On the morning of June 24th, 2016, the citizens of the UK awoke to the realization that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union. This process was commonly referred to as Brexit.
In the three months since then there have been constant media programmes and articles on Brexit, analysing and commenting on what this decision will mean for the UK and the EU. In the process, political party loyalties have been shaken and whole communities, even families, have been divided. Lies, misinformation and obfuscation during the referendum campaign have been exposed and calls have been made for an additional referendum to vote on what Brexit outcomes the British government will finally obtain and legislate for.
On the side of those who voted to leave the EU there have been proclamations that sovereignty will return to the UK, that the nation will revert to retaining control of its national borders, and that British jobs will once again be available for British people. Immigration and economics seem to have been at the heart of the desire to leave the EU.
On the other hand, those who championed the EU cause argued on the basis of such things as an alternative economics, national security and the desirability of maintaining immigration in order to supply the labour that the UK will require in the attempt to diversify and sustain its national production and consumption. So too, and perhaps not as vocally as some would have wished, the fact that the nature and purpose of the EU has been a major influence for an extended period of peace on a continent that had previously known centuries of conflict and warfare.
The Brexit supporters have pointed to the fact that the country seems not to have been economically affected by the decision to leave the EU. Of course, it needs to be kept in mind that the decision to leave the EU is only the first step in a far-reaching process. Seemingly countless further decisions will need to be made as the UK negotiates with the EU and other trading partners before the process is finalized.
Furthermore, as stated by Stephen Haseler, the Professor of Government Studies and Director of the Global Policy Institute at the London Metropolitan University: “The economic life of British citizens is primarily determined by changes in the global economy. Economic policy and management is increasingly the product of inter-governmental agreements and accommodations – both formal and informal.” It is at least arguable that this whole process has been made more difficult for the UK by its withdrawal from the EU.
The argument that the UK will regain its sovereignty by its withdrawal from the EU seems spurious in the light of the fact that leaving the EU will make no difference to the British elective system and voting rights, the presence of a non-elected House of Lords, the over-reaching power of a government executive and the absence of a written British constitution.
However, given that ‘sovereignty’ seems to have been a major factor with those wishing to leave the EU, it is noticeable, though perhaps not too surprising, that little was mentioned in the EU referendum campaign about the British monarchy. In fact, there seems to have been what Peter Kim once called a “deafening silence on an intriguing constitutional question”.
The existence of an hereditary monarchy which sits at the apex of an entrenched class system would obviously be affected by the UK’s increasing involvement with the EU – observe the lack of active political involvement of other continuing royal houses within Europe, e.g., the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Spain. It does not require too great an imagination to realize which side of the EU referendum the members of the extended British royal family would have been!
There is also the ambiguity, if not outright contradiction, of the British people taking issue with increasing the power of the EU – which has an elected parliament, democratic accountability and the power that comes with the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ – whilst, at the same time, being apparently impervious to the implications of maintaining a privileged and unelected royal family. The influence and power of what has been called the “royal-state” is an aspect of British life that is little known about or reflected on.
In his book, The End of the House of Windsor – Birth of a British Republic (1993), Stephen Haseler, speaking in favour of closer union between Britain and the EU, stated: “The new union invades the royal-state, robbing its institutions, one by one, of their power and legitimacy. The monarchy is reduced to the extent that British independence is reduced, and can find no role in the European Union because the new Europe rejects hereditary institutions.”
Stephen Haseler’s book should be recommended reading for all genuine and would-be republicans, as well as compulsory reading for those who consider British royalty to be benign. The book is as important today, perhaps more so, than it was when first published. I acknowledge it as a major source of inspiration for and reflection on a significant portion of what this article contains.
Professor Haseler quotes the republican writer Tom Nairn who, in considering the influence of the British Parliament and the Monarchy, has said that, when the British look at themselves in a mirror, “a gilded image is reflected back, made up of sonorous past achievement, enviable stability and the painted folklore of their Parliament and Monarchy. Though aware that this enchanted glass reflects only a decreasingly useful lie, they have naturally found it difficult to give up. After all, the ‘reflection’ is really their structure of national identity – what they seem to be is itself an important dimension of what they are.”
In the light of the above, it would be of genuine interest to discover to what extent the voting patterns in the recent EU referendum reflected views about royalty, i.e. were those who voted to leave the EU more in favour of the continuation of the British monarchy, with those who voted to remain in the EU less favourable. For, it is axiomatic that to abandon British national sovereignty would mean to also abandon the British sovereign. Obviously, as the outcome of the EU referendum showed, for many in contemporary Britain this is currently a step too far.
At around the same time as Tom Nairn (see above) made his comments, Lord Cobbold, writing to The Times in 1992, suggested that in Britain “the political divide of the future is between Europeans and nationalists.” For the time being at least (and with the obvious exception of the Scottish nationalists – the majority of whom voted to remain in the EU), it would seem that the British have made up their collective mind on which side of this divide they wish to be.