If the UK is to stay together for the next 70 years, it’s going to have to change.
UK state funerals are rare. The last one was in 1965, for Winston Churchill. They’re a time for national reflection – about the country we want to be as well as remembering the country we were. And of course, the person who’s passed away. May Queen Elizabeth II rest in peace.
Britain is a constitutional monarchy, not an absolute one. We haven’t had a king or queen exercise real political power since William IV dismissed Lord Melbourne as Prime Minister in 1834 and appointed Robert Peel against the will of Parliament. We’ve evolved into a democracy where our (unwritten) constitution says Parliament is sovereign, not the king. If we want to change the way we run our country we can.
Many people want to keep the institution of the monarchy. They’re entitled to want it. Others want a republic – they’re entitled to their opinion too. Our democracy should be strong enough for both groups to be able to express their views. Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. No one should be arrested for holding up a piece of paper. That people have been detained for peacefully expressing republican views is disgraceful.
All social change comes from people making a nuisance of themselves. Without the suffragettes women wouldn’t have won the right to vote in 1918. Without the civil rights movement in America the Civil Rights Act wouldn’t have outlawed racist discrimination in 1964. Without the anti-apartheid movement Nelson Mandela wouldn’t have been released from prison in 1990 and have become South Africa’s first democratically-elected President in 1994.
Our country’s shape has changed dramatically over the past few centuries. The Queen’s father was Emperor of India until 1947. The last big British colony – Hong Kong – was only handed back to China in 1997. The UK’s current borders are only 100 years old – when Southern Ireland left the UK to become the Republic of Ireland in 1922. The United Kingdom exists today by consent. We recognised that Scotland had the right to secede in the independence referendum in 2014. The people of Scotland chose to stay.
The power vested in the UK’s head of state is minimal compared to, say, the US or French presidents. The pomp and protocol involved are memorable – I attended Tyne & Wear’s proclamation ceremony. But if we elected a head of state, it would imbue the role with a democratic mandate to govern. So while I understand the republican case, I’d call for more urgent changes to our constitution.
I’d like to see the House of Commons better reflects the will of the people. The UK is the only country in Europe to use first-past-the-post to elect MPs, with the exception of Belarus. If and when the UK finally moves to proportional representation, we need to keep a strong constituency link, and not have it dominated by party lists.
We need to replace the House of Lords too. That 750 people nobody elected decide on our laws is medieval. Hereditary peers are there because their father was a duke, marquess, viscount or baron. Life peers were chosen by a leader of a political party. No other democracy on Earth has such an arcane system. Let’s replace it with an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions, to serve as a proper check and balance on the Commons and the Government.
Above all, make devolution real. Transfer powers from Westminster and Whitehall to our nations, regions, cities, towns and villages. Despite the rise of metro mayors we remain one of the most centralised countries in the world. Over 95% of the tax raised in the North is spent by Westminster. Only 5% is spent by branches of government based in the North. We have a system where the new king can be proclaimed in ceremonies across Newcastle, Gateshead, Durham, Morpeth, North Shields, South Shields and Sunderland but where his citizens hear about the main tax and spend decisions affecting their lives when the Chancellor delivers his budget in SW1. The only way to level up the North is to take power out of London.
If the United Kingdom is to stay together for the next 70 years it’s going to have to change. It always has.
*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 19 Sept 2022