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Britain treats republicanism as a bit of a joke. Time to take it seriously

OPINION: Many have seen the true extent of the monarchy’s power for the first time. It needs to be challenged

Morgan Jones
20 September 2022, 4.16pm
Buckingham Palace, during Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee in 2002

Colin McPherson / Alamy Stock Photo

Most people who, if asked, would describe themselves as republicans – like most people full stop – do not usually think about the monarchy very much.

There are plenty of institutions, such as HMRC, or the DWP, or the Home Office, or the police, that rub up against people’s lives in the UK on a daily basis. When you pay your taxes, or claim benefits, or simply walk the streets, you encounter these institutions.

The way that they are present in our lives makes us aware of their power, and the unjust ways in which they wield it. The Home Office can deport people; the police can shoot them in the street. For many people interested in social justice, fighting these institutions – seeking to change or even abolish them – feels urgent, because it is urgent.

The monarchy is not like this. Nothing about the monarchy feels urgent; it is by definition glacial, operating on the longer durations with which the history books, or the compounding impacts of perennial inbreeding, concern themselves. The monarchy is a remote institution, one that exists in over-furnished rooms into which most of us correctly imagine that we will never set foot.

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If the institutions of state are like nets around us, the monarchy is loose – one that many of us assume will never pull tight against anyone’s skin. We imagine it, in short, to be a voluntary institution of state, one that some can enjoy and others can disengage from. There is, however, no such thing.

Hereditary monarchy is retrograde, and the power we give it is frightening

To different degrees, whose variation is largely dictated by wealth, if you live in a country you are subject to its institutions. They have power, specifically power over you. The last few weeks have been the first time in most people’s lives when they saw what power the monarchy actually possesses: a lot.

The apparent distance of the monarchy from everyday life has put it a long way down the political priority lists of almost everyone – even those who would wish to see it abolished. Yes, if we could press a button and have a republic we would press it (I would, at least), but the people who actively campaign for the abolition of the monarchy are few, fringe, and often cringe.

Believing that such campaigning is a good use of political energies belies a fairly abstract view of politics; one that does little accounting for the reality of the contemporary UK – where 62% would like to keep the monarchy, according to YouGov polling at the time of the Platinum Jubilee – and how to change it.

With a government that allows rampant energy profiteering and is happy to send people to Rwanda as political distraction, it feels like there are many more urgent issues to campaign on. One might even go so far to say that for sheltered liberals, it denotes a degree of privilege to concern oneself with the more remote institutions.

Seeing this power on show has made republicanism not only more urgent, but more connected to other issues

But even if some of the most vocal republicans appear to have a poor grasp of their political climate, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. Hereditary monarchy is retrograde, and the power we give it is frightening. This has been on full display in the period since the Queen’s death, from the arrest of the man who heckled the disgraced Prince Andrew, to the sidelining of people who point out the monarchy’s historic role in the slave trade, to the country’s apparent willingness to halt everything in the name of mourning.

Seeing this power on show has made republicanism not only more urgent, but more connected to other issues. We should be wary of an institution with the power, say, to put thousands of armed police on the streets of London at a moment’s notice, to apparently interfere with our hospital appointments and to avoid inheritance tax.

This is unlikely to be the moment that republicanism becomes a hot-button issue in and of itself. What we can hope it might become, however, is part of a great many others: an accepted part of conversations about the right to protest, about policing or about our taxation system, much in the way that we understand the DWP or the Home Office to be part of many axes of injustice.

The monarchy’s power to influence these things, arbitrarily bestowed on the royal family as a birthright, is very real – even if it is largely exercised out of sight.

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