If you support the inauguration of the US's first black president, you
must call for an end to the British custom of a heredity head of state
By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
The Guardian – Comment is Free - London – 19 January 2009
The United States is celebrating the inauguration of President Barack
Obama, the first black person to hold the title of American head of
state. But as the race barrier to highest office is broken in the US,
it remains firmly intact on this side of the Atlantic. For the
foreseeable future, as in centuries past, no black or Asian person
will be eligible to assume role of British head of state.
Under our constitutional system, the head of state is the monarch – at
present Queen Elizabeth II. The position of monarch and head of state
is inherited, lately through the
Windsor family line. The Windsor's are white and only their
descendants are eligible to be King or Queen; only their first-born
can be the British head of state. This feudal system strikes me as
totally out of step with the democratic, egalitarian and meritocratic
ethos of modern Britain.
Our head of state represents the nation and its people, and symbolises
our values and culture. In a diverse multicultural society, surely it
is wrong to automatically, a priori deny this honoured, revered role
to our non-white citizens?
The system of monarchy is, by default, racist. Although it was not
devised with racist intent, racism is its effect nonetheless. Drawing
on the analysis and conclusions of the
MacPherson report, you could say that the current system of appointing
our head of state is institutionally racist.
Whichever way the defenders of royalty try to spin it, there is no
escaping the fact that non-white people are excluded from holding the
title of British head of state – at least for the foreseeable future.
When the Queen dies, her role as head of state will pass to her
first-born son, Charles. When he is dead, the head of state title will
pass to his first-born son, William and so on. From white person to
white person to white person. No blacks need apply. The all-white
Windsor family has the exclusive franchise on the office of head of
One day, in generations and centuries to come, descendents of the
Windsor's might marry a non-white person and their first-born could
become head of state. Might, could. No guarantee at all. In any case,
why should we have to wait generations?
The current monarchical system of determining our head of state is
premised on the assumption that the most ignorant, stupid, immoral
white Windsor first-born is more entitled to be our head of state than
the best-informed, wisest and most moral black or Asian Briton. This
is a truly repulsive racist assumption.
Non-white people are, of course, not the only ones denied the highest
office in the land. All non-Windsors are excluded, even if they
possess far greater integrity, merit and wisdom. This is the problem
with deciding on a head of state via a hereditary monarchy: you get
whoever the dynastic blood-line throws up – good or bad. If Prince
William was killed in a helicopter crash, we'd eventually end up with
King Harry, notorious for his Nazi fancy dress and "Paki" jibe. And we
could not get rid of him, no matter how many more insults he hurled
and no matter how badly he did his job.
This week, far too many British people will hypocritically applaud the
inauguration of the first black US President while remaining content
to support an implicitly racist monarchical system that denies black
and Asian Britons the opportunity to hold the office of head of state.
If they were consistent they would join the call by Republic for a
democratically elected and accountable head of state, open to British
people of all races, classes and faiths or beliefs.
Ireland offers a practical, popular model of the kind of elected head
of state that I would like to see in the UK: low-cost and purely
ceremonial (without the executive powers of the US President).
President Mary MacAleese of Ireland, like her predecessor Mary
Robinson, is an honourable symbol of the nation and enjoys huge public
support and respect. Her presidency costs one-twentieth of the
official cost of the Royal Family, and one hundred times less than the
actual cost when you factor in security and other costs excluded from
Buckingham Palace's partial accounts.
If Ireland can have a successful democratic presidency, why can't we?
Good luck Barack Obama. May the day come soon when the British head of
state is also chosen by the people, based on the quality of their
character and not their pure white royal parentage and aristocratic
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