Friday, 1 November 2013

"If you don't like it, why don't you leave?"

I was today reminded of one of the most common and perplexing responses to British republican sentiment when monarchists took to newspaper websites in their hundreds to comment on widely reported remarks by Labour London Assembly Member Tom Copley berating politicians for falling over themselves to celebrate the recent birth of Prince George. Note, this was an attack on politicians and their skewed priorities - not an attack on a baby who just happens to be third in line to the throne.

Many of the critical comments - and there were an equal, if not greater number in support - were variations on a theme: essentially "if you don't like the monarchy, why don't you go and live in another country." The suggested countries often include, but are not limited to, North Korea and Syria.

The assumptions behind such crude insults are worth pondering because they reveal some quite interesting. 

The first and most troubling of these is that to challenge the status quo by seeking debate not only calls into question an individual's patriotism, but their very right to reside in the country. The implications of this line of "logic" are frankly bizarre. Nothing can be challenged and de facto nothing will ever change. Want separation of church and state? You must be a Communist. Want equality of sexuality? Go and live in the Netherlands. Don't like coalition politics? Go and live in a one-party state. Don't like the NHS reforms? Try your luck in the US. In short, if you think Britain - quite possibly your country of birth - is anything less than perfect, lump it or emigrate. Except that this logic is seemingly exclusively reserved for matters concerning the monarchy.

I would like to argue that wanting something better for my country and being willing to speak out and fight for it is a much better benchmark for citizenship and patriotism. There's many things about Britain that make me very proud: our innovation, our tolerance, our sense of fair play. But our monarchy and its system of government is not among them. I don't have to accept the good, the bad and the ugly in some nonsensical zero-sum notion of citizenship. I think we can do better  - a lot better - and I think the British people deserve better. 

To cite N Korea and Syria as examples of republics is deeply insulting. Just because a country calls itself a republic does not mean that it is one. Dictatorships are anathema to the idea of republicanism, which has at its heart the idea of popular sovereignty. In both these instances power has passed from father to son. Sound familiar? Yep, they're monarchies in all but name. 

It is ludicrous to assume that Britain is the best of all possible worlds just because I was born and live here. I think there's much we can learn from the experience of other countries around the world - many of them "real" republics. To draw on the experience of other countries would be to the betterment of Britain. Ireland shows us we can have a directly elected head of state who is more popular than any monarch could hope to be. France shows us that it is possible to run successful state-owned enterprises - but not the way that we've sought to do it in the past. Despite having become a republic France is a country with a strong sense of identity and tradition, and guess what? It's the world's top tourist destination. Britain, conversely, lies in 8th place behind Germany. Does that mean I'd rather have been born French or that I'm not grateful I wasn't born in North Korea? An emphatic NO. 

I wouldn't seek to tell you to go and live in Saudi Arabia if you're a supporter of the idea of monarchy. But would that be any more ridiculous than telling Tom to go and live in another country because he dares to criticise fellow politicians for sycophancy towards the royal family?

Twitter: @andrewjchild

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Why I'd have no objection to President Boris or Pre-Bo

No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses. I haven’t changed my political spots.

It’s just that I’m fed up with people articulating their objections to a British republic on the basis that popular will could deliver a head of state that they as individuals wouldn’t approve of.

Yes, of course this is a silly argument more often than not trotted out by monarchists, but it’s also cited by people who might refer to themselves as “theoretical republicans”.  An oxymoron in my view. There are still others who wouldn’t let it stand in the way of the principle but never the less fret about it, and wonder what we could do to ensure certain “undesirable” candidates didn’t get elected.

Jenny Jones and theoretical republicanism

Jenny Jones, the Green Party mayoral candidate and MLA appeared to fall into that middle camp when she gave an interview to the London Evening Standard in January. Explaining her participation in the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the Thames, she said: “I'm not a royalist by any stretch of the imagination...I would be a republican if it weren't for those two words: President Blair.”

The inference was clear: what we have now, despite is flaws, is better than a system with a remote chance of delivering former prime minister Tony Blair as head of state. Except that she’s got it all back to front. There is no danger of the “wrong” candidate with the system I favour. But the danger is inherent in a system based on a bloodline. 

A president as the embodiment of popular will

Let me be clear, I would approve of any candidate who was elected by popular will following a free and fair election campaign. And that includes Boris Johnson. That person, whoever they may be would be the living embodiment of a principle that republicans hold dear. So yes, even if the person elected isn’t my candidate, in a sense s/he very much is.

So what has got me started again on all of this? In part it’s re-reading Jonathan Freedland’s Bring Home the Revolution (1998), particularly its penultimate chapter Ten Steps to the Revolution. 

There’s much I disagree with in terms of what works and doesn’t work in the US model of government. But in this chapter he writes with exceptional clarity about applying republican principles consistently, such as the “sovereignty of the people”. 

A sovereign people and the death penalty question

Freedland quite rightly argues that this means doing more than paying lip-service to principles. And this is what he boils it down to: you have to accept the possibility that the “popular will” might deliver the death penalty. 

He does this because polling seems to show a majority of Britons favour its reintroduction. I do accept Freedland’s assertion - as repellant as I find the death penalty - though many of particularly on left in this country might not. But objections, I think, do not stand up to scrutiny. 

Some of these seem to be predicated on the notion that somehow parliamentary sovereignty protects us from these sorts of outcomes. It simply does not. There’s nothing inherent in the system that would do this. Westminster instead asserts the sovereignty of parliament giving assent to all sorts of things that the public didn’t get even a whiff of via a party manifesto at election time. In other words the whim of crudely-elected representatives. A whim that should it wish could quite easily pass legislation to reintroduce the death penalty without any reference to the people. 

Furthermore, a true democracy allows individuals to express competing values. So, those same individuals who seek the re-introduction of the death penalty may also demand strong protection of human rights, which may ultimately trump and stymy a preference for the first policy. 

It’s also worth reflecting on the idea that polling on issues such as the death penalty may be the result of the fact that such issues are not being debated. As Freedland points out, the idea of the people as sovereign relies to a degree on fostering a spirit of open public debate. 

Keeping Westminster at bay

But I digress. The second main impetus for raising the issues of a British presidency and personality objections comes from a long-running debate I’m having with my 95-year-old gran after I gave her a copy of the Republic publication 60 Inglorious Years: A provocative reassessment of the Queen’s record. While she’s not - at this stage at least - a republican, she’s keen to learn more about the argument and to engage.

One of the things I’ve been trying to impress upon her is how I believe a directly-elected ceremonial president would improve upon the role of monarch. In my previous blog post I talked about  many republicans and monarchists both see their approach as providing an antidote to a deep disenchantment with Westminster politics and so I’ve been discussing my preference to see at the very least presidential candidates untouched/untainted (depending on your point of view) by our parliamentary system. 

My gran - and those who share her scepticism - believe that any British president may ultimately fall short of this ideal. I agree. But I cite the example of former Irish President Mary Robinson and how she was able to rise above her party political background to achieve popularity ratings of 93 per cent halfway into her term. Rather more prosaically I ask her to consider the role of The Speaker in the Commons and how, more often than not, the incumbent goes out of their way to transcend party of allegiance. 

No mandate? Get on your Boris Bike

But neither of these examples are entirely satisfactory. Which leads me onto Boris Johnson. In the London mayoral election I believe we have a reasonable proxy for any near-term British presidential election. The nature of the contest and the use of the Alternative Vote ensure that parties fielding candidates - and let’s not forget that the contest attracts independent candidates - have to reach beyond their core support to win. 

Whatever you may think of Boris Johnson winning a second term in office back in early May he has a popular mandate. There is no fluke. He had to win people’s second preference votes and he did this at a time of deep unpopularity for the Conservative-led coalition. But Boris is no kowtowing party-first politician, and this is key because as I keep saying, it’s not just Conservatives who are unpopular, it’s traditional politicians in general. 

He makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t see eye to eye with David Cameron, a man, as with all prime ministers, who is elected by his own party rather than having a direct popular mandate. And less than three weeks ago Boris admonished Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative chief whip, for his unseemly row with police officers in Downing Street. I do not believe he could have won as a party man. 

Mayoral race as presidential proxy

Similarly, Ken Livingstone won his first time as mayor as an independent, and even though he’d reconciled with Labour by the time of his second victory his was still no traditional party man. The need to reach beyond traditional party boundaries has also been recognized by the Liberal Democrats in the choice of Brian Paddick as their representative. While they could quite easily have picked a candidate from the Westminster village they went instead for a former Met Assistant Chief Commissioner. 

So we have already in the London mayoral election a contest in which even traditional political parties recognize that the Westminster model of politics is not a good fit. And it will continue to evolve I’m sure. 

I’m not saying that the rest of the UK would necessarily vote in a manner similar to London, but if we were to have a presidential election tomorrow, I’m pretty sure Boris Johnson could be a leading candidate. What I’m even more confident about is that whoever that president be, the choice of the people would be infinitely preferable to Queen Elizabeth II or whoever the Windsor bloodline might throw up to provide us with a head of state.

Twitter: @andrewjchild

Monday, 30 July 2012

In search of common ground

I found myself debating the Good Old Cause on the radio recently with Thomas Mills, chairman of the British Monarchist Society.
I always enjoy a debate. It is a cornerstone of our democracy. Nevertheless I am acutely aware that such occasions can descend into the acrimony of name-calling and crude stereotypes.
When this happens it only serves to further polarise two seemingly very opposed camps of thought. And ultimately neither side will advance its position one iota. It seems to me that in some ways the debate between republicans and monarchists is locked in a stalemate, largely because both camps are often viewed as extreme by the majority - the 50 per cent or more of the public who are unpersuaded either way. Exactly the people who need to be won over to advance either position.
It is not hard to see how this has might have happened. The most vocal among these polar opposites sometimes seem engaged in permanent battle to demonise the other side. Monarchists often times portray republicans as dangerous lefty-anarchists, intent on disrupting our social order and depriving the country of a prime asset. For their part some republicans characterise monarchists as dumb, unthinking, brainwashed “sheeple” oblivious to tyranny in all its forms. On other occasions they are viewed as something more thuggish, tribal in the crudest form possible. 
Myself and Thomas both came armed with stories of misdeeds and wilful misunderstands perpetrated by the other side. But we both attempted to raise the level of debate above this. Thomas seemed like a friendly, upbeat man. I found no reason to dislike him on a personal level, and I think that feeling was reciprocated.
And as we embarked on mapping out our respective positions, in a reasonably respectful manner, I got to thinking about an increasing realisation of the common ground we share. If the emotion that surrounds the debate is cast aside for a moment, it’s staring us all in the face. We both feel that our politicians and the system of which they are a part have failed us. Politics, it seems we both believe, is broken and beyond repair in its present form. It fails to represent the will of the people on a consistent basis, it feels disconnected and unresponsive. Worse still, our elected representatives, often seem more interested in narrow self interest than in the democratic ideal of duty and service. 
Witness the expenses scandal which afflicted politicians of every major party. Witness the grubby relations revealed between politicians and media tycoons revealed by the phone hacking saga. Yet politicians get to investigate themselves, and then choose whether to accept the findings and recommendations of inquiries. Or to put it in the words of Republic’s chief executive Graham Smith: “There is no limit to the power of our politicians other than those limits they place upon themselves.” Any wonder that politics has become a dirty word?
Anyone listening to the debate between Thomas and myself would have have heard complete agreement on this issue. So I want to take this common ground as a starting point for building a new conversation about monarchy. I want to use it to reach out to the unimpressed, disinterested majority, many of whom I believe feel exactly the same way about our politics. I want to highlight the positive message of republicans: that we want to do something to fix what is broken. We are not so much against something as for a positive alternative, which we think will help to put things right. 
And it is really in our respective responses to our broken politics that your see the real and important differences between republicans and monarchists. 
Most modern British republicans want a directly-elected ceremonial president who can act as a referee of the political system. Someone with clearly circumscribed powers who can hold politicians to account when required, but who can be held to account themselves, not least through the transparency of their actions. But that is just the start. We would want root and branch reform of our corrupted system, including a modern written republican constitution which would enshrine the equality of citizens and set out the rights and responsibilities of all, including our politicians. We would want an overhaul of our Upper House so that it could do a better job of scrutinising the work of our politicians. We would want to redesign our honours system so that it recognised the genuine community heroes in this country and the genuine acts of bravery, rather than acts of cronyism. In short we would hand power back to the people and in doing so hold our politicians and our system to account. We would get it working again.
By contrast the monarchists’ response to our broken politics seems to be to turn their backs. Rather than holding our politicians to account for their actions and inactions, monarchists abandon the stage altogether, instead basking in the “otherness” of monarchy. The simple fact that the Queen and her family are not politicians - as they see it at least - is justification enough. Qualities of magic and mystery attributed to monarchy - both terms used frequently by Thomas - are seen as some kind of antidote. From my rational standpoint I cannot imagine a more inappropriate, wrong-headed response.
What monarchists seem to be completely ignorant of most of the time is that monarchy encourages unchecked, unaccountable behaviour. It hands numerous so-called royal prerogative powers to the prime minister who is able to, among other things, appoint ministers, bishops and heads of public bodies, go to war, sign treaties, and change the law, all without reference to parliament or challenge in the courts. 
The most famous recent example of this was Tony Blair’s controversial decision to commit British troops to Iraq in 2003 despite concerns raised at the time by the government’s top legal advisers. Advocates of the Iraq war often counter that the decision was subsequently ‘ratified’ by parliament. But this was entirely retrospective. And the decision was made by Blair with the knowledge that having put British lives on the line, most MPs would find it impossible not to back the move in a vote. Had Blair sought the permission of parliament first, it is not at all clear Britain would have gone to war. Opinion polls showed beforehand that the public felt the case for war had not been made and in subsequent years it came to be opposed by a large majority.
Despite the muted acknowledgement for some reform of monarchy in certain monarchist circles, noone on that side of the argument seems to be advocating abolishing or reforming such royal prerogative powers. Indeed, during our debate Thomas suggested the Queen should directly reclaim and exercise these powers in order to carry out the will of the people. He thought for example that she should be given the powers in order to remove Britain for the Lisbon Treaty, which was signed at the end of 2007 and provided a revised constitution for the European Union.
That the Queen, a remote figure who severely lacks a formal education, could divine the will of the people is frankly absurd. It would certainly rely in spades on the kind of magic quality - and a good deal else - that Thomas mistakenly ascribes to this highly privileged 86-year-old woman. 
Thomas’s desire to see a beefed-up monarchy flies in the face of reason. Despite the unchecked powers handed to our prime minister, there is at least the chance that s/he can be held to account at the ballot box. There would not be the remotest possibility of holding a monarch to account in the same way. Indeed such a desire contradicts the monarchists’ principal argument against republicans, which is to assert that the Queen has no real powers. 
There is a discontent - to put it mildly - with politics among a clear majority in Britain. Republicans can harness this and make a strong case for change for the better. The response of monarchists is not just irrational, but dangerous. It lets politicians off the hook when they should be held to account. It detracts from the real, unchecked power of politicians. 

Twitter: @andrewjchild

Monday, 18 June 2012

An anthem unfit for purpose

As I was moved to Tweet on Friday night during England’s 3-2 victory over Sweden in Euro 2012, England has the world’s best goalkeeper, and the world’s worst national anthem.
Much as I might deny it at times, especially when marginal attributes are offered up as the very essence of nationhood, I’m a proud Briton and a proud Englishman. I spent every minute of those 90 on the very edge of my seat, by turns punching the air in exhilaration and throwing my arms up in despair. For me the football team is a real focus of national pride despite the rollercoaster ride it inevitably entails. 
Footballers tend to be from ordinary backgrounds and attain their sporting status through hard work and athleticism. Football is The Beautiful Game. It therefore seems perfectly reasonable to me that the national football team should be a focus of national pride, even if success and money may have gone to some heads. 
But when the national anthem is played at the start of a game, I struggle not to leave the room. Something which is supposed to galvanise national pride diminishes it. It is something which should - in theory unite all of us, including republicans and monarchists. There’s no reason why it can’t if the national anthem does its job. But it doesn’t. It simply isn’t fit for purpose. Could this even be the reason for England’s historic underachievement? 
Perhaps not. But the point is that it is used as a rallying point at all sorts of public - and indeed private - occasions the length and breadth of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 
God Save The Queen is supposed to be a national anthem for Britain as well as England and other countries in the union. But remind yourselves of the words below and you will see there is no mention of Britain, England or indeed any other country. Nor are they implicitly referred to. No reference to the beauty of Britain’s historic landscapes, which are the focus for many alternatives, also given below. The whole song - the lyrics of which (with the variant ‘king’) appear to have their origins in the King James Bible - is about the Queen’s divine right to rule over us, an absurd idea which would be rejected by the vast majority of Britons today, religious or otherwise. 
I am a republican largely because I am a patriot. I am proud of this nation of ours for its democratic traditions, for its diversity of culture and people, for the beauty of its landscape, for its resilience in times of peace and war, for its tolerance, and for being a leader in science and innovation. I think in particular of Great Britons like Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine, and Tim Berners-Lee, credited with the invention of the World Wide Web. But there are many more.
The point is our national anthem mentions none of this. Not even in the abstract. All it does is to absurdly link devotion to country with devotion to an unelected head of state. Any wonder then that so few of our sports stars openly declare themselves republican, despite republicans being 1 in 4 of us. I can only think of two - former England footballer Stan Collymore, and former England rugby player Brian Moore. And even the latter has felt the need to say under repeated questioning that he had no problem with singing the national anthem. 
Defy the devotion to monarch, and and questions will be asked about your devotion to country, is the way a small, thuggish minority would have it. I would invert that, and say devote yourself to an unelected head of state and you do both yourself and your country a disservice. For some of my fellow republicans, that would be going too far. But I stand by it. 
The evidence is there for all to see that God Save The Queen has undergone a widespread erosion of support, for the very reasons I have outlined. The Northern Irish long ago turned to Oh Danny Boy, the Scots to Flower of Scotland, and the Welsh to The Land of My Fathers. But the English too have increasingly turned to other anthems in other sporting arenas. Since 2004, England have used Jerusalem in international test cricket matches, the same anthem which has been adopted by Team England at the Commonwealth Games. Many fans of England’s rugby union team have also adopted those words of William Blake, set to a score by Sir Hubert Parry.
So how about it Football Association of England? Time to drop God Save The Queen? Time to consign it to the dustbin of history along with all those outmoded coaching manuals which we were for far too long wedded? 

God Save The Queen (standard version)
God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
God save The Queen
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save The Queen.
O Lord, our God, arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all.
Thy choicest gifts in store,
On her be pleased to pour;
Long may she reign:
May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause
To sing with heart and voice
God save The Queen!


And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among those dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land


Flower of Scotland
O Flower of Scotland,
When will we see your like again
That fought and died for
Your wee bit hill and glen.
And stood against him,
Proud Edward's army,
And sent him homeward
To think again.

The hills are bare now,
And autumn leaves lie thick and still
O'er land that is lost now,
Which those so dearly held
That stood against him,
Proud Edward's army
And sent him homeward
To think again.

Those days are past now
And in the past they must remain
But we can still rise now
And be the nation again!
That stood against him
Proud Edward's army
And sent him homeward
To think again.

O Flower of Scotland,
When will we see your like again
That fought and died for
Your wee bit hill and glen.
And stood against him,
Proud Edward's army,
And sent him homeward
To think again.


Oh Danny Boy

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flow'rs are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer's in the meadow
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, and all the flowers are dying
If I am dead, as dead as well may be
I pray you'll find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warm and sweeter be
And then you'll kneel and whisper that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

The Land of My Fathers

The old land of my fathers is dear to me,
Land of bards and singers, famous men of renown;
Her brave warriors, very splendid patriots,
For freedom shed their blood.

Nation [or country], Nation, I am faithful to my Nation.
While the sea [is] a wall to the pure, most loved land,
O may the old language endure.

Old mountainous Wales, paradise of the bard,
Every valley, every cliff, to my look is beautiful.
Through patriotic feeling, so charming is the murmur
Of her brooks, rivers, to me.

If the enemy oppresses my land under his foot,
The old language of the Welsh is as alive as ever.
The muse is not hindered by the hideous hand of treason,
Nor [is] the melodious harp of my country.
Twitter: @andrewjchild

Monday, 11 June 2012

Me, my family and the Diamond Jubilee

This is a guest post from my friend Dr Richard Tutton, who visited me in London with his family over the jubilee weekend and was among a thousand or more republican protesters who found themselves in Tooley Street after being locked-out of Republic's official demonstration by City Hall.

Richard is an assistant director of the Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (CESAGen) at Lancaster University and a Senior Lecturer. These are his personal reflections on jubilee weekend. 

On Sunday 3 June, my family and I joined the many hundreds of thousands of people who travelled into central London on buses and trains to see the Thames pageant. Unlike the vast majority of the people who surrounded us waving their Union Jacks and or wearing their Royalty face masks, we had not come to cheer the 60-year long reign of Elizabeth Windsor as the Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and 15 other Commonwealth countries. We were there to join a demonstration against this very fact and to conjure up a future alternative. After two days’ of Jubilee celebrations at my son’s pre-school, we thought that he should see the other side of things so he came along too. This way, in time, he can make up his own mind. The demonstration was good-natured and it was wonderful to meet a range of people interested in this cause.
Since the demonstration, I have been thinking more about republicanism. I think that this issue divides people on the Left. There are those who support the continuation of the monarchy as the unelected Head of State for a number of reasons, maybe because they have no belief in the alternative. There are also those who see the monarchy as largely irrelevant to the major political questions of our time such as opposing the austerity programme or the consequences of the War on Terror.  As some of my more politically active colleagues pointed out to me, abolishing the monarchy and installing a republic still leaves us with capitalism and the many social and environmental threats that it poses to us all on a global scale. Against such a backdrop, expending energy campaigning to abolish the monarchy in a small European island looks like a parochial concern. Perhaps for some of these reasons, on the occasion of major Royalist events, I suspect that many on the Left simply opt-out from what is going on. They escape the country or the cities and enjoy extended holidays with their families and friends. They don’t take to the streets in any significant number.  
On Sunday 3 June, however, more than a thousand people gathered outside Potter’s Fields by Tower Bridge and made their presence felt. As I witnessed from some of the responses the demo received from people passing by, one major difference between republicans and monarchists lies in the way that republicans politicise the monarchy. Republicans ask important questions about democracy and hereditary privilege and power which many might find uncomfortable, confusing and challenging. It is not surprising therefore to find that the responses can be emotional, inchoate and sometimes violent as was the case outside St Paul’s Cathedral on the day of the thanksgiving service. Over time, the monarchy has become thoroughly depoliticised: it is the subject of tabloid stories, Hello magazine covers, and the cultural fantasy of becoming a princess still holds sway as evidenced by last year’s royal wedding. From an early age (in my son’s case from the time he has been in pre-school) we are introduced to the idea of an aristocrat being the hereditary, unelected Head of State with its quasi-divine status and the glorified position of the Royal Family as standing over and above us as perfectly normal, as a natural state of affairs. This is the way things are meant to be. If they are in their castle(s) (and palaces), then we are invited to stand at the gate. As demonstrated by the Jubilee, it seems that a great many people willingly consent to assume such a position: they set aside and suspend any scepticism they might have and join in the celebrations – whether as a spectator on the Thames or in organising parties in their local communities. For sure, the Jubilee has been used to bring people together around a common event. Many people may have chosen to participate in their village, street or town events so as to share in the collective life of their community when opportunities to do so are so few and far between. For some of us, however, joining in such events even with our friends or neighbours just wasn’t an option.
The idea of the British Republic remains the aspiration of a minority of the population. The aristocracy, the royal family and the monarchy are deeply entrenched. Even those who were once radical in their youth soon feel the allure of becoming a Knight of the Realm or a member of the Order of the British Empire. For those involved in the Republican movement – which is diverse – one major challenge is to mobilise greater levels of support. Instead of leaving the country, people need to be energised to stay and speak against what is happening. 
For me, the Republican project is much more than stripping the monarch of the Head of State role; it is about overturning the monarchical system of patronage, power and influence which serves the interests of the ruling political class. Governments should no longer be formed in the name of the monarch but in the name of the people.  This is a project of thoroughgoing reform which just might restore the faith and trust it is said people have lost in the politicians they elect. They will no longer be protected by the figure of the monarch and instead of genuflecting to the Crown, the electorate and politicians alike can stand and deal with themselves as equals. I think that by embarking on this kind of reform, our chances of dealing with the other pressing global problems which face us all today would be improved. The question of the monarchy is not simply one for those preoccupied with constitutional reform – important as that is – but goes to the heart of social justice.  
Twitter: @andrewjchild

Saturday, 9 June 2012

A monarch thumbing her nose at the people...

This article was first published on Tuesday June 5, 2012 on the London School of Economics' politics and politics blog, where it been the most popular post of the last week and been "liked" by 667 people on Facebook. It appears under the title "There's every reason to argue it's time to abolish the monarchy. Britain can do so much better."
"Removed from the experience of ordinary Britons, and having made no gesture to show her empathy with the nation’s difficulties, this is a monarch thumbing her nose at her subjects, writes Andrew Child. The monarchy is damaging to foreign policy, undermines the concept of aspiration in social mobility and is used as a puppet of our politicians."
As “the nation” apparently celebrates 60 years of the same unelected head of state – aka the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – there’s every reason to argue that it’s time to abolish the monarchy. And there was every reason to protest at Elizabeth Windsor’s Thames Pageant on Sunday. We – the British people – can do so much better.
The easiest way to think about why we’d be better off without the monarchy is to ask a simple question: what has it ever done for us? To answer it I’m going to turn to the supporters of monarchy for assistance (It’s only fair in the interests of balance). I want to consider each of their arguments in turn and see what we’re left with.
The most-cited reason for supporting the monarchy is that they sum up who the British people are. They’re Britishness itself. This is an argument that was often deployed by the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne during last year’s royal wedding “celebrations”. Really Peter? Because I went to a state comprehensive school and I rely on the National Health Service for my care. That’s a big part of who I am – and that’s a big part of the experience of the nation at large. The Windsors are however completely removed from that experience. I also live in multi-cultural Brixton in south-west London. And such diversity is now a big part of the British character. It’s often said that curry is as British as fish and chips or a Sunday roast. Few would disagree. The hereditary principle denies us the possibility that our head of state can ever reflect the experience of the many.
So how then is the Queen supposed to meaningfully speak for and represent the nation? Another prominent argument. Her background and lack of democratic legitimacy make this extremely difficult. This otherness is sometimes mistaken for impartiality. But she is anything but impartial. The queen is a monarchist, she is aristocrat-in-chief. She has a position and a narrow interest to defend. It’s hard to see how she can act in the interests of the nation.
But try she might. She might try to understand the current economic plight of the nation – a nation which is in the grip of a double dip recession and all that goes with it: cuts in public services, mass unemployment, depressed wages, a reduced standard of living, increasing inequality. But no words like recession and austerity have passed the lips of our head of state. We essentially hear from our head of state twice a year. Once is when she reads from a piece of paper which tells her and us what the government intends to legislate on. And again in the Queen’s Christmas message, when we are served up bland, platitudinous nonsense from which it’s hard to discern what century we’re living in.
Some would argue the position neither allows her to speak for herself or the nation. This is something to be debated. But the Queen could and should make a gesture to show that she understands the nation’s difficulties. That we are truly “all in this together”. But such as acknowledgement is painfully lacking. No offer to pay the same taxes as the rest of us. No offer to accept less money from the taxpayer for her official duties. Instead the Queen has struck a deal with parliament to replace the Civil List with the Sovereign Support Grant. A deal which massively boosts her official income. This is a monarch instead thumbing her nose at her subjects.
Another well-rehearsed argument is that the monarch somehow provides balance in our political system. That she is a check on our politicians. I’ve dealt with some of this already. But let’s get down to brass tacks. Our prime minister may be offered personal opinions at one of her weekly briefings at the palace or through a meeting of the Privy Council, but we’ve no idea what is said. They’re not opinions offered in the public realm. Because despite the monarchy being a public institution there’s no public scrutiny of it. It’s exempt from Freedom of Information legislation. And if our politicians misbehave – as they did quite astonishingly through their abuse of parliamentary expenses – it is they who call an inquiry in themselves.  The Queen does not hold them to account and she herself cannot be held to account. Discussion of royalty is banned by parliamentary rules. Furthermore the Queen is used as a puppet of politicians. Either to hide behind at times of unpopularity so as not to take ultimate responsibility. Or to rubber stamp their cronyism through our corrupt honours system. Politicians largely decide who get the gongs – big party donors and the like – and she hands them out.
What else? The Queen promotes Britain abroad. No-one else does pomp and ceremony like the Brits, goes the old cliche and our foreign friends apparently view it all with some envy. Now this I really do find offensive. The fact of the matter is that monarchy is extremely damaging to the effectiveness of our foreign policy. How on earth are we supposed to support the Arab Spring and foster the idea of greater democracy elsewhere in the world when we have such as imperfect democracy ourselves? By not electing our head of state? But it doesn’t stop there. Our Queen gives legitimacy to murderous dictators by inviting them to dine with her and celebrate 60 years on the throne. I speak principally of King Hamad of Bahrain and King Mswati of Swaziland. But also Saudi royals, who deny women basic rights and help crush democratic uprisings in neighbouring countries with military might. In these actions we see a monarch who has contempt not just for public opinion and democracy but for human rights. It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of the 54 Commonwealth nations are now republics. Hard to see the evidence of envy in that.
Then there’s the argument that monarchy provides stability and continuity. I won’t dignify this ridiculous proposition with a proper answer, other than to say that its a bit like making the case for not brushing the old cobwebs away during the spring clean.
Still, monarchists think they have a trump card. When all the other arguments have been quickly demolished – and I think I’ve shown that’s not hard – they say: “Well, at least they bring in the tourists. You can’t argue with that.” Well I do. And it’s an argument that even Britain’s main tourist body Visit Britain no longer makes, under pressure from republicans, because it’s logically threadbare. The history of our monarchy and the royal palaces may well be part of the reason some tourists come to Britain. But it’s quite obvious that it remains if we choose to become a republic. And there’s no reason to suppose that our republican constitution would deter visitors from exploring that history. Indeed there’s a perverse argument for saying we could better monetise that history under a republic. Versailles in republican France is in the world’s top 50 tourist destinations and receives six million visitors a year. In contrast Buckingham Palace, during its short summer opening, receives less than half a million. Go figure.
There really is no rational argument for monarchy. It serves very little purpose other than to help perpetuate an outmoded class system and to promote anti-aspiration at a time when Britain is the most unequal society it has been in the Queen’s 60 year reign. That lack of a rational argument tells me that the day when Britain becomes a republic is nearer than many think. And this despite a state which is geared towards bludgeoning its citizens into royal submission the moment they first enter the school gates. We have rational minds. We just need to use them.
Twitter: @andrewjchild