Interesting piece in The Telegraph (London) by Peter Osborne, Only the Queen understands the true value of the Commonwealth. Triggered by a new book, Monarchy and the End of Empire by Professor Philip Murphy (OUP), the article discusses the interrelationship between the Queen's role as British head of state and as head of the Commonwealth. When speaking on British matters, convention dictates that she must speak as directed by the British Government. However, as head of the Commonwealth she speaks independently, The British Government cannot dictate her words, nor indeed her role.
Peter writes from a British perspective. However, the actual position is a little more complex than that, for the Queen is head of state of 15 Commonwealth Realms in addition to the UK: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, Barbados, Grenada, Solomon Islands, St Lucia and The Bahamas.
While national constitutions vary, the Queen's central role in each Realm is identical to that holding in the UK. In Australia, for example, her formal title is Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth. The wording in Canada is a little different, an older form, but the principle is the same. When acting as Queen of Canada, the Queen does so totally independent of her role as Queen of the UK or Australia, working within the same constitutional conventions that hold in the UK. In all cases, her role as head of the Commonwealth is a separate role.
There are republican movements of one sort or another in all the Queen's major Realms from the UK to Australia. In all cases, the focus is on the appropriateness or otherwise of the Queen's role as head of state in that country. There is less focus on the overall complexity of the Queen's role.
If you think about it, being head of state in sixteen sometimes conflicting countries is no mean feat. Add in her role in the different nations within the UK, Scotland is not the same as England or Wales or Northern Island, plus the Commonwealth. In all, the Queen has to be conscious of the sensibilities of fifty five countries, including many of their constituent parts.
This piece is not an argument for or against constitutional monarchy. My musings have taken me in a different direction. Given the complexities involved, can the current system survive and, if so, for how long?
The present system works because of precise role separation that has evolved over a long period. The Queen reigns, but does not rule, providing a ceremonial and constitutional focus that has proved far more durable than might have been expected. It works because the monarchy stands above the cut and thrust of politics, providing a sense of ceremonial continuity. It works because of acceptance of often unwritten constitutional conventions. It works because of the Queen's self-discipline, her capacity to distinguish between her roles, her willingness to limit what she says and does despite her personal feelings.
Last year, Australia's retiring Governor-General Quentin Bryce delivered the ABC's Boyer lectures. In her last lecture, she publicly backed both Australia becoming a republic and gay marriage. Depending on points of view, it was variously hailed as a landmark speech or as a breach of the Governor-General's ceremonial role as the Queen's representative.
The Queen in her various roles as Queen does not have this type of freedom, no matter what she may think or feel. She must always exercise care in public utterances, conscious always of roles and responsibilities. Governor-Generals have a little more freedom, in part because the Queen stands above them. To a degree, they can become embroiled in political controversy without affecting the standing of the office they hold. But only to a degree.
The current system will certainly survive for the present. If anything, the monarchy has recently regained support in Australia and especially New Zealand and Canada. Interestingly, the ABC's Vote Compass (link above) suggests that support for a republic in Australia is inversely related to age, with lowest support among those aged 18-34, highest among those aged 55+
In the longer term? I don't know. The odds seem against it.
To greater or lesser extent, human institutions are always ephemeral. The monarchy's greatest strength, its reliance on history, roles and conventions, is also its greatest weakness. It survives only so long as those conventions are accepted on all sides. We have already seen in places including South Africa and Fiji how the constitutional monarchy was simply swept aside, replaced by a republic, when it became a perceived impediment to those in power. It also depends on the capacity and willingness of the Royal Family to continue to fulfil their traditional role. Both make the current system vulnerable in the longer term.