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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