I was asked by Evangelicals Now – around the time of the Queen’s funeral – to write up an alternative view as to why I am a British Republican. Because of sensibilities around the time, they decided not to carry the article at the time when anyone might be talking about it and published it in this month’s edition instead. I did make the point at the time that it is hardly Republicans fault the time to discuss these things is surrounding a funeral; that is the active choice of the Royalists who then get upset with alternative opinion! I’d rather talk about leadership change apart from when someone has died, but that is the system with which we are presented. Nevertheless, my unedited original version follows. I wrote a longer form piece here if you want a slightly more fulsome case.
Before you release the hounds, it’s important to say from the outset I was approached and asked to write this. My views – albeit longstanding and not that hard to discern – have remained purposefully silent in public. But having been asked to provide an alternative view, here it is.
Inasmuch as death is sad whoever it comes to, the death of the Queen is sad. Most of all, she was a person with a family for whom the grief is real. For what it’s worth, I respect the person, Elizabeth Windsor. She exemplified duty and, given that her role was thrust upon her, carried it out with as much dignity as we might hope and practised the required political neutrality the role demands. If we must have the system we do, I am convinced she is the best we might hope for in it. That being said – and I’m sure you knew it was coming – I have no respect for the institution she represented.
Without giving a potted history of the British monarchy, the system we have inherited has been characterised by increasing curbs on monarchic power. We have moved from close to absolute power, through some significant and major reforms (usually imposed in the teeth of the serving monarch’s view), to a toothless ceremonial Head of State. Whilst most of Europe saw fit to remove their monarchs altogether, Britain decided to neuter theirs and leave them in post. It is a perplexing choice.
Whilst I have political objections to monarchy, my most serious reservations are religious. To a nonconformist like me, monarchy represents 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 which locked nonconformists out of public office and university, was a measure only revoked in the late 19th Century. All of this was under the auspices of their Supreme Governor, the reigning monarch. To a nonconformist like me, the Crown represents oppression against biblical religion. It directly represents a religious authority that I do not recognise, my tradition rejected and that 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 changes in our constitution itself – nonconformists like me can find it similarly hard to bow the knee to the titular head of a church to which we do not subscribe. We are then deemed unpatriotic for daring not to go against our religious conscience.
Historically, our monarch has also been the head of a large empire. At its height in 1922, Britain controlled a quarter of the globe and ruled over 458 million people. The snipping away of the absolute power of monarchs recognises how they operated in the past was less than excellent. It seems their imperial role is another such example. Whatever one may think of the British Empire, it was clearly not an unmitigated good. By the standards we now insist are right, it is difficult not to see colonial rule as something of a blight. There is a reason most those nations are now independent and others are ceding from the commonwealth. The fact that QEII 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 from which many of our former colonies have since ceded with our blessing.
Domestically, the institution has problems too. As a democratic nation, it is hard to ignore the undemocratic reality of an unelected Head of State presiding over parliament. It is surely anachronistic at best. Whilst there are all sorts of alternative approaches – consider the differences between Ireland, France, the USA and India as exemplars – 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 only argument against this is usually ‘would you really want President Blair?’ To which the obvious response is, I’m not sure who would vote for him. But I consider it better to have elected (and the ability to remove) someone I don’t want than to have any such people imposed on us without our consent.
Beyond this, the accident of birth that leads to such riches is not unique to the Royal Family. Anybody born into wealth has such advantages and, in many ways, such is life. The difference is that the latter is not supported and bank rolled by the state and those who pay their taxes. Not only is the institution anachronistic, it is an active portrayal of unmerited privilege propped up by the people. Such that inequality matters to us, embedding it as virtuous at the highest echelons of government and society strikes me as deeply unhelpful socially. It further strikes me as particularly unlike anything we read in scripture about such things. Nobody can possibly read the Bible and consider this a credible outworking of leadership.
The best advert for a constitutional monarchy was, as far as I can see, the person of Elizabeth Windsor. But such as she was the best we could hope for, it remains inevitable that those who come after her will not necessarily be like her. Many who were attached to the Crown seem more aligned (entirely understandably) to Elizabeth II than to the institution itself. But the institution is what 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, we had far more King John’s, Charles’ and George’s than we have had Elizabeth’s. It really is a major failing that this system means we could end up with Prince Andrew on the throne and no means of removing him.
Not only do we have the anachronism of an unelected Head of State who has no real power, we also have to contend with the reality their family with whom we are also stuck. They sit, these days, in a strange place between powerful dignitary and famous celebrity. As has been noted many times within the Royal Family – and is certainly a claim made by the Sussexes – this setup is not very healthy for those who are born into it either. Given all other available options, I struggle to see how monarchy is the best of them.