Show Hide image

There can be no constitutional renewal while a monarch sits on the throne

At a time when the Westminster elite are being forced to discuss urgent constitutional reform, no on

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II would like you to think of her as something of an ordinary Briton. But log on to and you will see one face of a vast, multimedia PR operation that projects the Queen as a surly but steady presence at the helm of the nation, one who has seen us through a difficult transition from a stiff, class-ridden, imperial power to a modern, multicultural society that boasts a tech-savvy and open head of state.

This, beg pardon, Ma’am, is nonsense. As we show in this special issue, the Queen and her trail of relatives make up an institution that wields real and unaccountable power. There is no reason for our head of state to own 340,000 acres of private land, or for the role to be inherited, or indeed for the head of state to be “supreme governor” of the Church of England – this in defiance of falling congregations and the multiplicity of creeds to which Britain has become home.

At a time when the Westminster elite are being forced to discuss urgent constitutional reform, no one is discussing the powers of the British monarchy, which sits like a spider at the centre of a web of wealth and privilege in one of the richest countries in one of the richest regions of the world. Its continued existence gives legitimacy to the deeply unequal way in which British society is structured, in which 69 per cent of the land is owned by a small network of aristocratic families that make up 0.6 per cent of the population and where the gap between rich and poor grows wider year on year.

Over her six decades in power, the Queen has played a canny game, always managing to end up on the right side of public opinion, even in the aftermath of the Princess of Wales’s death. But this success is merely a testament to her personal qualities. As Ted Vallance asks on page 18, would we really want a King Charles III? The heir to the throne epitomises the triumph of inherited privilege over democracy; to cite one example, his undeserved influence on the planning process has blighted British architecture. Worse than this, the general mediocrity of the Windsors – who have produced no scientists, artists or intellectuals of note – is testament to the flaws of the hereditary principle. Talent, we know, does not reside in that gene pool.

Removing the monarchy would have huge symbolic value, confirming the people of Britain as citizens, not subjects. It would signal an end to the culture of deference which still pervades public life – a culture that emboldens MPs to redact crucial details on their parliamentary expense claims even though we already know what lies beneath the censor’s pen.

Of course, it is not enough to cry “off with their heads” and expect an immediate transformation in the way society is organised. Even a cursory glance abroad shows that privilege can thrive just as well in a republic. In the United States, for example, a president with executive power and the high cost of electoral campaigns have allowed family dynasties to consolidate their hold on politics. France, for all its proud revolutionary traditions, has for decades been dominated by énarques, technocrat graduates of the elite École Nationale d’Administration.

What is more, half-baked constitutional reform has its own corrosive effects. Labour’s 1997 election manifesto promised to abolish the presence of hereditary peers in the Lords, yet failed to set out a convincing alternative for the second chamber. Twelve years on, the government is still able to shore up its falling support in the Commons and among voters by parachuting in unelected ministers. Baron Mandelson of Foy may have always been more comfortable in the company of the “filthy rich” than canvassing among the great unwashed, but even he must acknowledge this is not a sustainable political system, as Lord Adonis does in his interview with James Macintyre on page 16.

The only real fix, we suggest, would be to install a republic as part of a bold programme of constitutional reform that would tackle unaccountable power and privilege in all its forms. The royal family gained its wealth through feudalism, but it has continued to profit under capitalism. It is part of the same system that allows businesses to funnel vast amounts of wealth into offshore tax havens; part of a culture in which extravagant wealth is celebrated, but the poorest and most vulnerable in society are demonised. The need for a constitutional settlement has never been more urgent.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.