The UK has a constitutional monarchy and a representative democracy that have evolved over hundreds of years naturally and by way of statute, conventions and prerogatives. There is no single constitutional document that we can refer to for a comprehensive understanding of our democratic rights. It is an area of law that requires specialist constitutional lawyers to interpret and on occasions the judiciary have to define and rule on disputes. Because of the haphazard way that our democracy has grown there are many inconsistencies.
Many take the start of our democratic freedoms as the Magna Carta, which resides in Lincoln Castle – except when it is on world tour. This was signed under pressure by King John in 1215 and limited the powers of the absolute monarchs of England. Much of its content has been superceded by various acts of Parliament. Many of the provisions of the Great Charter were not original and can be found in the Charter of Liberties signed by King Henry I in 1100 when he came to England and acceded to the throne. He voluntary stated that his powers were held under the law. He also pledged to restore the laws of William the Conqueror who as an admirer of Edward the Confessor had incorporated his Saxon laws.
Many of our constitutional practices can be traced back to Saxon England and the Witenagemot [also known as the Witan] which evolved from the ancient Germanic general assemblies called Folkmoots. We now call people assembled for discussion a meet and moot is something debatable. From the 7th to the 11th century the Witan was a meting of wise men; an assembly of the elite advisers to the king comprised of ealdormen and thegns together with senior clergy when Christianity became established. The Witan had the power to choose the king from among the extended royal family but in normal circumstances the ordinary system of primogeniture was followed. Following the proclamation of the Witan’s decision it was followed by an acclamation. That acclamation – Long live the King – is still symbolically made as part of the Coronation service conducted for almost 1000 years at Westminster Abbey.
The founding fathers of the USA took English law with them to the new world and this eventually evolved in to modern American law with US Courts referring back to and interpreting Magna Carta. When the States declared independence they adopted a presidential system of democratic government with strict separation of powers. The President was elected for a set term as head of government and head of state. For the individual protection of each State the Electoral College was created. In the USA every public position from dog-catcher upwards is subject to election and politicisation. Voting at the polling station is a tedious exercise and test of endurance. The President is not directly elected. The state representatives comprising the Electoral College elect the president and are not bound by their state results. In practice they follow the vote but on a number of occasions the candidate with the lower popular vote has been elected President.
In the UK the monarch is head of state but unelected. The succession is regulated by Act of Parliament. The head of government is the First Lord of the Treasury aka Prime Minister. The people do not directly elect the government. The Monarch decides who is to govern on the basis of which party leader is likely to enjoy the support of Parliament. She can invite the leader of the party with the second largest number of elected MPs to form a government if it appears that they can gain the support of other small parties. This is a prerogative of the Monarch amongst many others. The Crown also has immunities under the law. The government is Her Majesty’s government and they enjoy the benefit of these prerogatives and immunities. All legislation requires the Royal Assent but by convention this is granted automatically.
If the Monarch acts as a rubber stamp is there any need for the role? If direct election by the people to decide their choice of government was introduced the party leader with the highest vote would automatically become Prime Minister. The Queen is a constitutional monarch and above politics but has many powers that are held in reserve. She is the long-stop and safety net. If our political system totally collapsed the nation would continue to function. Many people argue that in the interests of the nation the Queen should exercise some of these reserve powers when governments act contrary to their election manifestoes, such as the failure to hold a referendum on the European constitutional reform treaty. It is also argued that the Monarch should not assent to legislation that violates their coronation oath, such as anti-life laws. This could be vital in the future as we move to a continental system of politics that denies participation in elections without membership of a political party.
The alternative republican models with executive presidents as in France or the USA are not the only option. Even if we need a Head of State to impartially preside over the political system, does this have to be an unelected monarch for life? We could adopt a republican system as in the Republic of Ireland with an elected for term president. The RoI has a written constitution that has provided the model for many emerging democracies. It is Catholic and modern, only 80 years old, and there have only been eight Presidents or Uachtaran na hEireann. There is no Vice-President.
The first and fourth Presidents were Protestants and all six male Presidents were typically stately and aloof in keeping with the popular perception of conservative high office. A hUachtaran cannot leave the Republic without the permission of the government and none of them visited the North even though the six Counties were deemed to be part of the State. Nationalists in the North consider the President to be their head of state and everyone in the North can claim Irish citizenship under the Constitution. The taboo on visiting the North changed with the election of female Presidents. The seventh – Mary Robinson (a constitutional lawyer) – and eighth – Mary McAleese (also a lawyer who was born in Belfast) – have broken the mould and both have been very popular, greatly respected and loved by the people. By frequently visiting the North and Great Britain, many being private visits to maintain contact with the Irish communities abroad, they have improved relations with the UK immeasurably and courted the Loyalists.
That alone has proved the worth of the office. They have also enhanced the Presidency but are still mainly ceremonial with reserve powers and limited scope for intervention. Executive power rests with the head of government – The Leader or An Taoiseach – who is prime minister as in the UK. Some suggest that the roles of president and prime minister should be merged as the President is elected for a maximum of two terms of seven years each, for which they have to campaign. They are therefore politically active but once elected are above politics. Any citizen can be nominated but only by 20 members of the Oireachtas, or 4 city or county councils, or by themselves if an incumbent or former President. This is very similar to the Witan and acclamation. Mary McAleese nominated herself for her second term with no party political affiliation, was unopposed and no election was necessary. The Constitution provides for two ways of removing the President.
A hUachtaran appoints the head of government, can decline to sign a Bill in to law if she considers it to be of great ‘national importance’ until it has been approved by the people in a referendum or by the Dail following a general election held within eight months and can refer a Bill to the people on petition of the Oireachtas (a majority of the Seanad and one-third of the Dail). This last power has never been used because the government usually controls the Seanad so that it cannot combine with the opposition who would comprise the third of the Dail. She can also refer Bills to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. This power has been used by six of the eight Presidents.
We have set out our basic constitutional policies for constitutional reform in the party programme. We will now develop these basic policies further and we are seeking views about creating a third millennium modern monarchy (head of state). Constructive comments will be carefully considered.
Specifically consider, going back to the traditional Saxon model and blending it with modern democratic practice by making the acclamation a popular referendum. With democratic legitimacy the elected Monarch would exercise similar powers to A Uachtaran na hEireann and the people would be able to petition the Monarch directly. It is implied that it is better for the people to have a separate head of state and head of government.