The monarchy is kept in place as a result of its constitutional role, right? Not quite! In reality it is a grand exercise in the maintenance of public affection. In fact, way back in 1977 at the time of the Silver Jubilee, no less a person than the distinguished historian A.J.P. Taylor concluded that the continuance of Britain’s Constitutional Monarchy was not so much dependant on its executive power but in upholding its emotional and symbolic links with the British public. But authors had been pointing this out for a century! In reality much of the modern monarchy’s executive power is exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the other roles could easily be reassigned. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury would reasonably be head of a disestablished Church of England. So the Monarchy is nothing more than a complex exercise in the continual generation of popularity. How is it done in the sophisticated 21st Century? Enter the corporate branding experts! In two previous blogs (you can read them here and here) I outlined the fact that the Monarchy has become essentially a corporate brand and promoted as such (for example see this study).
In previous blogs I pointed to marketing experts who discovered that people select brands and brand culture in order to construct an identity of the self (many goods, for example, now being viewed as a ‘lifestyle choice’). It includes everything from cars to mobile phones to chocolate bars and so on (if you are in any doubt just look at Apple’s advertising!). As a result of the application of these principles to the monarchy, people often use the Royal ‘brand’ as a means of reassuring themselves as to the type of person they are (‘patriotic’, ‘loyal’, ‘British’ etc), as a means of self-expression or a lifestyle ‘beacon’ to others. People will often seek ways in which they can express this personal identity and the courtiers at Buckingham Palace are careful to provide a complete range of products and activities to support this; garden parties, parties in the Mall, walkabouts, royal visits so people can wave plastic flags.a whole range of tangible items such as mugs teatowels etc. 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 part 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.
It is unthinkable that I should adopt an institution dedicated unaccountable privilege as an integral part of who I am as a person. But, as a British Republican I recognise that I positively adopt aspects from history and my environment as part of my identity. For example, many of my friends and family are aware of my deep affection for the poet Shelley. Similarly a part of my identity is bound up with the great scientists, artists and radical political thinkers who were born in Britain or moved here from other countries. My symbols are those which championed freedom, the Rosemary branch, Sea Green banner and suffragette tricolour to mention a few. Monarchy, empire and aristocracy have no place in my heart and thus form no part of the construction of my identity.
In previous posts and articles I have described some of the ways in which the works of the great philosopher and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley have stood the test of time. My central point is that beneath the establishment whitewash, Shelley’s work is as relevant to radical politics now as it was two centuries ago; his concerns are our concerns. So it has been an idea of mine to take Shelley back to where he belongs – the streets of Britain, via a megaphone!
Protest and Poetry
This year the Conservative Party held its annual conference in central Birmingham between the 2nd and 5th October. As a means of protesting the Government’s austerity measures which has seen the poorer and more vulnerable members of society paying for the excess and incompetence of a broken financial system, the People’s Assembly organized a weekend of protest in the city. With our presence at the start of the Sunday protest march, the Birmingham branch of Republic Campaign drew attention to the fact that monarchy is one of the few institutions completely shielded from the cuts inflicted on the rest of society. This presented the perfect opportunity to debut my ‘Street Shelley’ plan especially as between 10,000 and 20,000 people would be queuing up to march past.
If you have read some of my previous posts you may be aware that I rarely write about foreign radical thinkers. Even when I do they are mainly in the Anglophone tradition such as American Thomas Jefferson, the major exception being Niccolo Machiavelli. There are two reasons for this bias. Firstly, other countries such as France with a less moribund and self-protective establishment than Britain tend to be more open about radical proponents of the past and are better known as a consequence. Secondly, possessing woefully poor foreign language skills I am dependent upon published translations of major works. Where nuance and opinion are all important, the subtleties of language are vital and easily lost or distorted as they cross language barriers.
Voltaire: Some Good ideas, Some Not so Good
I am making an exception in this post to make a couple of observations about François-Marie Arouet, better known to us as Voltaire. Even more unusual for me, Voltaire was essentially a constitutional monarchist who also toyed with absolutism! But it is rare to find a radical thinker with whom I am in complete agreement, partly because of drastic changes in society over the past century. For example, many 17th Century English Republicans such as Algernon Sidney actually argued for a form of aristocratic rule, tempered by democracy. On the other hand, Chartist Ernest Jones was a constitutional monarchist. To dismiss every thinker who holds one or two contrary opinions would simply lead to an impoverished and shrivelled view of how society may be improved. In few other individuals, however, is the sense of contrariness in such sharp relief than in Voltaire. But I want to see how one of his ideas stacks up to contemporary reality in the shape of the present heir to the United Kingdom throne, Charles Windsor.
A hazard when considering Voltaire’s work is the polemical and satirical style he adopted. Voltaire actually lived in Britain between 1726 and 1729 and formed a favourable view of the British Constitutional Monarchy in comparison with France’s pre-revolutionary autocratic ancien régime. As I mentioned in this openDemocracy article, Voltaire was a prominent figure during the Age of Enlightenment and a leading figure in the associated Republic of Letters network.
As a Republican trying to persuade my fellow Britons of the need to remove the monarchy I sometimes encounter a kind of fatalism which says that even if we get rid of the queen we will still be controlled by rich and powerful elites essentially beyond our control. This is partly a problem of powerlessness, a kind of despairing acceptance of fate which the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has termed ‘oh dearism’. Now while I fully agree that the removal of monarchy must only be the beginning to the reform of our system, I nevertheless believe that it makes an excellent starting point. This is for a number of reasons, some constitutional and some psychological. I want to look at just two in this post.
Firstly, the existence of a monarchy entrenches the position of a powerful political elite via the Privy Council. In fact, the system actually views the British Cabinet (supposedly our Government) as a sub-committee of the Council (I’ve written more about these arechaic powers in this post) and we can see the importance of this to the financial elite in one example. The Crown Dependencies are managed under the auspices of the Privy Council and thus the tax havens of the British Virgin Island and the Caymen Islands to name but two are allowed to thrive. More widely the relationship between politicians and royals facilitates a taxpayer funded Prince Andrew (then supposedly a Trade Envoy) the opportunity to try and broker the selling of state assets to foreign oligarchs, thus cementing his position amongst a wider, global elite.
The events of the past week have shown only too clearly the dire state of the UK Constitution and the danger of racism and fanaticism which lurks close to the surface of our society. So, though this post is a little overdue, I decided that the importance of both the Republic Campaign and British Humanist Association organisations made it worth pursuing. Here are my brief impressions of the BHA Conference 2016 held between 10th and 12th June (only last weekend, surely!!). This year the Conference was held in at the International Conference Centre in Birmingham and the local Republic group seized the opportunity to have a presence by means of a stand in the main hall. Along with the co-ordinator of Republic Birmingham it was a great pleasure to attend for the Saturday, commitments preventing me attending on the Sunday.
What was particularly significant is that Humanism and modern Republicanism share a common heritage in the Renaissance, inspired by the governmental writings of the classical world, especially Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero. Indeed, Classical Republicanism was a synonym for Civic Humanism. Since these beginnings in the Italian City States of the 15th and 16th Centuries Republicanism and Humanism have drift apart slightly in terms of their objectives, with modern Republicanism placing the advancement of liberty in political and constitutional terms as its central concern. This allows religious groups such as Quakers to espouse Republicanism but not Humanism.
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.
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.
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!