Imagine the scene: a discreet, oak-panelled office, somewhere in Whitehall. The year is 1952. A man sits at a large, highly-polished desk. A young woman, in her mid-twenties, enters the room. The man stands up to greet her.
Man (interviewer): Good morning, Mrs Windsor, do take a seat.
Woman (candidate): Thank you.
Man: Do make yourself comfortable. There’s a glass of water* there if you need it, Mrs Windsor, or do you mind if I call you Betty?
Woman: Yes, I’m afraid one does mind.
(* tap water, of course: This is 1952! Duchy Original Royal Deeside Mineral Water, 95p for 750ml from Waitrose, came much later. Also, yes, I made up the Betty bit, just for fun. No one in 1952 would dream of being so informal to a stranger they’ve just met. False bonhomie, pretending to be your best friend, by telephone cold callers and the like, is a 21st century phenomenon. But I digress…)
Man: Sorry, Mrs Windsor. So, first, let me ask you, what skills do you have that make you suitable for this job?
Woman: Well… (pause), one was born…
Man (interrupting): Thank you, Mrs Windsor, no more questions. Or should I call you Your Majesty? Congratulations, you’ve got the job.
Ridiculous? I think so – let me explain.
Choosing a Head of State
When it comes to choosing a head of state, I start from two basic principles:
- Like the Americans say: we hold these truths to be self-evident: all are born equal.
- Selection for head of state is the greatest honour the people of a country can bestow on one of its citizens.
Dangerous, subversive stuff? I don’t think so – just plain common sense. Reducing the choice of head of state to an accident of birth, to me, creates two problems:
- As it takes no effort on behalf of the “winner”, it devalues the honour of the appointment to a meaningless nothing.
- It insults the whole electorate, who cannot be trusted to make the “right” choice.
I find the idea that some people are born “better” than others abhorrent and quite out of place in a modern democracy. Surely people must earn their status through their own efforts. All sorts of basically undemocratic practices follow from the status quo. For example, the politicians who passed the Parliament Act in 1911 would surely be horrified to learn that, 104 years on, reform of the House of Lords – an intrinsically corrupt body based on past or present patronage – has not been completed.
Let’s Have a Debate
I have no fully-formed set of proposals for what should replace the monarchy – although the Republic of Ireland seems a good model to start from. My wish would be that we start a grown-up debate around 2 points:
- What should the role of our head of state be?
- What is the best method of selecting him or her? This would include term of office, and qualifying criteria, if any, that candidates must possess. (As a starter, I would exclude people who have been MPs or senators, either for life or perhaps for a fixed period: 7 years seems about right.)
At any rate, can we please be treated as adults and have a mature public debate about such matters before the next one is thrust upon us?