“It certainly does need thinking about, but there will be no referendum on the monarchy’s future anytime soon. There was no mention of republicanism in Labour’s 2017 election manifesto and it is hard to envisage the next one being any different. It would be electoral suicide.”
These were the words of Larry Elliott, an English journalist and author who writings focus on economic issues. He is the economics editor at The Guardian newspaper and has published five books on related issues. The above words were written by Elliot on June 13, 2019, in an article in The Guardian called How the British royal family killed off republicanism.
Elliot’s opinion has its narrative basis in the recent state visit of Donald Trump, the current President of the USA, and the way in which the British monarch, Elizabeth Windsor, dealt with the ceremonies associated with this visit. He prefaces his argument by stating that … “since the Queen came to the throne in 1952, she has had plenty of practice in hosting a state visit for the world’s most powerful man.”
State visits aside, Larry Elliot indicates that events have not always been favourable to the fortunes of Elizabeth Windsor. In particular, he highlights the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in a Paris car crash in 1997.
He considers that at that time the monarch was most unprepared to deal with the national outpouring of grief (which he calls a ‘national blubathon’) that followed the death of Diana, and her initial response to this event was generally considered to be cold and insensitive. By way of contrast to this royal response was the somewhat opportunistic and emotive response to Diana’s death from the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He referred in laudatory terms to Diana, the Princess of Wales, as the “Peoples’ Princess”. This approach eventually proved positive for the monarch.
Elliot points out that the New Labour government of Tony Blair was committed to a package of constitutional reforms and that this direction in governance provided an opportunity to have a debate about the role of the monarchy in a modernizing UK. This was an opportunity not taken. Tony Blair was a royalist and would not have countenanced the UK becoming a republic. The idea was certainly about and, in fact, The Guardian newspaper called for a referendum on “what sort of state should Britain have after the Queen’s death?”
The Guardian’s position was that “people ought to able to say whether they would prefer to have an elected head of state or to continue with a monarchy.” The underlying question posed by the newspaper, therefore, was “Do they (the British people) want to be citizens or subjects?”
Larry Elliot is of the view that the contemporary arguments “in favour of turning Britain into a republic are no different from what they were 19 years ago. These arguments would involve democracy, power, governance, class and distribution of wealth.” To a republican such as the present writer, it seems outrageous that, in all of the recent discussion about tackling inequality in the UK, not to mention the arguments, notably the one about democracy, involved in the contemporary debate about Brexit, little has been heard about the role, or otherwise, of the monarchy.
At the turn of the century there was a realistic possibility that such a debate could take place. Since then, however, as referenced by Larry Elliot and others, the world-wide economic downturn and crisis, the recession of 2008-09 that was followed in the UK by the austerity policies of successive Coalition and Conservative governments, and the ongoing debate over Brexit, makes the possibility of a realistic discussion on republicanism in the UK seem quite remote.
The above events were outside of the monarchy’s compass. However, during the same period, the royal family has taken the opportunity to reinvent itself. There has always been strong residual support in the UK for the House of Windsor, after all, the British are basically a conservative nation, and certainly this has been the case during the reign of Elizabeth Windsor. But it is the roles that have been assumed by the younger royals that have made a decisive difference in the way that the House of Windsor has managed itself post 2000.
The Queen’s grandchildren, through their marriages, royal babies, the adoption of celebrity public profiles and the embracing of modern social media, not to mention PR and image consultants, have re-packaged, indeed reinvented, royalty for the 21st century.
When, at the turn of the century, Australia went to a referendum to determine the future of its head of state, the fact that the nation could not decide on what kind of replacement was needed or would be appropriate to replace the British monarch, meant that Australia is still governed as a constitutional monarchy, with a governor general representing the British monarch.
A similar question could be asked about the UK. Who would replace a monarch as the head of state? A member of a political class whose reputation is at a near record low level? An over-hyped or over-paid celebrity who is unable to see beyond his or her self-importance? A person from the world of business whose entire focus in a runaway capitalist society has been on profit and loss and wealth preservation?
Larry Elliot informs us that, in one of his diaries, the late Labour stalwart, Tony Benn, describes watching the establishment gather for the service in St Paul’s cathedral to mark the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. “We haven’t removed the grip of this crowd from British society, far from it, but on the other hand the public accept it all and the press plays it up to divert people from unemployment and the cost of living and the EEC and so on. It is a very important ingredient in British life and it has to be thought about.”
It might well be thought about; it might well also be asked, is the situation any different in 2019? If the pomp and circumstance associated with the recent state visit of Donald Trump to the UK is anything to go by, not to mention the central role played by royalty in that visit and the associated D-Day commemorations, then the immediate future of the British monarchy seems assured. Certainly, there will be no referendum on the future of the monarchy any time soon.
It is certainly true that one of the UK’s world-class industries is heritage. Elliot reminds us that “Tourism is money”. Thank you, Larry Elliot, for a most informative and interesting article in your newspaper. However, in stating that “Trump’s appearance highlighted that the monarchy has made itself virtually impregnable and that the republican cause in Britain has rarely been weaker”, you have made this republican reader a little more depressed. As if Brexit wasn’t enough!