A few years back during the Golden Jubilee, a lad in my village asked if our chimney could be used as an anchor point for some street party bunting. The source of the request allowed me to inveigh against monarchist feeling in much the same way that my elderly aunt would fret about homosexuality: I wasn’t biased but it was sad to see it among younger people. I seemed to be a lone voice as the village was taken over by royalist fervour. It’s something of a relief therefore to be in Lewes for the Royal Wedding. Here the heirs of Tom Paine are mustering just a single street party. Republican kudos for a town of 16,000. A quick look at the papers suggests though that this may not be the national mood. What, one wonders, is the trouble with republicanism?
It isn’t that we British necessarily have a tradition of deference. Quite the contrary; we’ve been overthrowing kings since the Battle of Lewes in 1264 (an extra republican feather in the town’s cap, though the victory was short-lived). Another near miss was the Peasants Revolt of 1381. If Wat Tyler’s mob had not arranged to negotiate with the teenaged Richard II at Smithfield (as opposed to, say, killing him) the history of Britain might have been rather different. Regicides had better luck in 1649 with the beheading of Charles I. However, 11 years later a monarch was back: the hedonistic Charles II no doubt a welcome antidote to the Taliban-style government of the Puritans. The Brits got rid of James II in 1688 because they didn’t like the cut of his Roman Catholic jib. He was replaced by his daughter Mary (with William of Orange) and ultimately by the current dynasty leaping over 50 or so more eligible, but Roman Catholic, candidates. We’ve also been curtailing the powers of the Sovereign since Magna Carta leading to the current “Constitutional” (all the trappings but little of the power) arrangement. The popularity of individual monarchs has yoyo-ed wildly (there were even assassination attempts on Queen Victoria) up to the last significant dip in the late 1990’s.
Despite all this we never quite seem to get rid of the monarchy itself. Perhaps the trouble is that most of our anti-royal feeling has not been about republicanism at all but rather about disliking the Sovereign's beliefs (James II, Prince Charles), behaviour (Charles I, Prince Charles) or personality (Henry III, Prince Charles). Rather oddly it’s still treasonable to advocate certain forms of republicanism. Perhaps more significantly anti-royalists continue to be marginalised as young (The Sex Pistols – at least they were once), cranks (Tony Benn) or troublemakers (Benjamin Zephaniah). Opinion polls suggest we’re still keener on the institution than a presidency (i.e. a retirement scheme for seedy political hacks). Politicians too find the royals useful and have been reluctant to act on proposals to reduce their religious and political roles further.
Another displaced royal, King Farouk of Egypt is alleged to have said, "Soon there will be only five Kings left... Spades, Clubs, Hearts, Diamonds and England.” And who would bet against him. Though handsome young Wills hasn’t turned out quite as many would have wished, commoner Kate is looking like helping the Firm well into the post-Diana era. It seems that storming the Bastille may have to wait once again.