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Rediscovering the Great British Republican Tradition


For a Civic and Constitutional Republic


Issue No 42 Friday 26 June 2009




This week


  • Sarkozy Summons Parliament To Versailles. But Who Should Be Summoning Who?



News Stories

Highlighting  news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.



  •  Sarkozy Summons Parliament To Versailles. But Who Should Be Summoning Who?

On this side of the Channel the speech that Nicholas Sarkozy, President of the French Republic, made last Monday, 22nd June 2009, was reported mainly for the comments that he made regarding the wearing of the burqa (a full-body covering worn mainly in Afghanistan) in France.  President Sarkozy said "The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement — I want to say it solemnly," he said. "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."


President Sarkozy arriving at Versailles

It may have surprised some that the French president was prepared to wade into such a thorny issue but what made it perhaps even more surprising was that he decided to do so on such a momentous occasion for the constitution of France. In fact, the burqa comments were only a small part of the whole speech which also had the following so say:

1.    The French national debt is to be increased in order to finance “government priorities”.

2.    We do not know how long the economic crisis is going to last and so we will not engage in a policies of money tightening such as raising taxes

3.    The retirement age will have to be raised during the middle of the next decade

4.    Unemployment is expected to increase and measures will be put in place to help the unemployed

5.    The president will not back down on the defense of authors’ rights on the internet

6.    He will reduce the number of regionally elected representatives

7.    He will continue with the policy of replacing only one civil servant in two upon retirement

8.    He will tax carbon emissions

9.    Burqa’s are not welcome.

What is striking about this list is that it is so wide-ranging and tackles some pretty fundamental issues of the day. In fact, it suggests not an occasion for expressing a few off-the-cuff remarks on social matters or some such, but a primary statement of the kind of agenda the President intends to pursue for the second half of his term. Although it contained rather less detail, it rather resembled the Queen’s Speech in the Kingdom, the speech in which the Queen dramatically penetrates (by strict invitation) the Parliament building, to announce what “her government” plans for the coming Parliamentary session. Its content also could be seen to resemble in many ways the State of the Union address that the President of the United States makes to Congress at the beginning of each year to comment on what has happened and to outline his agenda for action over the coming year.

These comparisons are apt for what was in reality most significant for the French people in President Sarkozy’s speech was not what he actually said but what the occasion of his speech meant for the constitution. In this respect it was an historic event. It was the first time in 136 years (the last time being in 1873) that a French President had addressed the French congress (or parliament) for in 1875 the president was banned permanently from doing so. From that moment, the President had to leave congress to carry on its affairs without ever seeing his presence in its chambers. The executive, the leader of the country, could not under any circumstances debate in parliament. This aspect of the constitution was unchanged until last year.

This might seem a little difficult for some British citizens to understand, used as we are to there being a constant contact between our executive, i.e. the prime minister, and parliament. The weekly boisterous exchanges, at Prime Minister’s question time, directly between the executive and the opposition parties are what we are used to. The need for the prime minister to get enough votes in the commons to pass legislation and sometimes policy measures which may involve much presurising and politicking is what we are used to. So how can you have a system in which the executive is so remote from parliament that he or she is actually banned from setting foot in the place?

Of course, this remoteness is absolutely normal in most republics, for it is all part of the Separation of Powers that is so essential to republics and has been since the days of the ancient Roman Republic. The separation is necessary in order to ensure that there cannot be a concentration of power occurring in any one office of state - especially that of the executive. To this end, the idea is that only by a careful exclusion of the head of state can parliament conduct its lawmaking function properly.

As in so much of the constitutions of present day republics, the modern origin of this principle deprived from Britain. In the seventeenth century King Charles I insisted on trying to control the then parliament. Parliament resisted and this led to the Civil Wars, the execution of the king and the establishment the First Republic (Commonwealth). Even though there was subsequently a restoration of the monarchy, the principle of not allowing the monarch to control parliament was planted deep into the British psyche by this experience. Since that time it so happens that the monarch has gradually lost all real power to influence events and so the exclusion of the monarch from the Houses of Parliament has become in reality rather a non-issue. However, in spite of this, what does remain is an elaborate ritual whereby the monarch has to seek permission to enter parliament in order to read the Queen’s (or King’s) speech at the “State Opening” of parliament.

When the American Constitution was framed in the eighteenth century, the principle of restricting access to parliament (now Congress) by the Head of State (now the President) was copied from Britain as was the "King's Speech" whereby the head of State would enter parliament, having been formally granted permission, to lay out the future government agenda. This became the State of the Union address in the United States.

The long memory of the actions of Charles I means that many modern republics are understandably rather tetchy about letting the Head of State into parliament. This applied particularly to France in the nineteenth century where in addition the memory of its own autocratic monarchs was relatively recent. The decision was therefore made with the Third French Republic to ban the President altogether from entering the parliamentary building. This rupture did not, of course, prevent the executive and the legislature from working together. It just meant the decision making was, in theory at least, kept separate.

When the President of the United States gives their State of the Union address they do so in front of the whole of Congress, that is to say, in front of the House of Representative and the Senate. For this there is a chamber in the Capitol building that is adequate to accommodate both houses (plus the Supreme Court and the Chiefs of Staff who also attend). When the British Monarch gives their King’s or Queen’s speech they do so in the House of Lords where somehow everybody manages to cram in. When President Sarkozy addressed the French Congress he was faced with the problem of how to accommodate both the House of Deputies (equivalent to the Commons) and the Senate (Lords) for neither occupies a chamber big enough for everyone. As a consequence the decision was made to hold the event at the Palace of Versailles, the seat of the banished French monarchs.

Whilst this may well have been a quite logical choice the symbolic implications were hard to miss. It is one thing for the head of state to come asking and meekly knocking on the door of parliament to gain entry and being confronted by the Sergeant of Arms who is expressly there to protect the independence of the legislature (yes, the USA has one too) before being let in. But it is quite another for the head of state to hold court, as it were, in the palace of the old monarchy, if you please, and demand the presence of the two houses.

You could say the choice of venue was nothing more than convenience, and perhaps it was, but many will not see it that way. Sarkozy has been criticised by opposition parties for a self-aggrandisement normally associated with a monarchy and not a republic. Critics accuse him of weakening the role of prime minister and behaving like a power-grabbing "hyper-president" and absolute monarch.

Green and Communist MPs said they would boycott the speech. The Socialists attended but walked out of the debate afterwards, angry that the president did not have to stay to answer questions. Some have gone so far as to call him the "Sun president" – an allusion to Louis XIV, the "Sun King" who built the palace where he made the address.

In any presidential republic the relationship between the head of state, the President, and the law makers, Parliament, is absolutely crucial. And so the matters of access to parliament by the president and his or her ability to address it and explain his or her plans are fundamental to how the republic will operate. In designing the constitution of the second British Republic this question is one of the most important. Whilst we should take seriously the accusations against Sarkozy that he is acting imperiously in the way he virtually summoned the two houses of congress to Versailles, it may be that a more flexible contact between the British President and the newly constituted Parliament would be best.

Because we have a “parliamentary” system at present, whereby the executive is a member of parliament and continues to sit in it, we are used to a degree of regular contact between the two. Unfortunately this contact is far too one sided as the Prime Minister, as many recognize, exercises almost complete control over parliament. Nevertheless there is no reason, fundamental to republican constitutional principles, that means that the president cannot have far more contact with parliament than either the American or French systems allows. Contact does not have to mean control. Parliament can maintain its independence of the President and at the same time have frequent and meaningful contact. The venue for such contacts will be symbolically important and will have to be extremely carefully considered.

A more frequent intercourse between parliament and the executive, far from undermining parliament might boost its importance.

But let us give the last word on this matter to one of our greatest commentators on the British constitution Walter Bagehot (The English Constitution, 1867). Bagehot, no republican, thought that the theatre of British politics was far superior to that of the United States because of the frequent exchanges between the executive and the parliament. Whereas he certainly exaggerated his case, there is truth in the claim that an executive that is completely cut off from parliament might make political life duller. Bagehot was surely right in believing that the political life of the nation is healthier if the general population is interested in it. And the people will be more interested in it if it is livelier, more revealing and even more dramatic.


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……. …….until next week

































































































































































































*It is not that Republics can’t change should the long term will of the people desire it, but that on fundamental constitutional issues such as this they only change gradually. Republicans are conservatives (with a small “c”).







































































*This practice has lead over the last few years to an intense crisis for the bank buying the "security" often did not know how well the loan was secured. In a huge number of cases this has been not very well and so the banks who bought the "securities" were taken for billions, such is the level of their incompetence and greed.









































*See P25 The Grip Of Death by Michael Rowbotham published 1997.And up to date figures for April 2008 show HBoS holds just 6% capital against debt "assets". The figure for Barclays is a measly 5.1%. (Moneyweek 2 May 2008. p.4). Exactly how much of this "capital" represents solid "non-toxic" capital assets is a question many would want to ask. The banks themselves are unlikely to know.