Tue, 09 Nov 1999

Australian vote stirs debate in Britain

By John Morrison

LONDON (Reuters): Australia's narrow vote to keep Queen Elizabeth as its head of state has delighted British monarchists -- but has also revived a dormant debate about republicanism at home.

Nobody is suggesting that the queen, who will celebrate a half-century on the throne in 2002, is likely to be asked to pack her bags and move to a council estate, as in author Sue Townsend's satirical novel The Queen and I.

But a longstanding taboo on public discussion appears to have finally crumbled, encouraged by a sweeping program of constitutional changes brought in by Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor government.

After nearly a century of the status quo, Blair has brought home rule to Scotland and Wales, and has pushed through the first stage of a reform of the unelected House of Lords.

When Queen Elizabeth opens a new session of parliament on Nov. 17 she will look around an upper chamber where the hereditary principle on which she depends to keep her job no longer holds sway.

Families whose history goes back several centuries further than that of her own German dynasty have been given their marching orders by the will of an elected government.

Blair describes himself as "an ardent monarchist" and his government is quick to dismiss any suggestion that ending the hereditary principle in parliament has implications for the monarchy.

"Of course the monarchy will still be there," Baroness Jay, Labor's leader in the Lords and a member of Blair's cabinet, said in a television interview on Sunday.

She pointed to the example of European neighbors such as the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark, where a hereditary constitutional monarchy still flourishes but the aristocracy has no role in parliament.

Nonetheless, many feel the future of the monarchy, however unwelcome to the government, is now on the political radar screen.

Two years ago, the royal family's stiff-upper-lip response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, highlighted a huge gulf in attitudes between the monarchy and the British public.

Now the debate is turning political, with the Australian referendum opening up at least the theoretical prospect of a similar vote on the monarchy's future role in Britain.

That would throw up all kinds of uncomfortable questions for politicians about why Britain still lacks any form of written constitution and why sovereignty is still vested in the monarch rather than the people.

Rumors of strained relations between heir to the throne Prince Charles and Blair's government have added a note of tension to the debate.

Charles has quietly put distance between himself and government policy over a range of controversial issues, notably genetically modified foods (he's against them) and fox hunting (he's in favor).

While his mother has never tried to buck the government of the day, Charles last month stayed away from an official dinner given by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

According to Sunday's Observer newspaper, Charles would be happy to put the future of the monarchy in Britain to a vote -- a suggestion likely to find little favor in Downing Street.

Charles' future as king and head of the Church of England is further complicated by public ambivalence about his semi-public relationship with his companion, Camilla Parker Bowles.

Some feel the constitutional and religious tangle can only be sorted out by a far-reaching reform that would separate Church and State for the first time.

"Britain, for the first time in my lifetime, is beginning to have a fundamental argument over whether we still want to be a monarchy," the Observer's editor-in-chief Will Hutton wrote.

Hutton argues that Britain's antique governing structures are facing a crisis.

"But move one piece on the board, and everything is in the air, even the monarchy," he said.