The King spoke to both houses of parliament yesterday after receiving addresses from the Speakers of the Lords and the Commons. It was a reminder of the key constitutional role the monarch plays, and that this week is about much more than books of condolence, pageantry and people’s grief at the death of the Queen.
With his chest puffed out, the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, reminded the King of a quote from one the previous Speakers, Betty Boothroyd: “[Queen Elizabeth’s] wisdom and grace demonstrated for all to see the value of a constitutional monarchy in securing the liberties of our citizens and the fundamental unity of this kingdom.”
In his own speech, delivered metres away from where Charles I was tried for treason, Charles III replied: “Parliament is the living and breathing instrument of our democracy.”
This was an assertion of parliament’s supremacy. The need for such an exchange only underlined the power – some nominal, some informal – the monarchy holds. That’s important to remember when witnessing the first stirrings of dissent among the public.
A protester in Edinburgh was arrested after holding a sign that read “F*** imperialism, abolish monarchy”. Another was pushed over after he yelled “You’re a sick old man!” at Prince Andrew. A third was arrested, and then de-arrested, after shouting “who elected him?” at the proclamation in Oxford. One video appears to show a policeman asking a man for his details after he held up a blank piece of paper because it “may offend someone”.
Anoosh and I discussed on the podcast yesterday why it’s moments like these – times of war, national crises and constitutional change, with emotions high and tolerance low – when freedom of speech is most at risk. And ignoring the monarch’s key role within the constitution only fuels an atmosphere where dissent is deemed inappropriate. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in these pages in 1979: “To the Left, the monarchy has often seemed an irrelevant issue – either a tedious anomaly to be mocked or an occasional target for criticism concerning luxurious expense. This philistinism is a big mistake.”
The issue is not about whether those on the left should be republicans or monarchists, however. For instance, Clement Attlee’s support for the monarchy (“The Labour Party has never been republican,” he wrote in 1959) serves as an antidote to Hitchens’s characterisation of left-wing views on the issue. It’s about the boundaries of that debate, and whether they should be determined by the whims of police officers, not least at times of patriotic fervour.
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