Watch out, the Roundheads are back

Republicanism is again fashionable among the chattering classes but could it threaten the monarchy? Jack O'Sullivan reports

British politicians - at least those who are serious about winning power - are terrified of republicanism. They stoutly support democracy and defend their rights against the predations of Brussels. Even the Labour Party, which has carried the standard of parliamentary supremacy against all comers over the Scott report, are like lambs when it comes to abolishing the monarchy. The issue is still off the agenda, not even open to debate.

So Tony Blair, the Labour leader, has silenced Ron Davies, Labour's spokesman on Wales, for making known his republicanism in general and his distaste for the Prince of Wales in particular. Even though much of the country is obsessed with the inadequacies of the Royal Family, Mr Blair has stifled public discussion of the issue by Labour top brass.

Republican sympathies were not always so suppressed by our leaders. After all, Oliver Cromwell, born nearly four centuries ago, gave Western Europe one of its first republics and ruled England without a king for 11 years. By the end of the 18th century, Thomas Paine, the radical philosopher, was convinced a new republic was around the corner, arguing that monarchy "may last a few years more, but cannot long resist the awakened reason and interest of man". How wrong he was.

The royals are still in their palaces and castles (five of each). And it remains barely conceivable that top politicians would echo Paine's sentiments. Why do we find it so difficult to allow republicanism a serious place in contemporary debate?

The dangers are several. Anyone who attacks the institution of the monarchy risks being seen as cutting out the very heart of Britishness. The Queen's head is on the currency and Her Majesty's Government rules the country. The country's soldiers pledge to die for her. Large sections of the population apparently work for her, from delivering the post to enforcing her justice, to running her prisons.

Think of the calendar. There is no Union day, to celebrate the forging of the British nation by the Act of Union in 1707, which joined Scotland and England. The United States has the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Columbus Day. France has Bastille Day. Instead, the national anthem interrupts Radio 4's Today programme when the Queen, her mother, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles have their birthdays. We are meant to feel, in their birthday celebrations, a sense of nationhood.

Monarchy is intimately tied up with British history, in particular its triumphs and its empire. A history that is generally defined in episodes named after the reigning monarch might seem ruptured if the throne was no more. Britain has a further psychological problem with republicanism. It is the creed of nations that have fought Britain - of the French revolutionaries that wrought havoc in Europe, of the American Revolution that led to the breakaway of Britain's greatest colony, of a form of Irish nationalism that has proved so much agitating over nearly two centuries.

Republicanism has other very bad connotations. We suspect republicans do not know how to have fun, for it is a creed associated with Puritanism. Ask any child whom they prefer: the politically correct but uninspiring Roundheads or the dashing frills of the Royal Cavaliers.

Monarchy may seem utterly anachronistic, but still seems extraordinarily natural to most British citizens. To destroy it or attack it, without identifying new compensating ways for the British to express and celebrate their identity would leave a huge gap in society. We may have come to feel ambivalent about the monarchy, but how could we possibly muster any enthusiasm for a party political president or even a celebrity figure such as Richard Branson?

All of these factors help to explain why mainstream politicians largely stay clear of republicanism. They do not have a scheme to fill the huge emptiness in national self-confidence that would accompany the demise of the monarchy. So they judge that it would be better to leave the matter well alone.

Government politicians also have an investment in preserving moribund parts of the British constitution. To attempt to abolish the monarchy would mean unpicking much of the rest of the old fabric of the constitution. The House of Lords has been left unreformed for so long partly because, with so little legitimacy, it rarely challenges the House of Commons. That means the majority party can get on with governing. Likewise, the powerlessness of the Queen allows the Government to call on the Crown's wide-ranging executive powers, largely unfettered by an interfering head of state.

However, the status quo which the political classes have accepted largely unchanged for more than a century is beginning to be questioned. Nearly 17 years of one-party rule has left part of the political establishment - notably sections of the Labour Party - feeling dispossessed and hostile to the establishment. Blair may have slapped down Mr Davies, but it appears he spoke for more of his party than the Labour leader may have first appreciated.

Meanwhile, at a popular level, criticism of the monarchy is growing. Over the past 15 years, opinion polls have recorded a steady decline in royal ratings. Only one in three people now think that Britain would be worse off without a monarchy, a level of dissatisfaction which few would have forecast in the early Eighties when Royal weddings seemed to have cemented public affection for the institution.

This disillusionment must partly be due to royal scandals. But it is probably also linked to a deeper issue - the inevitable collision of the democratic impulse with authority and aristocracy. The ascendancy of democracy in Britain - best expressed in the Eighties and Nineties by consumerism - is measuring all institutions against rising expectations of performance.

The monarchy is failing these tests. The expensive lifestyle of the Royal Family fascinates, but also appals. Birth might be allowed to confer special privileges if the Royals live up to their role, but when they behave like the Duchess of York, the idea of a birthright to rule is turned into a laughing stock.

It would be easy to exaggerate the depth of the crisis. According to an poll conducted by Mori for the Independent on Sunday, only 17 per cent of people think that Britain would better off if the monarchy was abolished. And, despite all the recent bad publicity, 41 per cent still think that Prince Charles would make a good king (against 40 per cent who think he would be a bad choice.) This is a large drop from the 82 per cent who thought in 1991 that he would make a good king, but it is not a disaster by the standards of political polling. Many presidents would be delighted to enjoy an approval rating at half the 73 per cent level that the Queen scores.

Unless popular opinion shifts a great deal more against the monarchy, the House of Windsor should survive. albeit it in more cramped financial conditions and with the fracture of Charles and Diana's divorce running through it for at least another generation.

So we are trapped. A common catchphrase of politics is: if it isn't broken, don't fix it. But that does not mean that if something is broken, it should be repaired. The Monarchy clearly falls into that category: it is broken but no one has any idea how to fix it, so it's best left alone in the hope it will sort itself out. The nation is left in limbo, still deeply attached to a symbol that it knows is tarnished. The most likely effect of the resurgence of republicanism would be to force modernising monarchists to come up with a more appealing definition of the role of a family of hereditary rulers in the 21st century. Twenty years ago, Willie Hamilton, the late Labour MP, carved out a career as the sole voice of republicanism in the Commons. It is a measure of the Royal family's failure that what was once eccentric has now become respectable.

1981 Charles and Diana married: national adulation.

1982 William born. Diana throws herself down stairs at Sandringham, Charles arranges for her to see psychiatrist.

1983 First tour together, in Australia. Palace dismisses rumours that Diana has eating disorder.

1984 Harry born.

1985 Charles and Diana give Alastair Burnet their first and only public interview together.

1986 Plantgate affair - Charles admits talking to plants.

1987 Charles spends more than a month at Balmoral away from his family, leading to rumours of a rift.

1988 Diana makes first major speech, on dangers facing the modern family.

1991 Tour of Czechoslovakia. Rumours that royal couple sleep in separate beds.

1992 Andrew Morton's Diana - Her True Story published. Squidgygate mobile phone affair, followed three months later by Camillagate, quicky pursued by Queen's shock annus horribilis confession. Separation announced.

1993 Diana announces withdrawal from public life.

1994 Charles admits adultery to Jonathan Dimbleby and viewing millions. Anna Pasternak writes of Diana's affair with "royal rat" James Hewitt.

1995 Trollgate (Diana sends troll to Will Carling) and "Dianarama" interview.

1996 Diana tells press divorce will go ahead. Hewitt offers kiss-and- tell story to TV networks. John Bryan offers suck-and-tell story to publishers. Renewed calls for republic.

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