In modern Britain, the republican movement is largely a forgotten cause. That forgetting comes at the expense of a proud history attested to by writers like Clive Bloom in his book Restless Revolutionaries. David Norbrook has argued that it’s intentional, purposefully glossed over in school History classes by an endless parade of Kings and Queens.
The extensive history of the republican movement can be viewed in several phases: the Medieval phase, exemplified by the Peasants’ Revolt, in which monarchy was to be recast as the saviour of the poor; the Civil War phase, when republicanism had a real social base in the Levellers; the Restoration aftermath of conspiracies and pamphlets; and the more recent phase when the labour movement, who could have inherited the mantle of the Levellers, declined the question completely.
The Peasants’ Revolt is not traditionally understood as anti-monarchy. Often the peasants are viewed as seeking to rescue the ‘good king’ from his corrupt advisors: in 1381, the Great Revolt had London in its hands, and the entire Royal household at their mercy, but their revolutionary slogan was for ‘King Richard and the true commons’. However, John Ball preached a radical, classless vision with no ‘villains nor gentlemen’, and Jack Straw planned to use the captive King to legitimise the destruction of aristocratic and Church power. This may have been, as Engels wrote, a case of ‘communism nourished by fantasy.’ The Peasants’ Revolt promised to have a king entirely captured and instrumentalised by the armed people—in which case, it’s unlikely the monarchy could have lasted.
The English Civil War, of course, gave rise to an actual English republic, which lasted for eleven years between 1649 and 1660. Instead of projecting radical hopes onto the monarch, a millenarian expectation of divine guidance had made earthly kings dispensable. It was not just the Fifth Monarchist militants, but the likes of John Milton, who believed that the Second Coming would ‘end all earthly tyrannies.’
As Christopher Hill wrote, the Leveller movement at this time provided the popular basis for England’s republic. As the victorious parliamentary army wavered over the mode of government to succeed Charles I, the Levellers argued in 1647’s An Agreement of the People for an end to monarchy, with a single chamber of Parliament, and a wider electorate. John Rees has noted that it was this agitation which finally shut the door on a return by the King.
Anna Keay’s recent book on Britain’s republican period reminds us that ‘it was not a foregone conclusion that the British republic would fall.’ In fact, it was acknowledged at the time that republicanism had opened the door to wider radicalism. Harold Laski noted that the Restoration—the reimposition of monarchy on England, under whose shadow we still live—was carried out by ‘a combination of men of property in all classes’ in fear of ‘a social revolution which they vaguely felt to be threatening.’
When the American colonies chose a republican form of government, it was the English Civil War tradition upon which they drew. This in turn was synthesised by pamphleteer Thomas Paine with Enlightenment discourses of rights and citizenship emerging from France. Paine had no doubt that the Hanover monarchy could not survive the Age of Reason. Had the Napoleonic Wars ended differently, a British republic may have been imposed from without in any case. Had the cause of the United Irishmen succeeded, a republic may have been established on Britain’s shores. As it was, the rising industrial classes and the decaying aristocracy made their great pact, which survives to this day, and a new form of popular monarchy survived to adorn the City of London.
In the wake of Thomas Paine, several conspiracies and corresponding societies had designs on the monarchy. Thomas Spence advocated a ‘Republic of England’ in 1803, which included material demands such as the redistribution of land and a republican democracy. William Linton, in 1850, advocated a socialist republic in the short-lived Red Republican newsletter. But neither proposal found a mass base nor were taken up by an organised political movement.
In fact, reformist organisations have been stopping short of republicanism ever since. From the Chartists to Charter 88, proposals for reform have refrained from even making the demand. The Chartists were said to believe that the Royal Family were secretly on their side.
Christopher Hill noted that republicanism was largely abandoned by the labour movement in England. The current campaign group Labour for a Republic places itself in the tradition of the Levellers and Thomas Paine, but does not advocate an open breach with monarchism; instead, it suggests some transitional demands—like revising the Parliamentary oath and removing vestiges of royal prerogative—which it hopes will prepare the ground for greater efforts in the future.
Specific individuals have, however, broken with this model. The great Labour MP Tony Benn, as part of his wider campaign for democratic socialism, proposed the Commonwealth of Britain bill in 1991—a fully worked-out proposal for a democratic republic to be established. But despite being seconded by Jeremy Corbyn, the case for a republic was not taken up by Labour even when the Left held the leadership of the party. Conventional wisdom always insists that the issue is irrelevant, or the time is not right, and the fountainhead of privilege, class power, and political corruption is left in place.
What is beyond the scope of this short survey is the influence of republicanism in Ireland, where it has a rich tradition, as in Scotland and Wales—particularly regarding the possibility of cross-pollination of radical, republican ideas. It might take a united, Irish Republic to the West, and a new Scottish Republic to the north for England to question its own constitutional future.
For the English Left, however, this should be a question no longer negated or ignored. The monarchical system conceals a large amount of reserve prerogative powers, which will one day be used against us. It also contains cultural and symbolic power which sustains hierarchy and the class system, to the detriment of any liberatory project. The foundation of an English Republic would necessitate reformulating the rights and duties of citizens, and is something the Left could shape in a way that protects economic and social rights.
Clearly, an effort to abolish the monarchy and establish a democratic republic with economic and social rights would require a mass movement with a basis in the working class and dispossessed of the country. It is tempting to therefore argue that building this movement must necessarily come first. Potential constitutional arrangements can be argued over later, once the power has been won. But this negates the catalysing effects that great arguments and events can have. The treason of King Charles in 1649 and his deposition opened the door to more radical egalitarian demands; in today’s terms, if people can question the right of even monarchs to rule, they can also question the powers of their bosses and major corporations.
The right wing were able to take a seemingly marginal issue—the UK’s relationship with the European Union—and drive it into the mainstream, attaching to it more salient issues and in the process radicalising half of the electorate. There is no reason why the Left could not turn an argument for a republic into a wider movement against privilege, landlordism, corporate power and the class system itself.
Moreover, with further Royal scandals no doubt to come, with uncertain heirs, and with more commonwealth republics on the way, the question of monarchy will be broached in any case. The only issue is whether the Left will be ready, and if the labour movement is prepared, at last, to take up the Good Old Cause.