27 November 2012 — The Return of the Public
We have been taught not to like things. Finally somebody said it was OK to like things. This was a great relief. — David Byrne
The collapse of Britain’s finance-dominated economic model in 2007-8 and the scandals that followed in quick succession mark the beginning of a constitutional crisis. How this crisis is resolved will determine the future of the country. I believe that republican doctrines and habits of mind provide valuable resources for those who want Britain to become more democratic, more equal and more truly prosperous. What follows is intended to convince you. My argument will not concern itself much with the monarchy but the standard meaning of the word ‘republic’ in English obliges me to say something about the Crown.
It is never easy to forget that Britain has a crowned head of state. In 2012 the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics made it impossible. We saw our Queen on a barge on the Thames and apparently leaping from a helicopter into the jamboree for the New Jerusalem that was the games’ opening ceremony. The Prime Minister David Cameron made the connection explicit in his New Year message:
The coming months will bring the global drama of the Olympics and the glory of the Diamond Jubilee. Cameras and TV channels around the planet will be recording these magnificent events. It gives us an extraordinary incentive to look outward, look onwards and to look our best: to feel pride in who we are and what – even in these trying times – we can achieve.[i]
Cameron is on easier terms with the Palace than any of his recent predecessors. He is a sincere monarchist himself and he sees in the institution a device with which to reconcile the country to the austerity – ‘these trying times’ – he claims are necessary. More profoundly, he wants to use the monarchy to bind people to a new economic and political settlement in which the power of the financial interest is confirmed and the reorganization of British society begun by Margaret Thatcher is made permanent.
The Coalition government, backed by much of the rest of the British apparatus, the Loyal Opposition, the press and the BBC, used first the Jubilee and then the games to promote the idea of Britain as the shared endeavour of diverse peoples. For a precious few weeks in the summer the roars from the stadium drowned out discussion of a shaky government’s controversial programme. It was a lesson well learnt. In the years ahead there is no telling what emotional resources will be deployed in defence of a political order that can survive only so long as that discussion is deferred.[ii]
Most British people are happy enough to have a crowned head of state. According to a Guardian/ICM poll in May of this year 69% of the public think the country ‘would be worse off without the monarchy, while 22% say the country would be better off’.[iii]Support for abolition of the monarchy has been steady at around 20% for the last two decades according to Ipsos Mori. In the Jubilee year this fell to 13%.[iv] Given these figures, efforts to recapture the Olympic spirit will doubtless continue to give the Queen a high billing.
Still, a few voices continue to be heard in the responsible media calling for change. Those who want to abolish the monarchy and replace the Queen with an elected President go by the name of republicans. In the highly choreographed exchanges that characterise public life in Britain, the appearance of monarchy calls for its proper, dissenting response. The conventions observed, both sides go about their business. The great majority of sensible people enjoy themselves, taking pleasure in the way the world is, while an eccentric few have another kind of fun, gnawing away at their sour abstractions. This is how we like our controversies, predictable and reassuring. Cosy. My intention here is to describe another, less familiar and more substantial, republicanism.
It might seem strange to deny that republicanism and anti-monarchism are the same thing. But there is something much stranger about a political culture that can only bring itself to discuss republicanism in the context of its vestigial monarchy. The extent to which we conflate anti-monarchism and republicanism in Britain, or more precisely in England, is highly unusual, even unique. It is as though the continued existence of the monarchy in its current form gives us permission not to think about the systems of government that have replaced it almost everywhere.
Instead of discussing the substance of public sovereignty – what it means for a people to self-governing, what it means for a people to be effectually free – we content ourselves with a debate about the personal qualities of the Queen, the antics of some of the more spirited members of her family and the relative merits of continuity and modernity. Republicanism is reduced to a manageable scale, to become a particularly eccentric faction in that improbable coalition, the Liberal Democrat Party. Public speech takes on an air of nursery nonsense. Anti-monarchists calling themselves republicans propose changes to the constitution that are not remotely republican.
It is sometimes said that, by appearing to stand above party competition, the monarchy legitimates the content of that competition, that by standing above ideology it keeps controversy in proper bounds. Its claim to be apolitical puts electoral politics in its place and protects a very particular, and highly political, idea of the nation. There is something to this, but the monarchy serves an even more consequential purpose. It draws attention away from the structure of the existing constitution and acts as flypaper for the radical imagination. The person and personality of the monarch obscure and protest the Crown-in-Parliament, the organizing principle and sovereign power of an unreformed and deeply exotic state.
Every oligarchy faces the same problem. It must prevent those it excludes from uniting and demanding inclusion. So it tries to ensure that the majority fails to understand it. Further, oligarchy seeks to obscure the form of government that haunts and terrifies it, republicanism at full stretch, what I call here the Maximum Republic. But while the problem is the same everywhere, each oligarchy must find its particular, usually national, solution. The British version of oligarchy has an important asset in the Crown.
In America the nation and the flag, the military and the Christian faith are all pressed into service, in order to prevent a formally sovereign people from discovering and exerting themselves in their own interest. Empire frustrates republic through a constant exertion, a costly and elaborate regimentation of sentiments both liberal and conservative.[v] In Britain the monarchy supplies part – an important part – of the necessary obfuscation, by acting as a focus, a point of obsession, for the reforming imagination. The English republican is permitted public speech to rail against Ruritanian incidentals. The great, apparently casual, popularity of the Queen prevents discussion of the origins and structure of power. The Queen is both the most conspicuous element of the unreformed constitution and worst place to begin the work of reform.
Republicanism in the strong sense I will describe is about much more than anti-monarchism. Indeed, it isn’t about anti-monarchism at all. At its heart it is concerned with remaking the state as the shared possession and achievement of a sovereign public. Once we consider republicanism in these terms, we do not have to choose between a popular monarch and a republic, as in the Ipsos Mori poll mentioned above[vi]. Our options are not exhausted by sentimentality about the person of the monarch and its mirror image, outrage at this same sentimentality. We can very easily find a place for a crowned head of state in a thoroughly republican constitution. But those hostile to monarchy too often lend the little weight they have to the momentous confusion they say they oppose. It is time to do without the satisfactions of an essentially phony confrontation, so we can grasp the conflict that matters, between democracy and oligarchy.
The first part of Maximum Republic explores the meaning and merits of the republican form of government. It sets out something of the history of republicanism as doctrine and practice and asks what republican ideas can contribute to our own politics. The second briefly describes Britain’s current arrangements, the better to appreciate both their strangeness and their illicitly republican character. The British constitution, consisting of a mass of statutes, habits, immemorial principles and hasty improvisations, provides a playground for a certain species of conniving intelligence. What is uncodified can be slyly deformed in what is sometimes, revealingly, called the national conversation. There is a great need for plain talk about this constitution of ours.
The third section offers a programme for political, economic and social reform based on republican principles. Republicanism consists above all in common ownership of the state. But we are not living in ancient Athens, renaissance Florence or revolutionary America. The scale and composition of the political nation has changed. Thanks to advances in scientific and technological understanding, the nations have become immeasurably more wealthy and productive. The states have become more complex, their power far greater.
This complexity cannot be contained in the established categories of classical constitutionalism. The systems of communication, subsidy and credit are achievements of state power. But when they are mentioned at all they are presented as provinces for expert administration, as facts of nature, or as the unchallengeable outcome of competition in free markets. And so much of our political discussion is a kind of efficient gibberish, wrong but useful. Republicanism must be thoroughly revised if the idea of the state as a common possession is to be more than a pious-sounding fraud.
There’s more to the work of renovation. Republicanism has its origins in a world of radical inequality and violent prejudice. There is much that is repulsive in it. The patriarchal and elitist assumptions that riddle the republican tradition need to be picked out if its fundamental principles, and the energy they generate, are to be made generally available. If you reject republicanism outright because of its history you give up useful resources. Worse, you leave those resources in the exclusive possession of those who think you unworthy of public status and will do all they can to keep you confused and disunited. Better to take reasoned and unsentimental possession of a tradition that, for all its many faults, has magnificence in it, and music, and in Milton a distinctly English music.
This, then, is a republican text that is not anti-monarchist. The mere fact that we have a crowned head of state does not seriously impede the creation of a substantive republic. To imagine that it does opens up a vast field for the exercise of a style. It is fun to cry ‘death to kings’ and spit defiance at hereditary privilege, of course. Readers looking for such a thing can find it in Christopher Hitchens’ The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favourite Fetish. First published in 1990 it is as fresh and urgent now as it was then. Which tells you most of what you need to know about romantic anti-monarchism. [vii]There is more fun to be had in the patient discovery of our current arrangements, even more in the steady work of replacing them.
There is another reason why this is an apt time to consider the constitution in Britain. The Scots are breaking the silence that normally surrounds our constitution. In doing so they threaten more than the Union with England. They are disturbing the complexes of sentiment and consent on which the unreformed state in Westminster rests. Between now and the referendum on Scottish independence there is a chance that constitutional reform will re-emerge as a political cause in the rest of the United Kingdom. If it is to have a chance of success it must take a properly republican form.
The Scottish will not secure English, Welsh or Northern Irish liberty. They have other matters to attend to. Nevertheless, the movement for Scottish independence poses a threat to oligarchy in all of the United Kingdom Kingdom. After all, if the Scots can escape Westminster-Whitehall, the City of London, and the BBC, then why can’t the rest of the United Kingdom?
While the politics of Britain suggest that it is time to revise our constitutional arrangements, the economics loudly insist on it. For more than a decade the state-owned Bank of England watched impassively while the financial sector increased the supply of credit and ran up unsustainable debts. Once confidence collapsed the same state-owned institution reduced real interest rates below zero and spent £375 billion buying bonds from the country’s bloated and anaemic banks. What was blandly called a programme of quantitative easing and saved those who caused the problem in the first place.
We are accustomed to hearing that constitutional reform is not a ‘bread and butter’ issue. This £375 billion created by the Bank of England could buy enough loaves to reach from here to Mars and back, with change for butter.[viii] The powers of a country’s central bank are a matter of deep constitutional significance. Quantitative easing is only the latest variation on the theme of financial sector dominance. This dominance was established, and has been maintained, through the actions of state institutions. These institutions have caused some to win and ensured that others lost. All this passes unremarked in constitutional debate because the constitution itself has become a site of mystification and misdirection. We do not help matters if we keep our attention on the House of Windsor, that light from a long dead star.
Maximum Republic is a response to local conditions. It is an attempt to challenge a particular oligarchical arrangement. But what happens in Britain is not a merely local matter. Where Prussia was once described as an army with its own country, modern Britain is a complex of globalised finance companies with its own country. The business coalition represented by the City of London is dedicated to the cause of private property elevated to a sovereign principle. Its banks and trading houses promote the interests of the wealthy around the world against the claims of democracy. London is, in important respects, the capital of global capitalism. The apparent solidity and timelessness of the unreformed constitution are central to London’s status. As a Citibank executive once explained, the trade in dollars outside the US ‘exists in London because people believe that the British government is not about to close it down. That’s the basic reason and it took you a thousand years of history’.[ix]
A republican movement for constitutional change must draw attention to the hidden wiring that connects London to global capital flows and their enabling circuits of information and untruth. To the extent that our current arrangements frustrate popular sovereignty, they must be changed. And so renovated republicanism in Britain threatens the cause of financial oligarchy around the world. Social democrats and socialists in Europe and North America, in Latin America, Africa and Asia have a stake in what happens here.
Material production and commercial exchange need far fewer of us than they did. Our current rulers respond by turning the shared world into a casino. Images of personal liberation overlay the lived experience of debt and low pay for the majority and spectacular wealth for a ruthless or lucky few. The production of celebrity incarnates the lie that we too could have a life worth living, if only we had tried a little harder, had believed in ourselves a little more fervently. By contrast, public status gives us the means to exchange what Richard Sennett has called ‘the spectre of uselessness’ for work in which we secure both personal emancipation and the common good.[x] Such work is only possible if we reconstitute the state on republican lines.
This is not a matter for a few representatives, fitfully applauded or catcalled by a distracted and ill-served public opinion. Politics in a fully realised republic becomes the stuff of steady application, careful revision and dedicated endeavour by large numbers of citizens. We are paid for the work we do and are rewarded for our contributions. Our application does not depend on an outbreak of unnatural selflessness. It derives from self-interest properly understood. The universal achievement of citizenship provides the great majority with our best hope of material improvement.[xi]
There is enough ambition in the British for us to want to matter, enough virtue to justify the ambition. And there is great work to be done here. A new democratic politics in a stronghold of financial oligarchy would be glorious in itself and would give material and practical assistance to people elsewhere. It is time, to borrow a phrase from David Cameron, ‘to look outward, look onwards and to look our best’. We are, after all, a people ready to be free.
You can buy the rest of Maximum Republic at Amazon and Smashwords.
[i] ‘David Cameron’s new year message’, Guardian, 2 January, 2012,
[ii] There are clues though. See, for example, Patrick Wintour, ‘Cameron announces £50m fund for first world war commemorations’, Guardian, 11 October, 2012.
[iii] Tom Clark, ‘Queen enjoys record support in Guardian/ICM poll’, Guardian, 24 May, 2012.
[iv] ‘Support for monarchy is at all time high’, Ipsos Mori, 28 May, 2012.
[v] Of course some of the framers of the US constitution always intended that America’s republican institutions would act as hosts for a nascent empire. But the revolutionary movement against the Crown in America included radical democrats and anti-imperialists.
[vi] The pollsters asked a thousand people ‘would you favour Britain becoming a republic or remaining a monarchy?’ The option of a substantially republican constitution with a crowned head of state was not offered.
[vii] Christopher Hitchens, The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favourite Fetish(London: Chatto and Windus, 1990, 2012).
[viii] That is actually true, by the way. You’d need about 168 billion loaves 33 centimetres long to build a tower of bread and butter 56 billion metres high to Mars. Another 168 billion loaves would build you a tower of bread back. Assuming each loaf costs a pound, you’d have £39 billion left to spend on butter.
[ix] Walter Wriston is quoted in Anthony Sampson, The Money Lenders (London: Penguin, 1983), p.142.
[x] Well, the specter of uselessness, to be exact, Sennett being an American. See Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2006).
[xi] The Maximum Republic promises more than material improvement. It promises the end of the monopoly on glory held by a few. Besides, the only glory worth the name derives from the reasoned approval of a free people.