Scrapping the monarchy gets in the way of real political reformby John Morrison / April 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
It was when the Republican of the Year boasted about peeing on an aristocrat’s carpet as a child that I realised the monarchy was safe. My epiphany came at the annual meeting of Republic, Britain’s anti-monarchist movement. Before the teabreak the 60 people present chose Mo Mowlam to be their fantasy head of state and heard comedian Mark Steel describe the monarchy as “bloody mad.”
Republican of the Year for 2001 was Claire Rayner, who delivered a rambling attack on the monarchy as a symbol of privilege: “It makes me want to throw up!” Not all of the speakers were this bad. Some of them were people whose opinions I share on most subjects, such as Geoffrey Robertson QC, Jonathan Freedland, and two MPs, Norman Baker of the Liberal Democrats and Andrew Mackinlay of Labour.
So why did the afternoon I spent with these fellow admirers of Tom Paine leave me unconvinced? It was partly that their anti-monarchism seemed to be propelled by personal hostility to the royal family. The Windsors were seen as rich and dysfunctional, enjoying a lazy lifestyle funded by tax fiddles. British republicans talked about the royal family in the way I remember Russian monarchists talking about the Jews. On the one hand, speakers assured the audience that their cause would triumph. On the other, there were dark warnings that they might be locked up under the Treason and Felony Act.
But the real problem with republicans is not the dottiness they share with enthusiastic monarchists. It is that far from helping constitutional reform, they are getting in its way. Campaigning to abolish the British monarchy by referendum in favour of a directly elected president is unlikely to succeed, and if it did, it would destabilise our democracy rather than reinforce it.
Despite the royal family’s problems over the last decade, there is no sign that republicanism is any closer to winning majority support. Polls by Mori since 1993 show great consistency in the key statistic of how many people would vote for a republic. It has varied between 15 per cent and 21 per cent, while support for the monarchy has varied between 69 per cent and 74 per cent. Public indifference to the monarchy may be on the rise, especially among the young, but this does not necessarily translate into active support for a republic. The British monarchy has repeatedly recovered from periods…