Republicanism: militant or liberal

Party notes by Jack Conrad

By adopting a fake leftist pose on diverse issues such as the Iraq war, student fees and the council tax, the Liberal Democrats have won considerable popularity - and a stunning by-election victory in Brent East.

Yet, despite all their radical posturing and claims to be different, they fearfully shied away from adopting republicanism at their conference.

Not that the Lib Dem youth and students organisation was proposing anything militant. Instead they attempted to smuggle through their tepid republicanism with a motion calling for a referendum on whether or not to replace the monarch as head of state.

However, Charles Kennedy imperiously announced that he would neither support their motion nor include it in any general election manifesto. Overwhelmingly delegates meekly followed their leader.

Kennedy did not present himself as an enthusiast for the present monarchy, though. On the contrary, he stressed that his objection to the proposed referendum was solely on the grounds that there are other, more important, priorities: “I don’t think in the great scheme of things, amid all the other issues facing this country at the moment, that a referendum on the future of the monarchy is the most pertinent or pressing one” (The Guardian September 22).

Funnily enough, we have heard the selfsame argument many times before; and not just from Lib Dems. Alike the Labour left, the orthodox Trotskyists, the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Alliance majority effectively repeat Kennedy’s lame excuse for inaction.

So, for example, when we proposed to the SA that it conduct a “militant campaign” demanding the abolition of the monarchy during the celebrations of the queen’s golden jubilee, the International Socialist Group’s Dave Packer successfully sabotaged our motion. With the backing of SWP bloc votes the word “militant” was surgically removed. The same comrade then insisted that our ‘moderate’ campaign should not be prioritised. While he personally was a republican, there were, of course, more pressing matters.

Unfortunately it is not only the SA’s majority which adheres to this liberal, non-prioritised type of republicanism. There are those in the SA’s minority too. Having debated the issue with him on countless occasions, I know that Sean Matgamna - patriarch of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - is one of them. Mired in what Marxists call economism - ie, the downplaying of democratic demands in favour of the narrow politics of trade union consciousness - he contemptuously dismisses any notion of prioritising republicanism.

Comrade Matgamna’s operative conclusion is this: Lenin was right to prioritise the overthrow of Russian tsarism - it was nasty, brutish, backward and undemocratic. We on the other hand should not bother ourselves over-much with constitutional monarchism. By implication it is comparatively benign, a feudal relic of third-rate significance which a modernised, bang up-to-date capitalist constitution could not conceivably miss. Comrade Matgamna is actually of the opinion that “the British monarchy could be sloughed off tomorrow with little else of importance changing in British society”. So he would happily let Charles Kennedy take the lead - if only he would.

What we target, of course, is not simply Elizabeth Windsor as an unelected figurehead; rather it is the constitutional monarchy system. In other words, the way in which the rulers rule the ruled.

In its origins the constitutional monarchy represented a break from Tudor and Stuart quasi-absolutism. Initially this system functioned to reconcile and manage relations between the crown on the one side and on the other the aristocracy and rich merchants; then between the landed aristocracy and the rising industrial bourgeoisie. Needless to say, with the second half of the 19th century, the social weight and centralised organisation of the modern working class makes its mark. From 1869 the franchise was fitfully extended - sometimes as a pre-emptive measure, sometimes in the face of irresistible popular demand. By 1930 there was for the first time what could be described as universal suffrage.

Under these unfolding conditions the ruled had of necessity to be ruled in new ways. The enfranchised masses must be pacified and persuaded to vote for harmless, moderate and thoroughly responsible candidates. Material concessions, credible lies and compulsory childhood miseducation provide far greater social leverage than sabres, muskets and cannons. And, as an extra safeguard, all manner of constitutional ‘checks and balances’ are erected, reinforced or modified. Democracy therefore comes into existence in the form of an updated constitutional monarchy; a system which leaves capitalist exploitation intact and the masses as far as possible away from the levers of political power.

From the point of view of Marxism - ie, consistent and extreme democracy - there can be no doubt that the United Kingdom is characterised by systemic shortcomings when it comes to democracy (by which we mean rule of the people by the people and real control from below). Let us compare and contrast what is with what could be technically achieved even under the socio-economic conditions of capitalism.

The people are unarmed, while the state possesses monstrously destructive weaponry. We say - abolish the standing army and introduce a network of popular militias. Despite pay and sex discrimination acts, women and men are still grossly socially unequal - put in place measures of substantive equality. Capitalist firms operate secretively, sack workers at will and despoil the environment - open the books, access the computers and demand workers’ supervision and control. Migrants and asylum-seekers are demonised and turned into worst paid labour - unionise all workers and fight for open borders.

What of the constitution? Northern Ireland perpetuates the national oppression of the 40%-plus catholic-Irish minority and the division of Ireland. We say - withdraw British troops and unite Ireland. There should be a federal solution, whereby the British-Irish minority have a two-county, two-half-county province which exercises the right to self-determination. There are palpable national questions in Scotland and Wales, but no right to self-determination - which to be meaningful must include the guaranteed right to separate. Westminster elections are scandalously unfair and leave millions effectively unrepresented. There is no system of proportional representation or the right to recall MPs. The European Union is increasingly influential over every sphere of life in Britain. Yet the European parliament is a mere token appendage. Judges are appointed from above, not elected from below.

Political power is nowadays concentrated in the House of Commons and, through that electoral college of misrepresentatives, the cabinet - chosen and personified by the almost presidential prime minister. The House of Lords functions as a sort of delaying mechanism, a safety valve, a means of thwarting popular demands. Yes, Tony Blair is pruning the second chamber of its last hereditary peers. But no more.

The monarchy constitutes what Walter Bagehot, in his 1867 treatise, famously called the “dignified” part of this constitution - it is designed to befuddle and beguile those whom he derisively calls the “vacant many” (W Bagehot The English constitution London 1974, p34). Yet, besides appearing to stand above party squabbles and the undoubted propaganda value provided by royal continuity, pageantry, local visits and nationwide broadcasts, the monarch retains certain powers that could serve the interests of capital well in an emergency situation. Eg, the monarch symbolically chooses the prime minister and can dissolve parliament, while no bill can pass into law without royal assent.

We could go on ... and on. But there is no need. The point has been made - the constitutional monarchy system is a weapon pointed against democracy and the working class.

What of comrade Matgamna’s conviction that the “monarchy could be sloughed off tomorrow with little else of importance changing in British society”? Frankly, this is the sort of Whiggish nonsense you would expect to read in a Guardian editorial.

A transition from monarchy to republic in Britain - with its royalist official history, royalist constitution, royalist oaths, royalist societies and institutions, royalist armed bodies, royalist knighthoods, orders, gongs, etc - is hardly akin to a former colony, a Commonwealth country like India, Pakistan or Jamaica, swapping the geographically distant British monarch for a native and resident head of state.

Think about China, Russia, Germany, Austria, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Iraq, Greece, Iran and other countries in the 20th century when they became republics. End of monarchy usually coincides with a revolutionary crisis. By prioritising the fight for a democratic republic such an outcome is exactly what we communists seek to speedily bring about.