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Republicanism in the United Kingdom

Republicanism, in the United Kingdom, is the movement which seeks to remove the British monarchy and replace it with a republic that has a non-hereditary head of state. The method by which the head of state should be chosen is not agreed upon, with some favouring an elected president, some an appointed head of state with little power, and others supporting the idea of leaving the political system as it is but without a monarch.


Within Great Britain republican sentiment has largely focused on the retention or abolition of the British monarch, rather than the dissolution of the British Union or independence for its constituent countries.

In Northern Ireland, the term "republican" is usually used in the sense of Irish republicanism. While also against monarchical forms of government, Irish republicans are against the presence of the British state in any form in Ireland and advocate creating a united, all-island state. While this may be confusing, unionists who support a republic also exist.

There are republican members of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales who advocate independence for those countries as republics. The SNP's official policy is that the British monarch would remain head of state of an independent Scotland, unless the people of Scotland decided otherwise.


Cromwellian republic

The countries which eventually comprised the United Kingdom were briefly ruled as a republic in the 17th century, first under a Council of State,(1649-53) then under Oliver Cromwell personally (1653-58). First England (comprising both England and Wales) was declared to be the Commonwealth of England and then Scotland and Ireland were briefly forced in to union with England by the army. This decision was later reversed when the monarchy was restored in 1660. In 1707 the Act of Union between England and Scotland was signed; the two countries' parliaments became one, and in return Scotland was granted access to the English colonies.

Many of Cromwell's actions upon gaining power were decried by a number of commentators as "harsh, unwise, and tyrannical". He was often ruthless in putting down the mutinies which occurred within his own army towards the end of the civil wars (prompted by Parliament's failure to pay the troops). Cromwell showed little sympathy for the Levellers, an egalitarian movement which had contributed greatly to Parliament's cause but sought representation for ordinary citizens. The Leveller point of view had been strongly represented in the Putney Debates, held between the various factions of the Army in 1647, just prior to the King's temporary escape from army custody. Cromwell and the Grandees were not prepared to countenance such a radical democracy and used the debates to play for time while the future of the King was being determined. Catholics were persecuted zealously under Cromwell,although he personally was in favour of religious toleration "liberty for tender consciences" not all his compatriots agreed. The war led to much death and chaos in Ireland where Irish Catholics and Protestants who fought for the King were persecuted. There was a ban on many forms of entertainment; as public meetings could be used as a cover for conspirators, horse racing was banned,the maypoles were famously cut down, the theatres were closed, and Christmas celebrations were outlawed for being too ceremonial, Catholic, and "popish". When Charles II eventually regained the throne,in 1660, he was widely celebrated for allowing his subjects to have "fun" again.

Much of Cromwell's power was due to the Rump Parliament, a Parliament purged of opposition to grandees in the New Model Army. Whereas Charles I had been in part restrained by a Parliament that would not always do as he wished,(the cause of the Civil War) Cromwell was able to wield much more power as only loyalists were allowed to become MPs, turning the chamber into a rubber-stamping organisation. This was ironic given his complaints about Charles I acting without heeding the "wishes" of the people. But even so he found it almost impossible to get his Parliaments to follow all his wishes. His executive decisions were often thwarted - most famously in the ending of the rule of the regional major generals appointed by himself.

In 1657 Cromwell was offered the crown by Parliament, presenting him with a dilemma since he had played a great role in abolishing the monarchy. After two months of deliberation, he rejected the offer. Instead, he was ceremonially re-installed as "Lord Protector", with greater powers than he had previously held. It is often suggested that offering Cromwell the Crown was an effort to curb his power: as a King he would be obliged to honour agreements such as Magna Carta, but under the arrangement he had designed he had no such restraints. This allowed him to preserve and enhance his power and the army's while decreasing Parliament's control over him, probably to enable him to maintain a well-funded army which Parliament could not be depended upon to provide.

The office of Lord Protector was not formally hereditary, though Cromwell was able to nominate his own successor in his son, Richard.

Restoration of the monarchy

Although England became a constitutional monarchy, after the reigns of Charles II his brother James II and after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had placed William and Mary on the throne, there have been movements throughout the last few centuries whose aims were to remove the monarchy and establish a republican system. A notable period was the time in the late 18th century and early 19th century when many Radicals were openly republican.

During the later years of Queen Victoria's reign, there was considerable criticism of her decision to withdraw from public life following the death of her husband, Prince Albert. However this did not translate into clear support for republicanism. Most of the criticism was dismissed when she came out of mourning and returned to public life.

Prohibition of republican advocacy

Parliament in 1848 passed the Treason Felony Act. This act made violation of the law punishable by lifetime imprisonment, even if such advocacy were by peaceful means. The law remains on the books.

21st century

The monarchy is still popular in the UK, though a vocal minority of the British public is opposed to it. Opinion polls in the recent past have put support for an elected head of state at between 15 to 25 per cent, with the most recent MORI poll in 2006 showing support for a republic at 18 per cent The Guardian newspaper approached the Attorney General in 2001, inquiring as to whether it would be prosecuted if it ran articles on the topic of whether British voters would have the right to chose a republic. The Attorney General refused to comment, so The Guardian published the articles anyway, then sued him. In 2003 the House of Lords found that the section of the 1848 Act prohibiting advocacy of republicanism is invalidated by the Human Rights Act 1998, furthermore, they found "that no Attorney-General or Director of Public Prosecutions would or could authorise a prosecution for such advocacy without becoming a laughing stock". However, they criticised The Guardian for bringing "unnecessary litigation ... in order to obtain obvious results".


Political parties

At present, none of the three major British political parties have an official policy of republicanism. However, there are individual MPs, usually from the Labour Party, who favour abolition of the monarchy. These include Tony Benn, who in 1991 introduced a Commonwealth of Britain Bill in Parliament; Roy Hattersley; Leanne Wood (a Plaid Cymru member of the National Assembly for Wales) and Norman Baker (a Liberal Democrat MP).

Outside Parliament, well-known contemporary republicans include journalist and author Claire Rayner; actress Honor Blackman; author Benjamin Zephaniah; and Michael Mansfield, QC.

The Scottish Socialist Party advocates Scottish republicanism, organising the republican rally at Calton Hill on the official opening of Holyrood by the Queen.


The UN Human Rights Council report stated Britain should have a referendum on the monarchy and the need for a written constitution with a bill of rights.

Lobby groups

The largest lobby group in favour of republicanism in the United Kingdom is the Republic campaign group, founded in 1983. The group has benefited from recent negative publicity about the Royal Family, and Republic has reported a large rise in membership since the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. In June 2006 the group handed in a petition of over 3,000 names to 10 Downing Street calling for a serious national debate about the future of the monarchy.

The Centre for Citizenship has a broader view of republicanism, which include a fully elected second chamber of parliament, abolition of the official honours system and disestablishment of the Church of England.

Arguments in favour of a republic

The benefits of a republic

Republicans feel that a republic is the next logical step of a historical process of gradual democratic reform. They assert that the British people will excel within a non-hereditary democratic and open system for selecting the head of the executive branch of government as well as the head of state.

"The new office of President would represent a new political culture - social inclusiveness would replace social hierarchy, mutual respect would replace deference, genuine intellect would replace the spurious wisdom of princes. Pompous titles, counterfeit 'generals' and royal chancellors of universities would be consigned to history. The current system of honours would be simplified and modernised and based only on merit.

Republicans argue that such a system would advance the egalitarian cause of meritocracy, and create a political consciousness less connected with social class or birth. Every child growing up in a British republic, from whatever background, would know from an early age that they could aspire one day to becoming Head of State.

Arguments against monarchy

Most republicans assert that hereditary monarchy is unfair and elitist. They claim that in a modern and democratic society no one should be expected to defer to another simply because of their birth. Such a system, they assert, does not make for a society which is at ease with itself, and it encourages attitudes which are more suited to a bygone age of imperialism than to a "modern nation". Some claim that maintaining a privileged royal family diminishes a society and encourages a feeling of dependency in many people who should instead have confidence in themselves and their fellow citizens.

Further, republicans argue that 'the people', not the members of one family, should be sovereign.

  • Monarchy is the opposite of democracy
    • Monarchy denies the people a basic right - Republicans argue that it should be a fundamental right of the people of any nation to elect their head of state and for every citizen to be eligible to hold that office, and that such a head of state is more accountable to the people.
    • Monarchy devalues a parliamentary system - Monarchical prerogative powers can be used to circumvent normal democratic process with no accountability.
  • The British monarchy is religiously discriminatory

Due to the history of Great Britain and especially Plots of Catholic Jesuits against Protestantism within the Nation,iIt is law that Roman Catholics may not inherit the Crown. It is argued by Republicans that having an Anglican head of state is unrepresentative of a nation where 4% of adults are practicing Anglicans. yet when realising that Protestantism is not only subjected to Anglicanism, over 38% of the British Population would still consider themselves Protestant.

  • Monarchy is gender-discriminitive

The British Royal Family uses male primogeniture, which means that the crown is inherited by the eldest son, and is only passed on to a daughter if the monarch has no sons. If absolute primogeniture were used instead of male primogeniture, the crown would be passed on to the eldest child irrespective of sex so that daughters had the same rights as sons. This method of succession disinherits not only daughters but their descendants.

  • A monarchy demands deference

It is argued by republicans that the way citizens are expected to address members, however junior, of the royal family is part of an attempt to keep subjects 'in their place'.

  • It is the enemy of merit and aspiration

The order of succession in a monarchy specifies a person who will become head of state, regardless of qualifications. The highest titular office in the land is not open to "free and fair competition".

  • It devalues intellect and achievement

Republicans argue that members of the royal family bolster their position with unearned symbols of achievement. Examples in the UK include the Queen's many honourary military titles of colonel-in-chief. The Queen's sole military experience, though honourable and bold for its day, was as a driver and mechanic. There is debate over the roles the members of the monarchy have played in the military, many doubt that members of the royal family took any part on the front line for any length of time. It is seen to some as more of a PR exercise then military service. It is also seen that members of the royal family are fast tracked to higher ranks in the army.

  • It harms the monarchs themselves

Republicans argue that a hereditary system condemns each heir to the throne to an abnormal childhood. This was historically the reason why the anarchist William Godwin opposed the monarchy. Johann Hari has written a book God Save the Queen? in which he argues that every member of the royal family has suffered psychologically from the system of monarchy.

  • Monarchs are not impartial, and lack accountability

Republicans argue that monarchs are not impartial but harbour their own opinions, motives, and wish to protect their interests. Rather than feeling comforted that monarchs are impartial by their freedom from election, republicans claim that monarchs are not accountable. As an example, though he has clarified that he will avoid "politically contentions" issues, republicans argue that Prince Charles has spoken or acted in a way that could be interpreted as taking a political stance, citing his refusal to attend, in protest of China's dealings with Tibet, a state dinner hosted by the Queen for the Chinese head of state; his strong stance on GM food; and the contents of certain memos regarding how people achieve their positions which were leaked to the press.

While monarchists tend to feel that an impartial advantage is gained by various aspects of the civil service reporting to the Crown, (see example of police below), republicans see a lack of important democratic accountability and transparency for such institutions.

  • The monarchy is expensive

Republicans claim that the total costs to taxpayers including hidden elements (e.g, the Royal Protection security bill) of the monarchy are over £100 million per annum. The Telegraph claims the monarchy costs each adult in Britain around 62p a year.

  • The monarchy makes the UK look backwards

Republicans argue that the monarchy may be considered an embarrassment: as a concept it is dated and while the UK has a hereditary head of state it can not claim to be a modern nation.

Arguments in favour of constitutional monarchy

  • Provides an impartial arbiter

Monarchists argue that an impartial, symbolic head of state is a step removed from political, commercial, and factional interests, allowing them to be a non-partisan figure who can act as an effective intermediary between various levels of government and political parties, an especially indispensable feature in a federal system . The fact that the monarch nominally holds all executive authority is seen as advantageous by monarchists, who state that the Crown is a guarantor against the misuse of constitutional power by politicians for personal gain. This view of the monarchy could have developed after Oliver Cromwell's Republic which eventually became a military dictatorship; there has been little desire to attempt a republic since. Monarchists assert that honours systems like the French Legion of Honour may not be as politically impartial as they feel that a monarch is.

  • Provides a focal point for unity and tradition

Monarchists argue that a constitutional monarch with limited powers and non-partisan nature can provide a focus for national unity, national awards and honours, national institutions, and allegiance, as opposed to a president affiliated to a political party.

  • Provides links with other states

Monarchs tend to be linked with the monarchs of other nations, or in the case of the Commonwealth, one person is the head of state for a number of nations.

  • The Church

The Queen is the head of the Church of England and plays quite an active role.

  • A separation from government duties (in figurehead monarchies)

Monarchists argue that separating the head of state from the head of government (the Prime Minister), offers some advantages. This separation can be achieved by a constitutional monarchy, or a republic with both president and prime minister.

Monarchists argue that in a limited, constitutional monarchy the monarch is able to give impartial non-political support to the work of a wide range of different types of organizations, faiths, charities, artists, craftsmen, etc. It is difficult to prove that the support of the monarchy is politically impartial, but it is easily documented that monarchs have supported charitable causes and NGOs. The police in the UK are charged with protecting the monarch's peace, and are thus servants of the Crown and not of the government: this allows them to be independent of the government, thus separating the administration of justice from the executive power. In practice the monarch exercises no direct power over such institutions, which are, therefore run by the government, for the people.

  • Monarchies have staying power

Monarchists argue that constitutional monarchy creates a head of state who is under the democratic control of Parliament but remains in power for a long time, giving stability and experience to the state. This was not the case in earlier times when factions fought over the monarchy. Modern constitutional monarchs, such as those in Denmark, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, have reigned for long periods and seen many Prime Ministers come and go.

  • Discrimination

Republicans have argued that the existence of a monarchy or an aristocracy amounts to snobbery, and that a monarch should not inherit power without qualifications or merit . However, a monarchist might counter that the loss of a monarchy would do nothing to diminish discrimination, and point towards the presidency of George W. Bush in the United States or even Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan partly on the grounds that their fathers were noted politicians before them as testimony to the fact that a person can and will be placed in power on unfair grounds with or without the presence of a crown.

  • No divisive elections

Constitutional Monarchists argue that where elections are not needed they are only divisive, and that the head of state need not be elected. This relates to the first argument that they are impartial and are figures of unity that people from all sides of the political spectrum can unite behind.

  • The Royals are cost effective

The annual expenditure, since June 2005 has been a total of £36.7 Million or approximately 61 pence per person. When compared to the relative size and the duties that the Royal Family perform, this is significantly more cost effective as their only job duties are the meeting of foreign dignitaries, attending events and ceremonial events, to which they devote the majority of their time. In most states with a presidential system, the duties are divided between political and ceremonial responsibilities resulting in less time for both.

Also, it is commonly exaggerated how expensive the monarchy is, and how cost effective some republic governments are. For example, in the United States, citizens are taxed millions every year for things such as The White House, and Air Force One. Also, as the head of state in a republic has more political status, higher security and transport costs are required.

Other considerations

Meritocracy vs aristocracy

The heir to the throne, Prince Charles, has been criticised for writing a private memo on ambition and opportunity. This memo was later leaked, and widely understood to criticise meritocracy for creating a competitive society, which republicans took as proof that the head aristocrat, and symbol of monarchy, was attacking meritocracy and the motivation of the common man towards greater achievement. In humorist Lynn Truss's critique of British manners entitled Talk to the hand, Charles's memo is evaluated with respect to the putative impact of meritocracy on British boorishness. Truss came to the conclusion that the prince might have a point, that the positive motivational impact of meritocracy might be balanced against the negative impact of a competitive society.

Notable Advocates of Republicanism in the UK

See also

External links

References and further reading

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