The Dutch parliament this week will be trying to reduce the powers of their monarchy. This is good for Dutch people and may encourage the British to democratise their regime too.
In Holland since the Second World War Dutch people have been trying to ease themselves away from pre-war burdens – during the war they found they had much in common with all sorts of people sharing prison cells who had until then had been unwilling to share schools, political parties, broadcasting and much more. That has been a long and often contested process. By British standards the Dutch monarchy is quite friendly towards so called “ordinary” people and a Dutch monarch is expected from time to time to shop or use public transport like other people. In Britain the husband of the reigning monarchy once tried a small experiment by buying and using a (private) black taxi but came nothing near really imitating the Dutch monarch or the Norwegian one who made significant moves towards coming down to earth.
Soon the British monarchy will stand out even more as a surviving monarchy clinging on to old ways. People think the British monarch has no real powers, but as has been tiresomely pointed out often in this column, she does have them, she just does not seem to use them. This, as has also been pointed out, is because, as one English commentator put it, there is “a kind of gentleman’s agreement” that a British monarch will not use the powers he or she has to move parliament aside. Putting it bluntly, the British monarch, if supported by army, encouraged by state church, still influential aristocracy and money, could take over governing Britain without breaking any laws. However, one repeats this simply, as they say, as “a matter of record”.
So Dutch events this week are watched with interest in Britain as well as Holland.
In Ireland at the moment there are strong public opinions about the President, but few seem willing to admit how strong-minded the 1938 Constitution in Ireland really was. De Valera was either courageous or stubborn in this. For example, he was under pressure from important people in Europe to declare the Catholic Church the official one in Ireland, like the Anglican Church in England or the Presbyterian in Scotland. He refused and gave the Catholic Church minimum recognition as the church that had the most people in it. It was as strong as declaring most Irish people eat potatoes. Church influence in Ireland increased not because of the De Valera Constitution but because many people gave it extra and unnecessary status and many influential people found it suited them that way. Also, he insisted the President be elected by the people, unlike the British monarchy, which was a one-family affair. And to be non-political, also unlike other European heads of state. Things do not work out as planned and now while the rest of Europe is slowly getting rid of power among monarchs, in Ireland there is a strong lobby in favour of one powerful foreign monarch and getting rid of its own elected presidency. There is a lot to be said, though, for heads of state who symbolise, uphold and show off the dignity of a nation, not just of a family. Ireland has been fortunate in leading the way in such political matters and especially fortunate in recent Presidents.
Perhaps we should admit to ourselves – and tell other people about – how progressive in many ways our thinking has been and help Europe to become what Europe as a whole never did become – a real modern democracy.
Meanwhile, of course, the Dutch and the British are to be commended for trying – however lately – to catch up.