Draining the swamps

Calling for “radical republicanism” in one of the world’s oldest monarchies might seem like a strange thing to do.

The private lives of the British royal family continue to provide the press with a steady stream of lucrative drama and sensation, even as the newspapers face the prospect of more effective regulation [Reuters]
The private lives of the British royal family continue to provide the press with a steady stream of lucrative drama and sensation, even as the newspapers face the prospect of more effective regulation [Reuters]

In Britain one is never far from reminders of the monarchy. The marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011 and the celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year were opportunities for celebration in much of the country.

The private lives of the royal family continue to provide the press with a steady stream of lucrative drama and sensation, even as the newspapers face the prospect of more effective regulation.

Only last week, the Duchess of Cambridge became front-page news for reasons that don’t justify use of the phrase “the public interest”. The fact that we have a crowned head of state pervades the national life. And the monarchy is extremely popular. Polls indicate that about 80 per cent of the population want to keep a crowned head of state.

The stubborn royalism of the English in particular makes them seem like unlikely agents of radical change. This can be dispiriting for those who think that such change is both necessary and desirable. After all, how can we hope to reform the economy and create a more just society when so many of our fellow citizens remain happy to be subjects?

Across much of the liberal and socialist left, there is a wistful longing for Britain to be a proper, modern country, like France or the United States, with a proper, modern constitution. According to them, we will never be able to look foreigners in the eye until our head of state is a retired politician.

Monarchy is popular

On the one hand, the monarchy is popular and on the other hand, radicalism is closely associated with anti-monarchism. This combination has a paradoxical effect. Those who want to make the country more democratic find themselves in a small minority. Meanwhile, those who benefit from the current, oligarchical arrangements comfortably make common cause with the great majority.

So, monarchy is at once part of the industry that caters to a global appetite for celebrity and a powerful force for political conservatism in Britain. Those who complain about its feudal antiquity sometimes overlook how modern it really is. 

 United Kingdom marks Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

But there is another approach to the monarchy that doesn’t leave radicals on the wrong side of public opinion. Rather than railing against the Queen as a bulwark of inherited privilege, we need only ask that the monarchy be embedded in a properly republican constitution.

Most British people believe that they live in a constitutional monarchy that is also a democracy. As a matter of boring old fact, it is neither. What could be milder and more moderate than to ask that political reality be brought into line with popular beliefs and preferences? And what could be more fraught with transformative implications?

This approach takes the institution of the Crown seriously without making the removal of the crowned head of state indispensable to a radical programme. It also widens the horizon of the reforming imagination. For a republican constitution would also, of necessity, demote Parliament by making it subordinate to a sovereign people.

This is exactly the point that the many idolators of Parliament in the political and media class are most eager to obscure. The crocodiles of Westminster are happiest half-submerged in the warm water of general incomprehension.

Once the connection between radicalism and anti-monarchism is broken, we are left with a much more interesting task. We can start thinking about the constitutional innovations necessary to ensure that popular sovereignty does not degenerate into a polite fiction, another habitat hospitable to crocodiles.

The largest and most powerful republic on the planet, the United States, is still relying on a constitution devised in the late 18th century. Continental expansion, industrial consolidation and new technologies have transformed the circumstances in which this constitution operates.

Capitalist oligarchy

The greatest experiment in democratic self-government the world had ever seen has become a capitalist oligarchy at home and an empire overseas. While monarchy, from Britain to Saudi Arabia, has been rejuvenated in this American Empire, republicanism is showing its age.

A revived movement for democracy will have to look beyond the classical categories of republican thought. A more equal and more just society, no matter how conceived, can only be reached through fundamental reform of the institutions of credit, subsidy and communication. At the moment, these scarcely feature in mainstream constitutional thought yet together they play crucial roles in determining the distribution of property, knowledge and power.

States exercise a largely covert influence over the structures of broadcasting. The employees of large and unaccountable organisations dominate venues for speech that is taken seriously and reaches substantial audiences. The financial sector collaborates with central banks to ensure that they win, no matter how many people lose.

Meanwhile, science serves as the assistant to raison d’état and the profit motive. None of this is compatible with a fully realised democracy, in which we each have an equal say in the fundamentals of social organisation.

It might seem odd to argue for a radical republican programme in one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious monarchies. But as the Swedish proverb has it, you have to dig where you stand. Besides, why not start draining the swamps of oligarchy in Britain, where the oldest monsters of unaccountable power make themselves at home? If a Maximum Republic is possible here, it is possible anywhere.

Dan Hind is the author of The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason and Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty. His e-book, Maximum Republic, will be published this week on Kindle.  

Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

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