"A prop for privilege": Tony Benn on why we must abolish the monarchy

Submitted by AWL on 9 April, 2021 - 8:32 Author: Tony Benn
Tony Benn on monarchy

See also our recent comment on the row around the "Sussexes".

The death of Prince Philip has revealed how strong the ideological pressure against republicanism is even on the left. The TUC has put out a statement saluting the monarchy - as have a number of left-wing Labour MPs who are known to oppose it, at least privately.

When republicans refuse to speak out for their views, or worse pretend to hold opposing ones (however vaguely), they strengthen not only monarchism but the climate of fear about dissenting from or even discussing the dominant consensus.

Our criticisms of him notwithstanding, Tony Benn was not afraid to attack and oppose the monarchy and did so over many years. We quote here from a 2003 article in which he explained his stance. A few details of the UK's constitutional set-up have changed since then, but not the basic picture.

For how Tony Benn fought in Parliament to do so, see this in Tribune and this in Red Pepper.

"A prop for privilege"

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 [it is worth noting that Benn advocated a ceremonial president elected by Parliament] and claiming our right to be citizens rather than subjects is unanswerable...

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.

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