Voices in the Wilderness
05.20.12 5:38 PM ET
Republicans in the UK!
Graham Smith, the most successful British republican since Oliver Cromwell, has had a good war so far.
For while you might have thought that those advocating republicanism in the UK would be ploughing a lonely furrow in summer 2012, the year of the Jubilee, you’d be wrong, at least according to Mr Smith, 38, the full-time chief executive of Republic, the UK’s biggest anti-monarchy pressure group.
For whilst the Royal Wedding and the Diamond Jubilee may have stirred up patriotic fervour and the desire to stitch giant Union Jacks in some British hearts, the very public displays of the vast inherited wealth and privilege of the royals are also proving to be potent recruitment tools for his campaign to abolish the “costly and anachronistic” British monarchy.
A rising tide, it seems, lifts all boats.
“We have never been bigger,” Mr Smith tells the Daily Beast. “We’ve been gaining thousands of new supporters. Our membership has gone from 9000 to 21000 in the last 18 months. The idea that the royal family has never been more popular than they are today is nonsense if you actually look at the polling.”
Indeed, the uncomfortable truth for Royalists (like me) is that the most recent large-scale opinion poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion showed that only 54% of Britons want their country to remain a monarchy. Introduce the concept of King Charles and Queen Camilla, and the numbers go into a tail-spin (even I get queasy).
“That is going to be a very strong opportunity for the republican movement,” he says, of Charles’s eventual accession to the throne, suggesting that the monarchy is doing what it can now to build up a reservoir of support for the tough times that lie ahead when King Chaz takes control of the scepter'd isle.
But, whatever the future might hold, in the here and now, as platforms for thousands of international media representatives are being furiously built at Buckingham Palace and over a million people make plans to hit central London for the biggest party Britain has ever seen to celebrate the Queen’s 60 years on the throne, it’s hard to feel that the Republicans are on the right side of the royal argument.
There’s been wall-to-wall coverage of the royals on both sides of the Atlantic ever since the wedding. And, if and when Kate gets pregnant, the royal baby is going to be bigger news than Suri Cruise.
“All that has happened is that they have better PR than they had ten years ago,” Smith says. “I think royal fatigue is setting in at seeing these people jet off round the world, particularly when there are lots of serious things going on in the UK, like double-dip recessions and people losing their jobs and homes.”
Republic was originally set up in 1983, and for its first twenty-odd years of its life it functioned largely as a social club for republicans, but six years ago it was relaunched with a view to becoming a much more focused and professional anti-monarchy lobbying group. The group are regularly fetaured and quoted in the UK media, and will undoubtedly hit the headlines again in two weekends time, when they are staging a protest rally on the banks of the Thames during the Jubilee riverboat pageant.
Mr Smith is determined not to give any hostages to fortune, and is carefully managing expectations, saying he expects ‘several hundred’ people to attend, but also points out that last year, when Republic organised an anti-Wedding street party, 300 people said they were coming, but 2,000 showed up.
“This is actually going to be the biggest Republican protest in British history. It’s an opportunity to dispel some of the myths about Republicanism. It’s going to be a fun, family-friendly event with a serious message; that the head of our state should be in the gift of the people, to choose from among their own number.”
But why does he hate the Royals so much? After all, they cost us less than £40 million a year, which is less than one pound per head per annum for a completely apolitical figurehead.
“Well, we estimate the figure actually at £200 million,” he says.
OK, so four pounds, per person, per head per annum. That’s still less than we spend on Welsh language television.
“You can’t excuse waste by saying other things are wasteful. £200m would buy many thousands of nurses or police officers. The president of the Republic of Ireland costs about £2 – £3m a year.”
Republic refuse to accept that the monarchy is, in itself, a tourist attraction. Their website argues that, “of the top 20 tourist attractions in the UK only one royal residence makes it: Windsor Castle at number 17 (beaten comfortably by Windsor Legoland, in at number 7). Royal residences account for less than 1% of total tourist revenue.”
Among those who definitely will be present at the riverside protest on June 3 is the veteran British rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, a lead member of Republic, who famously once tried to place Robert Mugabe under citizen’s arrest.
Does he feel like a voice crying in the wilderness in Jubilee year? “We are making slow but steady progress,” he says. “Royalty attracts far fewer crowds than a generation ago. At a recent event in London, only 50 fans turned out to see the Queen. Three decades ago, there would have been thousands. Major royal celebrations like the Royal Weddings do attract fairly large crowds but that's mostly because people like a party and love celebrities,” he says.
He doesn’t hate the Queen and insists his desire to see an end to the monarchy is not personal.
“The Queen is a rather sweet old granny. The issue is not Elizabeth II personally. The problem is the institution of the monarchy. It’s a constitutional anachronism; a relic of a bygone feudal, aristocratic age.
“According to the elitist values of the monarchical system, the most stupid, immoral royal is, by virtue of the family into which they are born, more fit to be our Head of State than the wisest, most ethical commoner.”
Yes, but can you argue with a million mildly tipsy people given an extra day off work and waving Union Jacks outside Buckingham Palace? I think not.
In many ways, the problem for British Republicans is exactly that everything they say makes perfect sense, and yet here we are.
There is, as we all know full well, not one decent, logical, morally-sound argument for the retention of the Royal family in the 21st century.
But we love the Queen anyway.
Facts and figures can't win this argument. Willful ignorance is the secret weapon of the committed Royalist, and a powerful force field against the sternest Republican logic.