Britain's drystone wall

Can the British constitution be reformed? Not without mass political action by the working class, argues Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group

In the last few weeks the 'crisis of democracy', a theme frequently taken up in this paper, has been highlighted once again. David Cameron announced his intention to abolish the royal prerogative (naturally he checked it out with the queen first). Then we had the antics of Charles Windsor, who, disguised as a political dissident, has taken the Mail on Sunday to the high court. Finally the report of the Power Commission, chaired by Labour peer and QC Helena Kennedy, was published on February 27.


Philip Johnston, writing in The Daily Telegraph, sheds light on the shifting politics of the Conservative Party (February 7). In the 1990s the Tories presented themselves as the party that supported the royal yacht. On the face of it, this was a medium-sized vessel which transported the royal family around the world with a certain degree of imperial splendour, as befitting an old colonial power.

However, the royal yacht also fulfilled a valuable social function. It was a way of showing off the generosity of the British taxpayers who, through this charitable contribution to royal welfare, expressed their support for the crown. It was an article of the Tory faith to be solid defenders of this yacht. It was part of a symbolic code language which identified the Tories with the monarchy, wedded to defence of the class system.

David Cameron has now set out to rebrand the Tories as a party of change. So out goes the royal yacht and out goes the royal prerogative - explained by Johnston as the residue discretionary powers of the crown. They are powers that "can be used by the executive without proper parliamentary scrutiny". In the name of the crown, ministers and civil servants can enter diplomatic relations with other states, conclude treaties, command the armed forces, declare war, make peace, appoint judges, initiate criminal prosecutions, pardon offenders, appoint ministers, including the prime minister, summon and dissolve parliament, confer honours, create peers and appoint bishops.

Cameron is thinking of getting rid of prerogative powers. Johnston makes clear Cameron's motives. Proposing change to the constitution seems a costless way to build up your radical credentials. If keeping the royal yacht symbolises conservatism, then "readiness to tinker with the constitution is deeply symbolic" of a desire for change. "Surely," says Johnston, "if the Conservatives stand for anything it is the preservation of the country's ancient constitutional conventions." Yet here is Cameron getting the Tories to think the unthinkable.

However, Cameron is not alone. Gordon Brown had already come out with the same line in an interview in The Daily Telegraph. He pointed to a prime minister able to use the royal prerogative to launch military action without the approval of parliament. He argued that "changes in the constitution are needed to restore trust in politics among an increasingly sceptical public" (April 30 2005). So what is clear is that the Tories are positioning themselves so they cannot be outflanked by Gordon Brown.

The constitutional monarchy consists of a set of political laws and institutions with the monarchy at its head. How can we understand this? A number of analogies have been used to shed light on it. We can think of it as a pyramid with the monarchy perched on the top. But Engels turned this upside down. The pyramid was inverted, so that the monarchy was the base upon which the whole edifice balanced. His point was that removing the monarchy would cause the whole structure to topple over.

In contrast, the traditional Labour view sees the monarchy as the fairy on the top of the Christmas tree. This bright shining star does no harm. Therefore there is no point in getting rid of it. This argument too can be turned upside down. The Christmas tree is rotting. It is ready to topple over, injuring everybody gathered beneath. But nobody can see the danger because everybody has been dazzled by the bright fairy.

The constitution can be seen as an old wooden house, riddled with woodworm. The danger of trying to patch it up, removing this plank and replacing that joist, is that it will crumble to dust. Philip Johnston provides a variation on this theme. He says that "the unwritten British constitution is a bit like a drystone wall. There is nothing obviously holding it together, but remove one stone and the whole edifice can collapse." He cites, for example, the link between the prerogative powers to appoint bishops and the privileges for the established Church of England.

Tory MP Kenneth Clarke says that the royal prerogative is a "strange anomaly". But that observation applies equally to the monarchy and the constitution as a whole. So the danger that Cameron might accidentally knock the wall over is tempered by self-interest and natural conservatism. Johnston points out that opposition parties see the danger of executive powers. But the Tories themselves used these powers the last time they were in government. If they win power again the obvious temptation will be to continue bypassing parliament and handing out the patronage.

Johnston says: "The system has survived without grand reforms." So don't be surprised if the Tories conclude that large-scale upheaval, or indeed any upheaval, in the constitution is unnecessary after all. In practice Cameron's radical talk is likely to be reduced to nought. Three election defeats in a row have convinced them they need to say something about Britain's failed democracy. But, true to form, the Tories will do next to nothing about the constitution unless 'the mob' is storming the gates.

Prince Charles

The 'crisis of democracy' is also having its impact on Charles Windsor. If the constitution goes down, the Windsor dynasty will go down with it. The reform and renewal of the constitutional monarchy applies to him. Acutely aware of the hand of history on his shoulder, he has not forgotten the unfortunate fate that befell his ancestor, Charles Stuart, in 1649. It has been reported that Charles intends to become King George!

Charles understands that the monarchy cannot remain irrelevant. It must carve out a new role for itself. He has had to become a more overtly political prince with his own small royalist 'party'. This is perhaps no bigger than the new republican Socialist Alliance. But it has a wide base of potential support around the Countryside Alliance. He has plenty of funds and direct access to the state and government ministers. This much is revealed in his case against the Mail on Sunday.

Charles sees himself as a 'dissident' working against the political consensus of the day. This has come out in evidence to the high court given by Mark Bolland, Charles's deputy private secretary between 1997 and 2002. Bolland says that "the prince's very definite aim in all his activity, as he explained to me, was to influence opinion" (Daily Mail February 22).

Here is a contradiction at the heart of the current situation. In the epoch of the republic, Charles cannot survive without making his political case - but he cannot survive with it. His 'party' is winning support in the same proportion that he will repel others into the republican camp. There is no point in telling Charles to opt out of politics and behave more like his mum. He will not because he cannot. He is living through an epoch of crisis for the constitutional monarchy and hence for the Windsor dynasty. He cannot but be drawn into the whirlpool of politics.

Power Commission

The 'crisis of democracy' manifests itself in many other ways. It is now accepted wisdom amongst the political classes that something must be done about it. This is the conclusion of the Power Commission report, called Power to the people. The report is described in The Independent as "a plan to revive Britain's dying democracy" (February 27).

The report warns that "democracy faces a meltdown in Britain, as the public rejects an outdated political system which has centralised more authority than ever in a tiny ruling elite". It points to the feeble and supine nature of parliament. Parliament failed to make a serious investigation into the Iraq war or extract details about the cost of identity cards. Put another way, "The executive in Britain is more powerful than it probably has been since the time of Walpole".

The report paints a picture of the massive gap between the government and the governed. People feel voting brings no influence over decisions that affect them. It says that "there is an overwhelming desire for change among the British people". This is not something that has impacted on socialists, who seem to have walled themselves off from public opinion and plugged up their ears.

What can we conclude from all this? The British system of government is in crisis because it needs a radical overhaul. But politicians - whether Cameron, Brown or baroness Kennedy - are not capable of bringing radical democratic change. Of course, they are capable of tinkering. They have to be seen to be doing something. Yet, far from sorting matters out, tinkering only makes the mess more complex. All we can expect from the current situation is a range of well-meaning plans, serious and concerned reports and promises of jam tomorrow.

We are living through a slow-motion constitutional crisis. Whether our political laws and institutions of government should be likened to a rickety old wooden house, a dry-stone wall, an inverted pyramid or a rotting Christmas tree with a fading fairy on top makes little difference. They all point in one direction. Radical reform is as necessary as it is impossible. The constitutional monarchy is stuck in permanent paralysis.


This brings us back to the working class - the key to political progress. Change will not come from reports, pronouncements, policy papers or promises. It can only come from the class struggle of the democratic class. The only class capable of breaking the deadlock and forcing through radical democratic change is the working class. The working class will either end the 'crisis of democracy' or become a victim of it. The longer this epoch of paralysis continues, the more dangerous the situation becomes.

However, the working class movement is a prisoner of economism. The politics of a Labourite past weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Economism is the dominant bourgeois ideology in the socialist and working class movement. In essence economism is the failure to recognise the centrality of democracy in the struggle for working class political power.

The liberal bourgeoisie argues, through the medium of Labourism, that the working class should confine itself to economic and social reforms. Matters of constitution should not concern working people. They should be reserved for the social classes with the knowledge and experience to run the country. The working class should concentrate on trade unionism and trade unions should confine themselves to trade union issues. The message to the working class is: keep out of high, or pure, politics.

Of course, many active trade unionists know that this view is too restrictive. Trade unions in the public sector are directly confronted with politics and political decisions. Indeed one of the arguments for privatisation was that it would help to depoliticise trade unionism. Public sector strikers come into contact with the long arm of the law as soon as they take action. Politics is obviously all around.

Economism recognises politics, but only the politics that arises or is thrown up spontaneously in the course of the economic class struggle. Economism therefore imposes a 'glass ceiling' on working class politics. Its limitation cannot be seen. Yet it prevents us from standing up to achieve our full political potential.

When it comes to matters of constitution, the glass ceiling is in place. The constitution is pure, abstract politics. It does not arise in the workplace. The vast mass of people would see it as irrelevant to their daily struggle. Indeed, the harder and more downtrodden any individual finds themselves, the more irrelevant such matters seem. If you are on the dole with nowhere to live and struggling to make ends meet, what use is a constitution? The economists point to depoliticised workers to claim that workers are not interested in such matters. In so far as this is true - and it is not true of the politically active workers - it is a cause for dismay, not celebration.

Pure politics, such as the monarchy or the constitution, have no obvious connection to economic issues. But Marx taught us that pure politics or 'politics-without-economics' is always concentrated economics. It is about who rules and how they rule. Billions of pounds of wealth and profits depend upon it. The bourgeoisie understands this only too well. After all, they are the masters of pure politics. The fundamental role of economism in the working class movement is to help the bourgeoisie keep its monopoly of pure politics.

There are moments in history when pure politics is widely recognised as posing fundamental class issues. Constitutions collapse or are overthrown and the masses are drawn into having to decide what kind of government is possible or necessary. This politicisation of the masses occurs in revolutionary periods. At these times the nature of the constitution becomes an issue for the whole society. When the old constitutional veil is torn aside, it reveals to all how each and every class is seeking constitutional/political advantage. Without the veil, naked politics is seen for what it is - pounds, shillings and pence.

In the United Kingdom republicanism is the litmus test for economism. Of course there is no sensible or serious person in favour of anything as ludicrous and irrational as a monarchy. Certainly no socialist worth their salt wants to keep it. But being against the queen is not the same as fighting for a democratic, secular republic. The struggle amongst socialists is between militant republicans who recognise the 'crisis of democracy', and the economists, whose practical, narrow politics are Labourite reformism.

Here is one difference between Respect and the Socialist Alliance, and the reason why we need a militant republican socialist party.