As parliament returns from recess and the regular news cycle finally trickles back towards to normality, we have been given a welcome reprieve from one element of the discourse which gripped the political classes over Christmas. Namely, the seemingly perennial and exhausting argument over whether the Left should make the abolition of the monarchy a priority as an incoming government. I’m no staunch royalist, but I want to set out why I think that’s essentially a daft proposition.
I was as galled as anyone else with an awareness of irony when the Queen called for togetherness and fellowship from her literal gilded palace during her Christmas message. Anyone with half a brain and a set of eyes has witnessed the decay of the public realm over the past nine years – many have been unfortunate enough to have experienced it first-hand. And it is simply wrong that the UK’s head of state pontificates about the evils currently afflicting the public while possessing the ability to alleviate some of those evils with her vast inherited wealth.
The difficulty for leftists comes when we consider what should be done about that. How are we to construct a modern and more equitable society while our head of state represents the zenith of antiquity and inequality – and what does it say about us as a movement if we’re too craven to address the issue?
Any advocates of abolition should consider two things: the long-standing public popularity of the monarchy and the subsequent political costs associated with abolition and the potential material gains from the creation of a republic.
There’s no denying that the royals are incredibly popular with the general public. Even Prince Charles has approval ratings that most political leaders would gladly die for. Events such as their handling of Princess Diana’s death prove that their appeal is vulnerable to circumstances, but even then the Queen’s personal approval only plummeted to the staggering low of +30 at the height of the crisis.
In terms of material gains achieved from abolition of the monarchy you would have to go the full nine yards to for the state to make anything of it. That would mean the requisition of at least a significant proportion of the Crown’s land and property. By some estimates the Royal Family are worth anywhere in the region of £88 billion, which is nothing to sniff at as windfalls go by any stretch but pales in comparison to the amount of revenue that could be raised through other, more traditional recurring means of income generation.
The problem occurs when weighing up the benefits gained from abolishing the monarchy in reference to all the damage that would be sustained in the eyes of the public and within the party. As previously mentioned, people like the royals – including working class people, the demographic that continues to slide away from the Labour party – and while we remain in opposition it would be prudent to maintain as much of our electoral coalition as possible. Even if the party was to push the economic case for the requisition of the royal family’s assets, there are less divisive ways to generate £88 billion, and certainly ones that wouldn’t be accompanied by images of adored public figures carrying their belongings out of their homes in cardboard boxes.
Meanwhile, if you don’t commit to requisitioning Crown property, you still experience a lot of the same damaging press on the back of removing the royals’ constitutional role (albeit without the upsetting imagery) while losing the rent they pay to the UK government from the Crown Lands. By removing their constitutional role alone, the day-to-day running of the country wouldn’t be changed on anything except a symbolic level. There’s a lot to be said for symbolism: abolishing the monarchy would underline Labour’s commitment to radically reforming the concentration and composition of power and wealth in this country along the lines of democratisation and redistribution. However, there is a risk that spending political capital on massively divisive reforms that will have no concrete impact on the lives of the most vulnerable would negatively impact on a (small-n!) new Labour government’s ability to actually bloody help people.
With all of this considered, if you actually go through with chucking the monarchs, you’ll need something to replace them. One undoubted benefit the monarchy provides is that it leaves the Prime Minister unencumbered by most ceremonial duties and allowed to get on with running the country. A purely ceremonial elected head of state would raise a lot of the same cost-based criticisms the monarchy does, while an expanded role would require a greater constitutional rewrite. Having lived in Wales for the past two years, I promise you that such constitutional matters are seldom productive or bloodless in the eyes of the public.
The crux of this issue comes down to the fact that committing to the abolition of the monarchy would significantly inhibit Labour’s ability to be able to form a majority in Westminster. Too much of the party, and far too much of the electorate, would recoil at the prospect. Even if we were able to form a government, the concrete gains would be negligible. And that’s what really matters. We need Labour to win a majority and subsequently transform the country, as set out in the 2017 manifesto. I’m not alone in thinking this: it’s no great secret that Corbyn, the most republican Labour leader since Hardie, has largely stopped expressing any views against the monarchy, primarily because it’s such an easy and popular concession to make. Our friends and comrades in Scandinavia have historically made similar calculations: Sweden and Denmark, often held up as model social democracies, are also constitutional monarchies. Becoming a republic remains a noble goal, but for now the priority must be actually winning an election rather than quibbling over constitutional technicalities. Rather than fiddling while Rome burns, let’s start putting out some fires.