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 Like my fellow republicans I too am highly critical of the outdated unearned privilege the Royals enjoy, in part because it is much easier to say what you oppose than clearly defining what it is that you want.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 Republic campaign 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.
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.
Continue reading “Are all UK Republicans Lefties?”
A few weeks ago shortly after the Queen’s birthday I posted a blog on how the presentation of the Monarchy has mutated in response to changing social conditions. I concluded by pointing out that the Monarchy is now essentially a corporate brand in the same way as, for example, Ford cars or Cadbury chocolate as numerous academic and business studies will attest (for example see this study by John Balmer). Furthermore, marketing experts have known for a long time that people select brands and brand culture in order to construct an identity of the self (many goods such as phones or clothes are almost solely presented as a ‘lifestyle choice’). This has led to a reliance on the monarchy by a greater or lesser proportion of the public for the maintenance of at least a portion of their own identity. The result is a family, the Windsors, being psychologically addicted to privilege whilst a great many people are dependent on that behaviour in a form of co-dependence. Most examinations of the monarchy have missed this aspect and studied the institution from the point of view of social mobility, constitutional law or political science. All the while Buckingham Palace courtiers have busied themselves with the corporate marketing exercise (that the Queen herself clearly understands this important fact is underlined when she calls the royal family ‘the firm’). Once this is appreciated, a major aim of UK republicanism is clear. We must deal with the issue of identity and ensure that we replace monarchy as an integral part of the identity of ever greater numbers of British people. To do this we need to effectively recover or build afresh symbols, myths, images and events which offer superior value to the royal ones.
The Corporate Brand nature of the monarchy goes a long way to explaining why royalists frequently love the superficiality of a birthday party which leaves republicans cold, for whom the issues are deeper, running to equality and the rational accountability of power. An irony of the situation, as Balmer in the above article noted, is that if they are not the subject of debate then organizations can decline and die. The problem for royalists is to guide that debate in a controlled manner to exclude ways in which we can reorganise our Head of State and upper echelon of Government into a more democratic and accountable system. It is a typical royal tactic for example to encourage debate on such aspects as whether precedence should be changed to allow the oldest child, if female, to be heir to the throne or the fact that William should be allowed to marry his live-in housemate Kate rather than a sourced ex-blueblood. It is the responsibility of all republicans to frame the debate on our terms and give the royalists more debate than they can handle!
The legality of calling for abolition of the monarchy is sometimes raised as a concern by fellow Republicans. The source of the worry is an archaic piece of legislation, the 1848 Treason Felony Act which was rumoured to have been repealed in 2013, a fact later denied by the Government. The period immediately preceding 1848 was marked by active campaigning by Chartists, many of whom were Republicans. Despite the fact that Chartist activity was in decline at that point the Government was still concerned that juries were reluctant to convict advocates of republicanism since the Treason Act itself carried a potential capital punishment. Thus the Treason Felony Act was passed with a lesser penalty of life imprisonment aimed at increasing the conviction rate.
In 1891 the Treason Felony Act was partly repealed and it bacame legal to verbally advocate abolition. This was for largely technical reasons involving problems associated with rules of evidence. But what about written advocacy of abolition? Although articles advocating republicanism appeared in print throughout the 20th Century, in 2003 the editor of The Guardian newspaper Alan Rusbridger instigated a legal challenge to the 1848 Act with the aim of clarifying whether his paper was within the law in advocating Republicanism. The verdict can be viewed here but the Law Lords actually threw out the Guardian’s case saying that obviously The Guardian could run articles advocating abolition. Like many countries in the West the UK operates a system of Common Law (judge made) which historically predates the system of Statute Law enacted by Parliament. This means that the precedent has been set that advocating abolition in writing will not end in a jail sentence. By the way, If you are in any doubt about Common Law, try finding Acts of Parliament dealing with the purchase and ownership of Property, which is almost wholly dependent on precedence.
The 2003 Law Lords made clear that their judgement was based in large part on the 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA). This is of interest to us as republicans since the Government has been threatening to replace the HRA with a British Bill of Rights (which is proving to be a millstone around their neck!). This means there is a possibility of the 2003 judgement being rendered null and void. Repeal of the HRA would of course still leave recourse to the European Convention of Human Rights, provided that the Government does not take the monumentally stupid decision to withdraw from the treaty. Finally, it must be noted that there have been no prosecutions under the Treason Felony Act since 1883, over a century before the passing of he HRA.
Nevertheless, for republicans the 2003 judgement still means that the HRA is important as a front line of defence and its repeal must be viewed with suspicion. As Tom Paine observed since the constitution determines how the political and legal system is organized any discussion of constitutional change should not be outlawed on principle!