The forgotten tradition of British anti-monarchism

Jan Pole anticapitalist2 at
Mon Jun 3 11:00:33 BST 2002

“The old Plantagenets brought us chains; the Tudors frowns and Scars,
The Stuarts brought us lives of shame; the Hanoverians wars;
But his brave man, with his strong arm, brought freedom to our Lives -
The best of Princes England had, was the Farmer of St. Ives”
(Lines on Oliver Cromwell in Ramsay Churchyard, Huntingdonshire,1848)

Such sentiment praising Cromwell and the Civil War dismissal of royal
tyranny was commonplace amongst the political radicals of the early
19th century. In fact, the popular memory of the Civil War and the
Glorious Revolution of 1688 which toppled James II remained strong from
the late-17th century. In large part this was due to the continued
threat of royal power exercised within the lauded British

Unacceptable to the more progressive elements of the ruling class
(still largely landed however), such remembrance of the “Interregnum”
(the euphemism by which the Civil War period has become known) served
as an ideological weapon in the struggle between royal and
parliamentary authority. 

>From the 1770s such anti-royal (though not literally republican)
sentiment became intertwined with a political radicalism associated
with John Wilkes and others who sought an extension of the suffrage to
secure parliamentary dominance over royal authority. Inevitably the
working class began to develop a political platform more independent of
such “gentleman leaders”, especially during the period following the
French Revolution. 

Thereafter, a popular working class platform combined the “natural
rights” republicanism of Thomas Paine with “popular constitutionalism”,
a crafty linguistic trick whereby radicals sought to place their
demands for democratisation of the British political structure within a
legal claim to their “right” to representation within the ancient
constitution. Demands for such a constitution and rights, of course,
were merely rhetorical flourish, using the prevalent language of the
ruling class's defence of its challenge to royal authority from the
17th century.

Within this challenge to the British state by the working class in the
early 19th century was a crude threat to privilege and expenditure on
the throne and the vast sums spent on aristocratic pensions, palace
building and the civil list. The crown, however, as an institution
remained outside of this criticism. 

What has been noted by many observers has been the absence of
republicanism in British history. This is of course not strictly true.
The regicide of the Civil War may be regarded as republicanism of
sorts, despite being pursued within contemporary religious concerns. 

The historian Christopher Hill has established the Civil War as the
British “bourgeois revolution”, a struggle from which the interests of
the rising British commercial and financial interests emerged dominant,
i.e. capitalist interests, although the clash of interests between land
and capital is not always clear cut and mutually exclusive – a good
book on this into the nineteenth century is John Saville, The
Consolidation of the Capitalist State (1994). 

It is true though that a republican movement did not grow up in Britain
as it did in other European states in the nineteenth century but then,
as seems fairly obvious, it didn't need to after the defeat of royal
authority in the 17th century. Indeed, the early nature of Britain's
bourgeois revolution meant that capitalist growth and secular control
of its perceived interests went hand in hand with a “constitutional
monarchy”, i.e. a monarchy that was increasingly impotent as political
force but emerging as a convenient “impartial” figurehead.

Concocted pageantry

With this month's royal jubilee we are being subjected to no end of
absurd and expensive pageantry with the usual round of royal
documentaries, all giving the line that our glorious monarch is the
centre of our “identity” and political stability. 

Such criticism as emerges will be directed at whether the Queen should
step aside for Charles (a debate on the radio as I write) or some such
trivia. The crucial impression that is supposed to emerge is that this
pageantry has been around for centuries and is bound up with our
“national identity”. 

However, as we have just seen, from the 17th to the mid-19th century, a
critique of royalty operated in the political mainstream that attacked
the morality of some members of the royal house and the expense of

Although not approaching anything like an ideological commitment to
republicanism, let alone a socialist analysis, its existence
nonetheless challenges the myth of British politics as shrouded in a
deferential and stable past. Such pageantry as we see today is no more
than the creation of late 19th century efforts to establish an imperial
and domestic symbolic loyalty around a “regal” figurehead external to

David Cannadine and Eric Hobsbawm, amongst others, have described this
“invention of tradition”. More recent research has gone further and
suggested that a strand of “anti-monarchism” has persisted from the
late-18th century through to the present day. Anthony Taylor in Down
with the Crown (1999) has pointed to the presence of a minority
republican radical grouping that surfaced into something like a popular
movement, around the liberal Sir Charles Dilke, at the time of
Victoria's retreat from public duties in the early 1870s (here it
reveals its weakness, ironically being dependent on royal retreat
rather than presence). 

He also points to a radical opposition in the jubilees of 1887 and
1897, which have been seen overwhelmingly as examples of popular frenzy
for the crown and empire (seeing it as either a sign of strength or
weakness of the late 19th century British empire). A 'Jubilee Version
of “God Save the Queen”' from the 1880s, for example, runs:

Lord help our precious Queen, / Noble, but rather mean, / Lord help the
Queen. / Keep Queen VicToryous, / From work laborious / Let snobs
uproarious, / Slaver the Queen.

A critique of privilege passed from mid-19th century radicalism into
the Liberal-Labour politics of the early 20th century. It is from this
period that the image of the modern monarch as the impartial figurehead
we know today emerged. The attack on privilege increasingly centred on
the House of Lords as the practicalities of reformism and the need for
patronage impacted on the nascent republican sentiment in the Labour

Opposition to the crown was thereafter the territory of the extreme
left of capitalism, largely restricted to the “Communist” Party (see,
for example, T.A. Jackson's The Jubilee – and How from 1837 and
continuing the old radical attack on expense).

Closer to 2002, the popularity of the monarchy has seriously flagged
from its post-war heights in 1952 (although the response to the queen
mother's death might signal something of a recovery in time for this
year's potential squib of a jubilee). Press voyeurism has undermined
its previously cultivated image of a wholesome family example. 

But such criticism rarely gets beyond the banal chat on the relevance
of the crown to devolution and the European Union (Tom Nairn's
project), although Tony Benn, the Christian radical capitalist of the
Labour left, continues to plug a Paineite project to make us “citizens”
and not “subjects”. 

Socialists, of course, are unconcern as to whether we live in a
republic or a constitutional monarchy – capitalism is capitalism
whatever its political label. We must, however, point out the worst
lies told about the history of our class. 

Constitutional monarchy has not always been a comfortable political
framework for British capitalism and has always had its critics,
including a minority of republicans. Socialists desire a good deal more
than a mere capitalist republic. 

Unlike the left of capitalism, we openly advocate common ownership and
democratic control which, for the privileged royal parasites, would
mean the end of their vast ownership of resources and their place as
sources of political deference and patronage. Like the lines daubed
during the 1977 farce: “Stuff the Jubilee”.

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