The issues in the controversy surrounding the UK’s royal family require proper comment in themselves. We hope to publish more soon.
Immediately, we welcome the fact that the controversy has caused a noticeable surge of publicly-expressed scepticism about the institution of the monarchy. The republican left should seek to sustain that surge and develop a real debate.
Since the turn of the century, the monarchy has managed to "rebrand" itself and actually increase its popularity. "Harry and Meghan" were of course an important part of that. If the unpleasant realities of the institution and the social layers it represents are now more exposed, that is a good thing.
Over the years, the very concept of being against the monarchy has been driven out of mainstream debate and demonised. In the 1980s, for instance, republicanism was quite mainstream on the Labour left and many left-wing MPs openly advocated it. Today there is much greater reticence, even fear. We need to break that spell.
Back in 1925, arguing against the UK Labour Party’s pro-monarchist leaders, Leon Trotsky spelt out two fundamental arguments against the monarchy.
Firstly, in terms of the monarchy’s practical political role: “royalty is weak as long as the bourgeois parliament is instrument of bourgeois rule and as long as the bourgeoisie has not need of extra-parliamentary methods. But the bourgeoisie can if necessary use royalty as the focus of all extra-parliamentary, ie real forces directed against the working class.”
Quite a few historical episodes since then have proved that right. Even today, when the British ruling class does not feel seriously threatened or challenged, there are frequent revelations about the monarchy’s anti-democratic role in politics.
Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, “the question of the monarchy… is a matter of the complete overturn of society and of purging it of all elements of oppression. Such a task, both politically and psychologically, excludes any conciliation with monarchy.”
Socialists and labour movement activists should argue for a democratic republic. Governmental power should be in the hands of Parliament, with the government chosen by and more strongly accountable to it; if there is a president they should be a ceremonial figure elected by Parliament. Replacing the monarchy with an elected presidency, particularly one with executive powers, would maintain many of the existing problems and create new ones.
The state should be reorganised on a federal basis, with the House of Lords replaced by an elected chamber in some way representing and recognising the different nations and regions. (For what we say about the North of Ireland, see here.)
There are many other democratic demands which the left must fight for. Refunding, re-empowering and re-democratising local government is a crucial but often overlooked element of any democratic program, of meaningfully empowering citizens and labour movements to influence their lived environment.
Even in the Labour Party and the unions, campaigns for democratic reforms – for instance for proportional representation, which we support – are often very weakly connected to a wider vision for political democratisation, let alone democratising society and the economy and empowering the working class.
Socialists should seek to link expanded political democracy to measures of social and economic democratisation, including to guarantee decent standards of living, public services, etc, and crucially the right to strike – through repeal of all anti-trade union laws and their replacement by positive legal workers’ rights, set down in law.
We need, minimally, to curb police powers and the role of police in society, promoting in its place strong social provision, community organisation and solidarity.
To establish democracy in a really thoroughgoing way requires the overthrow of capitalism. No democratic reforms within this system can get round the need to democratise and build up the labour movement, create a workers’ government and drive out the capitalist ruling class. But fighting for radical democratic reforms in a bold, energetic way can help build struggles for workers’ power.
The labour movement should argue and campaign for an elected constitutional convention to reshape Britain’s institutions.