Sunday, 18 March 2012

The making of a radical republican

I suppose I was something of an early developer, politically speaking. By age 14 I had already started to articulate my thoughts around a lack of fairness and representation in our political system and would write about them in English essays, no doubt to the bemusement of my teachers, who I’m sure had other topics in mind when setting homework and exams . Two things seemed clear to me above all else: We didn’t get the government we voted for, and that some form of proportional representation was necessary; that we had a head of state who had not ‘earned’ her position and yet appeared to be revered by many people who could take nothing in life for granted. The position therefore seemed to fundamentally misrepresent the people it was supposed to represent. 
Such notions were doubtless reinforced by growing up in a peculiar feudal hamlet in north Lincolnshire, largely presided over by a ‘lord and lady of the manor’ who owned most of its surrounding land and half the properties. These properties were either rented out to servants or those who had at one time been servants in manor house, or hall as it was known. Many of these residents - it was plain to see - were held in a strange bondage of misguided loyalty by the ‘lord and lady’, though they were regularly spoken to in the most condescending tones. In return the ‘lord and lady’ were treated with the upmost respect. They were given their own family pew in the village church, which no one else was to sit in under any circumstances. They were the first to receive Communion. They were never referred to by their first names. They were sometimes greeted with an unacknowledged bow of the head when passed their hymn and prayer books, depending on who was on church duty on that particular Sunday. And in case we were left in any doubt as to the fact that in this village at least we were not all equal in the eyes of God, weekly congregants we asked to sing - and they did so with great gusto, one and all - that most crippling of verses from the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful: “The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them high or lowly, And ordered their estate.”
It was almost as if the royals had representatives in our village. That status was later formalised when the ‘lady of the manor’, not actually a lady at all, though a daughter of a Knight of the Realm, was made the Queen’s Lord Lieutenant of Lincolnshire.  
My dad’s answer to my first problem - that of our rudimentary first past the post electoral system, was to support the Liberal Democrats, though this stopped some way short of joining the party or placing an election placard outside the house. His answer to the second problem of monarchy, was more prosaic. As if presented with the problem of the persistent school bully, his response was simply to say “ignore them”. This active withdrawal of attention, he believed, if repeated by sufficient numbers on a regular basis, would in effect starve the monarchy of oxygen, and in time they would wither. And so every Christmas as the BBC prepared to broadcast the Queen’s pre-recorded message to the nation, we would leave the rest of the family gathered around the TV to embark on a brisk walk in clear country air for the duration. We would return to mock the family for meekly absorbing what we regarded then and now as platitudinous nonsense.
But much as with an unattended medical complaint, outwardly ignoring the problem, while stoically bearing the pain or discomfort, simply appeared to make matters worse. Both for myself and the country. The media had simply refused to heed widespread public indifference to this over-privileged family, the Windsors. It had instead taken its own burgeoning obsession with the royals for public sentiment. 
So why did it take more than two decades to bring matters to a head? What made this often mild-mannered journalist finally snap? What turned him into a campaigning republican, or an “obsessive” anti-monarchist as some friends and colleagues would have it? 
The short answer is the circumstances surrounding two events last spring which followed each other in quick succession. The royal wedding on April 29, and the AV referendum on May 5. 
I’ll deal with the latter first, because it seems a less obvious catalyst and yet it is every bit as important. As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’m a firm advocate of electoral reform. While the coalition agreement of 2010 didn’t result in the offer of a referendum on a change to a form of proportional representation, it did result in the nation voting on the option of switching from First Past the Post (FPtP) to the Alternative Vote. While this wasn’t my preferred option or the preferred option of most Lib Dems, it would have nevertheless delivered a voting system significantly fairer than the one we are still saddled with. It would have made politicians work much harder to become our representatives, forcing them to reach out beyond their core vote. And it could have provided an important staging post for the Single Transferable Vote (proportional representation), which sees voters rank candidates in order of preference, exactly as they do with AV. 
The result when it came was a huge disappointment, having seen a slender lead for AV at the start of the referendum campaign. It’s fair to say that vote represented a sound drubbing for electoral reform campaigners. But defeat, in my view was easily avoidable, and as a consequence I felt thoroughly let down by a whole range of interests: the well-funded yet wasteful Electoral Reform Society, the insipid Lib Dems and the ultimately self-interested progressive elements within the Labour party. The reason: the simply wretched quality of the debate. The abiding memory of the Yes to AV coalition was one of rancor, division and a complete absence of conviction. Many wouldn’t share the same platform out of simple self interest. And they pulled their punches. They didn’t spell out what is clearly wrong with the present system for electing MPs and they didn’t bother to point out the sheer hypocrisy of the unholy alliance ranged against it: that both the Conservatives and Labour elect their leaders using a form of AV and that on a FPtP basis both would currently have different leaders. 
I believe the politics of fear won the day. It felt as if there were a greater, unspoken hurdle which had to be overcome. I believe this is the taboo of breaking with our most trenchant traditions. And there can be nothing more trenchant than our monarchy. We are not asking ourselves what sort of a country we want to be, only what sort of a country we have been. We are acquiescing in reproducing our past as our future without questioning whether this history is good or bad. We are afraid of change for the better. If that continues to be the case our democracy will atrophy. In summary I came to believe there was a more fundamental debate to be had, one that could, if won, result even more profound democratic change. 
The wedding - the one between Prince William and Kate Middleton - revealed the complicity of the British media in “reproducing the royals”, as I think Guardian columnist Catherine Bennett recently put it. Whichever paper you read, with the exception of the Independent, whichever broadcaster you listened to, without exception, asserted this was a national celebration in which every man, woman and child was involved. A this was a six month celebration or,  more fittingly, a campaign by the media. There was very little reporting and there was no acknowledgment of the near 20 per cent of the adult population which is republican and has been consistently so for the past 30 years, according to polling. As Republic chief executive Graham Smith told me at the time in an interview for the Financial Times, the media had treated the wedding “as if it were the Second Coming [of Christ]”. 
Of course the media by and large is not obliged to be democratic, to give accurate and proper representation of the views of different interest groups. Though given its current public image resulting from its disgraceful intrusions into the private lives of citizens it might be well advised to do so. But this is exactly what is demanded of the BBC by its governing charter. And yet it has been guilty of some of the most egregious examples of celebrating rather than reporting. None more so than a recent trilogy celebrating the life of our Diamond Queen, by that one-time serious journalist Andrew Marr. One moment in particular sticks in the mind. Marr informs the viewer that some people have raised questions about whether the monarchy represents “value for money”. The reader might reasonably imagine that this one-time BBC political editor and a former editor of the Indy might have solicited a range of opinion: from economists, republicans and indeed royalists. But Marr goes to one person and one person only. Sir Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the civil service. It is hard to imagine a more establishment figure. And his answer? A rather unsurprising “yes they do”. And that was that.
The question raised by all this fawning coverage of the royals is what would happen to republican support if it was acknowledged in the media? What would happen if atomised republicans were made to realise that they weren’t alone in their belief.? What would happen if there was a proper debate? The media is clearly too risk-averse at the moment, yet it may ultimately do both itself and the monarchy greater damage if it does not open up and open up quickly. 

Twitter: @andrewjchild


  1. Hi, I've just come across your blog and am reading through it, hence the comment on this old post. I was wondering if there were any hard, cold facts on whether the monarchy is value for money? It would certainly be interesting to see.

  2. Thank you for reading and for your comment. I think you might find this Republic report enlightening: