Republican debate no one can stop

Once it was never mentioned, now everyone is talking about it, reports Rebecca Fowler
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ON his most recent visit to Australia, the Prince of Wales commented blithely that it was the sign of "a mature and self-confident nation" to debate whether or not to become a republic. Recent events in this country may have changed his mind.

After decades of resisting debate over the role of the monarchy the first steps have been made towards a head-on confrontation over what future the royals may have, following opinion poll evidence of plummeting support published in the Independent on Sunday last month.

Since this newspaper declared itself in favour of a republic (after the Queen's death) on 18 February, the debate has broadened and by last week had been taken up by every national newspaper, mostly on the front pages. What made it impossible to ignore was the outburst 10 days ago by shadow Welsh secretary, Ron Davies. He accused the Prince of Wales of "talking to vegetables" while also encouraging his young sons to go hunting and kill animals. But most importantly, he stated that the future of the monarchy could not be separated from the personal qualities of its heirs.

Though Tony Blair speedily extracted an apology from Mr Davies, the lid had been lifted. Numerous Labour MPs said publicly and privately that the matter should be open for discussion. "We seem to be afraid of tackling these issues," said Nicholas Ainger, Labour MP for Pembroke. Tony Banks called for a referendum on the royals, and Ken Livingstone wrote in the Sun that Mr Blair had been wrong to quell the debate.

Even more surprisingly, George Walden, a former diplomat and Conservative MP for Buckingham, broke ranks to come to Mr Davies's aid. He called for a Grand Remonstrance to the Royal Family, based on the one made to Charles I in 1641, expressing the grievances of the nation. Mr Walden said: "When you think of all these sordid money deals, when you think of these blabbing lovers, these duchesses and princesses, are we supposed to defer to these people?"

He also attacked the mealy-mouthed approach of Parliament to the debate and said the Prime Minister's call for Mr Davies to be sacked was "deeply undignified and silly".

More bad news for royalists came on Thursday night, when a poll on BBC1's Question Time revealed 60 per cent of the audience felt there should be a parliamentary vote on the future of the monarchy. The Sun invited its readers to phone in and found that 5,466 wanted the Queen to be the last monarch, against 3,555 who wanted the royals to carry on. Two days later, it asked the same question in a different way: 3,436 readers said that Charles should be crowned king, while 5,494 said they would prefer a republic.

Not since Oliver Cromwell has there been any serious threat to the monarchy as an institution. But why is it that politicians have been wary of taking on the crown for so long? The few who have tried, such as Tony Benn (who when postmaster-general tried to remove the Queen's head from British stamps) have found that others have regarded it as a distraction from more urgent tasks.

His diary records: "It's much more important to keep in with Harold, and it would be silly to run the risk of a row politically."

Dick Crossman, Labour intellectual and leader of the Commons in the 1960s, had another answer, complaining in his diaries 30 years ago that far too many Labour privy counsellors relished their meetings with the Queen. "It's the professional classes who are radical over this, and it is the working class socialists who are by and large staunchly monarchist," he wrote. "The nearer the Queen they get, the more working class members of the Cabinet love her and she loves them."

But the Independent on Sunday's poll, carried out by MORI, suggested that republicanism is no longer a chattering classes' fad, if it ever was. MORI found far stronger anti-monarchist sentiment among the working- classes than among the professional classes. For example, 46 per cent of those in the AB social classes thought Britain would be worse off without a monarchy, against 27 per cent in DE. In the DE classes, 29 per cent wanted the monarchy abolished immediately or when the Queen dies, against 14 per cent in AB.

The MORI poll, however, was significant mainly for the trend of opinion it showed - 12 years ago, 77 per cent of all adults thought Britain would be worse off without a monarchy, against 34 per cent now. Only 17 per cent think the country would be better off as a republic (the others think it would make no difference). So the monarchists are probably still in a majority and they have many supporters in the opinion pages of national newspapers. They include Lord Blake, the historian, who said of appointing a president in the Sun: "One would probably get some clapped out politician whose neutrality would be suspect." And Philip Ziegler, a royal biographer, said in the Daily Mail: "A lot would still have to happen before the iconoclasts put the monarchy at serious risk."

Some, including the outspoken Archdeacon of York, the Ven George Austin, are anxious not to confuse their weariness over what they see as the indiscretions and folly of the younger generation of royals with the institution of the monarchy.

The Archdeacon concluded crossly that he was sick of hearing about the cost of the Princess of Wales's colonic irrigation in anticipation of her divorce settlement. But he was equally anxious to stress his devotion to the Queen.

For others, however, the current frailties, profligacy and divorces of the royals, are as good reasons as any for tackling the monarchy. "At such a turning point is it not also time seriously to consider the mechanisms for constructing the British Republic?" asked the Guardian, dipping its toe gingerly in the water.

Despite the caution of the political leaders, the outbursts of recent weeks have been the most outspoken in living memory, with the ghost of Thomas Paine, the radical 18th-century philosopher, being resurrected by contemporary supporters of a republic.

In last week's Economist, the editorial opined with self-confidence: "Mr Blair's reaction is understandable. His party has been out of office for a long time, and he fears offending Britain's natural conservatism ... But the country could do with a bit of radicalism." Then the magazine quoted Paine: "We have it in our power to begin the world all over again."