On Saturday May the 19th all the hype will be over and the next Royal Wedding will take place between Henry Windsor and Megan Markel. Indeed from much mainstream media coverage, it would seem that the entire country has brought into the pageantry in an obsessive way very much reminiscent of the last Royal Wedding in 2011. However are the public the fanatical Royalists that the media likes to claim? Not according to some polls, with Optimum claiming that fewer than half of 18-34 year olds agreeing that the monarchy should continue and that only 22% of the public want Charles to become King. In a similar vein, You Gov claim that 52% of respondents weren’t interested in the forthcoming Royal Wedding.
However, there is little discussion on the left regarding republican alternatives to the monarchy with the standard of debate on the issue on the rare occasions it is raised not being particularly edifying. Is this because of a paucity of ideas on the left regarding what a British republic would look like a lack of support for republican ideas on the left or a fear that moving to a republic is unpopular with the public? Another question worth asking is why did Jeremy Corbyn shy away from any debate on the issue when questioned about it by Jeremy Paxman during last year’s general election.
There have been figures within the Labour Party throughout its history who have opposed the monarchy. Jeremy Corbyn is obviously one example (although he has said that it isn’t a ‘battle that I’m fighting’) but other Labour leaders such as Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and Michael Foot were known republicans while that firebrand of the left Tony Benn introduced the 1991 Commonwealth of Britain Bill in Parliament which advocated a secular Britain with an elected President. Indeed Benn himself is quoted as saying ‘The existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privilege and patronage in our society’. There are a number of current Labour MPs who are Republicans such as Paul Flynn (Newport West), Emma Dent Coad (Kensington), David Crausby (Bolton North East) and Richard Burgon (Leeds East) announced that he believed the head of state should be elected when he was swearing his oath of allegiance to the Queen (the late Tony Banks MP for West Ham used to cross his fingers). In some ways perhaps it’s surprising that there isn’t more what is more anti-Socialist than the idea of inherited wealth and titles? How can the Monarchy be ‘for the many not the few’?
In terms of other parties the Green Party of England and Wales has an official policy of republicanism with Caroline Lucas being a particularly keen advocate while Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood was famously disciplined in the Welsh Assembly for referring to the Queen as ‘Mrs Windsor’ and is a fervent republican as are many Plaid members although it isn’t official party policy. In Scotland, the SNP confirmed that they would keep the monarchy if Scotland became Independent but the Scottish Greens favour a republic.
However one of the dilemmas that republicans face is what sort of republic and indeed what sort of Presidency do they want? At the moment the republican movement appears timid and unclear in its vision perhaps just the sort of lack of clarity that helped the Monarchists win the 1999 republic referendum in Australia. Visiting the website of Republic, the main anti-monarchist campaign group offers some clarity pointing out that they want ‘the monarchy abolished and replaced with an elected democratic head of state’. There are also a number of statements about how the abolition of the monarchy will enhance the British democratic culture and improve tourism however, in general, it is short of substance.
Beyond rather tiresome comments about the failure of Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth period one of the most common criticisms of British republicanism is ‘I wouldn’t want Blair, Thatcher, Trump etc’ as President. This ignores the fact that they became President it would be on the basis of a popular mandate and the fact that successive Prime Ministers have become increasingly Presidential. This clearly leads onto a discussion about the difference between a President as Head of Government and Head of State and in contrast a Presidential model where the President is a non-political Head of State. It seems clear that critics of republicanism site the Presidential systems they know best such as the USA, Russia and France where the President has both roles and can often act in a highly authoritarian manner.
However, surely British republicans need to avoid advocating for a ‘super President’ and argue for a democratically elected President to represent the country as Head of State rather than a hereditary monarch who is performing the role simply because they were born into the role. However, if the ‘super Presidents’ of the USA, France, Russia and China (who have now effectively appointed their President for life) aren’t suitable models where should we find inspiration? Germany could be one example with its ceremonial President performing very similar duties to the Queen. However, in terms of democracy there is a slight snag perhaps because of the fear of populism following the Third Reich the founders of the Federal Republic in 1949 decided that the German President should be elected by a federal assembly of German politicians. This may well be better than a hereditary monarchy but to a degree it smells of a political fudge and in Italy the situation is similar with the President being elected by the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.
However, there are better models. In Austria the President performs a largely ceremonial role and is directly elected, but in 2016 the Presidency became embroiled in controversy with the rerun election between the Green candidate Alexander Van De Bellen and the far Right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer. However we can also look closer to home and see the Irish Presidency as a model. Since 1937 when the Irish Free State (the 26 counties free from British colonial rule renamed the Republic of Ireland in 1949) adopted its own constitution an Irish President directly elected by the people has performed the same ceremonial functions undertaken by the Windsor family in Britain.
Interestingly for a then staunchly Catholic nation, the first Irish President Douglas Hyde was actually a Protestant as was Erskine Childers President in the 1970s. The reverse situation is still impossible in the UK where Catholics are banned from being Head of State under the Sectarian Act of Settlement. As with any political system some Irish Presidents have been better than others with all Presidents prior to 1990 being members of the dominant Fianna Fáil party with Easter Rising veteran Eamon De Valera being the most famous but the key point has always been that unless unopposed Irish Presidents were elected by the people. Indeed while there have been bad apples such as Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh who resigned the Presidency in 1976 following a row over security legislation with his own government recent Presidents such as Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and the current incumbent Michael D. Higgins have been inspirational.
Mary Robinson was nominated by the Labour Party, very much the third force in Irish Politics, and won the Presidency in 1990 ending the Fianna Fail hegemony as the first female President who brought energy and experience based on her background as an academic and barrister. Robinson helped facilitate a gradual social liberalisation of Irish life particularly in relation to homosexuality as well as meeting a number of members of the British Royal family and then Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams which at the time was considered a bold move. Mary McAleese was the first Irish President to be born in Northern Ireland and helped build links not just with the UK by inviting the Queen to Ireland in 2011 but also Protestants in the Republic of Ireland by taking communion at a Church of England service. Michael D. Higgins was also supported by the Labour Party is a veteran left –winger who is also a fluent Irish speaker as well as a prolific poet and writer.
Isn’t it about time Britain joined our Irish neighbours in promoting egalitarianism, merit and talent over hereditary class-based privilege?