In June 1923, the Labour Party was on the cusp of government. At the previous election, Labour had leapfrogged the Liberals to second place. Within a matter of months, Labour’s leader Ramsay MacDonald would become Britain’s first Labour — and working-class — prime minister. Yet, before MacDonald ‘kissed hands’ with King George V, he needed to settle the question of whether his party believed there should be a king at all.
At the party’s conference that month, the North Kensington Labour Party submitted a motion ‘that the hereditary principle in the British Constitution be abolished’. MacDonald was keen to defeat the motion, and in order to do so, he enlisted the help of George Lansbury, MP for Bow and darling of the party’s romantic Left. Lansbury, who was himself opposed to the monarchy, begged his comrades to reject the motion. He reminded delegates that it was capitalism, not the king, that fuelled poverty and inequality in Britain, saying that Labour should not “fool about with a question of no vital importance”. In other words, Labour MPs must be focused squarely on refashioning the economic order of the country, not fiddling with constitutional affairs. The motion was defeated overwhelmingly.
The Labour Party’s rejection of republicanism in the 1920s was vital for its establishment as a legitimate party of government within the British constitutional system. While viewed by some as a ‘selling out’ of Labour’s radicalism, many in the party came to realise that monarchy was no inhibitor of a radical socialist programme.
Indeed, paradoxically, the old, pre-liberal British constitution allows greater scope for radical action than nearly any other constitution in the democratic world. Under a republic, the president would have a veto to block a Labour agenda, but the monarch can hardly do so and expect to get away with it. Getting the monarch’s symbolic blessing for radical action even helps to legitimate bold transformative action.
Labour politicians were once able to see the obvious distinction between what the Victorian constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot once called the ‘dignified’ versus the ‘efficient’ constitution. The former refers to the grand pomp and ceremony of British constitutional arrangements — epitomised in the Crown and the Lords. Yet, the ‘efficient’ constitution refers to where power actually lies — the House of Commons and the Cabinet. In the British system, there is almost an inverse relationship between how grand and splendid an institution is and the amount of power afforded to it. Our powerless Queen lives in grand palaces; our powerful Prime Minister lives in a townhouse.
If you want to change Britain, don’t waste time on the ‘dignified’ constitution; grab control of the ‘efficient’ constitution and use it to implement your political agenda. Unfortunately, Labour politicians today often do not understand this. They have succumbed to a ‘liberal’ reading of constitutional reform, which fetishises process and form over outcomes. This began under New Labour, when Tony Blair sought ‘radicalism’ in constitutional reform partly because he had failed to deliver any radicalism in attacking capitalism.
Post-New Labour politicians — of Left and Right — have inherited this obsession with tinkering with elements of the constitution which, as Lansbury would have said, are of ‘no vital importance’, such as the unelected House of Lords. In doing so, they often propose reforms which would further constrain the ability of Labour government to implement its agenda — whether that be introducing presidentialism, strong bicameralism, federalism, or proportional representation.
The Left would be well-advised to leave those elements alone. If a socialist party can secure a simple, one vote majority in Parliament then it has almost no further constraints on implementing its agenda to attack capitalism. The fact that the head-of-state is unelected and, therefore, politically powerless to block this agenda is a cause for celebration, not concern, for socialists.