Tuesday, 7 August 2012


I read an article in yesterday’s newspaper (here) in which the journalist explained that he has belatedly become a Royalist.  This change of heart is interesting in itself, since the trend is probably the other way.  It is a bad moment to reflect on the Monarchy probably, with the Diamond Jubilee celebrations about to start in earnest and the whole country bedecked in bunting and patriotic flags and nothing available in the shops that doesn't carry a Union Flag or Royal cipher.

But what I found interesting in the article though was that what brought about the journo's conversion was not the value for money of the Monarchy, the relative low cost of the maintenance of all the buildings, the staff, the hangers-on, etc, nor the spectacular panoply that goes with ceremonial monarchical occasions, nor the high cost of the elections and all the razzmatazz of choosing a President instead of a Monarch, nor the disruption to life brought about by such elections every 4/5 years, nor the loss of stability and consistency and reliability and unity that comes with a different person running the country just as you get used to the previous one, nor the potential problem of our gaining an executive leader for the first time (since the Dark Ages), any of which would be argument enough not to change our present system.  No, it was the process that had unnerved him.

He had watched the rise of Baroness Ashton to the post of European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, making her the highest-paid female politician in the world, without actually having had a proper job before.  She had done so (in his words) through political patronage, upon having the correct views and knowing the right people.  The point is that Prime Ministers and bureaucrats under them have a strong interest in who is in charge of their country and won’t necessarily choose the person with the strongest personality or greatest competence in decision-making or indeed proven record in leading.  The important point is that they do what you want them to do.

I can understand that point.  If you are going to elect a boss, you want to make sure they are someone who thinks the same way as you or, worse, not someone who will disagree strongly with your views.  But his article made me wonder if Baroness Ashton’s case was actually relevant to the election of a President.  I conclude that it is.

Firstly, Prime Minister’s (and their parties)(and the Opposition for that matter) have very much an interest in keeping the present monarchical system, because it is they in fact who make all the decisions.  The Queen makes very nice policy speeches about what ‘Her Government’ is going to do, but these speeches are all written by the Government (in fact by a bunch of bureaucrats.  If the Government wishes to include a para about the situation in Afghanistan for example, to do with withdrawing troops say, someone in the Foreign Office will write the first draft). 

Secondly, following on from that, the Prime Minister currently makes the decisions and informs The Queen.  Of course, if a President makes a policy speech or a policy for that matter, some bureaucrat (?wonk) will draft it for him.  But the difference will be that it will be the President’s bureaucrats that do the writing, not the Prime Minister’s.  Having a Constitutional Head of State makes running a Government fairly straightforward; having a leader with executive or quasi-executive powers won’t suit British Governments at all and will make a real mess of their party manifestoes.

Thirdly, the situation that often, it seems, exists in the US for example, where the President’s policies cannot be implemented, because the Government (ie one or other House) will not agree the legislation, would leave our popularly-elected representatives effete.  Whereas having a toothless non-elected Monarch doesn’t seem so undemocratic.

Fourthly, and I think this is a separate point, it is difficult to imagine a situation where a President has little real power yet is so universally loved.  Would we all have street parties, and regattas on the Thames, and all wear silly hats and sunglasses, just because a President had been around a long time, and despite his not having done anything?

If I am right, there is not much chance of all this changing here any time soon, democratic process or not.

OK, I know the presidential system is a different kind of democracy, but, let’s face it, you don’t get to be President (anywhere I think) unless you have a fair amount of money already.  That means that Candidates will be of a certain section of society, maybe not as exclusive as our Monarch, but not very often a complete unknown under-privileged outsider either.  But what role does a Parliamentary Representative have then?  Do they have to support the President to ensure influence and/or money?  Or do they have to oppose the President to maintain their constituency?

I’d be interested to know how Americans feel about their system.  Do you feel represented in Government?  Do you feel you can influence decisions in Government?  Do you feel that voting for a President empowers you?  Can you still affect local policies or influence your administration locally?  How do you feel about having a President named after a baseball glove?

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