In recent times republicanism in the UK has presented itself to the public consciousness as a negative concept, defined by opposition and protest rather than a vision of what it represents. This is understandable since the central core of republicanism has largely been the pursuit of an anti-monarchy agenda. Similarly, wider concerns have often been characterised by an oppositional stance, abolition of the House of Lords for example, or the disestablishment of the Church of England and the removal of Archbishops (Lords Spiritual) from the Upper Chamber. Like my fellow republicans I too am highly critical of the outdated unearned privilege the Royals enjoy, in part because it is much easier to say what you oppose than clearly defining what it is that you want. The problem with this approach is that it is limited and ultimately doomed to failure. If people are going to identify with a position they must be able to ‘buy into’ an idea. We can see this elsewhere in society but most clearly in the commercial world; Samsung will attempt to sell their phones by promoting price, features, functions or quality and only obliquely refer to the competition, stopping well short of saying their competitors are rubbish. Now in the post-Brexit mess in which we find ourselves, understandably worrying to so many of our fellow citizens, UK republicans must present a positive statement of the case; we must sell them a positive vision.
History shows that an anti-monarchy message alone is insufficient
Historically the advance of republicanism has been associated with campaigns with wider currency. For example. at the high water mark of English Republicanism in the mid-seventeenth century the calls for a republic were the natural outgrowth of a campaign for the establishment of civil liberties and religious tolerance. Likewise in a second wave of republicanism in the nineteenth century, it was associated very closely with Chartism and the campaign for greater participation in political decision making, relief of grinding poverty and the promotion of workers rights. Similarly, today republicanism is a natural corollary to many other demands which cut across party political lines (see my not just a leftist concern) and the abolition of hereditary and many other sorts of unearned privilege can be presented as an inevitable consequence of a new vision which chimes with the aspirations of young people in particular.
Promoting positive visions of Republicanism
So what are the positive message which we can promote as republicans. There are many, but here are just a few ideas. Starting with the more narrowly focussed campaign for a change to our head of state, in some cases they are the mirror images of campaigns already mounted by the Republiccampaign group. For example the campaign to end royal secrets leads more widely for a call for far greater openness in Government in general. Republicans should overtly campaign for such a policy. On the other other hand, I know from personal experience in street and event level campaigning that the #bornEqual campaign cut through with the public and this can be followed up with similar positive visions of a republic which places the promotion of the common good as a central facet. Likewise the interconnection of individual freedom and civic participation is of overwhelming importance following a referendum campaign dominated by a few high profile individuals peddling misinformation and outright lies.
As Republicans we must make every effort to present the positive case. The UK is passing through a tumultuous time and it is possible that as a consequence, greater intolerance and loss of liberty may be the long term outcome. We have a message of an open and tolerant society which WILL resonate with many fellow Britons. Over the next few weeks and months in my blog I will develop further how republican ideas can be positively promoted.
On the face of it the Tesco Superstore in Consett, Co. Durham is not the most obvious place to gain insight into the EU referendum debate. On the other hand, it is as good a place as any (including Westminster and Whitehall), which gets to the heart of the problem. I popped into this particular store a couple of week ago while paying a visit to the area and while queuing to check out, overheard a young man operating an adjacent till enthusiastically explaining to his paying customers why he was voting to leave. It was, he confidently asserted, all about sovereignty, about taking back control. This set me thinking about the multi-facetted layer of the debate and the way in which ‘taking back control’ has eclipsed the Remain campaign’s point about protecting the rights of part-time and low-paid workers.
‘Taking Back Control’ – to Where?
The deliberate conflation of sovereignty with taking back control is only possible due to the depressing lack of understanding amongst many people of even the rudiments of the British constitution. The intention of the Leave campaign is to give the illusion that somehow we are all in control, an illusion of popular sovereignty fostered by the holding of the referendum itself (Ben Wellings and Emma Vines have pointed to this irony). Theoretically, sovereignty the UK is exercised by Parliament with the role of the people limited to choosing their representatives to exercise this sovereignty. Under normal circumstances the young man at the Tesco checkout would have very little power unless he got himself elected, or elevated to the peerage, and even then his power would be limited. But even those who proclaim the supposed sovereignty of Parliament are being misleading and in fact the UK has a long history of internally sharing sovereignty. As a prime example, the Scottish legal system operates on a completely different set of assumptions to the system in England and Wales. In modern terms the Parliaments and devolved assemblies of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all share some of the Sovereignty of Parliament along with the English judiciary (through the system of common law). The official website provides more information on the number of ways in which it actually shares sovereignty with other sources of UK power. For a more complete account of the background to shared sovereignty, David Allen Green has written this excellent post.
So far I have considered the UK in isolation. But we are signatory to approximately 700 or so international treaties, each of which involves a sharing of sovereignty to a greater or lesser degree. Three of the most prominent agreements of course are the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) United Nations (UN) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It could be argued that as the UK parliament could withdraw from any international treaty then it still exercises ultimate sovereignty. But turning us into a kind of North Korea is not what the Leave campaign advocates. In fact it positively encourages us to be outward looking and even lauds the Commonwealth, which is in itself an expression of shared sovereignty! So the concept of sovereignty is a complex issue with many layers and a troubled history. David Nowell Smith gives further details of just how slippery is the concept of sovereignty.
Who Would Exercise this ‘Control’?
While acknowledging just how complex the concept of sovereignty can be, it is possible to address some issues surrounding the wielding of power in the UK. Behind the deliberate conflating of sovereignty with ‘taking back control’ is the implicit assumption of an increase in individual liberty. We have already noted that our checkout person will have almost no more effective power if we leave the EU than if we remain. One example will suffice to illustrate this important point. Many Leave campaigners talking about control are actually alluding to one aspect, immigration. The argument is that withdrawing from the EU will necessarily drastically slow immigration leading to both higher wages and more resources for all of us in terms of public services. But this is a deception. With sovereignty resting with Parliament and government being elected on a minority of the voters (the current one by only 37%, 24% if you include non-voters) there is no reason why a right wing government could not skew immigration to provide a constant flow of workers into just those industries to keep wages suppressed. Likewise there is no guarantee that more will be spent on public services, austerity may well continue and services privatised. Don’t forget, the Government has been stocking the Lords with wealthy businessmen interested in making as much money as possible.
It is a frequently held view that, in the UK at least, Republicanism is a concern of socialists and communists. ‘You’re just a bunch of ‘loony lefties’ is an occasional accusation, though I’m never sure whether the accuser is claiming that all ‘lefties’ are ‘loony’ or that only some ‘lefties’ are ‘loony’! Setting that aside, is the accusation correct?
Republicanism Predates Modern Political Notions of Left and Right
A brief look at the roots of modern Republicanism reveals that this cannot be the case. Influential early Republican thinkers such as Macchiavelli and his colleagues in Renaissance Florence lived during the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries well before the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’ were conceived. Later, during the English Civil War of the 1640s many of the Parliamentary forces which opposed the king, Charles Stuart, were led by aristocrats such as the Earls of Manchester and Essex who had no interest whatsoever in sharing either their lands or wealth very widely. Similarly, the aristocrats were joined by the wealthy traders and merchants who viewed the fact that the King possessed the rights to extensive natural resources such as minerals as an obstacle to the development of free trade. Interestingly the modern-day rivalry between the north-east cities of Newcastle and Sunderland dates to this era when miners of the Tyne were given the coal trading franchise by the King at the expense of their Wearside competitors. So at the outbreak of the Civil War, Newcastle was a Royalist stronghold and Sunderland fought for Parliament. It has been argued by CB MacPherson and others that the emergence of Britain as a modern free enterprise mercantile nation could not have occurred without a successful opposition to the monarchy. This was reinforced by the fact that the King claimed the power to raise taxes under certain circumstances independently of Parliament, such as for purposes of warfare.
I have never held a gun, let alone fired one. I share this with the vast majority of British people, lucky to be born in the second half of the 20th Century when being sent to war in a mass army was a thing of the past. At the same time I am no idealistic dreamer and am fully aware that we live in a world full of dangers (albeit some of which we create!), appreciating that there are men and women who make sacrifices for our country. Because I have never been in the forces I cannot fully understand the life of a serviceman/woman, but I am quite capable of questioning the motives of a British establishment which commits them to action. In particular there is a serious issue with a royal family which treats the armed forces both as a mean of personal glorification and a job creation scheme.
One of the inspirational aspects of the past few months for me has been meeting members of the Veterans for Peace movement (I particularly valued their presence at Levellers Day and Gus Hales has written a personal account). A number of my recent blogs (here for example) have involved the way contemporary monarchy encourages many people in Britain to uncritically accept it as part of their identity. For servicemen and women the pressure must be overwhelming with the taking of the oath of loyalty and the justification of fighting for King/Queen and Country. To mentally reject that identity and question whether military power is in the interests of the British people themselves takes real will power.
While limiting the problem of the glorification of war to the monarchy risks missing a large part of the story, it is still a good place to start. The fact that for three or four hundred years following the Norman Conquest English monarchs were in reality successful warlords means that monarchy and militarism were interlinked from the start. Although by the eighteenth century the time was long past when a king personally led an army, monarchs lost none of their zeal for sending troops into battle for power and glory. For example in 1781 when it was patently clear to politicians that the war in North America was lost and British troops should be withdrawn, George III (pictured above) insisted on continuing with hostilities, With an increasingly rebellious House of Commons, Prime Minister Lord North was left with no option but to tell the King where to go! Today, George III’s ancestors show similar disdain for servicemen. At any state occasion members of the Royal family can be seen ridiculously strutting around in uniforms of high military rank bedecked with ribbons and medals.
As this Telegraph article makes clear, many of these are invented or handed out by the queen presumably with the intention of making an impression on us. There can be no other reason why you would give Prince Philip the Order of Merit when it is limited to 24 individuals and otherwise has been held by such luminaries as Bertrand Russell (himself a pacifist!). Look more closely and you will see almost all of these preening people displaying medals such as the Queens Silver Jubilee medal and Golden Jubilee medal given ‘for service’. Interestingly these very medals have frequently been denied or withheld from actual servicemen/women of long standing as this blog illustrates.
How old is the Chamber of the House of Commons? If you didn’t know, a reasonable guess may be that it is an eighteenth or nineteenth century structure. Although there have been buildings on the site since the 11th Century, the Palace of Westminster as a whole largely dates from the 183os. Surprisingly, however, the fabric of the present Commons Chamber itself dates from only 1950 when it was rebuilt following destruction in wartime 1941!
The striking thing about the EU referendum debate is the way in which politicians from all parties have been willing to share a platform. But this is not exceptional with the Parliamentary committee system allowing politicians to work together to achieve mutually agreed goals. This is at odds with the undemocratic charade to which Prime Ministers Questions has now descended in the main Chamber. In the current disillusionment with politics and the political establishment, one problem which is often overlooked is with the structure of the Chamber of the House of Commons itself. You can view the layout using this very good interactive guide. Incredibly for our main legislative chamber it can only seat 427 of the 650 MPs! The situation is exacerbated when the governing party (or coalition) has a substantial majority flooding one set of Chamber benches.
In terms of layout, the format of two banks of benches facing each other is, appropriately enough, known as Westminster Style. Considering the problems associated with this arrangement very few new legislative chambers are designed in this way. What are the problems? Firstly it does not facilitate good debate, partly because it encourages a confrontational approach between Government and Opposition often leading to the unseemly jeering and barracking with which we are all depressingly familiar. Moreover, exchanges between members on the same side is hampered by the fact that participants cannot see each other easily when arranged side-by-side.