We could nag the Windsors off the throne but still not have a republic

Blair is a little Dutch boy about to take his finger out of the dyke and no one knows how much water is behind it Punters frothing and roaring about flaws in the Royals are plainly royalists of a sort A 'British Republic' which was no more than Britain without them could become a nightmare of reaction
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TWO weeks after this paper declared for a republic, it's time to review the British response. But the verdict, so far, has to be "try harder". Few people understand what a republic is, or why it comes about. And those who want one often want it for the wrong reasons.

The main mistake, pretty universal, is to think that a republican is just somebody who wants to get rid of the monarchy. "I am a republican" is now a modish euphemism, designed to make addiction to royal scuttlebutt sound respectable. People who talk like that often turn out to regard the Queen as a wonderful head of state. If they are invited to lead the delegation that tramps up to Buckingham Palace and requests Her Majesty to sign a deed of abdication, they will refuse in horror - probably in tears. All they mean is that Charles or Di is unfit to be this or that, and it follows that if some superprince rode up the Mall and claimed the throne, they would cheer at his coronation.

That sort of phoney "republicanism" is part of the problem it claims to be solving. It's the obverse of the penny with the Queen's head on its face. Long ago, shrewd churchmen suggested that agnostics were real enemies of the faith, but that atheists were softies when you got down to it. If you hate God enough to deny his existence, then you plainly believe he exists. In the same way, journalists and punters frothing and roaring about the flaws in the royals are plainly royalists of a sort. When they think of "the British constitution", all they see is the Crown. They threaten nobody. If I were Stella Rimington, I would stalk the quiet ones, the men and women who dream about liberty, equality and fraternity and ask: "Camilla who?" They are the truly dangerous element, the carriers of the red gene.

But the mistake runs deeper. It assumes that a state which deposes its monarchy becomes automatically a republic. This is a fatal error, going to the heart of the whole debate set off by the Independent on Sunday. A modern republic is about democracy. The constitutional form in Germany which followed the overthrow of the empire was the democratic Weimar Republic. In 1933, Adolf Hitler replaced it with another constitutional form without a monarch. But the Third Reich was not a republic, and never pretended that it was.

There is a real danger here. The British could nag and pester the Windsors off the throne, and find themselves in the worst of all worlds - an authoritarian state with no defined civil rights, run on a tradition of absolute central power and official secrecy. The Crown, even as political fiction, does at least suggest that there is some supreme regulator which even a prime minister dare not ignore. There is one thing more oppressive than the British state as a monarchy - and that is the unreformed British state without a monarchy.

The leader of Britain's first Marxist party was H M Hyndman, and in 1884 he described his vision of a republic. The monarchy would have to be dismissed "in a polite manner and in the handsome way that would become us as a nation". But, as recalled by Logie Baird and Ian Bullock in their forthcoming book Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, Hyndman saw that only as a beginning. Both Houses of Parliament would be abolished and replaced by a national convention of paid delegates, elected every year, who would submit all draft laws to the people by referendum.

Today, a British republic would be more sedate, resembling established continental patterns. It would probably have a written constitution, a law for proportional representation, a doctrine of popular sovereignty rising from the grass roots upwards and permitting a federal structure. But it would confirm Hyndman's rule - that the making of a republic only starts when the monarchy has left.

The most difficult question in all this argument is whether Hyndman was right about dismissing the monarchy. Here serious republicans differ. Many, revolted by the babble over royal scandals, are convinced that the monarchy is truly irrelevant - so irrelevant that we can have a republic with or without it. The Queen or King Charles III would have to lose all their prerogative powers, which are anyway a fiction, and their formal role in the dissolution of parliaments and appointment of ministers. But they could then be left as a beloved, harmless ornament on top of a state which was a republic in all its structures although not in name.

It's seductive. Keep the Queen and have a modern republican constitution as well. What a lot of agony that would save! Supporters of this approach point out that Belgium and Holland, in different degrees, are really "crowned republics", and so are the Scandinavian monarchies. Belgium made itself independent through a classic liberal revolution in 1830, set up republican institutions and then went shopping round Europe for a dynasty to stick on top of them.

But others sternly reject this design for having our royal cake and eating it. One of them is the political philosopher Tom Nairn, who calls it "this last refuge for those who acknowledge republican principle but don't want to be crucified upon it". A century ago, Walter Bagehot let such people off crucifixion by suggesting that the British system was really an efficient, modern machine of government, disguised under tattered gothic drapery.

For Nairn, that was a gigantic con-trick. The reverse is true. All that is oppressive and decayed about our state depends on the institution of monarchy - not on the individual who happens to sit on the throne, but on his or her office. "The theatrical show of Monarchy and Westminster archaism ... expresses the genuine, inward nature of elite government - the national, anti-democratic populism of an inherently aristocratic power." Far from being a harmless relic, encouraging a sense of national cohesion, the "relic" sets the tone and dictates the attitudes of the entire political society beneath it.

The French felt the same in 1789. After an experiment with royal revolution fizzled out, they pulled up the monarchy itself - and the whole political and social system they detested came unravelling out of the ground behind it, like the yellow root-labyrinth under a nettle plant. Belgium or Scandinavia are not such good models after all. Their power structures were shaped by the principles of the Enlightenment, and by Napoleon's reforms of law and administration. Britain, by contrast, is still something of an ancien regime whose tangled roots reach back to centuries when kings toyed with Divine Right.

So, in the end, there are no easy ways forward. A "British Republic" which was no more than Britain without the Windsors could become a nightmare of reaction. And a United Kingdom which was really a crowned republic is a nonsense - an attempt to graft a horse's head on to an elephant's backside and call it a hippopotamus. Either the king or the republic would have to go. In this country, there is no room for both.

But this is the land of compromises, and new Labour - if elected - will essay a few. Devolution, no more hereditary peers, maybe proportional representation. Lip-service to monarchy will carry on. My hunch, though, is that small dribbles of reform could widen into gushing torrents. As I have written before, Tony Blair is a little Dutch boy about to take his finger out of the dyke, and neither he nor I nor anyone knows quite how much water has stacked up behind it. Princes and princesses can swim, but crowns don't float.