I attended Republic’s members’ day expecting to find common cause with anti-monarchists but discovered their focus is not socio-economic justice.
The gentle rebels
For activists dedicated to overthrowing the Royal Family, one of Britain’s most beloved institutions, the men and women gathered at Republic’s annual members’ day at the NCVO Society Building in Islington, North London, on March 9th, seem like gentle souls.
As committed devotees of Britain’s foremost anti-monarchist campaigning group, they’d probably approve of the Sex Pistols’ version of God Save the Queen, but if any of those present had ever been fans of punk, anarchy or revolution they are not showing any clear signs of it now, either in their attire or the comments and questions they direct at the day’s speakers.
“Can you explain more about the Royal Prerogative?” asks one. “We need to understand how the Royal Family came into being,” says another.
And their sensible appearance and measured approach is matched by the moderate tone and pragmatic nature of the demands made by Republic staff and members throughout the day and in their campaigning materials.
Steering Clear of Revolution
Gareth Robson, a 60-year-old private school teacher and Republic board member, is clear that Britain’s republican movement must steer well clear of any notion of revolution or redistribution of the monarchy’s land and wealth.
“If we’re talking about land and wealth..they’re (the Royal Family) only the pinnacle of a massive, horrible iceberg which is the aristocracy and landed gentry,” he says, adding: “But to take it back? I mean, yes, it was appropriated by theft hundreds of years ago if not a thousand years ago, but to take it back now, even in the name of the state, I’m afraid it looks altogether too revolutionary and too much like theft.”
But Gareth, who is sitting at the registration table near the entrance to the main room, is confident that the monarchy will be removed peacefully one day.
“I’m 100% certain of it. The only question is when,” he says.
Either, he believes, the Royals will be gently nudged aside by parliament over the coming decades or they will remove themselves when they see their support-base among the population drop to 50% or below, something he sees as being more likely to happen during Prince Charles’s reign. The third, and in Gareth’s view, least likely and least desirable source of a republican victory would be successful pressure tactics from right wing, majoritarian, anti-establishment forces.
Republic’s anti-monarchy arguments
It’s not just revolution that appears to be far from the minds of Republic staff and members; the corrosive impact of extreme wealth and income inequality also don’t get a mention throughout the day or on the organisation’s website.
Instead, in his speech to members, Graham Smith, Republic’s CEO, puts the less emotive but clearly important issues of democratic change, constitutional reform and Royal corruption at the forefront of the anti-monarchist argument
“We have these three Ps. Principle, power and politics. The core argument, of course, is that the monarchy is wrong in principle and it’s right in principle that we should have a democracy which includes an elected head of state,” he explains.
Moving on to the second ‘p’, power, Graham says the Royal Family is corrupt, nepotistic and inept. “It’s not just a point of principle, as important as that is. The palace doesn’t live up to the standards we’d expect in this country. It’s very secretive, it’s not there for the public good, it clearly wastes money and spends it in ways that are grossly inappropriate and it resists any attempt at scrutiny or accountability.”
This inscrutability and wastefulness are surprising given that the public is footing the bill for the Royals’ head-of-state services. According to the group’s website, tax payers shell out £345 million per year to the Queen and her family members. We are charged for their visits (the Queen’s 2012 visit to Leicester cost council tax payers £85,000) and weddings (Wills’ and Harry’s weddings are estimated to have cost an estimated combined total of £59 million) as well as their travel costs, security arrangements, communications and other expenses.
The final plank of Republic’s anti-monarchist argument is centred around the negative impact the monarchy has on our political life. Firstly, having a royal head of state prevents us from changing our constitution, which, unusually, has never been formalised or written down.
“It doesn’t only act as the central pin of our constitution, it also acts as the first line of defence of our constitution because people see it as a constitutional monarchy and if you start tinkering with it then you threaten the position of the monarch,” explains Graham.
Secondly, the vestiges of absolute monarchic power that still remain in our political system have been handed over to government and parliament, giving the them the authority to take unilateral action. The Royal Prerogative, a body of absolute powers enjoyed by kings and queens since medieval times, has now been effectively passed to the Prime Minister (PM) of the day, allowing her or him to deploy armed forces and make or unmake international treaties, among other important acts, without Parliamentary agreement. Theresa May recently tried to use these powers to trigger article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union though this was challenged in the Supreme Court.
Furthermore, argues Graham, these remnants of absolute royal power allow Parliament to make or scrap laws without consulting with voters.
“What we want is what we have but we want it democratic. We’re not going to turn everything on its head. It starts with ‘we the people’, people being sovereign and both houses of parliament being elected by us, the government being properly accountable to that parliament and a head of state elected by us, not to run the country to make sure politicians are following the rules and step in in times of crisis,” explains Graham.
What about economic inequality?
When I take the microphone at the end of Graham’s keynote speech to suggest the continued existence of the Royal Family violates the principles of fairness and economic equality, the audience erupts in a rapturous round of applause.
Although the attendees at no point during the day make any mention of economic inequality, there are signs the issue may resonate with some of them.
“I agree entirely. Democracy only makes sense if we accept that we’re equals. If we accept that there’s no way we can do anything other than govern ourselves through democracy” answers Graham, apparently referring to political and civic equality rather than income and wealth equality.
The Royals’ vast sums of unearned wealth and income may not be matters of concern for the movers and shakers in Republic, but for longstanding Republic member Dympna Le Rasle, a bubbly 70 year-old semi-retired actress from Leyton, traditional left-wing concerns about economic inequality played a key part in her decision to join the group.
“Well my father was a republican and an old fashioned socialist and I followed him. He used to say ‘lance the boil’ (the Royal Family) and we’ll get equality” she explains, sitting near the exit to the building as the event winds down. “His political hero was Tony Benn and he became my political hero too. I met him through Republic and have a photo of me together with him which I’m very proud of.”
Dympna’s second reason for joining was her dismay at the Royal Family’s support for Britain’s military campaigns and the willingness of ordinary men to lay down their lives in the name of the Crown.
“I watched the film Oh What A Lovey War! which ended showing all these young men sinking into the ground because they’d been slaughtered,” she says. “At the end I was crying and they played the national anthem and people stood up. I just thought ‘how can you stand up when we’ve just seen all this happen for King and Country?’ That really changed me.”
When our interview ends Dympna, who with her mod haircut and youthful face, seems much younger than her age, declares she’s going to the Thornhill Arms pub to join her republican friends. The members and staff of Republic, it seems, have forged friendships over many years of campaigning together on a minority cause, a cause they are confident will eventually become more popular.
Perhaps Republic’s support base will grow when the Queen abdicates and her halo effect inevitably dissipates, but only the most optimistic of the veteran rebels present today could expect to see their activism bear fruit in their life-time.