The rational case for a British republic
You don’t have to hate the royals to want to abolish the powers of the crown.
A British republic can rarely have seemed more distant, or a less attractive proposition to many people. The outpouring of popular mourning for Queen Elizabeth Il has also prompted an outburst of sympathy and support for King Charles III. Commentators agree that the magic of monarchy retains the ability to unite our divided nation. And almost everybody has been moved by the pageantry and popularity of the week-long funeral events. Even the governments of Australia and New Zealand have been prompted to distance themselves from any early bid to cut links with the British crown.
By contrast, the minority protesting against the monarchy have looked more like ignored children throwing a tantrum. The lasting image will probably be of that crazy chip-shop lady in the Scottish Highlands, who posted a Facebook video of herself waving champagne and a blackboard bearing the legend ‘Lizard Liz is Dead’ next to a smiley face, and got stoned out of her shop. The fact that joke Irish pop duo Jedward have emerged as the most prominent and eloquent spokespersons for a British republic says it all.
As I argued on spiked, attention-seeking should not be a criminal offence, and nobody should be arrested – or stoned – for using their freedom of speech to attack the monarchy. But as a veteran republican I wouldn’t join any infantile protests.
In the mainstream media and across social media, more ‘thoughtful’ critics of the monarchy have also exposed themselves as snobs who see the public as the real problem. They apparently believe we’re all stupid enough to be conned into acquiescence to the system by the bread-and-circuses of funeral pageantry and a beery extra bank holiday.
Unsurprisingly these elitist ‘republicans’ are often the same snobs who loathe popular democracy, as revealed by their contempt for the mass Brexit vote. The post-monarchy republic they’d most welcome would probably be one where the head of state is elected, not by the great unwashed / uninformed public, but by a few select experts; perhaps chosen by a panel of respectable media pundits, the way that top sports writers pick the footballer of the year.
But despite all of that, and with all due respect and admiration to the late queen, it’s important to say that there does remain a rational political and constitutional case for abolishing the British monarchy.
The reasonable case for a republic has little to do with the cost of the royal show, and nothing to do with the personal qualities of members of the royal family or their wealth and privileges. It is about power and how it is exercised in our democracy. The king or queen may be, as we’re always told, a mere symbol, without personal power. But what they symbolise is the real constitutional power of the crown, which can be wielded by any government to serve the wider establishment without democratic accountability.
Before dealing with the role of the crown in British politics today, it’s worth taking a quick look at the roots of the republican issue. Like other words in the modern political lexicon, ‘republic’ has been redefined and often denuded of meaning. It is now commonly used to describe any state that does not have a monarch, which includes most countries, regardless of their character. Thus dictatorial regimes from Apartheid South Africa to Stalinist East Germany have revelled in the title of ‘republic’.
In its origins, however, republic means something more than non-monarchical. The word comes from the Latin phrase res publica, literally meaning ‘public matter’ or ‘public affair’. It denotes a system in which power is exercised via the public, rather than being the private affair of a king or dictator. (Though early republics took a very limited view of which citizens should have a public say.)
This is why, in its progressive modern meaning, republic has generally been linked to another much-abused word: democracy. That word comes originally from the Greek demos – the people – and kratos – power or control. Hence the Oxford English Dictionary defines a republic as a system in which ‘supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives’.
From the first, the historic struggle over the monarchy was about who should hold ‘supreme power’. From the Magna Carta of 1215 onwards, first the barons and later parliament and the people sought to challenge the absolute power of the crown.
Popular demands for an end to absolute monarchy arose at the dawn of the modern age, and exploded into public life in the English Civil War of the 1640s, fought between the forces of parliament led by Oliver Cromwell and those of King Charles I. At first the parliamentary side did not seek an end to the monarchy as such, but only of its supreme power. However, the bitter experience of waging war against the autocratic king, coupled with pressure from below by radical movements such as the Levellers, turned the civil war into a true revolution to overthrow the monarchy.
King Charles I was beheaded in 1649, having been found guilty of treason at a parliamentary trial held in Westminster Hall – the very hall where Charles III was acclaimed as king by both houses of parliament this week. Shortly after the king’s execution, the House of Commons passed An Act for the Abolishing the Kingly Office, which made clear that the issue at stake was not just pomp or privilege but power and control.
The act declared that ‘experience’ had shown the ‘office of a King’ to be ‘unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people’, and that ‘the regal power and prerogative’ had been used ‘to oppress and impoverish and enslave the subject’. Parliament (the pro-royalist House of Lords having also been abolished) therefore ‘enacted and ordained’ that ‘the office of a King in this nation shall not henceforth reside in or be exercised by any one single person’, and that ‘no one person whatsoever’ should ‘hold the office, style, dignity, power, or authority of King’. The monarchy was abolished at a stroke.
But Cromwell also defeated the radical Levellers and, after his death, the Commonwealth (then the common English word for republic) itself fell. The monarchy was restored under Charles II in 1660.
Yet the struggle for greater democracy in Britain gained new life through the 18th and into the 19th century, despite the threat of being imprisoned for seditious libel for any criticism of the king or his government. The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, which finally ended absolute monarchy in Britain, was not nearly glorious nor revolutionary enough for many democrats.
Thomas Paine, an English democrat who played a leading role in both great republican revolts of the age – the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 – made the case for abolishing the monarchy and creating a British republic. In his famous pamphlet Common Sense (1776), advocating American independence from the British crown, Paine also attacked the way that the monarchy still overshadowed nascent democracy in England:
‘[T]he corrupt influence of the crown, by having all the places in its disposal, hath so effectually swallowed up the power, and eaten out the virtue of the House of Commons (the republican part in the Constitution) that the government of England is nearly as monarchical as that of France or Spain… Why is the Constitution of England sickly, but because monarchy hath poisoned the Republic; the crown has engrossed the Commons.’
But that, some might say, was all a long time ago. In the 150 years that followed, the British people fought for and won a series of democratic reforms, eventually leading to the introduction of universal suffrage in 1928. Yet despite this the monarchy has remained in place at the top of the system.
Don’t worry, we are always assured, ours is now a ‘constitutional monarchy’, where the king or queen reigns in name only, with no real power. To which we might answer: yes and, decidedly, no.
Of course, the monarch no longer has the personal power to do as they please. But behind the throne, the executive arm of the British system – the prime minister and government backed by senior civil servants – still exercises real, unaccountable power in the name of the crown.
Under the British constitution – an unwritten system which nobody voted for – sovereignty is not actually invested in parliament, still less the people. Instead the sovereign remains, well, sovereign. Through the constitutional device of the crown-in-parliament, the monarch is effectively said to have lent its power to parliamentary representatives. But the prime minister will still have to ask the king to dissolve parliament and call a General Election.
(Just before Boris Johnson resigned as prime minister, a rumour spread that he had asked Queen Elizabeth to instead allow him to call a General Election and appeal to the electorate for support, but that she had refused. Much of the outraged reaction to this story was aimed at Boris, rather than at the notion of a monarch refusing an elected prime minister the right to go to the people.)
No doubt the establishment could still call on the sovereign powers of the monarchy in an emergency. I’m old enough to remember how, as recently as 1975, the Governor General of Australia – the British monarch’s representative Down Under – really did dismiss Gough Whitlam’s elected Labour government.
But we don’t need to start scaremongering about a hypothetical possibility of a British elite staging a future coup in the king’s name. Because our governments are using the undemocratic, unaccountable powers of the crown prerogative every day.
The crown prerogative gives the government the power to ‘wage war by any means’ or to sign international treaties, without consulting parliament. In 2003, for the first time, the House of Commons did vote on whether to approve the New Labour government’s invasion of Iraq, but the vote was not binding. (In any case MPs approved the launch of the disastrous Iraq War overwhelmingly, by 412 votes to 159.)
At home the crown prerogative grants the prime minister and his cabinet all manner of powers, including the power to impose certain types of legislation, appoint top judges, civil servants and royal commissions, and create new peers in the unelected, anti-democratic House of Lords. This list is not exhaustive since, as an official parliamentary briefing puts it, ‘there is no definitive list of the prerogative powers’. They are a flexible friend to power-hungry governments. What is certain is that nobody voted for them at any ballot box.
Some 20 years ago the late Tony Benn, then still a Labour MP, suggested that although Elizabeth II sat on the throne, Britain effectively had a king: New Labour prime minister Tony Blair, who was using the powers of the crown prerogative to rule like ‘a medieval monarch’.
Indeed, one reason that republicanism in Britain presents such a pathetic spectacle is that the Labour Party leadership has always been prepared to bend the knee to the monarchy. This is not just about showing respect for the late queen. Recognising the sovereignty of the crown was a symbol of Labour’s incorporation into the political establishment in the 20th century.
Even in the 1920s, in the young Labour Party’s radical heyday, Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky asked how Labour’s avowedly socialist leaders expected to transform capitalist society, ‘if they dare not refuse pocket money to the Prince of Wales?’. In 1952, Clement Attlee, the first Labour prime minister to win a parliamentary majority, assured the nation that ‘the Labour Party has never been republican’. Current Labour leader Keir Starmer rightly gave a warm speech about the queen last week. As one supportive media pundit observed, however, ‘Crucially, his speech was more than a lament for a much-loved monarch: it was a paean to constitutional monarchy itself’. And, by extension, to the crown prerogative.
It is true that all states keep some sort of emergency or special powers in their back pocket. During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, for example, US President Lyndon Johnson got Congress to grant him the sort of executive powers that Abraham Lincoln had once said would turn a president into a king. So, does questioning the monarchy still matter?
What’s different in the UK is that those unaccountable powers are disguised by the constitutional clouds that surround the monarchy, hidden behind the ‘magic and mystery’ of the royal spectacle that many commentators have enthused over during the days of national mourning.
The monarchy is far from the most burning issue in British politics today. But abolishing the mystical powers of the crown prerogative would be a big step forward for democracy and openness that could impact across our political life.
We might agree with the loyalists that any politician elected UK president today would be a poor substitute for the late queen, not fit to polish her crown. Yet some of us would still prefer an elected head of state because, however bad they get, at least we could get rid of them. And let’s not allow the popularity of Elizabeth II to disguise the fact that we might want to get rid of a monarch in the not-too-distant future.
Indeed, in one sense it might be about to become more urgent to question the future of the monarchy. Because, as Brendan O’Neill argues elsewhere on spiked, instead of the quiet stability and link to history provided by the queen, we are about to experience life with a monarch whom the globalist green elites hope will act as the world’s first supra-national ‘climate king’, leading their crusade to override national sovereignty and democracy.
Even many of us who aren’t royalists have been touched by the pageantry and pathos of the past week. If in the end, hopefully after a referendum, the British people want to maintain the royal show, so be it. What matters most is that we separate the pageantry from the power. We need to strip away all the majestic mumbo-jumbo from the constitution and expose the crown prerogative as a source of executive power that has no place in a modern democracy. Then let them keep the king if they must, to be brought out on ceremonial occasions like the honorary life president of a club or society.
There need never have been a King Charles II, after the abolition of the monarchy in 1649. Yet now, some 373 years later, Charles III is our sovereign, and we are still his subjects. You need not be one of those infantile monarchophobes to conclude that enough is surely enough. Nothing personal, strictly the unfinished business of history and democracy.
Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. The concise and abridged edition of his book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by William Collins.
Pictures by: Getty.