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Friday, 26 April, 2002, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
'Reform, yes. But go slowly'
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By Michael Jacobs
General Secretary of the Fabian Society
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The Queen Mother's death last month provoked a wave of public support for the once beleaguered Royal Family. So what does the future hold for our monarchy?

In the last of a series, Michael Jacobs, of left-wing think tank the Fabian Society, says reform of the monarchy is needed, but it should be slow and considered.

The idea of "modernising the monarchy" often seems to suggest bicycles. There is a common image of the Dutch royal family, apparently so lacking in pomp and flummery that they ride around on bikes.

Cyclists
Bicycles are "not the answer"
But cycling is really beside the point. Indeed it is the wrong point altogether. The pomp and pageantry of the British monarchy is one of its more valuable features.

Not only for colour and tourism; but to provide a link to British history. The Queen Mother's funeral gave many people a sense of historical identity and continuity; in our transient, short-term culture that is an important role. Bikes wouldn't do it.

The arguments for reform are more serious. There are in fact two different arguments, and therefore two possible kinds of change.

The first is monarchical in spirit. The appearance of the monarchy should be reformed to ensure that its powers survive unchanged.


Visions of the Monarchy

In our three-part series, writers assess the Royal Family's future
  Wednesday - Historian Andrew Roberts on why the Monarchy has never been so popular   Thursday - Author Hilary Wainwright says republicanism will return

  • Friday - Economist Michael Jacobs on why modernisation is still important
  • The second is republican in spirit. Royal functions should be reformed to give Britain a fully democratic constitution, but without the immense historical rupture that would be involved in the full-scale abolition of the monarchy.

    Ancient British institutions have always reformed to survive, and the monarchy is no exception. There are too many indefensible aspects of the current arrangements. Without change these will lead to public disaffection whenever the popularity of the individual royals declines - as we saw during the Diana years.

    So the monarchical reform programme seeks to reduce the number of members of the royal family on the Civil List, paid for by taxpayers.

    It looks to renegotiate the amount of tax paid by the royal family, and the anomalous planning and other laws attaching to Crown property. It proposes the repeal of the rules giving males precedence over females and which disbar Catholics. Many of these reforms are already being canvassed by the Palace.

    Constitutional reform

    The republican reform programme goes much further. It seeks to redefine the job of Head of State of the United Kingdom.

    Wine bottles
    67,000 of civil list money is spent on alcohol for receptions
    At present the British monarch combines the ceremonial functions common in other European countries with a set of extremely unusual political powers and duties: to dissolve Parliament, appoint and dismiss the prime minister, assent to legislation, to sign treaties, declare war and appoint judges.

    Most of these powers are exercised under Royal Prerogative by the prime minister, but this is in itself an extraordinary constitutional structure. It gives the prime minister huge powers, not only of patronage, but to declare war - without reference to Parliament.

    The purpose of the republican reform of the monarchy is therefore the proper democratisation of the British constitution.

    A written constitution, guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms, would make the British people citizens, not subjects. Allegiance to the constitution would then replace the Oath of Allegiance in Parliament. The Queen's Speech would be replaced by the Government's Programme, announced in the Commons not the Lords.

    Procession of Queen Mother's coffin
    Pageantry gives a sense of "historical identity"
    The speaker of the House of Commons would adjudicate in the event of unclear general election results and assent formally to legislation. Prerogative powers would pass to ministers and cross-party committees in Parliament.

    The monarchical and republican modernisation programmes are not mutually exclusive, of course. Indeed the first could lead to the second in a series of gradual steps. That, after all, would be the historic British way.

    The author is General Secretary of the Fabian Society. He writes in a personal capacity.


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