To be a republican is to stand up for democracy, not indulge in petty anti-royalism, writes The Progressive
If you think Netflix’s The Crown is lavish, expensive and insanely popular, try the actual monarchy. Coming in at a cool £100m worth of production costs, the Peter Morgan-scripted series about the lives and loves of the Windsors has proved a huge hit with audiences and critics. But it merely reflects the actual popularity of the institution itself. The monarchy retains the fierce loyalty of its subjects. Opinion polls routinely show support for a hereditary monarchy in the mid-70s, and support for a republic in the teens. Support for an elected president as head of state is even lower.
Whenever a new baby or a royal wedding is in the air, the nation is unified in its support for the Crown. Republicans had better take a minibreak to Caracas, Havana or an alternative socialist nirvana of their choosing. In 1981, when Charles and Diana got married, this is what many lefties did. As the nation gathered around televisions and held street parties, a number of future Labour luminaries including Peter Mandelson, Harriet Harman and Alistair Darling, for example, took the ferry to France, where they know how to deal with kings and queens.
When Her Majesty finally dies, the outpouring of grief will be immense. Queen Elizabeth II has been the only constant in the lives of everyone under the age of 66, amid war, political turmoil and social and technological revolution. As Morgan’s storytelling reveals, Her Majesty has held it together, despite the best efforts of those around her to bring the institution into disrepute through their stupidity and bad behaviour. There is an EM Forster short story about a population entirely reliant on ‘The Machine’ to fulfil their needs, and the terrible impact when ‘The Machine’ stops. When the Queen stops, we will be no less bereft.
The only really important thing to understand about the monarchy is its phenomenal ability to survive through reinvention. Its resilience is its adaptability. The abdication crisis in 1936 was the best example, when one king was swapped for another. Let us not forget Elizabeth was not born to be queen. Only the unwillingness of her uncle to relinquish Wallis Simpson meant that she would wear the crown. Over the decades, the monarchy has evolved, modernised, changed its habits and adapted to its surroundings, from the days of Empire to the age of the internet. This is how it has retained its popularity, while our faith in other institutions, from the BBC to the Church of England, has declined.
There has never been a worse time to be a republican. And yet republican is exactly what we should be. To be a republican is not to indulge in petty acts of infantile anti-royalism, nor to criticise individual members of the royal family. When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle get married in May, there will be clusters of idiots trying to spoil the fun with childish protests. The Daily Mail will find the ones wearing ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ T-shirts and put their pictures in the paper. The cause of republicanism will have advanced not one inch.
No, to be a modern republican is to have an instinctive attachment to democracy, to a constitution which enshrines the rights of citizens over institutions. It is democracy that we should be celebrating at street parties, not the ridiculous notion of hereditary wealth and power. This should form the core of our politics: the republicanism of John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Paine, William Morris or Keir Hardie, a conviction that power should be in the hands of the people, expressed through the ballot box, and articulated through a vibrant politics.
This republican politics should be rational as well as radical. If we accept that the monarchy is set to continue for a while yet, that does not mean we ignore all the other illogicalities and loose ends. We demand a democratic second chamber, with elected senators improving and scrutinising our laws, not relics of the aristocracy and second-rate celebs. We want to see 16-year-olds with the vote. We want more wealth and power passed to the nations, regions and cities of the United Kingdom, with more democratically-elected local leaders. We want a system of democracy which enfranchises the very poorest and most disadvantaged, so politics is not colonised by the noisy middle classes. We want an informed political discourse, conducted away from Twitter, where issues and arguments are properly dissected.
Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional theorist, concluded his book about the monarchy with the view that only in logic can opposites not coexist. His argument was that monarchy can sit alongside democracy despite their obvious differences. But surely this should be a zero-sum game? As we enhance and grow our democracy, we squeeze out the need, both constitutionally and psychologically, for kings and queens, princes and princesses. That is the job for democrats now: not to attack the crown, but to show politics as a more attractive alternative. Democracy makes for poor television drama, but it is a better way to run post-Brexit Britain.
The Progressive is a Progress columnist
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