British republicanism is viewed as worse than an irrelevance in our national discourse. It is perceived as a joyless, spiteful waste of time. The pantomime villain and comic relief spliced together; the po-faced vegan eyeing your Happy Meal like it’s Bernie Madoff; every annoying Facebook friend you ever muted for endlessly sharing 38 Degrees petitions at every hour of the day. Being a republican in the UK today is about as fashionable as campaigning for agricultural reform – and far less important.
Therein lies the difference between the republican movement (if something which hasn’t practically shifted since the Restoration can really be classed as a movement), and more successful mobilisations of collective political energy. Unlike, say, reproductive rights or the European Union, the monarchy affects almost no one personally or structurally enough to merit challenging. It’s this funny, background entity, never important enough to enrage but still galling when paraded around on television as “inspiring” or “a symbol of [insert vague Andrew Marr-ism].”
Most of us who support replacing monarchs with elected heads of state believe so passively, with indoor voices. Were I to Freaky Friday body swap with David Cameron tomorrow and wake up with the arms of majoritarian government at my disposal, constitutional reform would be far down on my list of priorities. Not because I don’t believe in becoming a republic, but because I’m not deluded enough to prioritise it over filling the gaping chasms in bread and butter public policy. Few reasonable-minded people on the left will ever prioritise our distaste for hereditary, unearned position over the need to talk about and reverse the wider-scale death of social mobility in Britain beyond the confines of Buckingham Palace: and rightly so.
Image is where Republic – a pressure group which has existed to advocate ditching unelected monarchs since 1983 – fail to inspire. We hear from them only around celebratory royal occasions, births and jubilees, when the tide of Bank Holiday public opinion is less favourable to these fun sponges than ever. Their organisation is trapped in a reciprocal loop, having to make the most of royal occasions to garner attention, then looking like they begrudge day-old babies, however valid their wider point about government expenditure may be. It’s a shame, really, because they have potentially decent arguments to make that could win over your average, indifferent citizen – sorry, subject.
Reforms grounded in liberalism or “liberal values”, that curiously ill-defined phrase bandied around in many a political speech of late are where republicanism can steadily chip away at the monarchy without a sure-to-lose referendum on Lizzie’s fate. The oath that MPs and MSPs are required to swear “to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors” has been comically outdated for decades. Replacing it with an oath to serve constituents is not an outrageous sell, and has already been backed in the past to no avail by swathes of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. Last week’s Queen’s Speech was a reminder of how bizarre it is that our government compels this ninety year old to turn up annually and read out bullet points written by Number Ten like some expensive puppet. That can go, particularly when her politically outspoken heirs ascend and are required to read out policies they are very publicly known to disagree with. Republic, on their website, detail some interesting and not impractical means of slightly weaning the royal family’s expenses off of the public purse, so that drops in the income to The Crown Estate are not subsidised by the taxpayer in future.
For republicanism to be taken seriously, we need such campaigns to gain traction in the medium term and with loud, intelligently argued support. In the longer term, we need mainstream public figures to be unashamed and open in saying that they don’t think we should retain a head of state bizarrely anointed at birth. To be defensive is to be unconvincing. Republicanism cannot be defined by that depressing Peter Tatchell led protest at the Thames Jubilee pageant, nor by half-wits commenting “LEECH” on any royal news report.
Supporting the abolition of monarchy is not about the royal family. It’s about egalitarianism and – at least symbolically – meritocracy. I’m sure the Queen is a perfectly nice lady. I know in my heart and in my groin that if Prince Harry were just some anonymous guy in the street, I still definitely would. What matters is that our country ought to grow out of this infantilising inferiority complex and cease to anoint babies at birth to “reign over us”. Curiously, the Thatcherite libertarian sorts – who ordinarily argue that nothing is guaranteed in this life and only hard work can secure our futures – rarely seem to agree.
Republicanism needs a stronger image, one rooted more in liberalism than in snide comments about lizard people. An image centred around beliefs in democracy that people aren’t afraid to articulate regardless of where they work and live. People who want to vote for their head of state aren’t the weirdos, the people who buy Princess Diana memorabilia and pin up Prince George calendars – let’s be honest – are. Only if mainstream support for an elected head of state is visible and confident will it ever grow to one day become the norm.