Contrary to what the liberal gushing might suggest, Meghan Markle marrying Prince Harry and joining the royal family is a very modest step forward for racial equality.
The much bigger issue is that for the foreseeable future the UK’s head of state can never be black. The hereditary system excludes by default the possibility that the symbol of the nation could be non-white. This is a form of institutional racism.
No one is suggesting that the royal family are racist, but the current method of appointing the head of state is racist by default. Although it was not devised with racist intent, it reflects an institutional racism, where the system of appointment favours one race over others. This is not compatible with the democratic, multicultural, egalitarian and meritocratic ethos of modern British life.
One of the drawbacks of our constitutional system is that the monarch is our head of state. The only person eligible to be monarch, and therefore head of state, is the first-born of the all-white Windsor family. This automatically, for decades to come, excludes the possibility of a black head of state.
When the Queen dies, her role as head of state will pass to her son, Charles. When he is dead, the title will pass to his son William, and then to his son George and so on. From white person to white person for another century or more. Under this system, black people are ineligible.
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 the honoured, revered role of head of state to non-white citizens?
Whichever way the defenders of monarchy try to spin it, there is no escaping the fact that the position of head of state is open to only the white Windsors and their descendants. Non-white people are shut out for generations to come.
Equally appalling, this exclusion of non-white Britons excites no public outrage, not even from liberals, the left and anti-racist campaign groups. They accept the status quo. For the big three political parties – Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat – a hereditary whites-only head of state is apparently not a cause for concern. According to them, the system apparently 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 supposed 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 even an 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 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.
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.
The earliest change would be via Prince George. He is unlikely to become monarch for about 60 years. If George married a black woman his first-born child from that marriage could inherit the head of state title, but only on his death, which is likely to be nearly a century from now. The possibility that Britain could have a non-white head of state, like the US had with Barack Obama, 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 decided 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 separate 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 position of head of state to citizens of all races and cultures, without discrimination, as befits a democratic 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. If Ireland can have a successful democratic head of state, open to candidates from all races, why can’t Britain?
Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner