On Saturday the 19th of September, along with fellow WhatDoTheyKnow.com volunteer John Cross, I gave a FOI workshop at an activists day for Republic, the campaign for an elected head of state in the UK.
The event included some fantastic sessions on a wide range subjects including getting stories in the press, lobbying politicians and organising publicity stunts. I have written an article for mySociety on the FOI workshop in which I discussed the Royal exemption from the Freedom of Information Act and Gordon Brown’s stated intention to restrict further what little transparency there is with respect to both the Royal influence in government and decision making in cabinet.
I am not a member of Republic; but I do agree with their key aim. I want to finish the slow process which has been under way for centuries of removing the role of a hereditary monarch in government. I do not want to see the royals beheaded or thrown out on the streets. While I want a “revolution” I do not think it needs be dramatic, it is just another small step along the continuum. If organisations want royals to continue in their many charitable and figurehead roles I have no objection to them being able to hold such roles, it is simply the role in government which I object to. As a strong supporter of democracy I am appalled by the fact I live in a country where so much power is vested in someone who has a position based on a system of hereditary which disadvantages women and excludes those who do not follow a particular flavour of religion.
At the event I learnt that while Republic don’t have a policy on the alternative to the hereditary monarch as a head of state; according to polls the most popular alternative option in the country is a directly elected president so Republic lean towards that in their campaigning. Personally I am in favour of a very strong House of Commons. It is the commons which is the democratic cockpit of the nation. While many see the centralisation of power in the prime minister as one of the major problems with our current system which there is an opportunity to reform. Personally I think the solution is not to create a new post of president, but to strengthen parliament so it can more effectively hold the Prime Minister and other ministers to account, keep them in check, and confirm their decisions. With a strong parliament “Head of State” could be added to the long list of titles already held by the Prime Minister. This option is the least dramatic, but still a historically significant revolution which will lay the foundations for a democratic Britain in the future.
On the subject of holding Ministers to account; I think it is particularly important that Lords Ministers ought be held to account by MPs. It is no good for Lord Mandelson to be sitting in the gallery when a junior minister is answering questions addressed to him on the floor of the house (and where the rules of the house prevent MPs from mentioning if Lord Mandleson is sitting, out of reach, in the gallery). I would like to see a Parliament of strong individuals who would have no qualms about calling the likes of Lord Mandleson to the bar of the house to hold him to account.
I would like to see more reform of the House of Lords; here too heredity needs to be excised. I do not think the house ought be elected in the same way as the commons, or in such a way as it threatens the supremacy the commons. The role of the Lords is a safeguard, and it is appropriate that its members are experienced and expert individuals. I like the idea of groups who can hold elections with a particular threshold number of electors being able to send someone to the House of Lords. We already have medical experts, lawyers, spooks, churchmen, ex-ministers, those who have served in the military and others in the House of Lords, it would be excellent if all such groups could democratically select their own representatives.
Oath for Members of Parliament
I am appalled that only royalists can participate in the governance of my country by becoming MPs; well royalists or those prepared to lie. The reason for this is the Oath Members of Parliament have to take before taking up their seats. There are two versions of the Oath, one for those who object to swearing on the Bible. There is currently no option for those who object to making an oath to the monarch, the current wording states:
I…..swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.
I …… do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors according to law.
There are many MPs who have taken the oath, but who openly disagree with it. Tony Benn prefaced his oath with the words: “As a dedicated republican, I solemnly swear …” *
My view is that someone starting their parliamentary stint with a lie in the house is not a good way to start. The fact there are so many MPs who oppose the oath yet none have taken a stand against it shows that we are electing weak and unprincipled individuals to parliament. We must elect stronger individuals. I think it would only take one MP to refuse the oath (perhaps simply promising to serve their constituents) and to take their seat to force a democratic revolution.
At the next election I would like to be able to vote for a candidate not willing to take the current oath.
Oaths to the Monarch are not just a problem preventing access to parliament, but there is a much stronger oath taken by members of the Privy Council. Police Officers, members of the armed forces (except the Navy), members of the judiciary and others with public roles are also required to take oaths.
Land and Property
I think that having the royals running the vast estates including the Duchy of Lancaster and Duchy of Cornwall is undesirable as these properties, and the royal palaces, ought be run in the public interest, in a democratically accountable manner, by our elected representatives. I expect this would result in the properties being made more accessible to tourists, self financing, and more available to promote the UK’s interests.
While, unlike the Duchies, the Crown Estate is accountable to parliament and generates income for the treasury there is an opportunity there too to move further down the path towards full democratic control and ownership by the British public.
- My previous article on this matter entitled: The Santa Hat of State