Thursday, 28 April 2011

Why I am not a Republican (anymore)

Zarina Katwala, 5, and Jay Katwala, 3, heading to Royal Wedding parties at primary and nursery school today.

“It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would be more ashamed of being caught standing to attention during God Save The King than of stealing from a poor box” - George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn

I felt a sting of self-recognition when I first read Orwell say that. I was about eighteen. I was certainly a Republican. But, then, if I wasn’t going to be a Republican, who on earth was?

I knew I was on the political left - devouring as much Orwell as possible, perhaps to see if that gave any shape to my emerging views. My parents came from India and from Ireland. They both came here to work for the NHS. So, if you asked me now, I’d say how on earth, with that background, would I have ever been anything but British? But questions of national identity may have seemed a bit trickier than that for a while. Resolving the Irish question, if you looked into it, was rather more complicated than my mother tended to claim. Rather more pressingly, I had just had to work out whether I could carry on supporting England at cricket once Norman Tebbit had declared it compulsory. As I’d supported them against India and my Dad since I was nine, it was too late to switch sides. I’d just have to look less keen, in case anybody thought I might be a Tory.

All of that seemed complicated enough without Orwell throwing in the Monarchy too. And God Save The Queen still doesn’t do anything for me. Sure, Orwell warns the English left not to be suckers for everyone else’s nationalism but their own. But isn’t it just the truth that there are five better tunes in the Six Nations, even before you get onto the English civic illiteracy in not realising we’ve misappropriated the British anthem? I’d swap it for Jerusalem in a heartbeat.

So I would still like us to get our anthems right on the sporting field. But abolish the Monarchy for a Republic? Once that seemed like simple common sense. Do we want to be citizens or subjects? Now, I’m not nearly so sure. I can’t see what we would gain, and now think we could lose rather more than I had appreciated. So, perhaps still a little reluctantly, I am no longer a Republican. I found myself in the unusual position of partnering Peter Hitchens, a rather more ardent monarchist to be sure, at the Orwell prize debate on Tuesday, against the proposition that it is time to make Monarchy history, while my more natural allies Joan Smith and Iain McLean put the case for a British Republic. (The video is online).

The democratic failure of Republicanism

British Republicanism is perhaps the least successful political project of my lifetime.

There was 19 per cent support for a Republic in 1969. It is almost exactly the same today. This has been described by veteran pollster Bob Worcester as “the most stable indicator of British public opinion that exists in this country”. Over the last thirty years, almost everything that could go wrong for the Monarchy did go wrong.

Yet Republicanism has barely advanced a single inch.

So the Republican movement’s core democratic principle– why shouldn’t we choose our head of state for ourselves – is unassailable. Except for the fact that it clashes with one equally unassailable democratic principle, that of public consent.

All democratic Republicans and genuinely constitutional monarchists ought to be able to agree on this democratic principle of consent:

Britain could (and indeed should) become a Republic if most of its citizens wanted it to become one, but it can not (and indeed shouldn’t) until they do.

That majority consent would be needed to change this is undoubtedly a political reality. We have now evolved a new constitutional convention that it is necessary to hold a referendum not just to change the voting system, but to establish a London or north-east assembly, or an elected mayor for Stoke-on-Trent. Public assent through a popular vote is surely necessary to do away with the Monarchy. Alternatively, a liberal democracy can have a constitutional monarchy if there is sustained and settled public consent for one.

Does anybody seriously contest the idea that we currently have a constitutional monarchy with public consent, however much they might believe that this could change now, in a decade or in half a century’s time? Up to eight million Republicans in this country have every legitimate right to challenge that and to try and bring about the change they want.

But they show little sign of being able to do so.

What would we achieve?

What Republicanism has not found is a persuasive argument which reaches beyond the already committed. I suspect that the truth is that Monarchy’s vices are exaggerated by its foes, and its virtues overstated by its foes.

I find it difficult to identify any serious political project – beyond being able to elect a head of state – that is blocked or seriously undermined by the existence of Monarchy.

It is said that the Monarchy is a stifling symbol of class and hierarchy. Yet the Monarchy did not prevent the creation of the NHS and the Beveridge welfare state, nor the rolling back of that post-war settlement. Whatever it is that prevents Britain from emulating Sweden and choosing to be more equal, it is unlikely to be the fact of constitutional monarchy, which happens to be a feature of egalitarian and female friendly Scandinavian-style social democracy.

Some of our most strident Monarchists believe that Britain long ago surrendered all sovereignty to Brussels, and so accuse the political class of treason. Yet the Monarch gave Royal Assent to the European Communities Act and later Treaties, and would do so for an Act of Parliament to repeal it, if the sceptics were to win the political and public argument.

Were we to create a people’s constitutional convention to codify and write a constitution, the nature and role of the head of state could be up for grabs with everything else, but it would very likely, perhaps somewhat reformed, be kept. Questions of whether we have the Alternative Vote or proportional representation, or abolish the Lords, or have freedom of information, even whether we want to disestablish the Church, are determined politically, not by the existence of a constitutional monarchy.

This is also true of the existence of the Union itself. Continued Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish participation (or indeed English support for the Union) is a matter of democratic consent, as the Good Friday agreement and the Scottish claim of right have articulated. Scotland rejected and then voted for devolution, and may one day decide to vote for or against independence too. Were the SNP to win that argument, they say that they would invite the Queen of Scots, supporting the 1603 Union of Crowns but not the 1707 Act of Union, though much of the party favours a referendum on the issue.

The British Monarchy must be constitutionally indifferent to all of these political outcomes. Is its private power to persuade greater? The Queen’s disapproval of Margaret Thatcher’s willingness to divide the Commonwealth by opposing sanctions against apartheid South Africa certainly stretched constitutional theory, but did not change government policy. No competent government minister ought to be more persuaded by the spidery hand of a Prince Charles missive than by Sir Humphrey style obfuscation from their permanent secretary.

Why don’t people want change?

If Republicanism wishes to expand, it could do with a deeper engagement with why most people are not persuaded. The standard answer tends to be propaganda and false consciousness. Joan Smith, an articulate and plausible advocate of modern Republicanism, told the Orwell prize debate that Republicans don’t get a fair hearing in the media, so that the argument has never really been put. (I have quite often heard her make the point on the BBC). And there are four pro-Republic national newspapers – in the Guardian/Observer and Independent titles. Republicans tend not to mention that their usual bĂȘte noire, the dreaded Rupert Murdoch shares their cause. That his newspapers do not would seem to be a simply commercial decision.

The choice between having the Monarchy and a Republic is very easily grasped – rather more so than that between first-past-the-post and the alternative vote. National occasions like the Royal Wedding, present each of us with a clear sense of what we think and feel about the Monarchy itself - whether we are excited monarchists, desperate to sleep on the mall decked in bunting, armchair supporters, benignly indifferent or desperate for the whole circus to disappear at once. It gets a bit more complicated with children. My five and three year old have parties today at primary school and nursery – dress codes, red, white and blue, or paper crowns. Even if I were still a committed Republican, I would hardly want to conscript them into conscientious objection.

Republicanism is stalled partly because it has too often tended to project an angry and negative image. The Not the Royal Wedding street party, organised by Republic, seems potentially a good attempt to break with that. Many of us are in favour of more community, more shared national occasions and more street parties too. So establishing a dissident option both platforms an alternative voice, and indeed makes the whole national occasion more full inclusive!

Yet Republicans too often seem to imply that anybody who disagrees is somehow an irrational and unthinking drone. Yet the reason that most people instinctively feel that they would lose more than they would gain from having a vote for a President is fairly straightforward. On the one hand, there is a case that any of us might be first citizen in the land. But, on the other, we would be removing something that is distinctive about this country, which offers a living link to our history and traditions, in a way that might be sensible, rational, but which can look like tidying things up to become just that little bit more like everywhere else.

The case for removing national symbols to which many people feel an attachment and an allegiance, (and to which most others feel benign indifference) seems weak.

Republicans hope that it will all be different after the reign of the current Queen. In Australia, that is probably true. In Britain, we shall have to wait and see. My own prediction is that Monarchist sentiment is more likely to hit an alltime high in the solemn fortnight after the death of a reigning Monarch, as the nation tells itself the story of how we changed over the decades since the 1950s.

Sometimes Republicans wonder about mass abdication as a possible route to success. Bagehot of The Economist calls for compassionate Republicanism freeing the Royals from their gilded cage to lead more normal lives. The teenage Prince William once had every reason to be sorely tempted, but he has succumbed to the call of duty and tradition. For Republicans, this fantasy scenario is simply a distraction from the real challenge: that the only barrier to their success is whether they can convince their fellow citizens.

I feel that the argument against abolition of the Monarchy goes beyond there being more important issues and priorities on which to campaign. Perhaps it is also about the way to make change in our societies possible. Many of the most effective radicals have been dispositional conservatives, who understood why people felt an attachment to the familiar, while rejecting the idea that this should be a barrier to major social and political advances. I think of Attlee and Bevan creating the post-war welfare state, the way in which Nehru articulated an inclusive identity for an independent India, or Nelson Mandela deciding that a democratic and multi-racial post-apartheid South Africa didn’t need to destroy the Springbok emblem, cherished by Afrikaners, but could embrace it as part of the new.

That was absolutely in the spirit of Orwell, who wanted a patriotic English revolution, in which so much would change, yet where we would still be England.

An English Socialist government will transform the nation from top to bottom, but it will still bear all over it the unmistakable marks of our own civilization, the peculiar civilization which I discussed earlier in this book.It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy. It will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere, the judge in his ridiculous horsehair wig and the lion and the unicorn on the soldier's cap-buttons.

Orwell would be disappointed that the egalitarian spirit of post-war England proved less powerful than he anticipated. He would be surprised that we are still talking about a democratic House of Lords, but he was right that we could decide to abolish the Lords but keep the Monarchy too.

In a parallel universe, in a different country, it might be different. Perhaps, in a referendum, I could be persuaded to cast a vote, in fraternal solidarity, for the Republicans, albeit in the knowledge that three-quarters of my fellow citizens would do the opposite. But I very much doubt that a British Republic is going to happen in my lifetime. And my Republican friends have not convinced me that we would gain if it did.


Mark Leslie Woods said...

Left out of your mostly-thoroughgoing discussion of the topic is the monarch's legal position as the head of the Church of England, a position that prevents the monarch from ever marrying a Roman Catholic, let alone a HIndu or Muslim, all of which are minorities effectively marginalized by the monarchy.

There's therefore something morally-repugnant about all this, since the monarch is titular national head of citizens with no relationship to the COE, who by definition can never transition from "commoner" to royal via marriage.

It does seem that the core of your argument relies upon the conclusion that popular rule trumps democratic principles, an idea that is historically and fundamentally in opposition to every principle of Britishness and the rule of law.

This seems to me a flawed interpretation of British democracy, which allows the judiciary to overrule the popularly elected House of Commons, and which then allows the unrepresentative House of Lords to overrule both the House of Commons and the judiciary.

The de facto popularity of the monarchy over Republican anti-monarchy efforts does not negate the inherent wrongness of esteeming an inherited class position of monarch over theoretical and legal equality of all British citizens, including the Windsor family.

In other words, to apply your argument to the historical unpopularity of women's rights, abolition of slavery, LGBT marriage equality, etc. would justify "traditional" and ongoing suppression of these group's rights, would it not, based upon the assertion that "popular" assent does not support minority equality?

Ashok said...

With you on Jerusalem (although it's a very clear QTWTAIN) but the rest is a little hard to swallow.

I'd draw a distinction between being a republican and being a Republican; of setting up a new, more modern nation that can continue to reinvent itself versus a new Republic, remade once as some new perfection. Perhaps the former is no republic at all, but a long, gradual process of continually remaking a country to live up to our ideals. I can favour that and be no monarchist or imperialist.

Having moved to Canada in the last couple of years, I feel quite invested in this idea of a remade, modern nation. Folk here seem both to care more about the monarchy than in the UK. It's also more polar. A good number plainly see it as something that defines Canada apart from their southern neighbour; those opposed express in no uncertain terms the symbolic nature of having not quite grown beyond a colonial past.

Tom Griffin said...

There are really two sides to the republican tradition.

Republicans believe in popular sovereignty, but they have always understood that the most difficult task was not necessarily overcoming the ruler directly, but instilling a public ethos of citizenship that would make popular sovereignty possible. You see that very clearly in Machiavelli for example. This is why democratic republicanism is as David Marquand has said an austere and testing conception.

I'm not sure that British republicanism has been an unsuccessful political project, because I'm not sure there has been a British republican project until very recently.

I think Republic has actually done as well as could reasonably be expected in recent months in highlighting issues like Prince Andrew's peregrinations and the wedding guest list which underline the globally significant structures of inequality of which the British monarchy is a part.

It may be tough being a republican on a day like today, but then it was never supposed to be easy!

Newmania said...

What lovely children, mine are much the same age
When I saw the general secretary of the Fabians tweeting his support for Samantha Cameron's decision to go hatless I knew the game was up.

Dan Dodge in the Guardian ..Is that you Sunder?
( Will now read your article )


Paul Newman

Newmania said...

This is also from the Lion and the Unicorn discussing the British Socialist State and reveals some of the divided savagery in Orwell`s thinking at that time
"“It will shoot traitors, but it will give them a solemn trial beforehand and occasionally it will acquit them. It will crush any open revolt promptly and cruelly, but it will interfere very little with the spoken and written word. Political parties with different names will still exist, revolutionary sects will still be publishing their newspapers and making as little impression as ever. It will disestablish the Church, but will not persecute religion. It will retain a vague reverence for the Christian moral code, and from time to time will refer to England as ‘a Christian Country"
It drips with contempt for these symbols whereas as you notice at other times he is equally contemptuous of left wing intellectuals whose invertebrate inhumanity he clearly described in 1984 as sustained polemic nauseated with "Eng Soc".

I find the claim that to read Orwell is to be herded to the left somewhat implausible but I have often heard it.

I think you are at your most expansive and brilliant when you try to reconcile the Nation with the fundamentally international socialism I am not sure you will ever succeed but the effort is always worth reading.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thank you for your very kind comments.

Dan Hodges was indeed quoting my not especially serious SamCam hat related tweet: "I support Samantha Cameron's choice not to wear a hat to a wedding. Think anybody who complains about this is an idiot".

I think we read differently the tone of that passage - "It will shoot traitors, but it will give them a solemn trial beforehand and occasionally it will acquit them". Orwell is on the side of the "vague reverence". (Orwell is read by everybody. Peter Hitchens, who was taking part in the Orwell debate from right over on the right reveres him too, but he was clear that "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it").

Sunder Katwala said...

Tom Griffin and Ashok,

Agreed with the distinction.

And I favour the broader Marquandite 'democratic republican" project. The distinction implies these are separable, or at least that the question of how much priority the broader republicanism should give to the monarchy itself is open.

One reason I have changed my mind about a Republic is that they seem much more separable now than in 1981 or 1989. I found the argument made by Charter 88 persuasive that the Monarchy helped to legitimise the broader constitutional arrangements, and remove them from public and political scrutiny, with something of a taboo against debating either the Monarchy or the constitution. (I have a Power and the Throne book somewhere, from Anthony Barnett I think, the point of which is to explicitly break this taboo). I don't think that's where we now are. There was a lot of constitutional reform from 1997-2001, albeit piecemeal.

There is the occasional throwback. The MoJ response to Gordon Brown's green paper on Royal Prerogative powers was hopeless Sir Humphreyism and mysticism. There are some important reforms here. I think it much more likely to build broad support in Parliament for putting Royal Prerogative powers on a statutory basis ('strenthening Parliament') than seeing abolishing the monarchy as a likely route to do this.

Mark Leslie Woods,

Heirs can currently marry anybody (atheists, Jews, Muslims, Methodists) except Catholics. That should change, as should primogeniture. This blog looked at the issue last Monday. These reforms have majority support, and were promoted by the Fabian Monarchy Commission back in 2003.

The Monarch being part of the CoE is tied to the Establishment of the Church, which is a political question. (This is theoretically separable: in practice, a prime minister who might be atheist/Catholic/Muslim selects the Bishops!). The Fabian Monarchy Commission also advocated changing this. So the question of the Monarch's own faith is more complex, while the barrier on who they marry is simply a piece of specific anti-Catholic bigotry.

Sunder Katwala said...

On Mark's broader arguments, it is important that political movements seek to challenge and change public attitudes on issues that they think most important.

I want to do so on attitudes to inequalities of life chances, wealth, power and income; and on climate change. I am not persuaded that changing a Monarchy for a Republic would help this. Those who think it would ought to give it a higher priority - but the examples of the NHS and Sweden show that the argument that it is a necessary barrier can be challenged.

My own sense is that offering to take away something people value, but don't take too seriously, and insisting on this as an essential part of an egalitarian project is more likely to narrow support for my politics than to offer a strong mobilising cause to deepen it. Others may disagree about this, in which case they need to set out how to make Republicanism a majority cause.

David Lindsay said...

The confirmation that Ed Miliband would attend the Royal Wedding in a morning suit, such as trade union leaders used to wear to Royal Ascot in the days when they were always justly and often technically known as barons, confirmed that he was True Labour rather than New Labour, as surely as David Cameron's vacillation on the subject confirmed his desire to be the Heir to Blair. Stuart Reid's always excellent Catholic Herald column last week pointed out that anti-monarchism was a Thatcherite cause back in the day, spearheaded by the Murdoch papers, and posited that as the explanation for middle-class mean spirits towards the Royal Wedding. He was, of course, quite right.

Thatcher scorned the Commonwealth, social cohesion, historical continuity and public Christianity. She called the Queen "the sort of person who votes for the SDP". She arrogated to herself the properly monarchical and royal role on the national and international stages, using her most popular supporting newspaper to vilify the Royal Family. She legislated to abolish the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to legislate for individual Australian states, to end the British Government's consultative role in Australian state-level affairs, and to deprive the Queen's Australian subjects of their right of appeal to Her Majesty in Council. And she legislated to pre-empt the courts on both sides of the Atlantic by renouncing the British Parliament's role in the amendment of the Canadian Constitution.

That last points to the fact that efforts to cut constitutional ties to Britain have been a white supremacist, and an anti-Catholic, cause ever since Thomas Jefferson. Which is to say, ever since Dr Johnson asked, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?" That wretched tradition has continued down through the foundation of Irish Republicanism by those who regarded their own Protestant and "Saxon" nation as the only true one on the Irish island, through anti-monarchist attitudes to Australian Aborigines from the Victorian Period to the present day, through Hendrik Verwoerd and Ian Smith, through attempts to abrogate the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand, and through the patriation of the Canadian Constitution against the wishes, both of the Aboriginal peoples to whom the Crown had numerous treaty obligations, and of the government of Quebec.

The BNP wants to abolish the monarchy, the Queen being descended, via the "Negroid" Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, from the part-black Royal House of Portugal, and, via Elizabeth of York and her Moorish ancestors, from Muhammad. She has little of the "English blood" favoured by the likes of the EDL, and her children have almost none. If born of his marriage to Mr and Mrs Middleton's daughter, the successor of Lady Diana Spencer's son will be the first ethnically English monarch for almost, if almost, exactly one thousand years, since 1066. And even he will have plenty of other things in him, as all ethnically English people have had ever since that year, if not even earlier.

Only a movement of morning-suited Labourites, steeped in royal, parliamentary and municipal pageantry and charity, could preserve and celebrate the pageantry and charity of the City of London while ending its status as a tax haven and as a state within the State, Europe's last great Medieval republican oligarchy, right where the United Kingdom ought to be. The liberties of the City were granted to a city properly so called, with a full social range of inhabitants and workers. The Crown should explicitly guarantee the hereditary economic and cultural rights of, for example, the Billingsgate fish porters in the same way as it guaranteed or guarantees the economic and cultural rights of Aboriginal peoples elsewhere in the Empire and the Commonwealth.

james said...

Surely the title of this post should have been "why I am not an anti-monarchist anymore"?

Tom mentioned above the republican principle of popular sovereignty. In this sense, the votes on devolution were republican - that the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly depended on the approval of electors made them "public things".

Sunder Katwala said...


Yes, fair point.

David Lindsay said...

The right of Parliament to determine the succession to the Throne, the shift of supremacy within Parliament to the House of Commons, and that House's having come to be elected by universal suffrage, mean that this country is already a 'res publica'.

richardr0001 said...

Sunder you wrote this post in the run up to an exciting royal wedding, are you still a monarchist?

I think you neglected to discuss the psychological effect of the monarchy. There are a lot of people who think of themselves as common. Certain people get looked down on because of their accetn and background. This affects people's self-esteem. Which in turn affects social mobility. The monarchy divides Britain into seperate classes. Not class in the monetary sense but in terms of the British social hierarchy. Working class people tend to mix and and marry with working class people. Middle class people tend to mix and and marry with middcle class people. Some people don't associate with other kinds of epople because 'they are not my kind of people'. Certain professions and companies don't hire cetain kind of people because they are 'not right'. So the monarchy divides society, it doesn't unite it. Part of the problem with social mobility in Britain is that some people believe they are common and should stay in their place. Having someone from a council estate as our head of state would get rid of the snobbishness. It would be a more accurate representation of Britain and it would be inspiring and comforting for young people to know that your background does not affect your future.