Standing up for a British Presidency
Zachary Adam Barker
Mentioning the possibility of Britain becoming a republic and one day having a president to someone can often provoke a surprised and somewhat dumbfounded response. It is almost as though you said “hey I think it would be a good idea if I crossed that main road at rush hour doing a handstand.” It is seen in the mainstream as simply a bizarre idea and often portrayed as against British values. As a republican I believe this reaction is somewhat typical of the human condition. People after all can get used to pretty much anything, especially if they are lead to believe they can’t change something or more controversially that they shouldn’t. “If it ain’t broke why fix it?” is the usual response from royalists, who then usually ignore the multitude of ways the institution of the British Monarchy is broke. But this response is often prompted by the fears of what could replace the monarchy, which as far as Republic is concerned would be a democratically elected British President. President; that title has many controversies around it. And yet all it means nominally is the not so very radical idea, these days anyway, of electing your own leader. But it stands to reason that if we republicans are for a presidency, we need to tackle the stigma that is attached to it.
The past is continuously mythologized and the characters and actions of past leaders along with it. But curiously the myth making seems to be different when it comes to mythologizing monarchs on the one hand and mythologizing Presidents on the other. When one king annuls marriages or executes their (former) spouse this is largely overlooked to preserve his greater legacy, politics is separated from the personal. Yet with Presidents this separation doesn’t seem to exist. If a President cheats on his wife, who cares about them stopping genocide or passing life changing reforms? Many Kings and Queens practiced corruption and torture on a gargantuan scale. Their greater legacy remains intact while a single corruption or spy scandal can bring down an entire presidency in historians’ and the public’s view.
So why do we have these double standards? The conclusion I have come to is that Presidents are just too close to home while most monarchs are silently in their grave, hardly vocal witnesses to a controversial history. Put simply Presidents just remind us too much of well……us. But we have fell into this narrative where we apparently don’t want Presidents to be like us. We don’t want them to be fallible. We don’t want them to say the wrong thing. We want them to reflect the power and status of our country as it was, to take our minds off our continuous decline. We want them to be confident and to know what to do and when to do it. In other words we want our leaders to be special. How much more special can you get than a line of people trained from birth to be leaders?
Politics for all its good and very visible ills is at the end of the day a product of the human condition. Like it or not we are responsible in one way or another for the way politics has developed. Confronting the problems synonymous with contemporary politics will lead us to have to deal with many difficult issues. The biggest issue that our paradoxical fixation on the monarchy highlights is our completely unrealistic and warped view of human nature. We expect the best from the leaders we don’t choose, but we expect the worst from the leaders we do. We have come to the point where we are so frustrated and ultimately dumbfounded about where politics should ultimately go, we give ourselves an escape from reality in the form of the Monarch.
“Its (British Monarchy) mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic. We must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants” Walter Bagehot
The “mystery” element is pretty alien to a democratic system, ordinarily. Could you imagine a member of the US President’s staff being called into a Senate hearing and when asked a question refraining “sorry, can’t say anything. We have mysteries to keep.” If this was heard the questioners would be forgiven for wondering what the staff member had been smoking. Royalists tend to reflect on human nature as it should be. Republicans see it for what it is. Presidents aren’t corruptible, people are corruptible and Presidents of course are human (although some may not live up to the name). But in functional and transparent republics the President is seen as the leader but is ultimately bound by the strains of the constitution of their country and ultimately the ability of the public to renew or cut short their job’s duration. And of course monarchs are just as human as Presidents. But the difference between them is that while monarchs perpetuate the myth that people are born leaders the legacy of Presidents prove time and time again that leaders are not born, they are made.
The life experiences and challenges of monarchs are reflected on and mythologized, while those of presidents have by contrast often been taken for granted. This is a great shame since these stories humanize the characters we describe and give colour to lives that on reflection look a lot more inspiring and at the same time less remote. These experiences have lead Presidents to make bold leadership decisions. Here are a few examples. Please forgive the mainly male selection.
US President Abraham Lincoln was accustomed to loss from an early age with the death of his mother in childhood. At the same time he learned the virtue of patience as he worked himself up from being a common labourer, to a lawyer and eventually President of the country. While he lead his country through the bloody American Civil War, he had to put his own loss aside when his young son died during the war of natural causes. He did this since he thought it was hypocritical to visibly mourn for his own son while he ordered hundreds of others to fight and die for the country. This caused a massive strain on his marriage that never really recovered. This also contributed to what many historians speculate was acute depression that Lincoln had to live with among his other burdens. To add to those burdens he was likely a closet homosexual, no doubt contributing to his depression. Another experience when he was young turned him away from slavery for life. He went to work for a slave owner, didn’t like what he saw, then turned around and went home in disgust. One of his successors was Ulysses S Grant. Grant struggled with alcohol and depression all his life. This struggle ended his army career once. Then when the American Civil War started he became a patient, modest and yet determined general. He got support from his friend and colleague William Tecsumeh Sherman who himself suffered from depression, leading them to help keep their mutual demons at bay. Ultimately they became successful generals and won the war. As President Grant promoted reconciliation with the south, but deployed the army against the violent Ku Klux Klan. French President Charles De Gaulle was fully accustomed to loss due to his country falling prey to fascism. His experience of fighting against overwhelming odds steeled him for tough fights later. Many people recall from history King Juan Carlos of Spain telling the soldiers to stay in their barracks, but he stole that act off De Gaulle. As paratroopers threatened to land on Paris De Gaulle went on TV and demanded they pledge allegiance to their leader and preserve the French Republic. And in a more modest though not in the least important example, President Mary McAleese of Ireland sought reconciliation in a country where it has all too often been absent. When she stated her intention to celebrate Protestant heritage as well as Catholic heritage, an American Catholic Archbishop denounced her. Undaunted she turned around and said that his comments were out of line and she would do what she thought was right for all of her people, not just those who were Catholic.
If we republicans truly want a President we have to be prepared to argue and fight for one. That does mean dealing with some controversial history. There are people who empower and taint the presidential legacy. But if the legacy of Presidents is controversial then that is the least that can be said of monarchs. The main difference between the two positions is that we are ultimately responsible for Presidents since we choose them. That is a big responsibility. But shouldering big responsibility is what being a republican is all about. Starting a British presidency and giving it a worthy legacy will be hard and it will take time. For myself personally I relish the challenge and can’t wait to start.