The Great British Republic: As the Royal Family crisis deepens, Michael Fathers peeps into a crystal ball that shows a fateful evening in the next century when the House of Commons is told that the monarchy is to be abolished

Michael Fathers
Sunday 30 August 1992 00:02 BST

LAST night Britain became a republic. In a packed but subdued House of Commons, MPs listened as the Clerk of the House announced in medieval French that the Queen had given her assent to the Republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Bill, thus ending more than 1,000 years of royal rule in Britain.

The Prime Minister, Virginia Bottomley, told parliament that following last month's referendum, which narrowly came down in favour of a republic, her government would do its utmost to protect the Royal Family from any public humiliation. The Queen, while remaining monarch of New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, had asked to be allowed to reside in Britain and the Government had agreed. From now on she would be known as the Duchess of Edinburgh.

The former Queen had been allowed to keep her private fortune and her residences at Balmoral and Sandringham. Mrs Bottomley said the former monarch would remain in Buckingham Palace until the new president, Lord Lineker, took up residence at the new presidential lodge in Regent's Park, in about a month. Buckingham Palace would be open to the public and there were plans to turn it into an art gallery to display the former monarch's collection of paintings, which it was announced last week she was giving to the new republic as part of a long-delayed tax settlement.

IF BRITAIN were to become a republic the constitutional transition would probably be smooth. One head of state would step into the shoes of another, just as the governor-generals in India and South Africa gave way to presidents when each country became a republic in 1950 and 1961. That is the perfect scenario.

Difficulties would arise, constitutional lawyers say, if change went beyond merely replacing a hereditary monarch with an elected president.

The central issue would be whether Britain should have a written constitution. From there the debate would widen: whether to give the president an executive role as in France or the United States; whether there should be a head of state at all; whether all the Queen's powers should be passed to the president or only some; whether the House of Lords should be abolished. Who should choose the president? Should he or she be elected by universal suffrage, by an electoral college or by parliament, and for how long?

Once you open discussion it spreads to every aspect of administration, to the law courts, the armed forces, the clergy, local government - to every officer who takes an oath of allegiance to the monarch. Would the honours system remain intact?

The Crown, you are told by supporters of the status quo, acts as a pin to keep the whole structure together. But if you took it away, would the edifice collapse? Royalists say it would. Republicans say it would not.

Lord Blake, a historian and former provost of Queen's College, Oxford, who is in favour of the monarchy, said he envisaged intense controversy. 'It wouldn't be just a matter of abolishing the monarchy. There would have to be an Act of Parliament which would deal with a great many other things besides, such as the appointment of judges, diplomats and others.'

You have to turn to Cromwell's Commonwealth to find out what happened when England last went republican. Everything from the king down went out of the window, permanently in the king's case, for 11 years for the rest. Bishops ceased to exist, the House of Lords was abolished, every symbol of royal office was destroyed.

Christopher Hill, a leading authority on that period, says that in the 17th century it was an instant clearing-away. 'It happened with a bang. They (the parliamentarians) tried for years to negotiate with Charles I to accept parliamentary supremacy and he just lied and tried to deceive them in every possible way. Finally they found it impossible to negotiate with him and they chopped his head off. Most of them weren't theoretical republicans. They just couldn't deal with this impossible king who thought he was there by the grace of God.'

It would be hard to find anyone today who thought the Queen was there by divine right, but there is no great antipathy towards her personally. A financial settlement of some sort would have to be provided, which would probably let her keep her private wealth.

The rest of us would see no financial benefit. Taxes would not be affected. The annual pounds 7.9m civil list, which provides the monarch and her immediate family with funds for their public duties, could probably not be reduced greatly. The new president would need to be maintained; state banquets would continue; the new museums at Buckingham Palace, St James's Palace, Windsor Castle and Holyrood House would need looking after.

Still, in a thousand tiny ways we would be living in a different country. New postage stamps without the Queen's head could be in post offices within two weeks of the abolition, say Post Office officials. Changes to the coinage would take longer. The Mint says it would need about nine months to bring out 'republican' coins, the same gap it needed in 1952 when George VI died and his daughter ascended the throne. Coins from Elizabeth's reign would remain in circulation until they wore out. A new design for banknotes might take a year or so. Until 1960 banknotes did not have the monarch's head. Britannia, who made her first appearance in AD161, ruled then on coins as she probably would on notes in the Republic of Great Britain.

All the visible symbols of the Crown would disappear, except perhaps where they were carved in stone or kept as part of the 'heritage industry'.

Go to court and the lion and unicorn above the judge's bench would have gone. Soldiers would no longer have a crown on their caps or their uniform. Barring separatist tendencies, the Union flag would remain unchanged, though the term 'United Kingdom' would have to go.

And the Commonwealth? There are some constitutional experts who say that before Britain could formally abolish the monarchy and declare itself a republic, it would need the parliamentary consent of the Queen's other 14 realms. This was the case in 1936 when Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, as self-governing dominions, were required to pass legislation approving Edward VIII's abdication.

The Commonwealth would not go away, even if you took away its royal head. The body may not mean much to British governments but it means a lot to its other 49 members.

'I don't think there is any doubt among existing members that they want the association to continue,' said Richard Nzerem, a lawyer in the Commonwealth Secretariat. 'What form it might take without the Queen is a matter they will have to decide when that situation arises.'

BUT SAY the transition did not go smoothly. What would happen, for example, if a royalist party urged the Queen not to sign the abolition bill, protesting that the referendum was loaded in favour of a republic and that the result was not a true reflection of the people's mood?

'If the Queen didn't sign the bill, or dissolved Parliament - which is also within her power - you would have a royal coup d'etat,' Tony Benn said. 'We must be the only country in the world where a coup d'etat is legal. But the monarch would do it only if she was sure public opinion supported her.'

She might find her greatest support in the armed forces. 'Civilian and military relations in this country are a model of their kind,' said General Sir John Hackett, former Commander-in-Chief of the British Army of the Rhine. 'We are commissioned by the Sovereign into an armed force which under our parliamentary system is raised by the Sovereign but handled by Parliament. It is a perfectly balanced system. But if you pull out one pin the whole lot falls down.'

He feared that unless the issue of how to transfer allegiance from a monarch to a president or a constitution were given 'very serious thought' there could be mass resignations of regular officers in all forces.

And so we are back in the House of Commons on that fateful evening sometime in the next century . . .

BEFORE she sat down, Mrs Bottomley told the house that the 'discipline problem' at the Household Cavalry barracks had been brought under control. She said that 20 senior officers had resigned their commissions after refusing to swear the new oath of allegiance to the republic's president. Amid shouts of 'mutiny' from the Labour backbenches, the Prime Minister went on to say it was an isolated incident that in no way reflected morale in the armed forces. Soldiers, seamen and airmen in general, she said, accepted the new constitutional arrangements. The Metropolitan Police, she added, were even as she spoke surrounding the offices of the British Tourist Board and the Sun newspaper, where staff were threatening to kill hostages unless the monarchy was restored.

(Photographs omitted)

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in