The other day, I wrote about how the timing of discussion about monarchy and republicanism is hardly the fault of those who would prefer to be a republic. We would prefer to speak about these things apart from the obvious emotions and feelings surrounding funerals. But the system we have demands that is when such things will be in the news and when they are live issues for comment. It is not how I would have it, or prefer it to be, but then the system we have is not propped up with my support.
Given that these things are in the news and now is the appointed time to talk about them, I thought I would write up (some of) my reasons for being a republican. You may agree or not. That is fine. I am not writing this to persuade anybody else I am right and they are not. These are just my reasons and the things that push me to the view I hold. But such as this is the time these things are in the public eye, here it is.
It pays to say from the front end, I take no pleasure in the death of Elizabeth Windsor. Death is always sad. It is a reminder of the broken world we live in and that things are not as God intended them to be. She was born into a role that she had no say in taking and she dutifully carried out her role as well as we might hope someone would. If we must have the system we do, I am convinced she is the best we might hope for in it. Nevertheless, I do wish we had an altogether different system.
The fact is, the history of the British monarchy is marked by incremental shifts and reforms. We have moved from the absolute power of the monarch, through varying forms, to a ceremonial Head of State with official and real power that is, in truth, largely unwieldable. On paper, it is a very powerful role and yet, in practice, it is largely toothless. It is neither fish nor fowl. It is not a system we have because it is deemed the best of all possible worlds, but rather one that we have inherited and incrementally taken power and authority from whilst a national conservatism stops us from revoking it altogether, unlike the overwhelming majority of European nations. It feels less that we have the system we deem best and more a compromise that seems, in a country that insists democracy is a core value, utterly anachronistic.
Whilst I do have political and social objections to monarchy, my main concerns are religious. The monarch is the titular head of a religious group that has persecuted those who stand in my tradition. The Anglican ascendency that brought in the Test Acts in the mid-17th Century, locking nonconformists out of public office and university, was not fully revoked until the late 19th Century. They further made it illegal for anyone to meet with more than 5 people outside the parish church stopping nonconformists meeting together, which led to the imprisonment of John Bunyan (among other less well known believers). Further, two years after arresting Bunyan, the Act of Uniformity was imposed making it illegal for anyone who did not have license from their bishop (which is, obviously, all nonconformists) to preach the gospel. All of this was under the auspices of their Supreme Governor, the English (and later, UK) Head of State. The latter two examples, in particular, were specifically tied up with monarchy because Bunyan (and others) had the freedom to preach and practice until the restoration of the monarch in 1660. To a nonconformist like me, the Crown represents oppression against biblical religion. It directly heads a religious authority that I do not recognise, my tradition rejected and that has persecuted us since.
It is for this reason, many in the civil war period joined the New Model Army against the Royalists. Many marched under the banner No King But Christ. The reforms that were then imposed under Cromwell’s Protectorate were a result of popular uprising not only against a tyrannical monarch, but a tyrannical religion. Many were disappointed that Cromwell did not go so far as to abolish the monarchy altogether for this reason. The Digger and Leveller movements, that preceded and ran concurrently with the Civil War period, were predicated on this basis. The same Supreme Governor of the Church of England who was forcing conformity then, continues to represent a form of religion that nonconformists actively eschew today. Just as it is (rightly) hard for Protestants to bow the knee before the Head of the Vatican – hence some of the measure in our constitution and the establishment of the Church of England itself – nonconformists can find it similarly hard to bow the knee to the titular head of a church to which we do not subscribe.
It is my view that the only system in which I am happy to have unelected, unchanging leadership without mechanism to do other is one in which there are perfect leaders. Which means the only monarch I am happy to see ruling forever, and gladly give up any right to change, is the perfect rule of King Jesus. Without such a perfect system presided over by a perfect leader, we must try to limit the problems that will come with imperfection. If our leaders will be imperfect, and the system will be imperfect, it seems right that we have mechanisms in place recognising such imperfections may need addressing. I can think of no better way to achieve this than term limits and elections.
Aside from my ecclesiological concerns, the monarch does more than represent a religious tradition I reject and persecuted those outside of it. It also represents a system that has presided over activities that we deem to have been inappropriate. At its height in 1922, Britain controlled a quarter of the globe and ruled over 458 million people through its empire over which the monarch presided. Whatever one may think of the British Empire, it was clearly not an unmitigated good. There is a reason most former colonial nations are now independent and many are ceding from the commonwealth. The fact that Elizabeth II made rescuing the commonwealth a major point of concern speaks to the imperial mindset that remains. Whilst we cannot undo nor should we whitewash our history, it doesn’t become us to continue with an undemocratic system from a bygone era that represented oppression for many countries and from which many former colonies have since ceded with our blessing.
Mic Wright similarly notes here:
Elizabeth was on an official tour of Kenya in 1952 when she learned of her father’s death. Just months later, Britain’s response to the Mau Mau uprising was the creation of detention camps and a systematic campaign of torture, rape, castration and murder. Those acts were committed in the Queen’s name. Her obituaries represent the success of the Commonwealth as a PR move and the ongoing effect of Operation Legacy in obscuring brutal truths.
The answer to this will, of course, be that we cannot hold the monarch responsible for what government may do. But that seems convenient when, in the same breath, we are told that the monarch embodies the nation, the focal point of national unity. As Mic Wright correctly observes, ‘we’re dealing with Schrödinger’s Queen: At once the guiding spirit of the nation and totally disconnected from its actions.’
Apart from what the monarch represents for many, we cannot escape the undemocratic nature of the role itself. The Irish President has no more power than our constitutional monarch, but doesn’t suffer from the cognitive dissonance of claiming to head up a democratic nation, that insists on the importance of spreading its democratic values around the globe, while inheriting a title and role with no democratic mechanism involved. The Crown is an anachronism at best and actively undermines our apparent values.
There are all sorts of alternative approaches. Consider the differences between Ireland, France, the USA and India as exemplars. All of these countries have presidents, none of them operate in the same way or with the same powers. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for actually electing the person who will represent our country to the world, whatever form that may take. The usual argument against this is, ‘do you really want President Blair?’ To which the obvious answer is, I’m not sure who would vote for him. But whether Tony Blair or anyone else, I consider it better to have someone I don’t support elected to represent us – with the requisite ability to remove them at the end of their term – than having someone imposed on us without our consent. Better an elected President Johnson than an unelected King Boris we have no ability to remove.
The fortune of birth leading to riches is not unique to the Royal Family. Anybody born into wealth has those advantages. Whilst we may have a discussion about redistribution and all that (another discussion for another day), we do ultimately have to say such is life. The difference, however, is that those born into wealth are usually not propped up by the state and paid for by taxing the people. If he who pays the piper calls the tune, ought not the people paying their taxes to have some say in who will represent them? Not only is the institution anachronistic, and opulence paid for by those without much, it is an active portrayal of unmerited privilege embedded at the top of our system. Such that issues of inequality matter to us, embedding it as virtuous at the highest echelons of government and society strikes me as deeply unhelpful and somewhat undercutting of our claim to be concerned about such things.
Many who are supportive of the monarch have been specifically attached to the person of Elizabeth II, who effectively embodied the role. As I said at the top of the post, such as we are going to have a monarch at all, the best person we could hope for was her. But many were attached to her rather than the role. Now she is gone, the institution remains. Elizabeth II was not the Crown, the institution rolls on and the one who fills it is out of our hands. It bears remembering, our history is not of such like her, but more commonly of the likes of King John, Charles’ and George’s for whom people had much less admiration.
We also have to contend with the wider reality of the Royal Family, who now occupy a space somewhere between powerful dignitary and B-list celebrity. As unhealthy as the setup may be for a democratic country, it has been noted many times within the Royal Family – and is certainly a claim made by the Sussexes more recently – this setup is not very healthy for those who are born into it either. If you don’t like the Sussexes, the setup means you are bound to suffer them and watch them trade on the name. If you do like them, the setup forces them into roles that neither of them want and which both have said does more harm than good. Even their resignation has not allowed them to properly resign in a meaningful sense. Then there are the even more unsavoury elements of the family. Few have found Andrew’s defence of past action to be very compelling and Charles, despite every effort to keep him from sullying the brand, still has to do something with him. The rest of us, who are not enamoured with privileging former Jeffrey Epstein associates, can do nothing but watch on.
Even QEII herself was far from perfect. It should not be ignored that she and her households were exempted from equality laws and used Queen’s consent to have herself and her family members protected from legislation that disadvantaged them financially. Nor should we ignore the fact that it was she who agreed to bankroll the settlement that meant Andrew could attempt to hush up any talk of his involvement with Jeffrey Epstein. As Mic Wright goes on to say in relation to the media coverage:
It’s much less trouble to talk about the Queen as a symbol and a cypher, the nation’s grandma, than as a shrewd and cynical operator who headed up an institution with a nickname — “the firm” — that could equally be given to an organised crime outfit. Though it’s unlikely that even the most menacing mafia would be able to make stories that its new capo-di-capo — Charlie Big Crown — received shopping bags filled with £3 million in cash from the bin Laden family disappear as quickly. You see, King Charles III is a legitimate businessman.
He elsewhere says, ‘As people across the UK still face a winter struggling to heat their homes, the 2010 story of the Queen’s household attempting to claim money from a poverty fund to heat Buckingham Palace is worth revisiting.’
Of course, who among us if perfect? Don’t presidents fall foul of these things too? And the short answer is, of course they do. But unlike those of us with monarchical systems, presidential countries have the ability to remove those presidents from office. Given such common imperfections, having the right to remove those who prove themselves so imperfect that it may become a point of national shame does seem prudent. There is a reason Italy no longer have Silvio Burlesconi in power – they ultimately decided he was too embarrassing to represent them on the world stage. We, however, still suffer the infighting between Charles, Andrew and Harry and can do nothing about it.
Indeed, those of my persuasion who would serve their country are forced into a deeply unfortunate choice. To serve as MPs and take their seats in parliament, they must swear allegiance to the Crown. Either republicans must be elected and then refuse to ever attend parliament to avoid taking the oath (as Sinn Fein at least do consistently with their views) or they are forced to swear to what they manifestly believe to be untrue. As Tony Benn put it, ‘in order to serve in the Commons and the cabinet, I had to tell 18 lies under oath, which I found deeply offensive.’ We have a system that is rigged inasmuch as those who would seek to reform it are forced either to sit out or lie on oath.
For all these reasons, and perhaps some others that I haven’t written here, I would like to see us reform our institutions and elect our Head of State. I am open on the question of whether we should effectively continue with the same system we have now and create an Irish-style ceremonial President or whether we ought to take the opportunity to enact more sweeping constitutional change and create a presidency with actual powers like in France. There are merits to either approach. Whatever we do, that we should become a republic seems right to me. I will leave the final word to Tony Benn, with whom I find it hard not to agree:
Above all, the existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privilege and patronage that corrupts our society; that is why the crown is seen as being of such importance to those who run the country – or enjoy the privileges it affords.
Years ago, when I was trying to get out of the House of Lords, I was warned that such a move would undermine the monarchy, whereas it was obvious that the monarchy was using the then hereditary House of Lords to prop itself up because it did not want to be alone in justifying its power by inheritance.
The case for electing our head of state and claiming our right to be citizens rather than subjects is unanswerable; the royal family could stay at Buckingham Palace, financing the changing of the guard by a grant from the tourist board, free to live the lives they want.