Labour, republicanism and the Commonwealth of Britain Bill

Republican Socialist Alliance seminar February 22nd 2014

Demonised in life, patronized in death, such is the fate of Tony Benn whose death on 14th March prompted a out-pouring of faint and just praise from across the political spectrum. Solidarity, equality and internationalism were all central motives in his work. Less remarked upon was his commitment to democracy, which shines through in his speeches, books and diaries, particularly Arguments for Democracy and Arguments for Socialism.

Benn fought until the end of his life for a more active, democratic and inclusive society: for economic democracy in the workplace and well as political democracy in the state. He was a consistent opponent of class privilege and of class itself. His renunciation of his hereditary peerage as Lord Stansgate was the beginning of a remarkable journey of over 50 years in the House of Commons and another 13 speaking at stump and stadium throughout Britain. Having successfully re-fought his Bristol seat in the early 1960s he campaigned tirelessly for an end to the House of Lords and equally significantly the monarchy with its associated trappings of wealth, secrecy, unaccountable power and influence.

As Postmaster General in the 1964-70 Wilson government he sought but failed to remove the queen’s head from postage stamps. For him the crown was a symbol of the unfinished democratic revolution begun by the Levellers and Chartists. One of his last but again unsuccessful acts in Parliament was to compose and champion a Commonwealth of Britain Bill. As the Tory led Coalition in the shape of the Attorney General fights hard in the courts to keep secret the letters of Prince Charles to Labour Government ministers intended to influence and subvert policy, Mike Davis reminds us of Benn’s Bill to abolish the British monarchy and traces the history of the Labour Party’s record to remove Britain of its ‘enchanted glass’ which holds so many in its thrall. The article is adapted from a paper given at a Republican Socialist Alliance seminar in February 2014.

‘The life of one Welsh miner is of greater commercial and moral value to the British nation than the whole Royal crowd put together, from the Royal Great-grand-mama to the pulling Great grand-child.’

This was Keir Hardie, first leader of the Labour Party, speaking in the House of Commons in 1894. He was objecting to the lavish celebrations on the birth of the future Edward VIII and the complete absence of any acknowledgement of the deaths of 251 Welsh miners in a terrible mining accident in south Wales that same day. For Hardie’s efforts he was howled down.

He remained a republican, exposing financial links between Cecil Rhodes South African mining enterprises &  King Edward VII,  his and other Labour MPs 1907 denunciation of the King’s meeting with the hated |Czar of Russia in the Baltic, which Hardie said virtually condoned the atrocities of the czarist regime in Russia, attacking the kings privileged and debauched life-style and opposition to the First World War as imperialist—until his death in 1915.

The Labour Party under Ramsay Macdonald and subsequent leaders (apart from George Lansbury) failed to embrace Hardie’s socialist republicanism. Although there has always been a strain of republicanism running through the party, it has never managed to advocate an official policy of republicism in its history, even at it ‘socialist’ highpoint in 1945.

The only time Labour Party conference has ever discussed abolition of the monarchy was in 1923. The delegate from Stockton and Thornaby Labour Party moved a resolution that ‘the Royal Family is no longer necessary as part of the British constitution and the Labour Party is asked to state definitely is view on the matter’. It was seconded by a delegate from Shoreditch Trades Council who called the monarchy ‘an anachronism’. The vote was lost by 3,694,000 to 386,000. Even George Lansbury opposed saying ‘what is the use of bothering about that just now.’

In 1908 Keir Hardie was banned from Edward VII’s royal garden party. The Labour Party lobbied for his reinstatement—he never attended. But ever since Labour leaders have been on the guest list. Harold Wilson apparently carried a picture of Elizabeth II in his wallet until it disintegrated, Callaghan was even more enthusiastic and Blair popped up during the time of Princess Diana’s death to help restore confidence during the Annus Horribilis.

There have been maverick republican MPs including the anti-communist Willie Hamilton (he ended Communist Fyfe MP William Gallagher’s 15 year tenure in parliament) who opposed the Royal Levy and payments for jubilees from the public purse.

And of course Tony Benn…the ex Lord Stansgate who renounced his peerage. Benn was the Labour Party’s longest serving MP ever, from 1950 to 2001, when he decided not to stand again and devote ‘more time to politics’.

The Commonwealth of Britain Bill 1991

In essence the Bill proposes a democratic, secular, federal Commonwealth comprising the nations of England, Scotland and Wales dedicated to the maintenance of the welfare of its citizens. For any Bill to be debated in Parliament requires the ‘Royal Assent’. Ironically in this case, it was granted on 25th June 1991.

It has been moved several times between that date and 2001 but has never got to a Second Reading.

What does the Bill propose?

  1. The constitutional status of the Crown is ended
  2. The Church of England is disestablished
  3. The Head of State is to be the President elected by a joint sitting of both houses of the Commonwealth Parliament
  4. The functions of the Royal Prerogative are transferred to Parliament
  5. The Privy Council is abolished and replaced by a Council of State
  6. the House of Lords to be replaced by an elected House of the People with equal representation of men and women
  7. The House of Commons to have equal male/female representation
  8. England, Scotland and Wales to have their own parliaments
  9. County court judges and magistrates to be elected
  10. British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland to be ended

Some points examined

Basic principles informed the Bill. Namely that whatever ideology is embraced by the ruling party or parties, human rights must be respected: freedom of speech, assembly & association, religious faith, the right to vote, right to privacy, freedom from surveillance and freedom of information.

Secondly, that all power should be accountable, all political power should be democratically elected.

Ending the monarchy—the Queen would have no legal status and would become a private citizen. The ex-monarch and all family would work and pay taxes as in most European states. Family parties, births and deaths would be paid for from their own pockets. Equally the monarchy would be freed from the burden of state duties.

Disestablishment of Church of England—since no religion, or any branch of Christianity would be favoured. The absurdity of Cof E bishops being appointed by Parliament would end. The Church would be free to select their own hierarchy. Changes to the prayer book and the reading of daily prayers in the House of Commons would be terminated. These matters would be restored to the Church.  The state would be separate from religion.  This is a huge anachronism today given that the Cof E is a minority religion in the population as a whole.

Royal Prerogative—Since William the Conqueror in 1066 who vowed to ‘rule over the whole people subject to me’ this has been the situation. The nationalization of the Church of England was effected by Royal Prerogative under Henry VIII and the Royal Mail was similarly established in 1660 by Charles II.

These powers were ended by the Commonwealth of 1649-60, reinstated and then modified by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when parliament allegedly invited William and Mary to replace James II. These powers remain immense in scope and supercede many of the powers of the elected Commons. The Crown can dissolve parliament and ask any individual to form a government. Thatcher invoked this power to go to war in the Falklands and the first Gulf War. The last time the Royal Prerogative was used to dismiss a government was that of Gough Whitlam’s Labour administration in Australia in 1975.

Under the Bill prerogative powers would be transferred to parliament so statute law would be substituted for the arbitrary administrative acts of the Queen’s first minister.

All the rights and duties of the British people stem from the powers of the Crown. The legal authority of the state, residing in the monarchy, would go. Currently judges owe allegiance to the Crown not parliament. The courts would no longer be Crown versus but ‘The people’ or ‘parliament’ versus…

The executive powers of the state – to sign treaties, to make state appointments, to go to war, currently do not derive from a democratic constitution, but are Crown prerogatives. These would revert to Parliament.

Privy Council. There has been much talk recently in relation to hacking and a media watchdog. Proposal for a Royal Charter under the Privy Council have been proposed…This is a secretive body that appears moribund but could govern by Orders in Council. Benn’s Bill proposes a new body accountable to Parliament and the abolition of privy councilors. (Ironically, he was one himself).

Equal representation—this idea stems from the low numbers of women represented in Parliament. The idea would be to have larger constituencies with one male and one female representative. Each elector would have two votes. This would end the need for quotas, women only shortlists and other organizational methods to improve women’s representation.

Other features of the Bill

The vote would also be extended to everyone over the age of 16 (on the grounds that 16 year  olds can work and pay taxes, get married, join the armed forces).

Each Parliament would run for a fixed four year term. Voting would be by residence qualification.

Oaths—all oaths of allegiance to the Crown would be removed and replaced by a single oath to uphold the constitution. It would be taken by all in authority from the Prime Minister, the President to magistrates, judges, officers and civil servants. Charles Braudlaugh successfully fought over many years for MPs not to have to swear a religious oath. This change would complete the democratic process.

Ending patronage—all personal titles and ranks would cease. Those elected to the House of the People would replace all titles.

The Referendum—should the Bill be successfully presented & passed, popular consent would be needed. This would be achieved through a referendum which would include choice of voting system. Benn argued that the practical and moral reasons for demanding greater democracy, that no system of government can hope to survive over a long period without a high and continuing degree of consent. He used the example of  the collapse of the Soviet communist system in 1991 and argued that the centralization of capitalism, its power and wealth is leading to a similar lack of consent. ‘Without consent public hostility grows until the system collapses or is overthrown. We have seen this phenomena in Egypt and Ukraine today. Consent also enables the people to dismiss government without bloodshed.

Adapted from Tony Benn & Andrew Hood, Common Sense- a new constitution for Britain.

More recently there has been a lively debate on LabourList around republicanism. Mark Ferguson has proposed the concept of ‘reasonable republicanism’ because ‘the existence of the monarchy is the settled will of the British people’. He argues that the Royal Prerogative should be formalized as a power of parliament separate from the Crown; that state subsidies to the Crown should be phased out and the monarchy should become more self-sufficient.

A Fabian review was undertaken in 2003 under the Chair of Kenneth Morgan. Abolition of the monarchy was not part of the remit. A Fabian pamphlet by Paul Richards was published in 2001 which made a more robust case for ending the monarchy.

Rights and the constitution have been a weak flank of the socialist left. There has been a tendency to concentrate on the economic and social to the exclusion or diminishing of political and institutional. Hence in part, the failure to challenge capitalist structures and methods of running the nationalized industries and to interrogate the deeper recesses of power and control in British society. But issues of political process, democracy and rights should be seen as equally important in the programmatic activity of socialists. Chartist will seek to  continue and extend the campaign for the unfinished democratic revolution in Britain and urges all good socialists and democrats to take up the fight as the best way to mark Tony Benn’s legacy.


  1. Brilliant article, thank you very much for the information! Britain can take the lead in finalizing democratic revolution for a whole array of undemocratic monarchies across Europe.
    One simple thought: what would happen with the properties of the Monarchy? I think they should be put in use for public good…or perhaps made as orphanages or rehabilitation institutions for disadvantaged.

  2. Good idea Sheila. Some like Windsor Castle, Sandringham, Balmoral (there are plenty) should become part of the National Trust. But health centres and children’s homes is another use for many of the buildings. There is also an enormous amount of land ‘owned’ (more like stolen from the people) which could be used either for pubic roaming (again via National Trust) or social housing…Let’s get these ideas up Labour’s agenda…they are nowhere at present.

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