Tuesday, 19 April 2011

For a Modern Democratic Republic

All across Scotland political parties are vying for votes and spending millions of pounds trying to engage the electorate in the 'democratic process'. Glossy leaflets are being distributed left, right and centre whilst 'hustings' take place in church halls and community centres as political activists strive for most votes. But regardless of who wins the 129 seats on May 5th all the successful candidates must start their new job by defying the democratic principles they have just publicly espoused.
I well remember my first day as an elected MSP, I was legally compelled to tell a lie, a great big lie in front of the entire country. And when I refused I was expelled from the very Parliament I had fought so hard to enter. The reason? The Scotland Act compelled me to swear an oath of allegiance not to the people who had just elected me but to 'the Queen, her heirs and successors'. I refused. My allegiance I insisted was to the people of Scotland. But the Parliamentary authorities made it clear to me, and to my fellow MSPs, in no uncertain terms, that if we refused to take the oath we would not be legally permitted to sit in Parliament. [This requirement also faces MPs at Westminster].
How can our democratic process be so quickly and categorically usurped in this way? What about the declaration made by the Returning Officer that I 'had been duly elected to serve the people' of the Lothians?
The answer is that Britain's constitution has a monarch as our Head of State. Furthermore our unelected monarch and unelected House of Lords help enact laws referring to us as her 'subjects'. The monarch is 'attended' by her Lords, knights, aristocrats and the landed gentry. Our armed forces fight for and express loyalty to their 'Queen and country'. The law of the land upholds 'Her Majesty' as the ultimate legal authority. She is not accountable to, or elected by, anyone. It's no wonder people across the world who know of the UK's antiquated constitution are prone to ask incredulously 'Is this the same country that haughtily lectures the rest of the world about democracy?
Those who defend the Queen's role as our unelected Head of State insist hers is a largely benign and symbolic position. But this is patently untrue. Her powers can hardly be described as 'benign' if, when you don't declare your complete obedience to her, you cannot take up the seat the people elected you to.
But Parliament has the power, insist the monarchy's defenders, adding that the House of Commons is sovereign and the Queen cannot interfere in their political decisions. But strictly speaking she could, that's the point. She could, if she insisted, even refuse to allow a Government to be formed. She could refuse to sign Bills into law. This may appear unlikely in the present circumstances, but what if there was a political or constitutional crisis? We saw a glimpse of this last summer when after a hung Parliament emerged out of the General Election it took quite a while to form a Government. Into such circumstances 'benign' powers are often seen to emerge! Ask the people of Australia. They well remember a greater constitutional crisis in the 1970s when the so-called 'benign powers' of the Queen were evoked to remove the elected Labour Government of Prime Minister Goff Whitlam.
Furthermore Tony Blair infamously took us to war in Iraq by dint of the Royal Prerogatives given to him by the Crown and without a vote in the House of Commons. And the Queen's Privy Councillors exercise powers that outstrip those available to the House of Commons. Their administration of many of the world's tax havens, for example, is beyond the reach of MPs.
Constitutionally, power in Britain doesn't ultimately rest with the people. Britain is not a fully functioning democracy but a constitutional monarchy. As a democrat this worries me. I support a modern democratic republic for Scotland, not an outmoded feudal anachronism. And the polls suggest the majority of Scots agree with me. Our constitutional arrangements are urgently in need of root and branch reform. A modern democratic republic would establish the clear principle that we, 'the people', equal citizens in a free country, are ultimately in charge. We demand the right to elect our MPs and our Head of State in free and fair elections. That Head of State must be accountable to the people alone.
I once watched Alex Salmond get himself into a 'right Royal fankle' trying to explain the SNP's policy of 'a people's monarchy'. Try as he might he couldn't square two contradictory concepts. You can have rule by the monarch or rule by the people, but not both. There can be no place for hereditary privilege in a modern Scotland.
In 2005 the Queen came to open 'her' new £440m Holyrood Parliament. All MSPs and their families were 'cordially invited to meet 'Her Majesty''. But we six Scottish Socialist Party MSPs headed for the hills. Calton Hill in Edinburgh City Centre to be precise, where with thousands of others, we read out a declaration calling for a modern democratic republic for Scotland. To us those three words, 'modern', 'democratic' and 'republic' are inseparable. 'Modern' is something the monarchy is not. And I'm not just referring to the castles, palaces and titles or to their horse drawn carriages, robes, crowns and double breasted suits. I'm referring most of all to their attitudes and principles, their unearned positions, class ridden hierarchies and political controls.
'Democratic' the monarchy can of course never be. You either have the 'divine right of Kings' and their 'hereditary privileges' or you have free and fair elections, you simply can't have both.
A 'republic' is by definition a state in which 'supreme power resides in the people' not a monarch. To me it is the essence of democracy. An elected Head of State is a prerequisite in modern democracies. If you look around the world at other leading economies; France, Germany, Italy, Russia, China and most of the others, they all dumped their monarchies centuries ago. And America never had one, not unless you count Elvis!

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