Text by Marco Marcelline / Illustration by Rhia Thomas
It isn’t hard to see that Britain is facing a deep-seated democratic crisis and disillusionment. Fewer people than ever have faith in our institutions and governance, and while this feeling is currently at its peak, it didn’t emerge overnight.
A move by the Government to clamp down on protests ahead of the coronation on Saturday represents just the latest example of a strained democracy. In a rushed piece of legislation which was given royal assent by King Charles on Tuesday this week, protesters who block roads, airports, and railways could face 12 months behind bars while anyone locking on to others, objects, or buildings could go to prison for six months and face an unlimited fine. Given that the right to protest is a hallmark of any democracy, the legislation throws further weight behind allegations that the UK cannot comfortably call itself a true democracy while we have a highly protected monarch as head of state.
Graham Smith, the CEO of Republic, a pressure group advocating for abolishing the monarchy and establishing a British republic, argues that a monarchy and democracy are not easily aligned, and in fact, are opposed to each other.
“Democracy is a very clear idea that the people are in charge of the sovereign and therefore everything needs to be accountable to the people. Having someone who requires secrecy and deference in order to stay in office and who simply hands their job over to their eldest child, either when they die or when they abdicate, not only is it not democratic but it stands against the values of democracy,” Smith tells Naked Politics.
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So what should happen to the properties owned by the Royal Family when the monarchy is abolished? “The famous properties should be turned into museums”, Smith says, while the less famous ones can be handed over to the crown estate and used for “many kinds of profitable purposes”. Buckingham Palace, for example, “would be a world-class museum and art gallery, while other places that no one’s ever heard of can be handed over and either rented out for profit”.
And is all of this a highly probable prospect? “I think that Britain will become a republic. I think the chances of George becoming King are rapidly disappearing. People under the age of 30 are increasingly opposed to the monarchy and disinterested in it. The overall polling that shows that it’s still a majority in the country for the monarchy is hugely inflated by the opinions of people over the age of 65. That gap between younger and older is growing so I think the monarchy is in a lot of trouble. The only person that sustained the support for the monarchy was the Queen and she’s no longer there”.
Grace, 25, from Belfast, is one of those younger people who are opposed to the monarchy and would prefer it to be abolished, even though, she admits, she prefers soon-to-be coronated King Charles as a person to the late Elizabeth II because she sees him as more “modern”.
Grace explains the simple reason why she doesn’t agree with the monarchy: “I don’t like the monarchy because I don’t think that your family or the people you’re born from should dictate whether you’re better than anyone else or not.”
Republic eyes a referendum as the preferred, ideal, and naturally democratic way to abolish the monarchy. But a referendum would depend on the major political parties agreeing to hold one before an election. This doesn’t look likely, at least in the mid-term.
After taking the reins of Labour, Sir Keir Starmer has been keen to show as much support for the monarchy as possible; a shift in tone and approach from famous republican Jeremy Corbyn. Last month, Starmer was invited to and subsequently attended a dinner party with the King at Windsor Castle that included an overnight stay. So as long as Starmer remains in charge of Labour, it doesn’t appear likely that the UK’s self-described “democratic socialist” party will push for a referendum on going for an elected head of state in place of the monarch.
Bulgaria is the last country to bring in a republic through a referendum in 1946. The last referendum on whether to abolish a monarchy was the 2009 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines vote on removing Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State; that failed by a long shot (55.29% pro-monarchy, 43.71% against). So, even if a referendum does take place, it can’t be a given that it would even pass. Barbados took it a step further and after the republican Barbados Labour Party took more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament in 2020, Prime Minister Mia Mottley announced her party would seek a constitutional amendment to make Barbados a republic, which it officially became in November 2021, in a ceremony attended by Rihanna, no less. And now there is growing noise in Jamaica to break away from the British monarchy, with Prime Minister Andrew Holness saying in January that his Government was “moving ahead with speed and alacrity” in the process to make the Caribbean nation a republic.
Meanwhile, while a less immediate prospect, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has publicly stated he would like his country to become a republic one day, which is yet another sign that the monarchy might be losing its grip on the Commonwealth if not Britain.
Even where the monarchy isn’t concerned, Britain suffers under a democratic deficit because of its voting system. The nature of the Westminster electoral system means that the winner takes all, and all other candidates take nothing. This creates a situation where in uncompetitive seats, it can be argued that it is futile to vote given the outcome of the election can be foreseen, and any votes for a different candidate will not land a blow whatsoever.
For example, according to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), of the 32 million total votes cast in the 2019 General Election, only 9.4 million votes (29.2% of the total) were ‘decisive’ (which means they were needed) in securing a candidate’s election.
Meanwhile, many may not be aware that advocating for the abolition of the monarchy has been a lifetime imprisonable offence for over a hundred years thanks to The Treason Felony Act 1848. While technically still in force, the Law Lords have held that it must be interpreted to be compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998 so peaceful republican activity has been allowed.
A glaring concern expressed by republicans is that the media refuses to report critically on the monarchy and whether it should be abolished or not. It’s arguable that democratic societies rely on free, diverse, and plural media that reflect the variety of opinions that exist in society. However, republican sentiment and the republican movement say they face a media landscape that is almost exclusively pro-monarchy, with the state broadcaster coming under fire for its perceived lack of impartiality by the campaign group Republic. It can be hard to hear anti-monarchy opinions on various BBC current affairs and news programmes like Question Time, for example.
In a letter to the BBC’s director of editorial and policy standards, Republic accused the BBC of failing “to give a voice to a reasonable balance of views on the issue. The evidence suggests the BBC not only fails to be impartial, but makes no attempt to be impartial or balanced and, most shockingly, openly colludes with the palace in its coverage.
The letter continued: “It should be a source of deep shame for all those involved that, instead of such fearless reporting, we have insipid, vacuous and dishonest coverage from a BBC that is fearful of public opprobrium and palace influence”.
The result of the alleged bias, the letter adds, is that “coverage serves the interests of a shrinking minority who could reasonably be called royalists. In doing so, they do a disservice to the whole nation”.
The answer to the question of whether Britain can call itself a fully-fledged democracy is undoubtedly complicated by the fact we have a hereditary ruler as head of state. For some, the existence of parliamentary democracy and the non-interventionist nature of the monarchy is enough. For republicans, it’s patently not.
However, given the fact that the major political parties do not seem likely to support a referendum on Britain becoming a republic anytime soon, the republican cause is going to have to do a lot of work to convince the general public to back abolishing the monarchy. That said, the attitude of young people to the monarchy is mainly marked by either indifference or opposition. And since indifference is not enough to hold up the weight of the monarchy, we might have an elected head of state sooner than we think.
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