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Peter Tatchell

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No, We Can't: The Impossibility of a Black British Head of State

Posted: 01/20/10 08:44 AM ET

As President Barack Obama celebrates his first year in the Oval Office, it is clear that the vast majority of the US public are relaxed and comfortable about having an African American head of state. Many dispute his policies but his race is no longer really an issue -- which is how it should be.

In Britain, however, we can only dream of a black head of state. It isn't going to happen any time soon because the UK system is rigged against a black leader. Black and Asian Britons are effectively barred by the system of hereditary monarchy.

For the foreseeable future, as in centuries past, no African, Asian, Arab, Caribbean or Latino Briton is eligible to assume role of British head of state.

Under Britain's constitutional system, the head of state is the monarch - at present Queen Elizabeth II, head of the House of Windsor. The position of monarch and head of state is inherited through the Windsor family line. The Windsors are white and only their descendants are eligible to be monarch and British head of state. The result is a de facto race bar.

When the Queen dies, her role as head of state will pass to her first-born son, Charles. When he is dead, the title will pass to his first-born son, William and so on. From white person to white person to white person. Under this system, black people are excluded. The all-white Windsor family has the exclusive franchise on the office of head of state.

This white-favouring feudal system is totally out of step with the democratic, egalitarian and meritocratic ethos of modern British life.

A head of state is supposed to represent the nation and its people, and to symbolise its values and culture. In a diverse multi-ethnic society such as Britain, surely it is wrong to automatically, a priori, deny this honoured, revered role to non-white citizens?

Whichever way the defenders of monarchy try to spin it, there is no escaping the fact that the head of state position is open to only the white Windsors. Non-white people are shut out for decades to come, and possibly much longer. They cannot hold the title of British head of state.

This makes the current method of appointing the head of state racist by default. Although it was not devised with racist intent, it is racist in effect. It reflects an institutional racism, where the system of appointment favours one race over others.

Despite monarchist protestations to the contrary, because the system gives a race preference, even though this is an unintended side effect, the hereditary method of choosing the British head of state from the all-white Windsor family is racially exclusive and is racist in its consequence.

Equally appalling, this exclusion of non-white Britons excites no public outrage, not even from liberals, the left and African British ant-racist campaign groups. They just accept it as "the British way" of doing things. Only the Green Party is calling for a democratically elected head of state. For the big three political parties - Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat - an inherited whites-only head of state is not a cause for concern and does not need reform.

This says a lot about the strong hold that tradition, privilege and deference still have on the British psyche. The nation is torn between twenty-first century modernity and a nostalgic harking back to the alleged glories of empire, epitomised by the monarchy. So far, the monarchists have two-thirds of public opinion on their side.

The monarchical system may command majority support, at least for now. But this manner of determining Britain's head of state is surely an offensive, bigoted anachronism. It is premised on the assumption that the most ignorant, stupid, immoral white Windsor is more entitled to be head of state than the best-informed, wisest and most moral black Briton. This is a truly repulsive racist assumption.

Non-white people are, of course, not the only ones denied the highest office in Britain. There are gender and faith exclusions too. If a monarch's first child is a daughter and the subsequent children are sons, the daughter will be passed over and the succession will be granted to the eldest son. Catholics and people of non- Christian faiths are also barred from being monarchs and heads of state.

Indeed, all non-Windsors are excluded from the highest office, even if they possess far greater integrity, merit and wisdom than the current and would-be future incumbents. This is the problem with deciding Britain's head of state via a system of hereditary monarchy: the choice is limited and you get whoever the dynastic blood-line throws up - good or bad, better or worse.

The second and third in line to the throne, Princes William and Harry, have a chequered record of sometimes less than regal behaviour, including drunkenness, violence and womanising. William is accused of misusing a military helicopter for personal gain - to attend a stag night. Harry is infamous for attacking a photographer, dressing up in a Nazi uniform and for referring to an Asian army colleague using the racist term "paki." If either of them became King and head of state, the British people could not get rid of them, no matter how appalling their words and actions and no matter how badly they did the job.

It is true, of course, that Britain could one day have a black head of state. If a future monarch married a non-white person, their first born child could ascend to the throne and become head of state. But this is a matter of "if" and "could". There is no guarantee at all. In any case, why should black and Asian Britons have to wait in line for generations? It is a vile insult to make them stand at the back of the queue for the office of head of state.

The earliest change would be via Prince William. He is unlikely to become monarch for at least 25 years. If William married a black British woman his first-born male child from that marriage could inherit the head of state title, but only on William's death, which is likely to be more than half a century from now, in about 2080. The possibility that Britain could have a non-white head of state, like the US, is still a distant dream.

The institutions of monarch and head of state are currently conjoined. They don't have to be. The British Parliament could vote to separate them. Even if Britain decides to retain the monarchy, members of parliament could legislate that the monarch should no longer be head of state. This would open the way for the British people to choose a head of state who is elected by them, accountable to them and who is replaceable by them if they fail in their duties. This system of election would open the office of head of state to citizens of both genders and all races and cultures, without discrimination, as befits a multicultural society.

Ireland offers a practical, popular model of the kind of elected head of state that Britain could adopt: low-cost and purely ceremonial, without the often malign sweeping executive powers of the US presidency.

Most Britons would not want a powerful and highly politicised head of state. They would prefer power to reside in a democratic, representative parliament, with the president being confined to ceremonial duties.

An elected president need not be a politician. He or she could be a writer, like the first democratic post-Soviet era Czech president, Vaclav Havel. Or an academic, scientist, athlete or humanitarian.

President Mary MacAleese of Ireland, like her predecessor Mary Robinson, offers a positive example of a democratic head of state. She 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 British monarchy, and one hundred times less than the actual cost when you factor in security and other expenditure excluded from Buckingham Palace's partial accounts.

If Ireland can have a successful democratic presidency, why can't Britain?

To paraphrase Martin Luther King, may the day soon come when the British head of state is chosen by the people, based on the quality of their character and not on their white royal parentage and aristocratic blood-line.