army in Egypt - being the ultimate source of power and holding the ability to seize control if they see fit.

Clearly republicans are aware of all of this - it is probably why they are republicans in the first place. The trouble is that these substantive issues rarely get a hearing, because the focus is immediately on the figure of the Queen - are you for her or against? Republicans should shift focus: concentrate on criticising the structural issues whilst leaving the monarch in place. Symbolically and nominally we'd be a Monarchy, but with the underlying structure of a Republic. The Queen would remain, but all the powers would pass to parliament.

I see no reason why this would require an elected president. We could simply transform the role of the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Speaker already has suitable qualities; they are politically neutral, whatever their previous party affiliation, and their role is to represent the people in parliament. Their powers would be limited - they would give 'assent' to bills passed through parliament and in a hung parliament or emergency have ultimate responsibility for choosing a prime minister, asking the person most likely to be able to form a government to try first, then asking another candidate to do so if the first fails.

What would remain of the monarchy? All the things people really like: the coronations, the weddings, the celebrity culture, the obsession around royal babies. Hell, even the televised Christmas message. This may be a bitter pill for republicans to swallow. But it might be precisely what allows some monarchists to accept such reforms - by accepting the continuation of the monarchy on a purely symbolic level we would gain the ability to strip the institution of its remaining constitutional power. We'd retain the elements people care most about while changing the structures that are most damaging. The symbol remains but the substance is transformed.