Magazine article The Spectator

What America Needs Is a Queen

Magazine article The Spectator

What America Needs Is a Queen

Article excerpt

ON this side of the Atlantic, America's continuing political crisis has been treated largely as an opportunity for making jokes. But should we be taking it more seriously? According to one school of thought, there's an important lesson here about the dangers of replacing the Queen with an elected head of state. The whole post-election fiasco is a perfect illustration of what can go wrong if there's no source of authority other than the popular will.

To take the most obvious point, the fact that the United States currently has no president-elect means that there's a vacuum at the top. Admittedly, the electoral college will probably cast its votes for Bush on 18 December, but what if it's evenly divided? The decision then passes to both houses of Congress and, if they too split down the middle, the person who exercises the deciding vote is none other than Vice-- President Al Gore. Such are the potentially ludicrous consequences of having an elected head of state.

Even if the situation has been resolved by the time the electoral college meets, that doesn't mean the next president will have any legitimacy. Some Republican members of Congress have already threatened to boycott the inauguration if Gore wins, and the Democrats will probably do likewise. Whoever emerges as the victor will be accused of having stolen the election, making it difficult for him to serve as an effective president. He may be the chief executive, but he won't make a very convincing head of state - at least not in the eyes of those who didn't vote for him.

Any democratic system can produce ambiguous election results but at least in Britain we're protected from their destabilising effects by our hereditary monarch. In the absence of a clear winner emerging from a general election, our symbolic leader, Queen Elizabeth II, will still be sitting on the throne, acting as a caretaker until the mess is sorted out. In extreme cases, she can even intervene to resolve the crisis. The fact that she has no real power in the normal course of events means that she remains above the political fray and is, therefore, capable of arbitrating in exceptional circumstances.

The closest Britain has come to America's present situation was in February 1974, when Edward Heath called an election to decide the issue of who runs Britain. The results were maddeningly inconclusive. The Conservatives won 297 seats with 37.9 per cent of the popular vote, while Labour won 301 with 37.2 per cent. At first, Heath refused to resign as prime minister, arguing that since the Tories had polled more votes than Labour and no party had an overall parliamentary majority, he was entitled to form a government. This was the equivalent of Gore arguing that because he polled a larger share of the popular vote than Bush, he should become president irrespective of the composition of the electoral college. In the end, Heath couldn't put together a workable coalition, so the Queen asked Harold Wilson to form a government instead.

The role the Queen played in that particular crisis was a passive one, but the fact that our head of state wasn't an elected official provided a constitutional mechanism for resolving it. George V played a more active role during the financial crisis of 1931 when Ramsay MacDonald lost the confidence of his Cabinet. At the prompting of the Labour prime minister, the King approached the other party leaders to see whether they'd be willing to lend him their support. …

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