Why anti-monarchy protests don’t work

Republican Day is the latest manifestation of a very old tradition. But it won’t become a mass movement

May 21, 2024
Image: Ben Clinton / Republic 2024
Image: Ben Clinton / Republic 2024

Tied up. Dragged across the ground by a horse. Disembowled. Beheaded—and cut into four pieces. This was the punishment for high treason, the crime of disloyalty to the monarch, in the 12th century. 

Republican dissent is as old as the monarchy. Staring at a giant dinosaur in Trafalgar Square, I am attending the latest manifestation of this ancient desire to remove the royal family—Republic Day. But I doubt I’ll be seeing any beheadings today. 

Republic Day is coordinated by Republic, the main group advocating for the abolition of the monarchy and implementation of a democratic republic in Britain. The group made headlines last year as several of its members were arrested for protesting King Charles’s coronation. This May, they launched Republic Day—which will take place each year on the eve of the coronation’s anniversary. 

Due to the constant flow of confused tourists attempting to take selfies in Trafalgar Square, it’s hard to tell how many people have actually turned up, but it looks like around 100, mainly middle-aged, demonstrators. A nearby busker singing outside the National Gallery has attracted a similar-sized crowd. From a distance, it’s a small blur of yellow (the colour of Republic’s flag). People are wearing yellow T-shirts, waving yellow flags, offering out yellow stickers, and holding up large yellow banners that read—“Abolish the Monarchy” and “Not my King!" An elderly lady named Georgie, in a camo jacket and mock crown with “down with the king” on the coronet, tells me the monarchy should have been abolished a long time ago. “It’s about time we had a democratic system that didn’t cost us millions of pounds a year.” This dual critique of monetary extractivism and undemocratic governance is echoed throughout the day and in Republic’s wider campaign.

I met the head of Republic, Graham Smith, a week or so before Republic Day for a walk around St James’s Park in London. We were next to Buckingham Palace, the material signifier of Smith’s political enemy—the very birthplace of King Charles. Yet he barely seemed to notice. Smith echoed Georgie’s points, telling me “republics are more stable and democratic.” He added the tourism benefits, often cited by royalists to justify the monarchy’s taxpayer-funded income, have been “debunked.” Support for the monarchy, he said, is “dropping sharp”.

At the rally, Smith is on a stage in front of a small crowd. “We will definitely succeed,” he announces. Looking around, I’m not so sure. Tourists are milling about the square. One man—who appeared to have just stumbled upon the rally—makes his way to the front and is soon armed with a yellow flag and a sticker. He shouts that the royal family are “murderers and paedophiles”. 

On stage, various speakers, including campaigner Peter Tatchell and poet Fran Lock, are articulating their critiques of the monarchy. Actor and activist Femi Nylander sings republican covers of famous tunes, including a rendition of Tina Turner’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain” changed to “I can’t stand the reign of the Windsors”.

In the crowd, there’s a large dinosaur wearing a crown called “tyrannosaurus ex” (a nod to the out-of-date nature of the monarchy). It takes the full day to put the dinosaur together.

A young, flag-waving protester named Eliot says a lot of support for the monarchy comes from the pomp of the big ceremonies. Today, Eliot says, Republic is attempting to create “their own non-monarchy ceremonial event for a republic.”

Support for the monarchy is indeed waning. Recent data showed a historic high of 45 per cent of Brits think the monarchy should be abolished or is “not very” or “not at all” important. This might, however, be due to the monarchy’s numerous PR disasters—Prince Andrew’s island-related scandal and the Megan Markle debacle come to mind—as opposed to Republic’s campaigning. A more self-reflective protestor, a teacher named Toby, tells me: “Republicans have some serious work to do to make their argument more relevant to this moment.” 

Republic’s arguments are cohesive. Yet the British public doesn’t seem convinced enough to take action. As I watched the protest, I kept wondering why. The obvious answer may be that despite being head of state, the monarch is extremely unlikely to go against the elected executive. The issue, then, is not the most pressing—especially when compared to the cost-of-living crisis, or Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. And encouraging mass mobilisation against the status quo is never easy.

Yet, maybe there is something else explaining Republic’s failure to create a mass movement. Last year, the Australian musician Nick Cave drew widescale criticism from his fans for attending Charles’s coronation. His response articulated his own, and perhaps Britain’s, relationship with the royal family: “Beyond the interminable but necessary debates about the abolition of the monarchy, I hold an inexplicable emotional attachment to the Royals—the strangeness of them, the deeply eccentric nature of the whole affair that so perfectly reflects the unique weirdness of Britain itself.” This new protest group—a mismatch of the middle-aged from all political backgrounds—has its own unique weirdness too.