Meet Britain's republicans: Is the UK ready for change in the year the Queen turns 90?

No matter the odds stacked against them, they dream of the demise of the monarchy, and right now they've got a spring in their step. Simon Usborne meets Britain's republicans

Simon Usborne
Friday 22 January 2016 19:23 GMT
Members of the Republic in Yorkshire, campaigning in Leeds City Centre
Members of the Republic in Yorkshire, campaigning in Leeds City Centre (Victor De Jesus/UNP)

On a wet Saturday morning in a square in Leeds, three men stand by a trestle table preaching Islam. "We have many questions – what are we doing here, why are we created?" Hamed asks while handing out guides to the Koran to passers-by. A few yards away a man gives out vouchers offering cash for unwanted gadgets. At the centre of the square, a young plane tree emerges from a ringed, chrome bench – a commemoration of the Queen's diamond jubilee in 2012.

Competing for the attention of shoppers are five men drawn here by their appetite for a British revolution, and the uprooting of what they view as the last barrier to real democracy. They too had plans to set up a table and a banner outside St John's shopping centre but Tony, the table guy, is running late. So the core of the Yorkshire branch of Republic, Britain's only notable republican campaign group, have spread out. Armed with leaflets, they take their argument to Leeds, one shopper at a time.

By chance, one of the first people the group meets angrily distils much of what Republic is up against. "I think it's disgusting that they're giving these out," says Lyn Adkin, 58, seconds after receiving a "Royal Secrets Must End" leaflet. She shakes it as she speaks. "I'm absolutely appalled. The Royal Family symbolise England and everything about them is English and it's wonderful. To be giving things like this out, I just don't know what to say. I'm gobsmacked and this is going in the nearest bin."

First we review the bullet points on the front of the leaflet. "The monarchy is not covered by Freedom of Information rules; Prince Charles is lobbying government in secret; millions of pounds of royal costs are hidden; the monarchy is one of the most secretive institutions in the country." Does any of this concern Mrs Adkin? "We all have secrets," she says. "And look at how they promote things, how many people come to England to look at Buckingham Palace and see the Queen. They do good! I'm so sorry to be so angry. I'm so angry, I really am."

Nigel Catling, the campaigner who gave Mrs Adkin the literature as she passed, has seen but not heard the conversation. He approaches her again to offer a different "Monarchy Must Go" leaflet, not realising what he's walking into. "I really don't want it and I'm appalled at this and I think it's disgusting," she tells him. Catling, 57, cheerily tries to start a debate but soon wishes Mrs Adkin a good day. Since it started three years ago, the Yorkshire network has leafleted cities about once a fortnight. Is it always like this? "Er, no, no it's not," he says as he looks at my tape recorder. "Would you mind turning that off?"

It can be tough being a republican in Britain. The Queen's annus has been pretty mirabilis over and again since the horrible 1990s, when scandal, a castle fire and Diana's death shook the House of Windsor. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary this April, rounding off a diamond era for the family. The "Jubilympics", two births and a record-breaking reign have inspired countless souvenir pullouts, commemorative crockery and Nicholas Witchell reports on the BBC. Days before the leafleting in Leeds, a nation cooed as Prince George started nursery. And we watched Charles and his sons celebrate 40 years of the Prince's Trust with Ant and Dec.

Yet republicans are confident that an underestimated, largely unheard chunk of the population – a majority, they believe – is ready to think seriously about change in the year the Queen turns 90. And Republic, which has operated in its current form for 10 years now, thinks it can achieve it without even needing to convert people like Mrs Adkin. "I think about 20 per cent of the population is republican," Tony says when he does arrive, repeating a figure that is generally reflected in polls (he asks that his surname is not revealed "for work reasons"). "I also maintain that about 20 per cent of us are monarchists. That leaves 60 per cent in the middle who don't really care. But the media try and put them in with the monarchists and it's just not the case."

Republic's mission is to find and engage shy and unwitting republicans. By reversing the trade winds of royal glorification that still make the weather here, it wants to create a climate in which a government is compelled to hold a referendum – and then to persuade us to vote for an elected head of state. With that would come an elected second chamber in place of the House of Lords. But first they want their arguments to be heard over the din of ad-libbing royal correspondents and cathedral organs. And in this regard, they, too, have had a good year.

In December, a Freedom of Information request that Republic had pursued for three years revealed the routine access to confidential government papers enjoyed by Prince Charles, the wealthy businessman, landowner, lobbyist and future unelected head of state. The revelation made front-page news only months after the release of some of the prince's "black spider" memos to ministers, which confirmed suspicions about his "meddling" tendencies.

Graham Smith, the chief executive of Republic, says he expects more such evidence of interference to be revealed in the coming weeks. He joined the group in 2003 as an idealistic, left-leaning, Bristol-born former backpacker. As a 12-year-old he remembers asking to be excused from a classroom where Prince Andrew's wedding to Sarah Ferguson was being shown on television. Republic, which emerged in the early 1980s, had about 300 members and little direction when Smith, now 41, arrived after a period of living and working in Australia. By 2006, he had taken on the campaign and it now has more than 5,000 paying members as well as about 35,000 online supporters.

Resources are limited – the group has only two full-time members of staff and an income of £140,000 last year – but Smith views public apathy as progress, and an opportunity for growth. "Opinion has shifted away from the monarchy in the sense people don't care about it," he says the day before the Leeds event at Campaign HQ, his modest two-up, two-down in St Albans (he hopes to find some office space in London by the end of the year). "And they haven't shifted towards us because they haven't had the opportunity to think about it. But when you start talking to them about the issues, they quickly change their minds."

This becomes evident in Leeds after Mrs Adkin leaves to continue her shopping. In an hour of leafleting, Republic encounters only one other monarchist. When a campaigner hands Michael McGann a leaflet and the man glances at it, he turns to his young son. "Now that is what you call a tosser," he tells the boy. As he leaves the square, he explains that he was raised a royalist. "My mum and dad got a telegram from the Queen when they were married 60 years," he adds.

Members of the Republic organisation - Grant Buckley, Nigel Catling and Mark Sutton - meet in a Leeds pub earlier this month
Members of the Republic organisation - Grant Buckley, Nigel Catling and Mark Sutton - meet in a Leeds pub earlier this month (Victor De Jesus/UNP)

Mr McGann and Mrs Adkin won't be swayed but everyone else on the square is sympathetic, to varying degrees. "I mean, we're living in 2016 so I don't really see why the Royal Family should have these privileges," says Sam Ero, a Nigerian who has lived in Leeds for eight years. Carla Martinez is about to start a shift at a nearby clothes store. "I do think it's a lot of money that goes to waste," she says, clutching the third leaflet available today. It presents Republic's estimation that all royal expenses, including unlisted security costs, amount to £334m a year, almost 10 times the official figure.> It also challenges the widespread view that the Royal Family is good for tourism, evidence for which, it says, is scant.

The Charles revelations last year coincided with a potentially favourable political wind for British republicanism. Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader last September triggered fierce constitutional debate after the veteran republican hesitated before agreeing to kiss hands with the Queen when he was sworn into the Privy Council. But since then, and the grief he also received for not singing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain ceremony in September, he has parked his republicanism as a low priority.

In Smith's front room at his home in St Albans, a draft of Republic's "Royal Secrets" report sits next to a BBC Daily Politics mug. Smith says Corbyn has been a trigger for debate, as well as media appearances for Republic. But he also admits to concerns. "I think most people have no particular idea of what a republican is, but if there's a stereotype it's probably Corbyn," he explains. "People think we are instinctively unpatriotic and left-wing … And there is a danger that if Corbyn is unsuccessful, there could be some sort of blowback for us in the sense that it might reinforce the stereotype."

Either way, politics is bringing new attention – and members – to Republic. Daniel Cale, 22, has joined the group in Leeds after receiving a Republic leaflet at the anti-austerity marches in London last summer. "I never agreed with the institution but I never knew there was a campaign group," he says. The only woman among eight people who eventually show up today has heard about the group on Twitter, she thinks in a tweet by a Corbyn supporter. Both newcomers live in Leeds. "I wanted to get a feel of your aims and objectives," the 40-something (she asks not to be named) tells the men. "I don't understand how you can have hereditary advantage in a democracy."

Republic presents itself as a politically neutral pressure group. The Leeds network boasts about a Conservative councillor among its ranks. It has also set its sights on a more significant, if even less obvious ally. "We're only a few years from King Charles and he's our greatest recruiting sergeant," says Professor Stephen Haseler, director of the Global Policy Institute and an expert on constitutional monarchy. Haseler, 72, is a former chair of Republic and is old enough to remember the age of deference. "Even 20 years ago it was almost taboo to talk about this," he says by phone. "Now it's acceptable but nobody is prepared to go beyond that and that's because of the Queen. The minute she goes, that's when monarchy becomes the big issue."

He describes the Queen as a "sticking plaster" whose 63-year reign has bridged incomparable eras. "Charles will be king right away – there's no gap," he says. "It will be the first succession most people will remember and the first of the modern democratic era. We will watch the hereditary principle in action and I think a lot of people are going to say, 'hang on a minute, where do we come into this?'"

Republic plans to channel its energies not into the all-consuming period of official mourning that will follow the Queen's death, but Charles's coronation several months later. "We're still fleshing it out but we're going to be quite vocal in saying that we can't have this guy walk into the top job just because his mum was doing it before," Smith says. "We will have a controversial figure as monarch, who people are already happy to criticise and attack, and that's a significant change from where we are now."

Graham Smith of Republic in his office in St Albans
Graham Smith of Republic in his office in St Albans (Victor De Jesus/UNP)

By the time of accession, Smith also hopes Republic will also have grown. He wants to attract at least 2,000 new members this year. While he challenges some parts of the media, including the BBC, over its "soft" treatment of the monarchy, he also knows that saturation coverage of big events is good for Republic. It gained 500 members during the 2011 Royal Wedding. The group is also growing its social and old media presence, and has a loose network of 10 volunteers who lead its investigations, in particular its Freedom of Information work. And at a local level, 21 groups are now bringing Republic's case to the streets.

At midday, the Leeds contingent leaves the square and heads to a pub for a meeting, details of which were posted on the national group's website. An hour or more of discussion follows, much of it repetitive. The average age is above 50 and there is a heavy leftward lean (the Tory councillor couldn't make it). Eventually, Mark Sutton, who co-ordinates the group, talks through some of its plans for the year. They include a stall at the Green Party's spring conference in Harrogate in February, and Ukip's main conference in Doncaster in the autumn. Sutton, who is 50, was at Ukip's gathering last year. "Surprisingly quite a few of them were on our side," he says.

It would easy to think that, despite Republic's growth and growing confidence, as well as the perceived threat to the stability of the monarchy posed by a king called Charles, the monarchy remains as rooted in the British landscape as the Jubilee tree in Leeds. Perhaps its greatest protection is the prime minister of the day, whose own role would be reduced without the patronage of the honours system and the powers that come with the royal prerogative. The current Prime Minister also happens to be a big fan – a 14-year-old David Cameron camped out overnight to watch the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981.

But Smith believes that change will arrive in his lifetime, and will come from the bottom up, regardless of who occupies Downing Street. "Look at the Scottish independence campaign," he says. "Right up until six months before the referendum, support was somewhere around 30 per cent. A lot of that was because many people hadn't made the leap of imagination required to think about what an independent Scotland would look like. Or think about the massive turnaround in public attitudes about gay marriage, or environmental issues," he adds. "You can change minds quite quickly."

In Leeds, in a rented room at the unsuibtably regal Victoria pub on Great George Street, Sutton remembers the group's first gathering three years ago. "It was in another pub also called the Victoria," he says. But another member of the group speaks up to correct him. "Sorry, it was the Albert on Victoria Street," Sutton says, adding: "It just goes to show, wherever you go now you can't get away from the monarchy. But we want to move on and change the way the country is run. We want to change the way it thinks."

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