“Be the change you want to see in the world,” is the oft-quoted mantra of Mahatma Gandhi . This can never have been more pertinent to British republicans than it is today in 2012, in the midst of celebrations to mark 60 years of the same unelected head of state.
Celebrating the persistence of such an undemocratic symbol is a cause of genuine anger for the majority of republicans. For that reason alone we are duty bound to make that well-articulated anger, an anger that has built up over decades, visceral. And the only way to do that is to protest. And to be seen to protest.
The fact that dyed in the wool royalists are saying now is not the time, that we should show respect and allow them to enjoy the moment, merely serves to increase the necessity of republican protest. We must demonstrate that we won’t be intimidated. That we won’t be silenced. The hereditary principle is wrong. Simple. Full stop. And we need to say this in the loudest terms possible. To celebrate it is perverse. It offends the core of every genuine republican.
For too long ‘active’ republicans were engaged in a phoney war. They treated their cause as an exercise in intellectual curiosity. A theoretical ‘what if’. This did a huge disservice to both themselves and the 20 per cent of the adult population which has consistently identified itself as republican in polling stretching back over the last 30 years. It also made it look as if our critics had a point - that the monarchy, or the Queen at least deserved respect, deserved deference. But I think the truth is that it made us looked afraid. We were afraid, and many of us still are. But things are changing...
Over the last year or two Republic, the campaign for a democratic alternative to the monarchy, of which I am a director, has been slowly, steadily building itself as a protesting force. Last year we held two successful protests outside Buckingham Palace, the most recognisable symbol of our monarchy. It was important that we did that. It drew a line in the sand. But some would have had us stop there. Some would have had us retreat, having “made our point”. Saved it for another time.
There’s nothing that republicans like more than debating the finer points of their philosophy, the most egregious wrongs of royal rule, honing their argument. That’s all well and good but it’s too safe. It’s too cosy. There is a risk in protesting but it is a risk worth taking. It is the only way to grow our cause, and ultimately win the day. There will always be a reason to pull our punches. Wait until Charles accedes to the throne, they say. But what if once he’s there, the past is forgotten and his new position accords him the same reverence it has his mother? It’s not just possible, it’s more than likely. And so the waiting game will go on. Meanwhile, the republican movement will have atrophied. The greater risk is clearly in not acting.
Now, rather, the time is right to build serious momentum for change, to pave the way for our sympathisers in the corridors of power to articulate the republican argument without serious censure or public opprobrium. To become a movement that cannot be ignored. To stop being the elephant in the room.
Protest - sanctioned or otherwise - is also the one democratic failsafe. The one thing a movement, and individual can call upon when they are being shut out. And let’s be clear, the media - by and large - is simply refusing to acknowledge the depth of republican sentiment in this country. As a result, I believe, none of the three main political parties - Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems - acknowledge it either, led as they still are by the whimsy of the media. The Green Party is the only recognisable political party in Britain with a republican stance.
But there are very positive reasons for republicans to protest. Often seen as a failure of politics, I believe that the politics of protest is increasingly gaining traction in this country because it is seen as a form of active engagement in democracy. Thanks to the likes of UK Uncut and the Occupy movement, democracy is now more often seen as something much richer than marking the odd cross on a ballot paper every few years. It’s the chance to engage with people in an unmediated, direct way.
My own experience of protesting goes back to the 90s, when as a student at Essex I marched against the draconian powers proposed in the Criminal Justice Bill, which seemed to threaten the very right to protest. I could not have known how important those marches would be to me almost 20 years later. For while the bill was passed, the police have rarely exercised powers which sought to curb the right to congregate - at least not in the context of protest. And last summer’s riots showed the consequences of the police use of those powers against the youth of our inner cities.
Of course protesters cannot necessarily control how they are portrayed in the media. I remember vividly reading coverage of the CJB protests and my horror that even The Guardian characterised the cause as marginal by focusing on a tiny minority - the Black Flag Anarchists as they were known then - who caused trouble, despite the many thousands of law-abiding demonstrators.
But protesters can seek to mitigate a poor portrayal in the media by the lengths they go to ensure their actions are ordered and peaceful. From this much can be drawn about the intent and seriousness of a campaign group.
I’m pleased to report that Republic didn’t stop with the palace protests. It has since held half a dozen protests in London and the regions as part of a programme which will culminate in what should be the largest republican protest in living memory at the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the Thames in London on June 3. All of these protests have been coordinated with the relevant police forces beforehand, sometimes involving meeting senior officers for site visits to discuss specific locations and security issues. On the day we have liaised over banners, placards, slogans and use of megaphones. I believe this has paid dividends both in terms of our public image and our relationship with the police - particularly the Met. We have set a precedent. The police know they can work with us and us with them. They know they will get no trouble from us. They know what we represent and what we are about. That can only bode well in building trust in the future. A public all too used to the media portraying fractious relations between police and protesters would be surprised to see activists sharing a joke with officers at recent protesters in London.
But we cannot be complacent. Relations can still be improved and equally, current cordial relations could sour. The Metropolitan Police need to provide assurances that June 3 will not see a repeat of the sort of pre-emptive arrests of legitimate protesters seen around the time of last year’s royal wedding - actions which did not reflect well on the force and for which it has had to pay compensation.
Other police forces, meanwhile, also need to adopt the more enlightened approach of their peers in the Met. It was not edifying for City of London officers to threaten activists with arrest at our first Jubilee protest outside London’s Guildhall - first for using a solitary megaphone, and then over some light jeering from some royalists. Nor was it proportionate for Leicestershire Police to assign two officers to 12 activists in Leicester recently, who continued to tail us around the City long after our protests was over. They even kindly accompanied us onto the station platform as those of us who had travelled by train returned from whence we had come.
Indeed all forces would do well to regard both celebration and protest of royal events as a form of “demonstration”, which both need to be taken into account when ensuring public order. It has been royalists who have used foul and abusive language on such occasions, and had to be cautioned by police; it has been royalists who have spilled from the public highway and onto busy roads. We are both antagonists in the sense that the presence of the other is provocative. Yet the police and other authorities do not seek prior notification of demonstrations of royalist sentiment. Although nearly always several times greater in number at royal events, royalists are scarcely given any police attention at all. They are regarded as “the public”, whereas we are regarded as a vocal minority.
That mismatch in numbers - and this is important - is highly misleading. We are both sections of the public, probably equal in number according to polling. But in some fundamental ways we are very different. If you are there to celebrate as a royalist you are in a very real sense officially sanctioned, encouraged even. You are doing your patriotic duty as far as the state is concerned. You are not “policed” in any meaningful way, brass bands serenade you, TV cameras and press court you. The hardened royalist is out in force, because there is nothing discouraging him, and everything to encourage. It is a very different story for the republican, and this is why we are engaged in some of the most challenging form of protest in the UK today. While many may march and protest in front of a largely uninterested public, we - and many of us are first time protesters - are attempting to face down our head of state and her sometimes fanatical supporters. In the course of the past two months I have never been abused with such foul language and encountered such unreasonable behaviour, simply because I am exercising my right to peaceful protest. Any wonder that our numbers sometime pale? And that we are therefore characterised as a republican rump? It does sometimes require a certain courage to protest in these trying circumstances, when all you have is the courage of your convictions. There is no safety in numbers, by and large, no guaranteed protection by the police. Just the vitriol of irrational royalists. It’s all to easy to ignore it, to hope that it will all go away.
That is why come June 3, republicans should give some thought to expressing their belief. Even if they never protest again. Rather than meekly taking part in a Big Lunch, and pretending they have their own reasons for doing so (which will not be apparent). Or escaping for a few days in the sun. If there is the will, we can have thousands of protesters there near Tower Bridge. We will still be in the minority, but we will be heard, and we will - for once - have safety in numbers. We will show what we are about. That we are about democracy, and peaceful protest, and yes, even patriotism. For this and other protests give us the chance to counter some of the public’s long-held stereotypes about republicans. We don’t wrap ourselves up in Union Jacks, but we do care deeply about the future of our nation. Indeed, you could argue that republicanism is singularly patriotic.
Meanwhile, the royalists will get the chance - and they always do - to show what they are about. And a result of all this we might see some change.
But June 3 will hopefully be about the beginning of something rather than the end. Republic and republicans will continue to protest and build on what has been achieved. We will come to be an expected presence at big royal events up and down the country. Such events will no longer be unopposed celebrations. They will increasingly come to be about an increasingly contested idea: that of hereditary power.