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

Peter Tatchell, Huffington Post, January 20, 2010

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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.

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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 anti-racist campaign groups. {snip}

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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.

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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. {snip}

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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.

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