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.