The Forgotten Tradition of British Anti-monarchism

“The old Plantagenets brought us chains; the Tudors frowns and Scars,
The Stuarts brought us lives of shame; the Hanoverians wars;
But his brave man, with his strong arm, brought freedom to our Lives –
The best of Princes England had, was the Farmer of St. Ives”
(Lines on Oliver Cromwell in Ramsay Churchyard, Huntingdonshire,1848)

Such sentiment praising Cromwell and the Civil War dismissal of royal tyranny was commonplace amongst the political radicals of the early 19th century. In fact, the popular memory of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which toppled James II remained strong from the late-17th century. In large part this was due to the continued threat of royal power exercised within the lauded British “constitution”.

Unacceptable to the more progressive elements of the ruling class (still largely landed however), such remembrance of the “Interregnum” (the euphemism by which the Civil War period has become known) served as an ideological weapon in the struggle between royal and parliamentary authority. From the 1770s such anti-royal (though not literally republican) sentiment became intertwined with a political radicalism associated with John Wilkes and others who sought an extension of the suffrage to secure parliamentary dominance over royal authority. Inevitably the working class began to develop a political platform more independent of such “gentleman leaders”, especially during the period following the French Revolution. Thereafter, a popular working class platform combined the “natural rights” republicanism of Thomas Paine with “popular constitutionalism”, a crafty linguistic trick whereby radicals sought to place their demands for democratisation of the British political structure within a legal claim to their “right” to representation within the ancient constitution. Demands for such a constitution and rights, of course, were merely rhetorical flourish, using the prevalent language of the ruling class’s defence of its challenge to royal authority from the 17th century.

Within this challenge to the British state by the working class in the early 19th century was a crude threat to privilege and expenditure on the throne and the vast sums spent on aristocratic pensions, palace building and the civil list. The crown, however, as an institution remained outside of this criticism.

What has been noted by many observers has been the absence of republicanism in British history. This is of course not strictly true. The regicide of the Civil War may be regarded as republicanism of sorts, despite being pursued within contemporary religious concerns. The historian Christopher Hill has established the Civil War as the British “bourgeois revolution”, a struggle from which the interests of the rising British commercial and financial interests emerged dominant, i.e. capitalist interests, although the clash of interests between land and capital is not always clear cut and mutually exclusive – a good book on this into the nineteenth century is John Saville, The Consolidation of the Capitalist State (1994).

It is true though that a republican movement did not grow up in Britain as it did in other European states in the nineteenth century but then, as seems fairly obvious, it didn’t need to after the defeat of royal authority in the 17th century. Indeed, the early nature of Britain’s bourgeois revolution meant that capitalist growth and secular control of its perceived interests went hand in hand with a “constitutional monarchy”, i.e. a monarchy that was increasingly impotent as political force but emerging as a convenient “impartial” figurehead.

Concocted pageantry
With this month’s royal jubilee we are being subjected to no end of absurd and expensive pageantry with the usual round of royal documentaries, all giving the line that our glorious monarch is the centre of our “identity” and political stability. Such criticism as emerges will be directed at whether the Queen should step aside for Charles (a debate on the radio as I write) or some such trivia. The crucial impression that is supposed to emerge is that this pageantry has been around for centuries and is bound up with our “national identity”. However, as we have just seen, from the 17th to the mid-19th century, a critique of royalty operated in the political mainstream that attacked the morality of some members of the royal house and the expense of royalty. Although not approaching anything like an ideological commitment to republicanism, let alone a socialist analysis, its existence nonetheless challenges the myth of British politics as shrouded in a deferential and stable past. Such pageantry as we see today is no more than the creation of late 19th century efforts to establish an imperial and domestic symbolic loyalty around a “regal” figurehead external to “politics”.

David Cannadine and Eric Hobsbawm, amongst others, have described this “invention of tradition”. More recent research has gone further and suggested that a strand of “anti-monarchism” has persisted from the late-18th century through to the present day. Anthony Taylor in Down with the Crown (1999) has pointed to the presence of a minority republican radical grouping that surfaced into something like a popular movement, around the liberal Sir Charles Dilke, at the time of Victoria’s retreat from public duties in the early 1870s (here it reveals its weakness, ironically being dependent on royal retreat rather than presence). He also points to a radical opposition in the jubilees of 1887 and 1897, which have been seen overwhelmingly as examples of popular frenzy for the crown and empire (seeing it as either a sign of strength or weakness of the late 19th century British empire). A ‘Jubilee Version of “God Save the Queen”’ from the 1880s, for example, runs:

Lord help our precious Queen, / Noble, but rather mean, / Lord help the Queen. / Keep Queen VicToryous, / From work laborious / Let snobs uproarious, / Slaver the Queen.

A critique of privilege passed from mid-19th century radicalism into the Liberal-Labour politics of the early 20th century. It is from this period that the image of the modern monarch as the impartial figurehead we know today emerged. The attack on privilege increasingly centred on the House of Lords as the practicalities of reformism and the need for patronage impacted on the nascent republican sentiment in the Labour Party. Opposition to the crown was thereafter the territory of the extreme left of capitalism, largely restricted to the “Communist” Party (see, for example, T.A. Jackson’s The Jubilee – and How from 1837 and continuing the old radical attack on expense).

Closer to 2002, the popularity of the monarchy has seriously flagged from its post-war heights in 1952 (although the response to the queen mother’s death might signal something of a recovery in time for this year’s potential squib of a jubilee). Press voyeurism has undermined its previously cultivated image of a wholesome family example. But such criticism rarely gets beyond the banal chat on the relevance of the crown to devolution and the European Union (Tom Nairn’s project), although Tony Benn, the Christian radical capitalist of the Labour left, continues to plug a Paineite project to make us “citizens” and not “subjects”.

Socialists, of course, are unconcern as to whether we live in a republic or a constitutional monarchy – capitalism is capitalism whatever its political label. We must, however, point out the worst lies told about the history of our class. Constitutional monarchy has not always been a comfortable political framework for British capitalism and has always had its critics, including a minority of republicans. Socialists desire a good deal more than a mere capitalist republic. Unlike the left of capitalism, we openly advocate common ownership and democratic control which, for the privileged royal parasites, would mean the end of their vast ownership of resources and their place as sources of political deference and patronage. Like the lines daubed during the 1977 farce: “Stuff the Jubilee”.

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