Could Max Clifford bring about a British republic?

<i>The Republic of Britain: 1760 to the present </i>by Frank Prochaska (Allen Lane, &pound;20)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

At the time of the Great Reform Bill in 1832, the reformer Francis Place thought that "Kings and Lords" would in time go quietly out of existence. Nearly two centuries later, both are quietly still in business. When the republican case is put, with delicious irony, by such notables as Sir David Hare and Lord Hattersley, it is not difficult to see why. In this country, the class system invariably gets its man.

At the time of the Great Reform Bill in 1832, the reformer Francis Place thought that "Kings and Lords" would in time go quietly out of existence. Nearly two centuries later, both are quietly still in business. When the republican case is put, with delicious irony, by such notables as Sir David Hare and Lord Hattersley, it is not difficult to see why. In this country, the class system invariably gets its man.

In this scholarly and fascinating book, Frank Prochaska traces the views of republicans on the monarchy, and the monarchy on republicans, since Tom Paine first railed against this "imposition upon posterity". It is an absorbing story, especially at those moments - 1789, 1848, the early 1870s, 1917-19 - when the monarchy has been in most trouble. The Nineties are only lightly touched on, despite recent poll evidence that most people do not believe the institution will survive another 50 years. Perhaps the author wished to spare the sensibilities of those who gave him "gracious permission" to use royal archive material.

Or perhaps he found it difficult to reconcile this period with his general argument. For this is not merely a documentary record; it is also a high-class tract. The argument goes like this. Republicanism has really been about democratic rights and civic virtues, not a narrow anti-monarchism. This means that it is possible to be a republican and a monarchist once monarchical power has been properly constitutionalised and democracy established. This is the famous "crowned republic" of HG Wells. Far from being an affront to democracy, constitutional monarchy becomes a standing reminder of its triumph. It also eases the passage of progressive measures in so far as it touches them with the legitimating sceptre of the crown.

If some republicans have had trouble in understanding this, then so have nearly all monarchs. Loathing radicals, democrats, republicans and socialists ("any attempt to make our Institutions Democratic will be most disastrous," wrote Queen Victoria in 1880), monarchs failed to see that democracy would save them, not bury them. Once stripped of their power, they became immune from democratic assault and could concentrate on being royals. More precisely, they could develop their role as the presiding sponsor of civil society, supporting voluntary endeavour and good works.

One of the real merits of this account is the way this activity is shown to have been a deliberate strategy, a kind of royal insurance policy against democratic storms. Designed first to forge a bond with the middle class, the strategy was extended to incorporate the working class through such means as carefully planned visits to industrial areas. It proved remarkably successful, especially when combined with a generous supply of gongs to Labour politicians.

Royalty is an anachronism, declared the socialist Robert Blatchford in 1917, adding "but so long as our form of royalty keeps fairly close to the lines of a crowned Republic any general demand for a Republic on these islands is unlikely". That has proved a shrewd judgement. It does not mean that all is plain sailing for the monarchy now, as the Nineties showed. The Model Family initiative has bombed, a reminder that with a hereditary monarchy you have to take whatever comes along. But the central strategy remains intact, especially at moments of crisis (as with the rehabilitation, through good works, of Charles).

Can it continue to work? Here Prochaska is too sanguine, and least helpful. A hereditary monarchy may eventually implode under the pressure of modern media. Max Clifford may succeed where Tom Paine failed. Even if constitutional monarchy is thought to be a good idea, it may simply not be possible any more. Where Prochaska is wrong is in dismissing those who want to "modernise" the monarchy. His own account shows that it has had to modernise and adapt to survive. That is still the lesson. A democratic monarchy is a trick that needs constantly to be worked on.

The reviewer is Labour MP for Cannock Chase

Comments