Goodbye to the monarchy?
On a chilly evening in the gardens next to Westminster Palace, about 20 anti-monarchist activists are gathered with placards saying, ‘No taxpayer funding for the royal wedding.’ Two members of parliament soon join them – they’re receiving a petition from members of Republic, the leading pressure group for the abolition of Britain’s monarchy. The petition is against government funding for tomorrow’s wedding between Prince Harry and his American bride-to-be Meghan Markle.
One of two MPs here, Emma Dent Coad from the Labour Party (who will count the royal couple among her constituents when they move into their Kensington residence), is among only a handful of outspoken republicans in parliament. The other MP, Tommy Shepherd, is from the Scottish National Party. As they pose for a photo, a member of the public who’s spotted the placards yells: ‘Yeah, they should pay for it! Too fucking right!’
‘No public money should go into funding anyone’s wedding let alone people that can afford to pay for it themselves, right?’ says Republic member Clovis Taylor. ‘It’s utterly repugnant in this day and age when we’ve got so many people going without that we’re celebrating a royal wedding, and we’re having to pay for it.’ The royals are, in fact, footing the bill for the wedding but the taxpayer will pay millions of pounds in policing and security.
Despite their historic popularity, British interest in the royal family may be waning. More than two thirds say they aren’t bothered about Harry and Meghan’s big day, and there’s expected to be a big drop in the number of street parties held compared to the last royal wedding, when Harry’s brother Prince William married Kate Middleton. There are political shifts, too. For the first time since the 1930s, the leader of one of the UK’s two main parties is a republican, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. And then there’s the fact that the Queen is 92 and her son, Charles, is deeply unpopular. Is the end of the British monarchy in sight?
‘People are now beginning to think, “Well hold on, why are we subjects? Why aren’t we citizens?’
Anti-monarchists tend to be regarded with bemusement by Brits, 70 per cent of whom still support the continuation of the monarchy. They’re imagined to be colourful, harmless radicals chanting protest songs, much like the hundreds who gathered for a Not The Royal Wedding Party in London in 2011 when William (second in line to the throne) got hitched. Organized by Republic, the event featured a pretend Queen in stocks. Activists, who were not from Republic, also planned a mock execution on the day, but the executioners were arrested.
At the time, even sympathetic attendees ridiculed Republic’s party. ‘It was pretty pathetic,’ remembers one. ‘If it wasn’t for the banners around the square and the odd bit of cosplay, it would have been indistinguishable from any number of street parties happening across London.’ In contrast to that day’s republican rabble, two billion people tuned in worldwide to watch William and Kate say their vows.
Since 2011, Republic has changed strategy. There will be no ironic street party this time. Instead, the organization is holding the Republic International Convention in a grand Grade II-listed building in central London. Campaigners from countries across Europe that still have monarchies including Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Spain will be present along with activists from the Commonwealth: former British colonies which, in many cases, still count the Queen as head of state. There will be discussion panels, speeches and revelations from a professor about the Queen’s interference in Australian government in the 1970s. Republic is getting serious.
‘We felt it was time to do something a bit different and take the opportunity to talk about what we want to achieve, rather than focus too much on the wedding itself,’ says Graham Smith, Republic’s chief executive. For most people, the royal wedding is nothing more than light-hearted entertainment and celebrity-watching, he adds: ‘But the polling is quite clear: people are not that interested and they don’t want to pay for it.’
Republic has had modest success in changing minds. From being an organization that ‘basically wasn’t there’ 15 years ago, it now has around 5,000 members and 40,000 supporters. ‘We’re finding it much easier than we used to… We’re definitely going to grow in the next few years and we’re very optimistic about the future,’ says Smith.
As Republic grows, it may find the political winds favouring its direction. As a backbencher, Corbyn was involved with several republican campaigns, and, in 2001, he said in an interview that when the Queen completes her reign Britain should move to an elected head of state. Since his shock win of the Labour leadership in 2015, the proud socialist has tried to avoid questions about the monarchy.
Corbyn has nevertheless been accused of failing to bow to the Queen and for not singing ‘God Save The Queen’, at official ceremonies. The rightwing press loves to portray his anti-royal views as that of a fringe radical. But this ‘fringe’ position could soon be in the seat of power. The minority Conservative government is at risk of falling amid tricky Brexit negotiations, and Labour is neck-and-neck with them in the polls.
Labour’s base – revitalized under Corbyn, with now more than half a million members – is also stirring over the issue. Labour MP and Corbyn ally Chris Williamson, an avowed republican who used to be on the front bench, points out that a ‘new political awakening’ among younger people joining the party has led to greater interest in Labour over constitutional issues such as the monarchy.
‘People are now beginning to think, “Well hold on, why are we subjects? Why aren’t we citizens?” .... It is a burgeoning movement. It’s certainly not mainstream yet,’ Williamson says. ‘But I think a lot of people are starting to think through these issues, more than they did in the past.’
Professor Antony Taylor from Sheffield Hallam University, whose areas of expertise include republicanism and anti-monarchism, points out that Labour governments have always ended up omitting the issue of monarchy. Despite the party’s republican roots dating back to its founding at the turn of the 20th century, Labour did all the things expected of it – wearing court dress, and meeting the king – once it got in government for the first time in the 1920s: ‘It was always said of Labour that once in power, it gets sucked into the establishment and all the radical stuff they say in opposition tends to go out the window,’ says Taylor.
Corbyn is a classic example of this, in Taylor’s view: ‘I mean here’s someone who’s republican, who we know is republican, yet he meets the Queen, and what do they talk about? Gardening.’ Corbyn himself claimed to have had a ‘very nice chat with the Queen’, and pointed out to critics of his republicanism before the last election that there was nothing in the Labour manifesto about the monarchy.
Part of the reason Corbyn is biting his tongue is that the monarchy remains ostensibly popular. Through extensive charity work and a well-oiled public relations machine, the royals have branded themselves as a people’s monarchy. The only time in recent history that their popularity really faltered was after the death of Princess Diana, when the Queen seemed to misjudge the public mood. As Taylor says, ‘The monarchy is very good at reinventing itself, of digging itself out of holes.’ As a result, support for a republic has hardly ever risen above 20 per cent.
‘The real reason for that is that we are already a republic,’ says Dr Bob Morris from The Constitution Unit at University College London, who in 2016 headed a series of papers on the future of the monarchy. ‘We happen to have a hereditary head of state, but Britain is a republic in all other senses.’
The rightwing press loves to portray Corbyn's anti-royal views as that of a fringe radical. But this ‘fringe’ position could soon be in the seat of power
With very little remaining power, the UK’s monarchy has been reduced almost entirely to a ceremonial role. One of the last powers the Queen had – of authorizing or rejecting the dissolution of parliament – was removed in 2011. According to Morris, the ‘absence of discontinuity’ in the UK has meant the transition of powers from the monarchy to parliament has been a long process of evolution rather than revolution.
Taylor thinks a less obvious threat to the monarchy could come from the Commonwealth. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said recently that she expected to see her country ditch the monarchy in her lifetime. In a referendum in 1999, Australians voted to keep the Queen as head of state but there is big support for another referendum – with a recent poll suggesting Australians are not keen on the prospect of King Charles.
The thing most likely to stir British anti-monarchism, though, is money. In a recent survey commissioned by Republic, 76 per cent said they did not want any of their taxes being used to pay for Harry and Meghan’s wedding. While the royals are footing the bill for the wedding themselves, security and policing is being paid for from the public purse. It’s the petition against this that Labour MP Emma Dent Coad handed into parliament for consideration.
‘A lot of people in the country are on their knees, struggling to put food on the table for their children, and £30 million is being spent just on security? I find that really, really shocking,’ says Dent Coad. ‘I have no problem with the royal family as people,’ she adds. ‘But a system whereby they’re supported by taxpayers – I find that unconscionable, especially when we have people literally starving. Even in Kensington, where our fourth food bank is about to open.’
Dent Coad is one of the few politicians to oppose the monarchy publicly. Whenever she does so, attacks on social media and in the press follow – she says she has received hundreds of death threats. But Dent Coad is determined not to be cowed: ‘There are all these silent republicans out there who won’t speak out, and I’m going to call on them to do so because we should have a proper debate about it,’ she says. ‘I want people to feel free to come out and speak, rather than be afraid.’
With additional reporting by Ronan J O'Shea: @row_nan
Update 21.05.2018: a clarification has been made to reflect the fact that the planned mock execution, from the 2011 Not The Royal Wedding party, was not organized by Republic.
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