Above all, the existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privilege and patronage that corrupts our society -Tony Benn, Free Radical
On Friday, December 11 1936, when I was 11 years old, my parents allowed me to stay up late to hear the broadcast by King Edward VIII, who had just abdicated and was introduced as His Royal Highness Prince Edward of Windsor. I remember it very well.
It provided an important insight into our constitution, revealing that although the establishment was always swearing its undying loyalty to the king – as recently as January of that year every privy councillor and MP had sworn their allegiance to him when he succeeded to the throne – they were quite prepared to sacrifice him to save the monarchy. We should keep that fact in mind as rumours about Prince Charles fill the media, for the same issue could arise again.
I am not interested in the rumours themselves, which are of no concern to anyone other than those involved, the palace and the high court, which tried to prevent us from hearing them. Similar attempts were made in 1936 when the American press was full of stories about Mrs Simpson, none of which reached readers in Britain until the Bishop of Bradford preached a mild sermon about the duties of the king.
Stanley Baldwin very soon realised that the empire would not accept Mrs Simpson as queen, and forced the king to sign the instrument of abdication as the necessary pre-condition for the continuation of the crown itself. This was seen as essential to those who make up the establishment because it performs many functions that are held – by them – to be central to the maintenance of their own power and influence.
The royal prerogative, exercised not by the Queen but by the prime minister in her name, is seen as the final guarantee that democratic decisions by parliament and the people could never be allowed to undermine the hierarchical and semi-feudal system we have. The fount of honour has been re-routed from Buckingham Palace and now sprays the holy water of patronage on the chosen few from 10 Downing Street, which appoints archbishops, bishops, cabinet ministers, peers and judges, and fills most senior government posts with the people it wants.
Declarations of war and Britain’s adherence to treaties such as the new European constitution are exercised under prerogative powers by the prime minister, who may or may not choose to consult the Commons or the electorate in a referendum.
Government policy is revealed in the Queen’s speech, which she does not write herself; all laws to be enacted require the royal assent; parliaments are all summoned and dissolved by royal proclamation; and the Commons even requires the consent of the Queen before it can elect a speaker, because we have a monarchy.
MPs have to swear allegiance to the Queen before they can take their seats, while those joining the privy council – a requirement for all cabinet ministers – have to do so in person, on bended knee, before the Queen herself.
As an MP, my true allegiance was to my party, my constituents and, above all, my conscience. Therefore, in order to serve in the Commons and the cabinet, I had to tell 18 lies under oath, which I found deeply offensive.
Above all, the existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privilege and patronage that corrupts our society; that is why the crown is seen as being of such importance to those who run the country – or enjoy the privileges it affords.
Years ago, when I was trying to get out of the House of Lords, I was warned that such a move would undermine the monarchy, whereas it was obvious that the monarchy was using the then hereditary House of Lords to prop itself up because it did not want to be alone in justifying its power by inheritance.
The case for electing our head of state and claiming our right to be citizens rather than subjects is unanswerable; the royal family could stay at Buckingham Palace, financing the changing of the guard by a grant from the tourist board, free to live the lives they want.
Such a change would transform the culture of Britain and radicalise the people by getting us off our knees – which would really frighten those at the top. They cling to the monarchy and would be ready, as in 1936, to ditch the king himself, or in this case the heir to the throne, leaving Prince Charles, unlike his predecessor in 1649, with his head but not his crown.
But such a solution would leave the rest of us no further forward in our search for democracy, saddled with a new, younger and more marketable king but one still replete with all the powers he would possess, which is exactly what the establishment would like to see, despite all we hear about modernisation.
-Tony Benn 3 April 1925-14 March 2014 A man who inspired.