The Liberal Democrats and Republicanism: In conversation with Julian Huppert MP (PART 1)

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Julian Huppert MP interview

On the 4th September, I interviewed Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge.  Julian is an advocate of British Republicanism and supports the aims of the British pressure group ‘Republic’. 

‘THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. ‘                                 ‘HARRISON BERGERON’ by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

(1)   Why do you support the aims of the pressure group Republic?

For as long as I can remember. It’s just felt intrinsically wrong to me that there should be an unelected head of state. The idea that somebody has that role, however curtailed now, by birthright, just doesn’t fit with my sense of social justice, my sense of equality. It doesn’t fit with any of my fundamental beliefs.

In no sense do I bear the current monarch any ill doing. I actually think she does the job extremely well. I don’t share an anti Queen approach. It’s the fact of the institution, of the role. It’s what it says about our country. It’s about the extended influence of the royal family. Whilst I think the Queen does her job very well, there are some real questions over Prince Charles’ lobbying activities. I think there is a real red line there.

If you wish to have a very powerful unaccountable, unelected position, there have to be constraints, as you will accept yourself. It’s a frustration with that whole concept. And then you find all the other things which are connected, like the Duchy of Cornwall and the instance of where someone dies without a will, and a whole series of archaic and bizarre aspects of our legal system. For example, the fact that there is consent required from the royal family for various pieces of parliamentary legislation. I just don’t think it is the right way to go.

For me, it’s always been an intrinsic sense that this is not how I would design a constitutional system.

(2)   What are your views on the global image of the British monarchy?

I think there are two halves to it. Firstly, there is no doubt that the monarchy is popular around the rest of the world. There is no doubt that there are people who come for tourist activities. There is no question at all about that. However, I have to say that tourists would still visit royal attractions, even if the institution of monarchy no longer existed.  Yet, there is no doubt that there are positive aspects which result from the global brand which is the British monarchy.  I am not going to pretend that is not the case.

Secondly, the institution of monarchy also puts us (Britain) in a difficult position when trying to convince others to become more democratic. How can we convince others to stop handing power to their nearest and dearest, when this process is taking place in Britain?  Indeed, the counter claim that the British monarch only has theoretical powers is a weak argument. It doesn’t sit very well with me.

There are also substantial financial costs. We are supporting an entire royal family. We are not just talking about a monarch and immediate family. It is far more extended than that.

The existence of the monarchy is also connected to other archaic elements of British politics. For instance, the fact we also have hereditary peers in the House of Lords; that we still have an unelected House of Lords; that we still have bishops in the House of Lords. All of these things have a large influence on how our country is governed. While again, some of those people do fantastic work, overall I don’t think it’s the right way to move forward.  

(3)   Do you think that the elitism associated with British politics is a consequence of the monarchy?

I think it’s connected. Yet, I don’t think it is as quite simple as that. If you look at the European countries which still have monarchies, I suspect there wouldn’t be a very strong correlation. In some Scandinavian countries, the institution of monarchy is very low key and so I don’t think it’s necessarily the case. However, I think that sense of the old way of doing things does cause real concerns. On a philosophical level, I am quite attracted to the works of (John) Rawls and his idea of the ‘veil of ignorance’. If any of us were going to design how British society would work, knowing we would adopt any randomly allocated role within it, very few of us would choose to make it a monarchy. One would not choose a system where nominally the top position is granted by inheritance.

(4)   How do you feel republican values can be promoted within the party?

I do not think the issue of monarchy simply breaks down on party political lines. There are a number of Liberal Democrats who are actively involved with ‘Republic’. I think one of the issues is that whilst I am a very staunch Republican, if I was told I could change any one thing in the entire country, eradicating the institution of monarchy is probably not it. I think there is an issue that there is a limit to the number of political campaigns one is actively devoted to.

On the other hand, there is a way of engaging with Party members. Most Liberal Democrats would agree that there are problems with the theoretical concentration of power in one hereditary position. 

 

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