How Britain's Monarchy Denies Civil Rights
A talk to the Eton College Shelley Society, 9 September 2002
I thank the Shelley Society for inviting me to speak this evening.
I must give particular thanks because I have been invited here, so close to the home of the British monarchy, with the specific intention of breaking the law
The Treason Felony Act 1848 says that if any person
"intend to deprive (our most gracious Lady) the Queen from the style, honour or Royal Name of the Imperial Crown of the United Kingdom"
that person is guilty of treason.
That's what I want to do - to deprive Liz Windsor and her successors of the job of monarch. I know that the police will not be called and that I won't be executed or even serve time because of what I say. This is a democracy after all - a country that values freedom of expression, and that tolerates dissent.
But the fact remains that the law says that it is treasonous to argue that every citizen of this nation should be eligible for consideration for our chief public office, the office of head of state.
In Britain free speech can be treasonous. The advocacy of democratic public institutions can be treasonous.
You may say it does not matter what the law says if its not enforced. No one is inhibited by archaic laws.
But if we are to have a government of laws and not of men - as the Americans say - we should not be dependent on the good will of the police and judiciary. We must know what our rights are, know without doubt what's legal and what's illegal.
When it comes to the monarchy, however, we have free speech, not by right but as a privilege - and privileges cannot be relied on.
It there's is anything more detrimental to the rights of the people than not having a written constitution, it is having laws say one thing when the practice is another.
That, in itself, infringes a right that a citizen should have in a democracy - to know clearly what he or she may do or say without breaking the law.
What can be the purpose of keeping pre-democratic laws in the statute book? Does it not have, at least, an inhibiting effect. Does not the outlawing of the expression of a belief brand that belief as beyond the pale, even when the law is not enforced?
My theme tonight is that the British monarchy infringes civil rights.
Not just that monarchy is unnecessary, out of date, or a bad idea - I say that it denies the human rights of those who are not monarchists.
My argument is also about who or what should be at the centre of our democracy. And about the source from which the authority of the state should flow.
If the idea of republican government as a human right seems far fetched - look at the US Constitution, written more than 200 years ago..
Article 4, Section 4 states that "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government."
Republican government is guaranteed - it's a civil right set down by the people 200 years before Europe governments got around to telling us what they think our human rights are.
Let me be more specific about how monarchy violates human rights.
The head of state
I've mentioned already that it is against the law for anyone to advocate that we abolish the monarchy. Even MPs are not permitted to freely debate this institution.
The way we find our head of state - the holder of our highest public office - violates the principles of equal opportunity, of racial & religious equality, and of democracy. It is in breach of the principle that in a democracy we are all created equal in the eyes of the law.
Everybody in this country understands that unless they are a Windsor they are barred from our highest public office.
That's as ingrained into our thinking as the idea that every child may one day be President is ingrained into the thinking of Americans.
In Britain there can be no Abe Lincolns or Bill Clintons overcoming disadvantage to be chosen for our highest office.
If an employer selects staff on the basis of family membership - if for example a firm fills it vacancies through the family contacts of its current staff - it exposes itself to investigation by Commission for Racial Equality.
This is what the Court of Appeal said last year about an appointment to a public position made from a "circle of family, friends and personal acquaintances."
It said "It will often be open to objection for a number of reasons. It may not produce the best candidate for the post. It may be likely to result in the appointee being of a particular gender or racial group. It may infringe the principle of equal opportunities."
But we appoint our head of state - our chief public official - from an even more restricted circle. The point should not need labouring - if I am denied a public position, an honour, a benefit for any reason that is not to do with my suitability, I am the victim of unfair discrimination.
Imagine the reaction if it was proposed in the US that the head of state must be of a particular religious belief and must be white. There would be international outrage. It would be seen as evidence of America's eradicable racism. But that's exactly what our unwritten Constitution requires and it's generally accepted without question.
Religious discrimination is part and parcel of our system for selecting our head of state. She must be an Anglican - the 1710 Act of Settlement requires this. It hardly matters that only a minority of the population are Anglicans. Jews, atheists, Muslims, Catholics, Methodists - we are all deemed, by our constitution unfit to be head of state because of our beliefs.
And because this office is on perpetual lease to the Windsor family, the office of head of state is effectively the preserve of white people.
It's hard to think what could be a more blatant denial of the rights of those of us who are not Anglican or white.
At the apex of British public life we have an institution that might define institutional racism
You might perhaps respond to my comments so far by saying that the monarch is a ceremonial figure with little or no real power. That it does not matter if she is not elected.
I would disagree - I would say that even if that were so, the symbolism of monarchy is in itself detrimental to a democratic society.
However, the pernicious effects of monarchy, its denial of civil rights, go far beyond the actual position of monarch.
Let us look at the legislature.
The Legislature - The House of Commons
Do you think that Parliament is open to all who can win a parliamentary election? It's not so. Republicans legislators are banned by law from sitting in Parliament.
The Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 (note how relatively recent these laws are - 19th century, not 15th) - requires that legislators declare their loyalty to a hereditary ruler - not to the people, the nation or the Constitution.
Here is the oath that our legislators must recite : "I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and her successors, according to law, so help me God."
They must declare their loyalty to an unelected, unaccountable individual with no democratic legitimacy, and to any and all members of her family!
That means that the law, in its effects, disenfranchises republicans in Britain - it says people of my beliefs are not fit to sit in Parliament. That is that people of strongly democratic persuasion are not fit to sit in the British parliament because they cannot accept the legitimacy of monarchy.
Unlike the law on treason this one is enforced. Sinn Fein members of parliament, duly elected, cannot take their seats. Not because of their association with terrorists - but because they will not swear allegiance to a monarch.
You may say "there are republicans in parliament" - that's how my MP, the Minister for Sport, a Labour Party member, Tessa Jowell, dismissed me when I wrote to her. She said in effect that if I wanted to sit in Parliament my first act should be to lie and to humble myself before the Windsors. This democrat found nothing to object to in that.
Some MPs do lie by taking an oath they do not believe. Some engage apparently in a childish superstition of crossing their fingers while taking the oath. Is that supposed to make it all right? It does not. It reduces democracy to a farce. What kind of democracy requires that the first act of a legislator should be to lie, to deny their true beliefs, to put an hereditary ruler before the people who elected them?
If you think that I make too much of this I ask you whether it would it be acceptable to bar Jews and then tell them they could pretend not to be Jewish? Or to require a religious oath and then tell atheists that they should pretend a belief in God?
In fact atheists used to be barred from Parliament in a way similar to the present ban on republicans. I guess that some may have lied or crossed their fingers as apologists for the royal oath would no doubt have had them do. But Charles Bradlaugh was elected twice and twice refused to swear "by God." He did not believe in a God. Eventually the law was changed after Prime Minister William Gladstone declared that he had no fear of atheists in the House of Commons. It seems though that the fear of republicans remains.
This oath is in fact twofold in its denial of civil rights.
It discriminates against the holders of a particular political belief - republicans.
But it also denies freedom of expression.
For freedom of expression requires not only that citizens should be able to say what they believe. But also that they should not be required to say what they do not believe - free speech includes the right not to speak.
As long ago as 1943 the US Supreme Court said this:
"Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.
"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."
The Court held that a school student who objected for religious reasons need not recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Note that last phrase of that judgment. No official should be able to force a citizen to express a belief they do not hold. Yet my Member of Parliament says that I should be happy if required to do just that.
And If you still think that the oath is unimportant listen to this quote from a Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker.
"We take an oath of allegiance to the queen personally. It becomes difficult to ask questions about her finances thereafter." He confesses that he puts a felt duty to the Windsor family above his duty to the people. In a democracy we have a right to expect our legislators to put the people first, not an hereditary ruler.
In connection with the ban on republicans we might recall the rallying cry of the American revolutionaries - No taxation without representation. But it's barely heard. In a monarchy it would seem eccentric. In Britain the law denies me representation in Parliament and declares me unfit to hold our highest public office, yet expects me to pay taxes nonetheless.
It is important to note that the effects of royal oaths go far beyond Parliament.
Judges, military officers and police officers must also swear allegiance to the monarch. This also makes of republicans second class citizens, or liars.
There is an international aspect to this also. In Canada, republicans working for the state can lose their livelihoods because of their beliefs. There is a truck driver for a provincial government that was sacked for refusing to take the oath. And a French Canadian, a man who could hardly be expected to have a loyalty to Britain or to the British queen, cannot practice law because he will not swear loyalty to the Windsor family.
The Legislature - The House of Lords
Let's move on to the other place, the House of Lords.
The same oath is required of the legislators in the Lords. But the Lords is much more of an affront to our rights than that.
Article 3 of the first protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights says that:
"The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature."
There you have it - the House of Lords breaches the human rights granted to us by the European Convention of Human Rights - none of those legislators have been elected.
You might ask what this has to do with monarchy.
The answer is that if you have an unelected head of state for life at the pinnacle of your system of government the principle of government by the people and for the people is seriously undermined. Why not have legislators -for-life if you have a head of state-for-life? If the people need not choose a head of state who is accountable to them - why do they need to choose legislators who are accountable?
The House of Lords is an organic part of the monarchical and feudal system from which are constitution grew - it is based on hereditary right, respect for birth, government from above, government by our "betters," deference, respect for privilege, contempt for the people as their own governors.
This is clear from the fact that until the end of the twentieth century every hereditary Lord had a right to be a legislator-for -life - unelected, unaccountable. That's extraordinary.
Even now there are still some hereditaries there, who got their position in the same way as the queen got hers. The rest are unelected - cronies, hacks and people who bought a place for £1M
How is it possible that we tolerate this?
How is it possible that our democratic government is able to propose that this stay much the same in the 21st century? How is it possible that the Labour party could find it conceivable in 2002 that they could get away with proposals that legislators should not be elected?
Our tolerance of the monarchical system makes it possible. The monarchical system provides the historical grounding, the organisational background, the cover. As long as we deny the primacy of the people in our government by accepting a hereditary head of state, we leave the door open to undemocratic institutions and practices everywhere.
If you think I'm being at all radical listen to what the Economist magazine said earlier this year about the proposition that the second chamber should be elected:
"Of course it should be. Direct elections are how democratic countries get their legislatures. Legislatures are reckoned to work better if they have second chambers. Ergo, Britain should have an elected second chamber. Hard, wasn't it?"
What's hard, in a nation imbued with monarchical values, is for many to grasp this simple concept.
The Church of England
Twenty-six of our legislators in the House of Lords are Church of England appointees.
The majority of us - from the age of 18 - can vote for one representative in Parliament . But those of you who belong to the Church of England get two bites at the democratic cherry. Your Church has 26 legislators by right, unaccountable to the electorate, unremovable by the electorate. When the government proposed that in the reformed House, the Church should have six fewer legislators, the Church complained about its treatment. What arrogance is possible when feudal privilege is given house room!
It is impossible to find any credible defence for this privilege - this discrimination against the majority of us who are not Anglicans.
These privileges for the Church of England make rest of us second class citizens when measured against Anglicans.
How is such an undemocratic, such an offensive state of affairs possible? It is, of course, very much tied in with the monarchy. The CoE is the state church, it's headed by the monarch. The monarch must be an Anglican. The monarch must be the defender of the Anglican faith. And politicians shy away from correcting this abuse because the Church is a part of the monarchical system. Earlier I quoted a Liberal Democrat MP who confessed that he did not like to question the royal finances. You can bet that he's equally reluctant to question the royal church.
A decent regard for human rights demands that Church and State be separate - that no citizen be obliged to do any business with a religious organisation in the course of their relations with the state.
But as well as having a right to seats in our legislature, the Church of England also as the right to put its hands into the pockets of those who do not belong to its church.
Because the separation of Church and state that is essential in a democracy has never existed in this country we find ourselves obliged to give financial support to the CoE and by extension to other religions as well.
An independent judiciary is another requirement in a democratic nation. It is wrong for the same people to write the laws and then sit in judgment on them. That was recognised by the American Founders 200 years ago.
In Britain's monarchical system, however, there has been no perceived need for such separation for there is little perceived need to limit the power of state. Where monarchical attitudes have sway the people are still subjects to be ruled in one way or another and checks on state power are weak.
So senior judges sit in House of Lords as legislators and the head of judiciary is a government minister
In short the British people are denied their right to a truly independent judiciary.
The Honours System & Aristocracy
My namesake, Richard P, has suggested in his plug for this meeting that when one is examining the monarchy the honours system is a trivial consideration. On this I have to disagree.
Britain is obsessed with class - perhaps more so than any comparable society. The honours system and the aristocracy are key elements of this. Through these systems the state not only endorses inequality, it calibrates it.
That's why they are more than just disagreeable vestiges of feudalism. The honours system and the state's endorsement of aristocracy violate our right to be seen by the state as essentially equal. Not equal in intelligence, wealth, athletic prowess or in many other respects, perhaps. But as equal citizens in our relations with the state.
In a lecture to Tony Blair and his friends at Downing Street on Britishness in the 21st Century the academic Linda Colley, said:
"Titles suggestive of rank, as America's Founding Fathers recognised, are incompatible with a Citizen Nation pledged to equality."
She was right. It's not possible for a nation that has an hereditary head of state, that privileges one family in this fundamental way, to properly acknowledge the equality of its citizens.
Honours, of course, are awarded by the monarch. They are very much a part of the hierarchical system she heads.
In Bring Home The Revolution, Jonathan Freedland’s popular statement of the case for a British republic, he wrote that to refer to someone by a title such as Lord was to bow to them. In a democratic society, one with democratic values, as well as institutions, one equal citizen does not bow to another.
The British state actually encourages stratification and hierarchy by handing out titles and other honours.
I don't have time to go into the effects of this but I would like to recommend a book to you. It's Democracy in Europe, by Larry Siedentop. This book is as valuable for the way it illuminates some of the pernicious consequences of Britain's class system as for what it says about Europe.
I would like to give you a couple of quotations:
"It is no accident that American products and modes have made the least profound impact on the country in which upper-and lower-class manners have survived most markedly, the United Kingdom."
"Their (the upper reaches of the middle class) manners and accents set them apart from the rest of society, and contributed to their developing a point of view which could not become general because it implied the permanent subordination of another section of society."
"Being someone rather than doing something became uppermost, with sad results for innovation and competition in Britain. . . . the even sadder result was that many able people from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds came to feel intrinsically unable to aspire - excluded from full competition because they were not the right sort."
The best of the "right sort", of course, have titles.
Finally - The Constitution
Our unwritten, constitution has grown out of our undemocratic, monarchical, feudal past. It has not been agreed by the people. For those reasons it does not offer us the guarantees of our rights that a democratic constitution should.
There seems to be a contradiction, to say the least, between the recognition of monarchical right and a people's constitution such as the Americans have. A constitution that protects the rights of the people has to come from the people. But a monarchy compromises the idea of the people as the supreme power. How can you recognise the right of one family to possess the chief public office and at the same time be fully committed to the principle of the sovereignty of the people?
So in practice we have failed to exercise our right to determine our own constitution - to lay down what our rights are, and what the duties of the government to us are. And a monarchical system hardly encourages us to exercise that right.
Without a written constitution whatever rights I may have may been given may be taken away at any time. And if my rights may be taken away I have no solid rights at all.
But how could we have a written constitution, a people's constitution like the American one, as long as we acknowledge the feudal rights of one family, as long as the state looks up to the Crown for its authority and as long as we look up for our national symbols, instead of looking out to the people?
I feel obliged, as I finish, to state for the record that I do not believe that the abolition of the monarchy will end all this country's ills or usher in a paradise. But it is a prerequisite for a society that recognises the people as the supreme authority and is democratic both in its institutions of government and in its values.
For what would benefit us most in Britain is that spirit of democracy that can never be fully realised while we pay homage to a particular family or to the values of a pre-democratic time.
Thank you for giving your time this evening. I hope that you have found at least some of what I had to say of interest.
I would like to hear now what you think and to try to answer any questions you may have.
JP - The Centre for Citizenship
A slightly extended and edited version of a lecture to the Shelley Society at Eton College on 11 September 2002