2007 - 2022

Territorial Republicanism

Republicanism has been the dog that hasn’t barked for decades. At this point, it might be better to say that the dog was never picked up from the pet store. The Windsors have weathered many storms that threatened to destroy their reign. The Irish War of Independence, the rise of the Labour movement, the Abdication of Edward VIII, the retreat from Empire, Diana, Harry and Meghan, Andrew. Yet the Queen has soldiered on and now has secured her place in history as the ubiquitous symbol of the modern UK, stiff upper lip in the face of decline and scandal throughout.

Helen Mirren had it right when she said the people of the UK are best described as Queenists rather than Monarchists. The UK began June by celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, the first in the Monarchy’s history and most likely the last. It was in truth, a tribute to the Queen. A recognition that she will not be Queen for much longer. 

In its three-century history, the UK has always been well, the United Kingdom. It is as hard to imagine a republican Britain as it is to imagine a France without wine. The Monarchy is quintessentially a British institution and the British identity is quintessentially Monarchical. 

The Monarchy has drawn strength from its close ties to Britishness. In the time of Empire, of the post-war consensus, it was enough to sustain institution whilst other Monarchies fell to revolution and reform. But now the Empire is gone and the post-war consensus lies dead at our feet. The Monarchy has yet to adapt to the new century as readily as it did the 20th and it is accepted that it faces a rocky few years after Elizabeth passes.

The cause of republicanism is written off by many in the UK left. The Monarchy to many on the Left is like a mole, unappealing to look at but ultimately harmless and even charming in its own way. Many insist that the situation will resolve itself eventually given Charles’s diminished popularity and tendency to meddle in political affairs. 

But it is not certain that the Monarchy will experience a drop in popularity when Charles becomes King. Whilst he has led a far more controversial life and indeed, is more willing to be an ‘interventionist’ King than his mother, he still shares many of her attributes that have sustained the institution’s popularity. A lifetime of service, a willingness to ‘modernise’ and crucially support from leading politicians.

The Left must become serious about republicanism. Appropriate vehicles must be identified. The UK-wide environment is unfortunately not hospitable to republicanism at present. Arguably, the best chance of success that republicanism has in the UK is separatist or devolutionist movements in Scotland and Wales. 

Ultimately there are two methods to abolishing the Monarchy that stem from this territorial path. One is obvious, independence for Scotland and Wales as democratic republics. Such entities would be a hammer blow to the Monarchy, demonstrating that Monarchical power on this island is not unbreakable and not ‘foreign’. 

The second is less obvious. Idiotic as it sounds, it is possible to functionally abolish the Monarchy in Scotland and Wales whilst within the UK, or at least limit its involvement in their affairs. The parliamentary opening ceremonies are not constitutionally required and could, if the political will existed, be forgone. Glasgow City council’s recent decision to not spend money on the Jubilee points the way. Legislatures and councils declining to recognise Royal events is one of the few concrete republican policies that can be followed so long as the UK as a whole sticks with the Monarchy. 

But why should republicans view the Scottish and Welsh independence/devolutionist movements as the vehicles to victory? The answer is a mix of institutional differences from Westminster, a less overtly royalist political environment and the Monarchy’s own ties to a conception of Britishness that has lost much allure in recent years.

Both Scotland and Wales’s legislatures are structurally better positioned to host republican movements than Westminster. Devolution has many flaws but at its core, it has created two Parliaments that are inherently more republican than the unreformed holdover from the medieval period in Westminster. First Ministers are elected by Parliament, not appointed by Monarchs. The Parliaments are wholly made up by elected members, rather than saddled with appointed Lords, Hereditary Peers and Clergymen. Procedure aside, the devolved legislatures are also structurally friendlier to republicanism through their more proportional voting systems, loosening the grip of catch-all parties on the political process, who tend toward supporting the status-quo. 

Both countries are also arguably more hospitable to republicanism in terms of raw politics. In Scotland, the Monarchy has lost its majority, with 39% supporting a republic and 46% supporting the Monarchy in the most recent poll. It seems safe to assume that the rise of the Scottish independence movement has influenced this rise in republican sentiment. This is perhaps reflected in the aforementioned ministerial status obtained by the republican Scottish Greens. In Wales the figure is roughly the same at the UK, with 28% republican in the last poll. Its inclusion must therefore seem odd compared to Scotland. However, as previously illustrated the Monarchy is a fundamentally British institution. With support for independence having risen and the Welsh government becoming more assertive under a nationalist Welsh Labour Party, the conditions for a surge in Welsh republicanism are present, similar to Scotland. Indeed, Wales has a popular republican First Minister in the form of Mark Drakeford; his republicanism is clearly not electorally toxic. 

The Monarchy’s achievement in making itself a lynchpin of Anglo-British nationalism is impressive and has served it well in the modern era. It makes openly supporting republicanism a difficult position, as countless English republican politicians have found. Ultimately, the Monarchy is intertwined so tightly with the British state that the most viable political vehicles for challenging it are those that challenge the authority or even existence of the British state. In the fight for a republic, territorial republicanism is the best way forward and offers the best chance of success.

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  1. 220618 says:

    There’s ‘republicanism’ and there’s ‘republicanism’. Nowadays, it’s popularly used to denote the view that we shouldn’t have a hereditary head of state (the persona who officially embodies a state in its unity and legitimacy) but should have an elected one instead.

    However, it can also denote the older view that the affairs of state should be considered a public matter (res publica) and not just the private concern of its rulers. In this sense, the UK already is a republican state insofar as the affairs of state in that kingdom are considered and treated as a public matter (though, often, not very well considered and treated as such).

    Personally, I don’t care whether the head of state is an elected or a hereditary cipher and consider the whole debate around this to be a bit of a distraction. For me, the salient point is that the head of state is a cipher, and the salient concern is for whom the head of state serves a cipher. The UK could very well have an elected ‘crown’ or head of state – a president if you will – but that elected head of state could still be a cipher for some private interest rather than the public interest.

    Maybe, as republicans, we should be looking beyond the cipher to see what interests it represents and ‘publicising’ those interests, rather than wasting our time participating in the ‘royalist/anti-royalist’ soap opera that passes for republicanism today.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      While I am in agreement with much of that, I think it is important that the head of state is a ‘normal person’ who is elected for a fixed period to perform the ceremonial duties of the state. Part of the mesmerising effect of ‘The Monarchy’ is that it is not transparent and has an aura which seems to strike an emotional chord in many and an acceptance that the Monarchy are NOT like us and hence have some magical powers which are not for the likes of us. It is what Tom Nairn described as ‘The Enchanted Glass’. That kind of thing was much stronger in my parents’ generation who lived through the war, but, it was not as strong as the media, even now continue to present as we saw with the cringe-making Jubilee ‘celebrations’ in England mainly.

      So, we need to demythologise and demystify the role of head of state. So, part of my republicanism is

      1. 220618 says:

        I doubt that a ‘normal’ person could supply the function of a persona in the way that a monarch or a president does. Surely that role requires an aura of extraordinariness. The function of state ceremonial is, after all, to elevate or mythologise the state through its theatre, and the performance of the head of state is as key to the working of its magic as the priest is to that of a Mass. I’m not sure a ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ person could carry it off.

        1. “I doubt that a ‘normal’ person could supply the function of a persona in the way that a monarch or a president does.”

          Isn’t that exactly what happens in most states? This is pure exceptionalism.

          1. 220619 says:

            No; the head of state is everywhere elevated (and fêted) above the mundane. That’s just the function of the ceremonial; to elevate and fête the state in the person of its titular head. The very point of the role is to enable a tribe to assert publicly its own exceptional and extraordinary, ‘gifted’ nature; it’s ‘majesty’. Joe Bloggs just wouldn’t cut it in that role; he’s too ordinary.

            I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing; I’m just making an anthropological observation.

        2. SleepingDog says:

          @Lord Parakeet the Cacophonist, you may want your priest to give you a warm, fuzzy feeling — perhaps as a reactionary Tory theology-lover you have never seen a hierarchy you weren’t turned on by — but your depraved tastes are not shared by the many victims of the horrendous abuses of power enjoyed by the holders of these elevated and dreadfully under-accountable positions.

          1. 220619 says:

            Indeed, many societies have used (and continue to use) the ceremonial assertion of their exceptionalism to maintain and justify their domination and exploitation of others. But why do you think I approve of this?

            All colonisation and hegemony is to be resisted and subverted. Replacing hereditary heads of states with elected ones (faux republicanism) does nothing towards breaking the hegemony of capitalism and its culture.

          2. SleepingDog says:

            @Lord Parakeet the Cacophonist, the Roman Republic elected its Consuls, two at a time I believe, which was the highest office (before Emperors ended the Republic model).

            But a cartoon mascot would be a much better bet anyway, not least because it wouldn’t be able to commit any embarrassing crimes and misdemeanours or harbour vices or unsavoury associates/offspring. And have the not inconsiderable advantage of being able to be in multiple places at once, in various media, working globally 24/7 without rest, illness or spells in prison. I don’t think you’d need to go far to find a relevant example.

            Talk about blowback. The Queen really shot herself in the foot by appearing (and getting royally shown up by) Paddington Bear. Maybe the English will adopt him as their national mascot, much cheaper into the bargain even if they have to pay millions for the rights. Heck, even metaverse-capable.

          3. 220619 says:

            Yep, the Consules was a kind of dual presidency that assumed the regal (or ‘ruling’) power that had once been exercised by the Etruscan kings, who had ruled over the public affairs (or ‘res publica’) of Rome before it became an independent city-state. The candidates for consulship were nominated from among the magistrates by the patricians in the senate and elected by the plebeians in their citizen assemblies. The two elected magistrates held the consulship for one year, and each had power of veto over the other’s decisions (though in times of war or other states of emergency, the duo were temporarily replaced by a single dictator). They commanded the army, convened and presided over the senate and the citizen assemblies and acted as their chief executives in executing their decisions, represented the city in foreign affairs, and enjoyed special prerogatives or rights in relation to matters of administration and the criminal law. When their terms expired, consuls were rewarded with provincial governorships.

            I suppose we too could replace the monarchy with a dual presidency in the governance of our res publica, just like the Romans did; and we might even elect Oor Wullie and Paw Broon or some other pair of cartoon mascots as our head of state. But I fail to see how that would make any substantive difference to the whole matrix of formal and social relations through which power is exercised in Scotland. It’s the establishment itself that’s the problem, not who or what heads it.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    The monarchy is the preferred mechanism that allows the British Empire to get away with murder. Soldiering in with impunity, one might say. The republican lead is being taken in the imperial periphery. Teaching an accurate history of Empire would also do the job here.

    But the death-blow to the British monarchy might come in the aftermath of a revolution deposing one of its royal allies, and the subsequent revelations that may follow. https://declassifieduk.org/britain-rules-oman-says-regime-insider-who-wants-her-son-back/ (Interesting claim about Lord ‘ethics’ Geidt there)

    It would be nice to think that strong republican challenges will come from Scottish and Welsh independence movements, but the most trenchant critiques of British monarchy I am hearing come from the Caribbean. A full exposure of the Queen’s coup against an elected Australian government, or any particular assassinations or crimes against humanity by MI6 could also be terminally destabilising for the monarchy.

    Events, though (and the desecretisation pipeline). When the aging Pope turns up in Canada to apologise for the hideous systematic abuses inflicted on indigeneous children in Catholic-run residential state schools, many might be wondering why the Queen doesn’t turn up to do the same. Just one single piece of evidence revealing the Queen’s indifference could damn the monarchy in Britain forever.

    1. “It would be nice to think that strong republican challenges will come from Scottish and Welsh independence movements, but the most trenchant critiques of British monarchy I am hearing come from the Caribbean.”

      Having string republican movements in the former Commonwealth countries does not in any way prevent them emerging in Scotland and Wales. I think the reality of Australia emerging as a contender may also be inspiring, particularly for the strong Scots-Australian connections.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Editor, well, I am hopeful that the one will act as a spur to the other. Whether English, Welsh etc schools adopt a Corbyn/Thornberry approach to telling about the Empire as it was, or a more global history curriculum as proposed by the UN, or whether scholarship models like Atlantic History make teaching a nationalistic imperial history a lost cause, I don’t see the British Empire and its hereditary monarchy retaining its lustre much longer. They have their friends, but these tend to be mirror images. Brexit might have been partly conceived as an attempt to prolong it. I suspect that there were EU moves designed to pressure the UK into accepting constitutional changes to remain qualified as a ‘democracy’, for various reasons, that we the public don’t know about. I suspect the UK royal prerogative is not just ideological completely at odds with the EU’s joint foreign and security policy public mission statement, but the everyday application of diplomacy too:
        “The EU’s joint foreign and security policy, designed to resolve conflicts and foster international understanding, is based on diplomacy and respect for international rules. Trade, humanitarian aid, and development cooperation also play an important role in the EU’s international role.”
        https://european-union.europa.eu/priorities-and-actions/actions-topic/foreign-and-security-policy_en
        There have been numerous jarring notes of discordancy during the past few years. Of course, the Queen appoints a great swathe of senior diplomats, generals and her family run their own private diplomacy for their own interests. And the UK has lost court cases where it was defending its colonial claims. But the UK would have to leave more than the EU to escape challenges to its royal-prerogative-based immunity-expansion schemes.

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