Once the Jubilee bunting has gone to landfill, the British monarchy will have to face many awkward questions – including its role in colonialism and the slave trade. At root, however, is the issue of democracy, say Phil Vellender and Steve Freeman
Republicanism has generally had a bad press. Monarchists have either successfully associated it with bloody, revolutionary violence, or whenever events like the Jubilee occur, dismissed republicans as party-pooping, straight-laced, puritanical, killjoys prudishly denying the rest of us some much-needed harmless fun in these trying times. However, when that Jubilee-induced sugar rush resulting from the consumption of copious quantities of trifle, Eton mess, ice cream, chocolates, cakes and champagne passes, it will leave a collective hangover as Monday morning dawns. The difficult questions that ‘Partygate’ has raised about our chaotic institutions and their fitness for purpose – questions that the Jubilee jamboree exists to avoid – will still be there, unaddressed, as the plastic bunting hits the landfill.
There are warning signs for royalists. Disrupting winds of change are blowing into Britain from unexpected quarters. First, recent royal visits to the Caribbean have been met with a less enthusiastic response than the royal-loving British media would normally have hoped. With Barbados having voted to become a republic, many Bajans were asking just what exactly the Windsors thought they were doing visiting in the first place. Worse still, ungrateful Grenada’s leader told the royals bluntly not to bother coming, the country couldn’t afford them! The embarrassing lack of awareness demonstrated by Kate and William, bedecked in all white, medals glinting in the sun, saluting who-knows-who, succeeded brilliantly in reviving unwelcome colonial memories of the Queen’s 1950s and ’60s tours, demonstrating that the monarchy’s previously successful strategy of ‘permanent evolution’ was in free fall.
Second, protests erupted over the historic scandal of unpaid reparations for the evils of the transatlantic slave trade, in which the monarchy was made incontrovertibly and historically complicit by James II’s founding of the Royal Africa Company. Crowds protesting the Windsors’ visit demanded that these age-old injustices be addressed by a meaningful financial settlement. In Canada, meanwhile, Native American populations voiced similar demands for reparations and justice for their mistreatment under British rule. All these calls were met in the normal way: with silence.
Third, in Britain itself, the Black Lives Matter movement and the dumping of the Colston statue into the harbour in Bristol have forcefully highlighted our history of imperialism, slavery and racism, and as Peter Tatchell reminds us, “The royals are steeped in a history of war, colonialism and slavery. The crown estate derives much of its assets – including properties and some of the crown jewels – from past royal conquest and exploitation.” Moreover, the treatment of Meghan Markle by the Tory press and the establishment has served to increase suspicions about our “white royal family”. Tatchell, a “lifelong republican” and gay rights activist, points out that the Queen has studiously avoided contact with the gay community at any point in her reign – she even failed to visit hospitalised victims of the Soho pub bombings.
Despite the obvious enthusiasm of royalists for the Jubilee, it will be interesting to see if the current political and constitutional crisis, coupled with growing poverty and inflation, leads to a cooling of support among wider sections of the population and further criticism. If, as republicans believe, we are in the ‘end times’ for the Windsor monarchy, then we might expect many of the street parties to be more nuanced in terms of what they are actually celebrating than they were in 1977, if we take account the pace of social change over the intervening decades. Significantly, Liverpool fans first refused to sing the national anthem, then booed Prince William at Wembley stadium, and were applauded for doing so on BBC’s Question Time. As Tony Evans, journalist and Hillsborough campaigner wrote, “the booing is a cry for justice, for equality, a howl against hunger and poverty“.
The group Republic has extensively researched the corrupt nature of the royal family and the financial burden incurred by maintaining the monarchy. Indeed, Ken Ritchie’s Republic-inspired Labour and Republicanism (reviewed in the current print edition of Chartist) has provided further evidence of the substantial financial benefit the British monarchy has derived from both its shameful collusion with the crime of the slave trade and the fruits of Empire. However, the essence of republicanism is the case for democracy. The question of the wealth and behaviours of individual royals is more the province of bourgeois anti-monarchism, which focuses on the details of individual royals and prioritises replacing monarchy with an elected head of state. Republicanism, rather, emphasises the fight to supplant both the monarchy and the Crown’s secretive bureaucracy with democracy ‘from below’ applied consistently. Whereas anti-monarchism exists in a country like the UK, the republican case for democracy is relevant in republics like France or the United States which have extensive, often impenetrable bureaucracies without any monarchy.
Republican socialists recognise that the struggle for democracy against the Crown and monarchy is a class question. A democratic republic serves the interests of the working class as the most democratic class in capitalist society. The more extensive, consistent and pervasive is a democracy, the more revolutionary is the influence of the working class over the state and society. However, working class politics does not limit itself only to democratic, political demands, but instead seeks to establish a ‘democratic and social republic’, with social rights included in the constitution, as suggested in Tony Benn’s Commonwealth Bill.
The centuries-long struggle for democratic republicanism has made a very substantial contribution to our democratic heritage, stretching all the way back to the Putney Debates which followed the English Civil War in 1647. Later on, republican ideas dominated the discourse of opposition to successive repressive governments in the 1790s, particularly during the so-called ‘French Revolution debates‘ of 1789-1795, when scores of radicals – most notably, Paine and Godwin – responded vibrantly to Burke’s 1790 claim for the inherent superiority of the English political settlement and autocracy generally, as a necessary ideological bulwark against Revolutionary France. In the Regency period (1810-20), Shelley, along with other radical luminaries such as William Hone, Richard Carlile and Leigh Hunt, propagated the seditious tenets of republicanism and democracy. These radicals were in turn read by the Chartists.
Crucially, what Shelley and other radicals all identified was the central role played by the Crown, as distinct from that of the monarchy, in the institutional structures of the British state. In his brilliant (unfinished) essay, A Philosophical View of Reform (1819), Shelley singles out the power of the Crown (identified as “Anarchy” in his 1819 poem, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’), not the monarch, as his central target. He notes that one of the primary effects of the constitutional changes enacted between 1688-1707 was to transfer power from the monarch to an oligarchy of the rich, “the name and office of king is merely the mask of this power… An oligarchy of this nature exacts more of suffering from the people because it reigns… by the force which that opinion places within its grasp”. Shelley employs one of his most memorable phrases to describe the function of the king in 1819: “monarchy is only the string which ties the robber’s bundle”.
Today, as in 1819, the power of the Crown remains central to our constitution. But who or what precisely is the Crown now? Recently, we saw a bejewelled crown, far too heavy for our ageing Queen, sitting magnificently on a cushion next to Prince Charles as he read out the Queen’s speech in the House of Lords. Can this golden hat, possessed of no brain to think and no voice to command, be the ruler of the country? Of course not, it is merely a symbol of power, like bank notes and coins, which represents the power of the state. The Crown is state power, a corporate body like a giant multinational corporation, a vast bureaucratic network that owns huge resources and manages millions of public workers. Most importantly, behind its structures stands the Bank of England and the City of London.
Walter Bagehot’s famous account of the English Constitution (1867) divides it in two parts, which he calls “dignified” or “efficient”. The first was to “excite and preserve the reverence of the population”, and the other to use this loyalty and subservience to do the work of governing. Those who watch the performance of the Commons at PMQs will recognise the absurdity, not the “dignity”, of Parliament. Meanwhile, the Crown, that “efficient” part of the constitution, continues to function even when the Queen and Commons are on holiday.
Boris Johnson and the Tories have greatly strengthened the Crown’s powers since 2019. However, the scandals in Downing Street have sapped the trust and confidence of the people. There is a growing perception that Johnson’s government represents a serious threat to our freedom, health and welfare. Therefore, the left urgently needs to ‘unmask’ the power of the Crown by arguing for a radical new democratic agenda. However, accomplishing this task requires addressing its historic failure to make the case for constitutional reform in general and republicanism in particular.
Socialists have treated constitutional politics as at best an afterthought, at worst unworthy of any serious attention. Ignorance of republican ideas and history on the left means socialists risk being ill-prepared not merely to respond to events like the Jubilee, but also to the more dangerous crises of democracy now facing our society and others across the world. The manufacturing of infantile slogans, which Lenin would certainly have condemned, such as “Stuff the Jubilee” and “Bring Out the Guillotine”, in times of constitutional crisis like the present, serve only to point up the lack of any serious republican socialist politics on the left. The Jubilee is a time for the left to critically reconsider its democratic direction.