by Allan Armstrong
When people are asked what is meant by the word ‘republic’ they usually answer, “A country without a monarch”. In today’s world this covers a great variety of states, including the USA, France, Germany, Russia, Israel, China, South Africa and Cuba. At first glance, then, ‘republic’ would not appear to be a very helpful term for socialists, who want to distinguish between more or less progressive social and political systems.
Therefore, despite the fact that we, in the UK, live in one of the few remaining monarchies in the world, what significant difference could the ending of the monarchy bring about?
Certainly, the existence of the Royal Family helps to buttress a more rigid class system here, where class is understood in its older sense of hierarchical privilege, with upper, middle and lower classes. The desperation with which some Labour politicians and trade union leaders pursue ‘honours’ is one indication of the hold of this old-style class privilege within the UK.
Nevertheless, a quick examination of the world’s most powerful republic, the USA, shows us that the lack of a monarchy is not necessarily a barrier to the promotion of huge income differentials between an obscenely wealthy elite and the downtrodden poor.
So, why should socialists consider themselves republicans at all, rather than just ignoring the monarchy until we have achieved our real aim, the creation of a socialist republic? Answering this question means taking a closer look at the political nature of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The UK is a constitutional monarchy, which means, in effect, that the Queen exerts little power in her own right. Yes, the Royal Family enjoys massive privileges in terms of property, income and status, but these are rewards given for its role in supporting and promoting the interests of a wider British ruling class.
The fragility of royal political influence was shown over the Windsor’s inept handling of the ‘Princess Di Affair’. Diana was seen by the public to be much more in tune with the modern day, neo-liberal requirements of a celebrity monarchy. Tony Blair saw this ruling class need for a ‘New Monarchy’, and quickly labelled the late Diana, the ‘People’s Princess’.
The Windsors, however, were still seen by most to be an extremely dysfunctional family, out of touch with the present-day world. Since then, they have had to put a lot of effort into trying to repackage the monarchy.
So, does this mean that the long-standing infatuation of the British public with the Royal Family, which long prevented even the old Labour Party from challenging royal privilege, is at last waning? It probably does, but that does not get to the root of the problem.
Far more important than the Royal Family itself, is the political system it fronts. Despite the existence of a parliamentary democracy centred on Westminster, with its new devolved offspring at Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont, it still has very real limitations.
These lie in the state’s Crown Powers, which are wielded, not by the Queen, but by the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister has a wider circle of advisers, from the world of finance, industry and the media, who help him adopt strategies and form policies to promote their needs, without too much democratic scrutiny.
We can see some of those pressures in Gordon Brown’s handling of the Northern Rock collapse, where defence of City interests has been paramount. If anyone thinks that defence of small investors is Brown’s first interest, just ask the victims of the collapse of the Farepack Fund, run by Halifax/Bank of Scotland.
Business leaders have also ensured that the bidding for the government’s many lucrative PFI contracts, amounting to billions of pounds of public money, is conducted in secret. This means that whole swathes of the UK economy, ostensibly under the control or supervision of Parliament, in reality lie way beyond any effective public accountability.
All this unaccountable economic influence has to be supplemented by other anti-democratic political means. This is why senior civil servants, judges, and officers and ranks in the armed forces, all swear their allegiance to the Queen, not to Parliament, and certainly not to the people.
The ruling class may require their services, acting, when necessary, against the interests of the people, or even Parliament. Of course, it is not the Queen herself, who wields this power, but the Prime Minister, acting on behalf of the ruling class. This is all done under the Crown Powers.
The UK’s constitution even has provision for the suspension of Parliament in ‘extreme situations’, with resort instead to direct rule by the Privy Council. This very select band of former and existing senior government ministers is chosen for its reliability in upholding ruling class interests. Its members all enjoy close contact with the world of business, whilst some have had direct dealings with military officers, MI5 and MI6.
It was no surprise that Ian Paisley was recently made a Privy Councillor, nor that his deputy, Martin McGuiness was not asked! The fact that Alex Salmond is now a Privy Councillor too, shows that, beyond the inflamed public histrionics, through which party political competition normally takes place in the UK, the British ruling class inner circle still consider him reliable enough.
Indeed, Salmond enjoys his own close links with the Scottish finance sector, which has wider British interests to defend. More importantly, Salmond’s acceptance of a Privy Councillorship indicates that he will play the political game by Westminster rules, in the developing struggle for Scottish self-determination.
Way back in the late 1970’s, before the British ruling class came to the conclusion that ‘Devolution-all-round’ (for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) was the best strategy to defend its interests in these islands and the wider world, key sections were still bitterly opposed even to the very mild devolutionary proposals put forward by the then Labour government.
In the lead-up to the 1979 Devolution Referendum, the ‘non-political’ Queen was wheeled out to make a Christmas broadcast attacking Scottish nationalism. Senior civil servants were told to ‘bury’ any documents, which could help the Scottish nationalists.
Military training exercises were conducted, targeting putative armed Scottish guerilla forces. The security forces became involved on the nationalist fringe, encouraging anti-English diatribes and actions, to discredit any notion of real Scottish self-determination.
However, unlike Ireland or Australia, Scottish nationalists did not then have to face the full panoply of Crown Powers. It was not necessary, since the SNP opposition was so mild and constitutionalist in nature.
In the ‘Six Counties’, the Republicans, and the wider nationalist community, felt the force of her majesty’s regiments, including the S.A.S., the U.D.R. (with its royal patronage) and the R.U.C., and the Loyalist death squads, all backed up by juryless Diplock Courts, manned by Unionist judges, and by detention, as required, in ‘her majesty’s special prisons.
Those sections of the state, which provide the ruling class with legal sanction to pursue its own ends, are prefixed ‘her majesty’s’ or ‘royal’. Self-styled Loyalists include those who prepared to undertake certain illegal tasks when called upon by the security services.
Back in 1975, Gough Whitlam fronted a mildly reforming Labour government, which wanted to keep U.S. nuclear warships out of Australian ports. He felt the long arm of the Crown Powers when the British Governor-General removed him from his elected office.
More recently the Crown Powers have been used to deny the right of the Diego Garcia islanders to return to their Indian Ocean home, when they won their case in the British High Court. Unfortunately for them, Diego Garcia is now the site of a major U.S. military base. Current British governments are even more subservient to U.S. imperial interests than they were in the 1970’s.
We should take seriously the warning from Lisa Vickers, the new U.S. consul in Edinburgh, when she attacked the SNP’s formal anti-NATO policy. “I don’t think you just wake up one morning and say ‘we are going to pull out of NATO’. It doesn’t work like that” – a not so veiled threat!
Alex Salmond has finally come out and declared that the SNP is a pro-monarchy party. As Colin Fox has said, Salmond wants the ending of the outdated 1707 Union of the Parliaments, only to return to the even more antiquated, 1603 Union of the Crowns.
Of course, there are still Scottish republicans to be found in the SNP. However, they are a bit like those ‘Clause 4 socialists’, once found in the old Labour Party. For them socialism was a sentimental ideal for the future but, in the meantime, a Labour government had to be elected to run capitalism efficiently, in order to provide enough crumbs to finance some reforms for the working class.
Today’s SNP ‘independistas’ passionately believe in a future independent Scotland, but believe the road is opened up, in the here and now, by an SNP government managing the local UK state in the interests of big business. They are going to be disappointed as the old SNP turns into an ‘independence-lite’ ‘New SNP’, just like its counterparts in Quebec, Euskadi and Catalunya.
The SNP leadership is not going to challenge U.S. or British imperial power, so it will not be able to deliver genuine independence. This political measure will be strongly opposed by resort to whatever Crown Powers are seen to be necessary. Being prepared to counter those Crown Powers has to be central to any socialist strategy, which opens up a prospect of real democratic advance, in the struggle for Scottish self-determination.
The Crown Powers have also been used by Prime Ministers to declare wars without parliamentary sanction, and to mobilise troops to break strikes when necessary. Therefore, it should be clear why socialists have an interest in promoting republicanism – it increases people’s democratic rights, whilst undermining the anti-democratic powers in the hands of the ruling class.
Socialists living under fascist dictatorships, or in countries with major restrictions on trade union rights, don’t say life would be no better under parliamentary rule, or with legally independent trade unions, because the ruling class would still run things. Socialists place themselves at the head of the struggle for greater democratic rights, but don’t stop at the more limited forms compatible with capitalist rule.
Socialists see republicanism today as a part of the struggle for the socialist republic tomorrow.