Discover more from Odds and Ends of History
The monarchy is stupid but there's nothing we can do about it
Republican? Republican't more like.
The Monarchy is bad and we should abolish it.
This isn’t an interesting argument to make. The problem is that like the existence of God (or lack thereof), every conceivable argument for and against has already been made, and it is very unlikely that any new information will emerge1. So whenever the topic comes up, everyone just repeats the same, tired lines at each other until a more interesting topic grabs our attention again.
But just because an argument is boring doesn’t make it untrue. I consider myself a republican for all of the boring reasons you would expect: The idea of one family being born into wealth and privilege by birthright offends me. In a democracy, it is supposed to be possible for anyone to rise to the top. It is bad that we can’t vote the Head of State and their family out of office if they behave poorly. Blah blah blah, you’ve heard it all before.
However, as strong as my opinions about the Monarchy are, I also recognise a grim truth: There’s basically nothing that my side of the argument can do about it, and we should probably just give up.
That’s right, after sticking it to Captain Tom, I want to share my mildly contrarian opinions about about another pillar of the British state. Subscribe now (for free!) to get my writing in your inbox, as unlike the Royal Family, I wasn’t born into wealth and privilege – I’ve have to earn my clicks by putting in the hours toiling in the content mines.
A lost cause
So why am I so pessimistic about the prospects getting rid of the Monarchy? There are two main reasons.
First, I’m painfully aware that I’m on the almost comically unpopular side of a divide in public opinion. The reality is that less than 20% of the British public agree with me that the Monarchy should be abolished, as evidenced by this Ipsos poll from last year.
More than twice as many people think Britain would be “worse” if the Monarchy was abolished, and of the 31-34% of people in the middle, it is very unlikely that if they were forced to choose, their votes would uniformly trend against the Royals. My side also has the added challenge of being the change proposition, which inherently makes it a harder sell than doing the same thing as before.
Could public opinion change? I’m not convinced that it is ever going to budge, given that the poll above was taken at what was already a pretty wretched time for the Monarchy. Not only was the Harry and Meghan story in the news, but it was a few months after the whole Pizza Express thing. So the background noise in March 2021 was already pretty bad, and still the Monarchy was enormously popular. If there was a referendum tomorrow, I don’t think Prince Andrew would be the only member of the Royal Family not breaking a sweat about the result.
I also don’t think republicans have the campaigning firepower to shift these numbers at all. The republican “movement”, to the extent that one exists, is no match for the Royal PR machine. I mean, I’m no expert but it doesn’t seem like a great move for Republic, the only real British anti-monarchy campaign group, to question the wisdom of opening pubs later on a bank holiday weekend2.
The one hope republicans have is that when the Queen dies there will be a significant shift in public opinion. But while Prince Charles is objectively more annoying and controversial than his mother, I'm still sceptical that support for the institution will meaningfully change.
In fact, if anything in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s death, support for the Monarchy will surely shoot up even more. And in the longer term despite the political interference controversies that people like me care about, it’s unlikely that Princes Charles, William and George will do anything the wider public will notice beyond cut ribbons, issue uncontroversial remarks on national occasions, and occasionally make headlines for tedious dysfunctional family drama reasons.
And this leads to the second reason I’m pessimistic about this status quo changing. What’s more fatal for republicans is that the Monarchy just isn’t that important relative to other concerns.
Don’t get me wrong, as a symbol I find the concept of Monarchy deeply offensive. But relative to my other pet issues? It is is a long way down the list. When you’re on the wrong side of public opinion, if you want to do an unpopular thing there is a trade-off with your other priorities, and you have to spend political capital to make it so.
So even if we could conceive of a world where, say, Prime Minister Keir Starmer could be persuaded to return to his republican roots and have the Labour Party back the abolition of the monarchy, I would rather have him torch his political career for something more important. For example, taking us back into Europe, taking a wildly more liberal approach to immigration, or building dense blocks of flats all over the greenbelt.
Essentially then, as a republican I’m in a similar position to Tory Eurosceptics in the 1990s and noughties: There’s this big, annoying thing that I don’t like that has stupid rules and customs. It is a potent symbol of everything I disagree with politically, but I’m also painfully aware I can’t do anything about it. So I’m just going to shrug my shoulders and make complaining about it a eccentric but harmless personality quirk, as part of my personal brand.
The nightmare of getting what I want
“But James!,” you’re thinking, “What about Brexit? It’s pretty silly to argue that abolishing the Monarchy will never happen because it is like euroscepticism, given that Brexit actually happened!”
Luckily, I think what happened with Brexit actually reinforces my defeatist attitude on this issue.
Brexit only happened because of a unique set of political circumstances. David Cameron needed to win over a critical constituency within his party, so promised a referendum he thought he’d never have to hold. Unfortunately for him, he won a majority so couldn’t trade away the referendum promise in coalition negotiations. And even worse, he actually lost the referendum when it happened, in part thanks to 40 years of cultural background noise priming voters to break what had been a cross-party elite consensus. Not to mention the unfortunate psychodrama of his closest internal rival backing the insurgent cause for opportunistic reasons3.
Needless to say, there is no comparable path for republicanism: There is no core of MPs or even party members who feel that massively strongly about abolishing the Monarchy. And the press, like the public, bloody love the Queen, gawd bless ‘er.
But let’s imagine a total fantasy universe where – somehow – the decision is made to abolish the Monarchy4. We republicans would be in the same “dog who caught the car” situation as the Brexiteers the morning after the referendum5.
The problem, as per my argument about priorities, is that the act of trying to unpick the Monarchy from the British state would be an all-consuming, Brexit-sized shitstorm that would gunk up the machinery of government for several years6. And slightly less importantly, those of us who are Twitter Warriors would be resigning ourselves to several years in the trenches fighting a cultural Infinity War7.
There would be second and third order consequences too. For example, even if we agreed to just swap out the Queen for someone who is appointed by Parliament, if the new Head of State has any sort of democratic mandate to call their own, they will become a live political player. If a particularly contentious bill goes through Parliament, the Head of State might be more inclined to exercise their veto power8. And so on, and so forth.
Of course, this isn’t to say that changing Britain’s governing institutions isn’t impossible. As a republican, significantly restructuring the British state is something that in principle I would like to do! Maybe it would be desirable to have a new veto-actor in Britain’s law-making process, or to shift the powers held by Parliament and the Prime Minister around a bit.
But any change, whatever it ultimately looks like, would be a massive hassle. Brexit was similarly an ideological goal that it was possible to achieve, but as events have demonstrated it continues to be a massive, national ball-ache as we transition from one economic model to another. Getting rid of the Monarchy would be a similarly seismic shift for our constitution, so the trade-off in terms of priorities would be very real.
Making transitional demands
So what should republicans do? If we resign ourselves to the pessimistic truth I outline above, is there anything that can nudge Britain so that one day, maybe, we can rid ourselves of a ruling family?
The best suggestion I’ve heard was I think made in passing by Stephen Bush on the New Statesman podcast long ago9. He essentially argued that instead of making a big, unpopular noise about their ultimate end goal, republicans and groups like Republic should make more moderate transitional demands.
For example, republicans should campaign to change the State Opening of Parliament so that it is the Prime Minister and not the Queen (or Prince Charles) who gives the speech. In isolation, it seems like a completely reasonable ask, as it is the government that proposes the laws, so who could have a problem with it?
Perhaps we could also change the Honours System so that knighthoods and the like are awarded by Parliament, in its role as a tribune of the British people10.
And isn’t it about time we had a more diverse range of people on our money? If we can have Wallace and Gromit stamps, there’s no reason we can’t have Wallace and Gromit tenners.
It strikes me as an effective approach, because once the Royal role in an aspect of public life is removed, it will be virtually impossible to restore it, because it would mean confronting the absurdity of monarchy11.
So we should play the long game, and nudge the Royal Family’s official role into obscurity. When the time does come to finally let them retire to an irrelevant life of obscene wealth and mere dynastic privilege, it will seem like much less of an impossible reach.
Sadly then for republicans, liberals, lefties, people like me, I conclude with a rallying cry: Another world isn’t really possible! Let’s heavily sigh and give up on changing the Monarchy and, I don’t know, try and win the forthcoming fight over Net Zero instead.
Congratulations to making it to the end! If you made it this far, you must have thought it was pretty good. So why not subscribe (for free!) and get more of This Sort Of Thing in your inbox? And please share this post with your friends and followers to ensure that I will never, ever, get a job in the Buckingham Palace press office.
If new information about the existence of God did emerge, it would probably be pretty big news!
The one bit of smart PR I’ve seen Republic do is whenever there’s a Royal Wedding or a Royal Baby, they send out a press release with their statement on it, and the statement always just reads “Congratulations.”
If we look across the multiverse, in most of the other alternative timelines, we’d still be the European Union’s most unenthusiastic member.
Let’s make this more fun by saying it is also the alternative universe where Ed Miliband won in 2015, Remain won in 2016, and Disney made the Star Wars sequel trilogy with a singular creative vision.
To mix my metaphors, remember the haunted, rabbit-in-the-headlights look of Gove and Boris during that morning press conference on June 24th 2016? That’d be us.
The first obvious question that will emerge is the same as the Brexit question: What do we actually want to do? Get rid of the Monarchy yes, but what do we replace it with?
Piers Morgan will be Thanos.
As offensive as the Royal Family is on a symbolic level, at least there is the implicit threat from Parliament of “Do nothing to intervene in politics, otherwise it’ll be guillotines in Trafalgar Square tomorrow morning”.
If it wasn’t him I apologise, this is a hazy memory and Google isn’t helping me find it. But it sounds like the sort of smart thing I can imagine him saying.
If I’m ever offered an honour, I like to think that I’d turn it down but I’d make sure everyone knows I was offered one.
It’s like the Edward Colston statue in Bristol. Even if you weren’t an enormous fan of the angry mob that pulled it down, and would prefer the decision to have been made through appropriate democratic channels, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to advocate restoring or creating a new statue of a slave trader.