In keeping with the pattern across Britain this week, a small group of enthusiasts gathered in north London on Monday evening to complete their own arrangements for this weekend’s celebration of the diamond jubilee.
There were eight of them, a pretty decent attendance on such an occasion, as any local event organiser would tell you. This group, however, was not dealing with last-minute crises about the bunting for the street party, or who was supplying the tea urn. They were putting finishing touches to the placards for their anti-jubilee demonstration. “Make monarchy history,” one read; “Don’t jubilee’ve it!”; “9,500 nurses or 1 Queen?”.
These were the anti-monarchy campaigners of Republic. Like thousands of people, they will be spending Sunday afternoon by the Thames as the royal barge leads a flotilla of boats downstream to mark 60 years of Elizabeth II’s reign. Like many of the spectators, they will be hoping the Queen may just catch sight of them, and that maybe they might even be on telly. For this group, however, the TV coverage is particularly urgent.
As a group Republic has slowly been gaining a little traction. Graham Smith says that when he joined in 2003, there were 300 people on the mailing list. Now, seven years after Smith was appointed full-time chief executive (funded by a supporter’s legacy), he says the number has increased to 20,000. Major royal events constitute good news for Republic: both Prince William’s wedding last year, when they held their own anti-royal street party, and the jubilee have produced spikes in support.
However, it would be best not to exaggerate this, given that 99.9996 per cent of Britain is not on the mailing list. If you Google “Republic”, a chain of clothes stores comes out first. And for the monarchy, an institution which has held firm – with one 11-year gap – since the start of the 9th century, the 21st century has marked a return to its customary popularity and dominance. The 1990s were disastrous for the royal family: three of the Queen’s four children were divorced: Princess Anne discreetly; Prince Charles and Prince Andrew amid a global storm of horrendous publicity. The nightmare culminated in the death of Charles’ ex-wife Diana in the Paris car crash of August 1997, an event which the family mishandled – as they say – royally.
But the turnaround, widely perceived to have started with the initially rather apologetic golden jubilee of 2002, has been almost as spectacular. The Queen is now 86, her husband Prince Philip almost 91; they appear to be enjoying the kind of active and mellow old age any of us might envy, just as their family life was once thought to represent an idealised version of domesticity. Last week a poll – commissioned by the leftish and republican-leaning Guardian – asked 1,000 people whether Britain would be better or worse off without a royal family and 69 per cent said worse off, a number in line with similar polls throughout the past 60 years.
Monday’s gathering of republican activists took place in a borrowed office in Islington, the London borough renowned as the HQ of Guardianish opinions. At the behest of the FT’s photographer, they went down with their placards to pose in the quiet side street below. I only saw a couple of passers-by during this exercise. One emitted a distant cry of “Rubbish”. The other was an elderly gent who came over, politely and firmly, to offer his opinion: “I hope to God you people never get your way,” he said.
Republic’s supporters are equally polite and firm. “I think we need the best democracy we can get,” said Jen Gingell, a banker. “We can do a lot better than having a monarch.”
Don’t you think symbolism is important? I asked historian Emily Robinson. “Yes I do. But I think maybe there are the wrong kind of symbols. The murky power of the monarchy makes the executive more powerful than it would otherwise be.” Journalist Adam Barnett said he believed in symbolism too: “But it must be reason-based, and not based on tradition and superstition.”
These people are youngish: none of them struck me as extremist or crazed – all were very rational. Perhaps to a fault. The world is not organised along rational lines.
The mystery of British republicanism has long been its almost total non-existence. The civil war that led to Charles I’s execution in 1649 was (to oversimplify) a battle over the origin and extent of the king’s authority rather than its existence. And since Oliver Cromwell was briefly succeeded as “Lord Protector” by his own son before Charles II was invited back in 1660, the so-called interregnum might best be seen as a brief usurpation of the Stuarts by the House of Cromwell.
In the 352 years since then there have been moments that might have been construed as republican opportunities. There was a bad run for the monarchy in the early 19th century: George III (1760-1820) became demented; George IV (1820-1830) was a licentious fat laughing-stock, and William IV (1830-1837) a dimwit. But Britain’s faith in its system had been cemented by the excesses of the French Revolution: “there is a distinction between the unpopularity of the monarch and the unpopularity of the monarchy,” says Professor Rodney Barker of the London School of Economics.
The institution recovered quickly after the accession of Victoria in 1837. Then it wobbled again after the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, when Victoria retreated into seclusion and the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, began to exhibit signs of George IV-ishness: republican clubs spread across Britain, and the popular MP Sir Charles Dilke led a campaign that appeared to have widespread support. And then the prince contracted typhoid and nearly died.
When he recovered, Victoria held a public thanksgiving service in Westminster Abbey. “She insisted that ‘the show,’ as she called it, should be done properly,” according to Peter Conradi in his recent account of modern monarchy, The Great Survivors (2012). “Dressed in black, but with a white feather in her bonnet, she travelled through London in an open landau drawn by six horses. The crowds went wild.”
The other nervous moment came at the end of the first world war when the crowned heads of Europe – the Tsar, the Kaisers, the Habsburg Emperor – began to be toppled. As Frank Prochaska, Anglo-American author of the seminal The Republic of Britain (2000), explained: “You also had a lot of demobbed soldiers back from the front, and the rise of a Labour Party with a genuinely socialist constitution. These things were very worrying to George V and Queen Mary, and they stepped up their public and charitable service. And this has been carried on and on and on. George III was the patron of nine organisations, Victoria 250, George V 500, the present Queen seven or eight hundred and the extended royal family 3,500. And that’s how they spend their time.”
The Victorian constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot described Britain as a “disguised republic” – a point echoed by Prochaska. The Queen is there by consent, and she knows it. When countries choose to remove her as head of state – as Jamaica is about to do and Australia agonises about – she yields with good grace. The process would be more traumatic in England or (what is far more plausible) Scotland, but there could be no question that the democratic will would have to prevail.
Beneath the Guardian’s headline figure, there is considerable ammunition for Republic to use. A second question in that poll “When the Queen abdicates or dies, what should happen next?” produced only 39 per cent for the accession of the heir-apparent Prince Charles and 48 per cent for his son William, which would be a subversion of the whole notion of a hereditary monarchy.
Between the flag-wavers and the placard-wavers, there is a great deal of cynicism in Britain – people turned off by the flummery, the excesses, the expense and the sugar-coated coverage. Outside the Conservative Party, there are also a lot of passive republicans among elected politicians who are getting closer to positions of power: Leanne Wood, the new leader of Plaid Cymru, once caused a storm in the Welsh Assembly by calling the Queen “Mrs Windsor”.
Meanwhile the tabloid press, the unruly chorus throughout the Charles-Diana soap opera, is not wholly tamed. The Daily Mail regularly leavens its adulation for the Queen with attacks on both “Air Miles Andy” and Prince Charles. The perception of Charles as a stuffy eccentric who was mean to Diana will not go away. However, there is a fundamental problem for the republicans. If not Mrs Windsor and her descendants, then who? President Thatcher? President Blair? President Beckham?
Republic’s Graham Smith is keen to point to the example of Ireland, where two successive presidents called Mary – Robinson and McAleese – proved to be popular figureheads while avoiding political controversy. He does not rush to mention the less happy example of Germany, whose last two presidents have resigned in disarray.
Several Republic supporters insisted that becoming head of state was a legitimate aspiration for any child of democracy, in the American log-cabin-to-president tradition. I can’t say I have ever felt this deprivation myself and I am not alone: the third option in the Charles or William poll question was an election. It was backed by only 10 per cent. Rodney Barker of LSE makes the point that it is absurd to complain about the monarchy when there is still “a human shield” of 92 hereditary peers: “The existence of actual legislators there on the hereditary principle is much more objectionable than a head of state who only goes round being nice to people.” Smith says change has to come from the top: “She’s resisted any effort at change. The only thing that has changed is the PR.”
Support for the monarchy is certainly full of contradictions but, the night after the Islington gathering, it was possible to sense the weaknesses in Republic’s case. The Bishopsgate Institute in London held a debate on the monarchy, and 50 people turned up to hear Smith (a cogent advocate) and the journalist Joan Smith take on the ex-Tory MP Jacques Arnold and Peter Conradi (who was rather ambivalent himself).
The audience almost wholly comprised Republic supporters, not all of them as earnest and honest as the placard-makers. The speeches from the floor brought forth bores, churls and obsessives, whingeing about the BBC (not normally criticised as a right-wing conspiracy) and the indoctrination of youngsters asked to wear red, white and blue to school this week. Some thought the royal family (mainly Charles) interfered too much in politics; others thought the Queen’s insistence on non-intervention after the inconclusive 2010 election was a sign that she had no useful role to play.
Eventually, a rare neutral spoke up. He had gone to the debate with some republican friends but could keep quiet no longer. “There are so many big problems in the world. Can’t you put your energies into the big problems?” He didn’t get a proper answer. “Make monarchy history,” said the placard. What about making poverty history? Or global warming? Or terrorism? Or David Cameron and Nick Clegg?
Republic’s members insist they care about these things too. But I suspect that single questioner spoke for apathetic England. Unless you get stuck in a London traffic jam this weekend, the monarchy is not a nuisance. It probably does more good than harm and makes more money than it costs. It gives the country a sense of stability. The Queen seems a decent old stick. There is an extra bank holiday for her on Tuesday. Match that, President Blair.
Frank Prochaska sees little chance of this mood changing, even when the Queen dies. “After Edward VIII abdicated in 1936, some of the Clydeside Labour MPs thought the republican moment had come. Instead there was a lot of sympathy for the new King. Some of the republicans now see Charles as an opportunity but it’s going to be very frustrating for them. There will be a wave of sympathy because of his mother’s service.”
Matthew Engel is an FT columnist