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 bête 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.