Murdo Ritchie (RCN) wrote the following article for supporters of the Republican Socialist alliance. It was first also posted on Murdo’s blog at http://murdoritchie.blog.co.uk/2015/02/13/promoting-republicanism-20090169/.
The advocacy of socialist republicanism has very few precedents in the United Kingdom. While many organisations can make claims to republicanism, in most cases this has been rarely developed and has often seemed like it was added on as an extra to more immediately pressing concerns. It should be no real surprise that an anti-political, economic reductionism (economism), or a separatism that sought an end to London rule, and many other perspectives have used the term emptying it of any real understanding or meaning.
A properly developed reasoning for republicanism requires many skills that are not readily available in the UK. This requires an understanding of the historical development of the UK’s components, a reasonable comprehension of secularism and how religious movements shape and continue to shape UK life, an understanding of how seemingly pre-capitalist institutions still drive the machinery of governance, and a reasonable understanding of the legal basis of these features. Add to that, the way myths are continually generated to perpetuate a “conservative” culture that hides in plain sight the real tools of government and it is hardly surprising that republicanism cannot easily develop a popular critique. Thomas Paine’s analysis still remains the best advocacy of republican principles but is poorly misunderstood by the wrong belief that the archaic mechanisms of rule he attacks are no longer present.
My newness to the RSA does not mean that I have not promoted the importance of building a republican consciousness. Indeed, I have been bewildered by its absence in much socialist thought and practice in the UK. It amazes how so many on the left fail to be aware of how the monarchy with Crown institutions and power still affects not just the machinery of state, but the culture, expectations, and outlooks of all classes. Consequently, shallow and trivial comprehensions of republicanism are frequently encountered.
As ‘Workers Republic’ put it in May 1900, “Of course none of our socialist friends, especially those who never got beyond the A.B.C. of the question, will remind me that even in a republic the worker is exploited, as for instance in France and the USA. Therefore, they argue, we cannot be republicans. To this I reply: the countries mentioned have only capitalism to deal with. We have capitalism plus a monarchy with its roots deep in the history and thoughts of the people. Get the people to tear up the foul plant of ages –monarchy; and the mushroom growth of a century- capitalism will not survive the popular uprising … To assert that, because exploitation (robbery) of the workers takes place under a republic, we cannot be republicans is the very acme of absurdity. The exploitation of the workers is relatively greater in countries where the workers have the franchise, as in England, than in countries where the workers are unenfranchised as in Russia. Are we therefore opposed to the worker claiming the vote? Socialists cannot be indifferent to monarchy. Indifference is acquiescence, when confronted with an actively hostile principle. The triumph of socialism means the destruction of monarchy and all its institutions.”1
So this contribution is as much a commentary on the some of the contributions and perspectives that I have encountered on the RSA discussion group.
The Independence Referendum in Scotland has changed politics in the United Kingdom forever. Not just in Scotland but everywhere affected by the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament at Westminster. This is why it is wrong to ever think of the result as a defeat. When a component part of the UK has forty-five per cent of its population voting to abandon their primary, legal, national identity, the government and state is facing a severe crisis. In many other countries this would be a foundation for civil warfare. However, the United Kingdom is not only a bourgeois state integrated into an imperialist world, but a peculiar form of governmental and institutional arrangement that uses pre-capitalist methods of governance to promote a real but often imagined form of stability. The referendum may have occurred in Scotland and most dramatically have affected levels of political consciousness there, but its implications for the UK and for many countries of the Commonwealth are profound. This “awakening” also shows why the two main losers were the three main political parties and the corporate media. The issue of the republic has already begun to be more widely discussed. Traditionally, it has been one of the issues of lese majesty that are kept off the political agenda. The republican consciousness lying deeply in many people’s minds is now occasionally breaching the surface.
Allan Armstrong has correctly observed, that “[far] more important than the Royal Family itself, is the political system it fronts. Despite the existence of a parliamentary democracy centred on Westminster, with its devolved offspring at Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont, we face very real constraints. These lie in the state’s profoundly anti-democratic Crown Powers.”2 These need to be better lodged within the popular consciousness.
Modern society, as far as most developed countries go, has developed an acceptance of “democratic” forms of government, opposes colonialists’ belief in foreign occupations, accepts racial and sexual equality, religious tolerance and belief in the secular separation of religion from state and government, judges independent of government, and are free of many features that characterised late feudal and early capitalism. The basis for a consciousness for a republic of equals exists. Nevertheless, the sentiments of liberty, equality and fraternity exist but are refracted through the capitalist mode of production which distorts them till they bear no resemblance to way they are understood by most workers and probably most of the population. In the UK they are further refracted by the long traditions of supposedly unbroken rule by kings and queens that have upheld continuity from unwarranted interruptions and changes. In this interpretation, monarchy and the Crown are not seen as impediments to democratic advance but as extensions of democracy.
The UK is country where an egalitarian, democratic republican sprit is ever present, but exists almost oblivious to the real structures of class, politics and governance. It is a feature of advanced capitalism that it projects a supposed hostility to politics and politicians. It does this so as to make difficult the building of mechanisms that can restrict powerful individuals, businesses, and commercial interests. It really wishes for the archetype of the corrupt, incompetent, greedy, self-serving, individuals who often occupy positions in political life. Bourgeois republican politicians are, of course, no different. An anti-political stance is a severe impediment to creating a republican conscious because it denies the right to rule that is a basis of republicanism.
The political institutions of the UK are more fragile than is often appreciated. This is why the ruling classes’ generations’ long tactic of resistance and inhibiting issues ever getting onto the political agenda is so important. Maintaining a culture of lese majesty, and de-politicisation, is just as important as the creation of the many myths that re-enforce the continuity of British capitalism. The almost forced discussion of political issues that took place during the two years of the referendum was a political wakening for many because they had to understand what was occurring and came to realise that other alternatives existed. Moreover, many more people realised those dreams were not solely confined to their minds alone. There was an absence of worthwhile alternatives being presented that would have assisted national self-determination cross over into class self-determination.
In order that this consciousness does not evaporate, it is essential that it be directed onto other political, as opposed to economic, projects. This is why I have argued for the Scottish Constitutional Convention that was proposed in the Scottish Government’s White Paper and was supposed to be called to still take place regardless of the result of the vote. A popular discussion over what kind of government, state and society the Scottish people want can only push this re-politicisation perspective forward. And, hopefully, raise the level of republican consciousness. A nationwide, popular consultation of this type will increase consciousness on what type of country is really wanted.. The referendum itself, the results of the referendum, even the policies of the Smith Commission weaken the unity of the UK’s governing institutions. It is a process that cannot be stopped.
To promote a republican consciousness, we need to:
- educate people about the real nature of the UK state, the Crown, and political structures;
- counter anti-political sentiments by promoting the republican perspective that individuals and communities have the right to rule;
- understand that constitutional reforms are not a peripheral issue but are central to political change. (The idea of their irrelevance is still the biggest impediment. It is important to project that no economic, social or legal change has any chance of survival unless it has a solid political, legal, institutional or constitutional existence in a democratic republic.);
- develop a counter-narrative of history that shows the way the monarchy, aristocracy and bourgeoisie fused to create profound inhibitions to the extension of democratic development that exist even today;
- locate the centrality of secularism to the republican case;
- understand the peculiarities of how the rule-of-law developed the UK’s “constitutional” monarchy.
REALLY EXISTING CAPITALISM AND CAPITALISM AS IT OUGHT TO BE
The peculiarities of the UK’s governmental and institutional arrangements require to be understood in their entirety in order to be challenged, but also need to be contrasted against a more “normative” model of capitalist political development where a president, elected representative chamber, independent courts, a secular separation of church and state, written constitution, and all the trappings of modern, capitalist development have occurred or are assumed to occur. It is insufficient to assume that socialist principles give enough guidance to socialist struggle in the UK. One of UK capitalism’s greatest successes has been its ability to hide in plain sight the real operating mechanisms and culture of political governance. Behind this, however, is an interesting description of the class and national relations that have existed in the UK as well as the location points for their fracturing. It is truly surprising that the historical venom furiously spat out against republicanism by the UK’s ruling classes does not alert revolutionaries about its significance in socialist struggle.
Promotion of the myth of political stability in the UK has been one of the central components in building a “conservative” culture as a necessary foundation on which to build resistance to not just workers revolution but full bourgeois liberal development. The seventeenth century laid the foundations and many of the doctrines that still affect politics today. All kings and queens between 1603 and 1714 appear as temporary transient, creatures incapable of building stable foundations for the absolutism of dynastic rule. Undoubtedly, Charles II had a longish reign yet it seems as if the ruling classes were so terrified of acting against him for fear of the return of the Commonwealth despite catastrophic military failures3 They tolerated his incompetence eventually using the pretext of his brother’s James II ascension to oust him and the hereditary reign of the Stewarts.
THE MYTHS OF THE GLORIOUS REVOLUTION
The rule of William and Mary hides many features of rule that are even now never discussed. This was rule at a time before the principles of bourgeois governance had been fully developed. Undoubtedly the foundation stones of Hobbes and Locke were becoming well enough known, but their translation into the political sphere had yet to occur. This should hardly be surprising since the bourgeoisie had never yet held power in its own interests in a major state, and had yet to test its environment. The doctrine of the Crown-in-Parliament, or as it has become known parliamentary sovereignty, may have begun as a mechanism to hobble the monarch’s influence over government, but it also restricted the development of the later idea of government being carried out through popular representation. However, the myth of England resisting foreign invasion since 1066 is also seriously challenged by the scale of the Dutch invading army and navy that deposed James II. Even today, this myth is necessary because it would turn many of those who supported William and Mary into collaborators with a foreign power.4 The myth of a monarchy as mechanism of stability is hardly supported by the almost pick-and-mix selection of monarchs that occurred up to 1714.
“Since the early eighteenth century, a thick wall of silence has descended over the Dutch occupation of London 1688-1690. The whole business came to seem so improbable to later generations that by common consent, scholarly and popular, it was simply erased from the record.”5 Myths have been created about nobles inviting William to rule that bear comparison with those invitations extended to Hitler to invade various European countries. But hiding historical events in plain sight also works in parallel with the UK’s ruling class’s ability to conceal its mechanisms of governance and rule. The willingness of intellectuals to promote these myths often reveal their class terror of popular rule through a democratic republic.
Queen Mary was the only Stewart, albeit at a distance, who could be made acceptable to the ruling bloc. Legally, William should only have been recognised as Queen Consort. However, he had a different idea and a joint monarchy was established. William represented a bourgeois military power that made him more acceptable to the ruling aristocratic-bourgeois bloc than a return to the autocratic feudal rule of the Stewarts. After Mary’s death, William ruled until 1703 as bourgeois monarch establishing a powerful precedent of non-heredity succession. The apparent stability of William’s and Mary’s rule is only superficial as the most significant changes in economy and foreign and military relations occurred under his reign. The bourgeoisie was finding the political modus vivendi that Cromwell’s republic could not establish.
THE RETURN OF THE STEWARTS
Queen Anne’s rule again reveals the temporary transient nature of a monarchy moving in its last phases from absolutist ambitions to bourgeois mechanisms of rule. There was so little possibility of an heir that the ruling blocs acted ruthlessly to stop the only legitimate Stewart from returning. The Hanoverian accession in 1714 was the culmination of the significant changes that fused the aristocracy with the bourgeoisie. Historians, especially left-wing historians, have poorly understood Queen Anne’s time by failing to locate her within the massive class changes underway and by poorly appraising the reasons for the Parliamentary union between England and Scotland. In many ways, the Parliamentary union was primarily sought for military security. At the time the War of the Spanish Succession was a contest over a vacant throne that had potentially disastrous consequences for all of Europe. There was a fear that if Scotland chose the more “legitimate” Stewart and England the safer Hanoverian pretender, the British mainland would have immediately been plunged into an internal war that would have become a prelude for foreign invasion. This was still a live memory for the English.
Historians have been side-tracked by the attention they have placed on the supposed growing together of Scotland’s and England’s bourgeoisies, the Navigation Acts, the supposed losses of the Darien adventure, as well as lusts to work together for greater imperial plunder. All substitute economic reductionism for the more immediately pressing need for military security and stability. The last Stewart attempts to reclaim their throne occur under the Hanoverian monarchs that reveal their final demise, beginning in 1715 till they undergo their final strategic defeat in 1746. It is also important to remember that the defeat of the Stewarts was a major defeat for French foreign policy too; they no longer had a cat’s paw to challenge growing English/ UK power. The defeat of the French was also the end of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.
Dynastic stability only came after the removal of the Stewarts. For the bourgeoisie, economic and imperial growth opened opportunities that had never really existed except in very limited enclaves in Europe. By 1759, The UK was the world’s most powerful naval power, controlling the world’s seas drastically limiting its French, Spanish and Dutch rivals. A strategic alliance with Portugal meant that all its possessions rested on the protection of the UK’s Royal Navy and power. Internally bourgeois development was channelled into the economic and scientific spheres; it avoided the social and political spheres. Discourse in the social and political spheres became the arena of myth makers about the constitution, historical continuity, and military invincibility.
RELIGIOUS STRIFE AND SECULARISM
The anti-Catholicism of the UK arises in different forms in Scotland and England, but essentially ceases to have any useful role after the death of the young pretender in in 1766. Scotland’s reformation followed a model similar to that of mainland Europe of a movement of the popular classes (essentially the undifferentiated bourgeoisie, peasantry & proletariat) against the clergy as a bolster for aristocratic privilege. Hence the programme of John Knox was a powerful social one with an emphasis on popular education against the hierarchal rigidity of the Vatican and clergy. In England, the pressures of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin were considerable but they were only partly incorporated by Henry VIII as a mechanism to pursue the independent power projection of England as a great power. The result was a more instrumental role for the church and reformation. This created a nationalised church that incorporated features of Catholicism (bishops, and rituals) with a protestant critique of the Vatican, but owing loyalty to the Head of State –the reigning monarch.
A full appreciation of the UK cannot proceed with the oversimplified paradigm involving a duel between Catholics and Protestants; it must recognise the forces of Protestantism as comprising Presbyterians, Quakers and other non-conformists with their international influences, the forces of Catholicism with its international supporters, and Episcopalianism as a more localised mechanism of crown power. This meant that a number of shifting alliances existed. John Knox undoubtedly welcomed the English invasion that weakened the power of Mary Queen of Guise, but Presbyterian Scots rejected the attempts to impose the Episcopalian prayer book in Scotland. The Church of Ireland alienated the mainly catholic peasantry but also the non-conformist bourgeoisie in Ireland.
Nevertheless, with periods of tension, a Protestant unity came into existence. “The years 1559-1560 witnessed a revolution in Scotland which brought about a revival of the country’s political, diplomatic and religious position. In February 1560 the English signed the Treaty of Berwick with the Scottish Lords of the Congregation who had rebelled against Mary of Guise, the Queen Regent of Scotland. With the aid of English troops and ships the Lords of the Congregation seized power in Scotland and were able to bring about a protestant reformation of the church. The change in both the diplomatic and ecclesiastical stance of Scotland ushered in a new era of Anglo-Scottish friendship and one destined to grow into the Union of the Crowns and the 1707 incorporating union which were major landmarks in the creation of the British state.”6
Strident anti-Catholicism was blunted by the variant of Episcopalianism that England adopted; it was essentially instrumental as far as England was concerned. Once the threat of the Stewarts returning evaporated, so did the anti-Catholicism. Within months of the young pretender’s death, the Vatican, feeling besieged by various popular forces was seeking a rapprochement with the UK. Catholic “emancipation” began in the 1780s with the acceptance of Catholic troops in UK regiments, land ownership and the initial steps to the re-establishment of Catholic schools and a hierarchy. The opposition to these changes mainly came from various non-conformists who feared a return to Catholicism. The Protestant Association may have instigated the Gordon Riots but it was unsuccessful in reversing government policy. More importantly, a growing imperial stance could not afford to alienate catholic support in the shifting international alliances of the time. Catholic “disabilities” were mainly abolished by 1829, although there is a debate within the historical community about whether the war with revolutionary France and Napoleon delayed this process.
Consequently, in the UK an established church exists, even though substantial areas of the UK have no popular identification with it. That church is torn between a high church that leans to Rome identifying itself as inheritors of Pusseyism and the Oxford Movement and a low church encompassing various form of schismatic protestant evangelicalism. The result has been a religious pragmatism giving all forms of religious practices (Christian and non-Christian) an allotted placed in a semi-feudal structure. Yet this tolerance is not secularism. In itself, it becomes a mechanism for bolstering the established church which in turn is a pillar of support for the monarchy; in turn the pinnacle of aristocratic-bourgeois class rule. In this way the integration of religious values into supposedly public institutions is a symbolic statement of class rule declaring they are not part of res publica.
Republicanism that has not placed secularism as a strong component quickly encounters how bourgeois divide-and-rule tactics can undermine the state’s legitimacy. The main examples of this have been Ireland, Iran, Pakistan and, though formally secular, India which has a barely hidden bias to the Hindu cultures. Most European and American nationalist movements before the twentieth century often held anti-clerical, even anti-religious stances, however, later anti-colonial separatist movements placed more identification on their population’s different cultural, linguistic and religious identities as a means of mobilising populations against foreign and even domestic rulers. This often left minority communities feeling threatened. For example, Cumann na mBan, the Irish women’s movement associated with Sinn Féin, would often end processions against British rule by saying the rosary. It is hard to imagine that occurring in a contemporary women’s movement.
SOCIALIST PRINCIPLES; REPUBLICAN VALUES
Socialist republicanism is not just a way of expressing rejection of public spending cuts, nationalism, separatism, or populism. It is not yet another sentiment expressing democracy-in-general, nor will it grow out of demands for increased democratic representation. It is not an outlook that spontaneously arises out of economic or social struggles. Soviets or workers councils may appear in periods of great crisis but have never been able to generalise a political perspective or create mechanisms of governance that establish processes of rule in the interests of the working class and its allies. Republicanism is a theory of government that is entirely distinct from all of these perspectives. It recognises that constitution, state and government is a common possession of the people, and not the hereditary right of any dynastic family or groups of families. But in the era of proletarian revolutions, republicanism continues many of the tasks of state building required of the working class and its allies.
Popular identification with any state uses the creation of myths and symbols that are transmitted through its institutions. The UK has numerous symbols of Crown powers other than its governing institutions such as flags, emblems, pictorial representations, ceremonies, and oaths. All project the class power through the ruling family rather than through nationalism or popular rights. Republicanism differs from these in that its symbols are also expressions of popular power and representation. These include a written constitution that contains inalienable rights that cannot be disregarded by government, accessible institutions, but most importantly, they do not seek to reinforce the class distinctions of hereditary power. Instead they build upon the mobilised rights and duties of the citizenry. However, a workers’ republic is an expression of class rule that is entirely distinct from a bourgeois republic. A republican consciousness is essential for the creation of a workers’ republic. A workers’ republic can only exist in parallel with a workers’ government, and the institutions that express that class power.
The casual acceptance of an undefined republicanism by socialists and anti-colonialists has contributed to a failure to locate strategic political thinking onto the nature of the type of constitution, government and policies that are being advocated. It also undermines the purpose politics, political struggle, and the reasons for the existence of a political party. It demobilises and confuses. It is necessary to disentangle the specific features of our republican heritage from later ideas to build a model that can be projected. To do this, it is also necessary not to assume that republican values are inherently combined in socialist, nationalist, separatist, democratic, environmental or other conceptual forms. It remains distinctively different as a value system and political outlook. To fight for socialist principles without an understanding of republican values is a sterile approach.
A SECRET REPUBLIC
Constitutional writer Walter Bagehot synthesised a very convenient way of understanding the UK’s political institutions that took attention away from their peculiarity by trivialising them to produce a fiction. He believed that the UK’s institutions were divided into their “decorative” and “efficient” components. All the show, ceremonial, and procedural absurdities were irrelevant because the functional parts operated in sufficiently structured a manner to turn the UK into a “secret republic.” This may have comforted the readers of The Economist that he edited in the nineteenth century that little further political change was needed, but it trivialised the very real inhibitions on bourgeois political and economic development that were present.
The fusion between the aristocracy and bourgeoisie occurred over time because each had not fully established an independent identity for themselves in late feudal, early capitalist times. But the continuance of the political institutions further prohibited each from further pursuing their full historical purposes. This is especially true for the bourgeoisie in the economic sphere where they were so agog at the aristocratic lifestyles they encountered they failed to develop the ruthless determination to create the investment and re-investment cycles associated with the bourgeoisie in its principal rivals. Instead of constantly revolutionising production and administration using ever newer technological innovations they took comfort in the pursuit of titles, purchases of land, and safety in non-productive investments.
This lack of a cutting edge outlook placed them at a profound long-term disadvantage to their main competitors in the US, France and Germany. This has been observed by many economic observers and has become known by various terms such as “gentlemanly capitalism” amongst others. It also explains the lack of drive that can be found in British capitalists to “grow” businesses into large multinational corporations but, instead, after a certain point has reached to sell up and live off the proceeds. This, in turn, further produces bloated property, financial and legal sectors.
CROWN INSTITUTIONS AND POWERS
Institutionally, the reigning monarch has only limited direct powers, but the hidden and indirect powers are probably the most important. Instead the sovereign rules through advisors. Almost all use of powers are the indirect powers of the Prime Minister or Cabinet Ministers. According to Bagehot “the Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy … three rights –the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.”7 However, although many real powers can be attributed to the Sovereign, it is the way in which expectations and actions are conditioned in anticipation of what may occur. The threat of an adverse reaction is as potent as any real action. “The fact that [Crown Powers] existed meant that they could be used as a threat, and indeed their existence was made use of by the Conservatives to cripple certain Liberal measures. They are still there as a reserve weapon, and it is not difficult to imagine that should a socialist government, pledged to carry out real socialist measures, be elected, the ruling class would seek once again to persuade the monarchy to use its powers in this respect.”8
As Steve Freeman has written the Crown is neither the monarchy nor the people. … It is the servant of the political interest of the ruling class at home and abroad. The Crown has at its disposal all the powers and resources of the civil service, the security services, armed forces, the diplomatic services, and mass media. It is supported by the main political parties…”9 All loyalty flows towards this real and imaginary entity.
There are four councils to the sovereign: The Commune Concilium, or the House of Commons, the Magna Concilium or House of Lords, the Law Courts, and the Privy Council. All are still in existence and are the active agents of government. All owe their loyalty to the Crown, including the reigning monarch, although this expressed as the rule of law. It is an abstract embodiment with a real human personification. In no other country in the developed world and, even the undeveloped world, do the institutions comprise such levels of hereditary power. No law can come into existence without discussion in the House of Commons, scrutiny in the House of Lords, and assent from the reigning monarch.
In most modern countries the institutions of government are established as mechanisms for expressing the popular will. Hence they structured on democratic principles. These may contain some non-democratic features but the general principles follow enlightenment values to a greater or lesser extent. However, this has never been the case in the UK. All are designated as councils to the monarch and to establish a barrier between themselves and the general population. Only one institution has even a highly restricted procedure to express the popular will.
The instrument used to tie together all these institutions together is the Privy Council. It existed as the body of advisers around the reigning monarch and during the period between 1603 and 1707 there were two Privy Councils one for England and Wales, and a separate one for Scotland. Unlike the United States there has been little discussion on the separation of the powers of executive, legislature and judiciary, and church from state, because alongside the highly visible linkages, the established church and the judges are integrated as components of the House of Lords. Karl Marx expressed the limits of much political thinking when he wrote, “Here we have the old constitutional folly. The condition of ‘free government’ is not the division but the UNITY of power. The machinery of government cannot be too simple. It is always the craft of knaves to make it complicated and mysterious.”10
It is only from these pools of personnel that the UK government can be created. Interestingly, non-UK subjects can be brought into the government if they are citizens of the Empire and Commonwealth as happened with Lord Beaverbrook –a Canadian- in Churchill’s wartime Cabinet. The Cabinet as far as constitutional practice is concerned only a sub-committee of the Privy Council. Consequently, all Cabinet members must be Privy Councillors to take up their positions and be given the title Right Honourable. Because the Scottish First Minister is also Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland he or she must also become a Privy Councillor although this is not a requirement of any other Scottish Government minister. All throughout government and its institutions these parallel structures exist.
There are around six hundred Privy Councillors, all are technically appointed by the sovereign, but on the recommendation of the government, usually through the Cabinet position the Lord President of the Council or Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster. Membership is for life and the body never meets in full, although a monthly meeting takes place. It only requires two Privy Councillors for it to be a valid meeting. All members are bound by oath to never disclose what items are discussed. Because the Cabinet is only a sub-committee, this reinforces the detached self-enclosed nature of UK government. It actively denies the ability of subjects to k now what the government does and says. The Lord President of the Council, currently the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, usually presides over a monthly meeting.
The role of oaths is essential to the functioning of much political life in the UK. It assists in creating an atmosphere of exclusivity and of being part of an elite. Swearing a promissory oath to loyally serve the Queen and all her lawful heirs and successors is not mere technicality, and is necessary for MPs. soldiers, police officers and many other public officials. Because these oaths are not to uphold the constitution, serve the community or perform competently in public office they are an affirmation of the class system on which the UK state stands. It is no irrelevant obsession of Irish nationalists about swearing the oath; it is the beginning of a long continuous process of accommodation. This is especially true for the Privy Councillors oath which is probably the most important oath of office in the UK. Constitutional observer Peter Hennessy has pointed out its effects “For the purposes of preparing a study of secrecy, I once drew up a checklist of its weapons in an attempt to measure the forces operating towards closed government in public life. The Privy Councillor’s oath was the natural starting point.”11 This oath was so secret, it was a criminal offence to disclose it until it was revealed in a written Parliamentary answer in 1998.
Crown Powers such as Orders-in-Council made by the sovereign with the advice of the Privy Council, Orders-of-Council, made by members of the Privy Council without the sovereign are made as uses of the Royal Prerogative. An Order-in-Council is primary legislation and does not require any statue from Parliament for its authority. They may also be secondary legislation and give regulations as Statutory Instruments to existing statutes. It was through these types of orders that trade unions were banned from General Communications Head Quarters GCHQ, over two thousand inhabitants of the Chagos Archipeligo, or Diego Garcia were evicted to make way for a massive US military air base in the Indian Ocean. Orders-of-Council are often used to regulate medical and veterinary professions and the higher education sector. Yet many of these Royal Prerogatives can be exercised without any approval by Parliament.
“A striking consequence of Britain’s lack of a formal written constitution is the extent to which government ministers are dependent on traditional powers which they have inherited from the time when Britain was an absolute monarchy. These powers are collectively called ‘the Royal Prerogative.’ Despite their antiquity, they provide the legal authority for activities which are modern enough. In the name of the Crown, ministers can appoint judges and civil servants, wage war and make peace, promote and dismiss members of the armed forces and civil service, prosecute and pardon offenders, negotiate treaties and approve European Union legislation in the Council of Ministers, issue (and deny) passports to British citizens, enjoy immunity from statutes (unless the Crown is expressed or impliedly referred to) and generally conduct those processes of government for which Parliament has not provided by specific statutory legislation.”12
Many territories outside the geography of the British Isles are still controlled directly from Westminster. These are Crown Dependencies, or British Overseas Territories. Often islands or groups of islands with a strategic significance for military purposes such as Ascension Island, or St Helena or the Chagos Islands, tax avoidance purposes such as the Cayman Islands, or because the confer territorial claims over larger areas such as the Falkland Islands open up claims over mineral rights in the Antarctic.
The House of Lords or Magna Concilium, still remains a mainly hereditary institution, essentially an expression of the aristocracy, despite having accrued new hereditary layers and lifetime peerages. It is one of the mechanisms –along with the fee-paying schools, various boardrooms, etc.,-of fusing the bourgeoisie with the aristocracy. The number potentially allowed to sit in the Lords is 789 who can elect 92 members to sit in the Lords Chamber. At one point in 1999, it had 1,330 members. This is still bigger than the elected House of Commons of 650. Membership of the House of Lords is held by non-UK citizens especially from within the Commonwealth. There are twenty-six Lords Spiritual ie Church of England bishops, and until the creation of the Supreme Court, the Judicial Committee was the final court of appeal for many Commonwealth countries. The Law Lords have only the right of appeal in Scottish civil cases, but none in criminal cases. They hear cases from a number of Commonwealth countries. The continued existence of this court of appeal has been claimed as one reason why a court of appeal covering the West Indies has not been established.
The House of Lords has been the main chamber supplying personnel for Cabinet and government well into the nineteenth century. “The unfaltering succession of aristocratic Cabinets and landlord Parliaments which dominated British politics for a full century after the advent of the Industrial Revolution was … no mere cultural quirk or institutional anachronism. It reflected certain real and continuing disparities of material situation.”13 Over time, almost always involving direct challenges, the power of the House of Lords has been broken. Its continued existence is as a symbol against changes that have changed the world over the last two centuries. Hiding behind its second row status, it still legitimates legislation that a properly elected assembly would reject.
The House of Commons or Commune Concilium, is the nearest concession to the modern age that can be found in the current UK apparatus of government. Although it is the dominant chamber contributing most personnel to the Cabinet, it is still an expression of Crown powers. As the main repository of parliamentary sovereignty, it creates a wall around itself so that no member can be a delegate of outside concerns, or be bound by decisions outside the walls of its chambers. In this way it resists all pressures for popular sovereignty and the rights of the citizenry to have a say in government. The cry of “I spy strangers!” compels the Speaker to clear the chamber of all observers. Initially a mechanism to protect the members from the monarch’s spies, it now expresses the differences that exist between the elected and the populace. This distancing has been communicated by many writers and artists, further de-legitimizing in the minds of many their rights over government. The anti-political outlook turns debates into contests between Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee so that the obvious differences between those inside and those outside look like exercises in middle class hypocrisy and cant.
The Crown can dissolve parliament and pick the leader or leaders who can form the government. Queen Victoria was the last monarch not to choose a Prime Minister from the largest party. All MPs have to swear the standard promissory oath of loyalty to the reigning monarch, although they can affirm it if they do not believe in God or their religion prohibits them from swearing oaths. There is still no real acceptance of the party system so that all MPs are treated as individuals and there is only Government (with its supporters) and opposition (with its supporters). This stops the Commons ever becoming a representative chamber.
Despite enormous differences between and within all the parties, only these two positions are given any real sway. “The domination of the two main political parties, and two only, has influenced the development of the British Constitution so profoundly that it can almost be said that the two-party system is one of the unwritten conventions of the Constitution.”14 No matter how many parties or points-of-view, the Chamber only structures the existence of two. The effects of this are felt in a number ways. It means that votes for minor parties are often wasted and with the loss of deposits even highly representative minority opinions cannot be articulated in Parliament. It also means that the leaders of the two main parties have accepted the substantial class basis of UK capitalism. It also stops party leaders being controlled by the rank-and-file of their parties.
It is only recently –in the last twenty years or so- that the left has looked at the electoral system. Although there is a higher awareness of the limitations of the First-Past-The-Post system, there is still a missing critique of the correct principles that should be used to design a different electoral system. The adoption by some of the Single Transferable Vote method fails to recognise how this system can only produce candidates that least offend rather those who express more representative opinions. While attention needs to be given to the way the two-party system distorts outcomes and the electoral methods used, the role of the Parliamentary constituency is of key importance.
The constituency is the area that is often treated as sacrosanct by many elected members for various reasons. It is also the area that receives least examination. Many of the 650 elected members have no strong views on any matter of national, international concern. They are often little more than highly paid voting fodder. A more motivated group would be able to staff the Select Committees that scrutinise government, but very few can rise to this challenge. The large volume of “deadweight” makes it hard to obtain the material for government. The tasks of government are often more challenging than the fixing of local committees that help them get them selected. “If the cult of parliamentary sovereignty is a survival from the eighteenth century, the rules of electoral constituency are relics from an even remoter age. They derive from a feudal epoch when the overwhelming majority of polls were uncontested –local gentry families agreeing among themselves who should be their Member of Parliament.”15 It used to be common to find Tory sons and daughters of now ennobled previous incumbents “inheriting” the family seat; now this practice can be found with previous Labour incumbents.
The structure of constituencies makes much forward reform impossible. Take for example the European Court of Human Rights demand that prisoners get the right to vote. Large prisons in geographically limited areas would experience an enormous voting bloc that other areas would not have. However most forms of electoral representation simply enshrine the right to popular representation and that is not the purpose of an institution set up as a council to advise the monarch. The geographical one member constituency is simply a mechanism to build up enough personnel for a council out of which a government can be selected. A large multi-member constituency such as Scotland, the English, North-West, or West Midlands that filled seats on a system of pure proportional representation would allow a wider range of views to be selected. A party list of candidates would show the entire electorate the level of the party’s commitment to gender and racial balance as well as making political proposals the reasons for voting, rather than the unidentifiable mix of the present system.
The absence of a republican consciousness leaves a slim legacy of republican thinkers and actions. Thomas Paine remains the main source of republican critique of the UK state system. His directness in stating that the UK has no constitution deflates the constant, non-stop chatter that numerous commentators, lawyers and academics that still continues without end. His strength is in showing how the nature of all politics and government changes. The first modern written constitution arose as a very direct rejection of the politics of the settlement of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Paine explained its importance, “A constitution is the property of the nation, and not of those who exercise government. All constitutions of America are declared to be established on the authority of the people. In France, the word nation is used instead of the people, but in both cases, a constitution is a thing antecedent to the government, and is always distinct therefrom.”16 This is why republicanism bears more resemblance to state-building that administrative politics or lobbying. The creation of solid constitutional and legal rights is an important advance that can only occur by being constantly aware that gains achieved under the current regime of custom and practice can quickly evaporate without and means of recovery. These understandings are central to the building of a republican consciousness.
ASSEMBLIES FOR DEMOCRACY OR ASSEMBLIES FOR THE REPUBLIC?
The primary task of the RSA should be raising the level of republican consciousness. It is out of this that republican aspirations must be created. The demand for democracy-in-general is always a slippery concept. Most people who raise it can be countered by the charge that they are simply in disagreement with the result that went against what they wished. We call for a republic because it institutionalises the inalienable rights to representation in government not consultation based on custom and practice as exists today. A democracy based on spurious, short-term moods of the moment is no answer to the solidly entrenched constitutional, legal and civil rights of a republic.
A massive shift in consciousness took place during and subsequent to the Independence Referendum in Scotland. It is now inevitable it will leave the United Kingdom. But this departure does not guarantee that Scotland is travelling to a republican form of government. The desire to retain the Queen as Head of State and seek membership of the Commonwealth raises the spectre of repeating the mistakes of the Irish Free State. The continued existence of Crown Powers means that such a country will be the plaything for outside manipulations organised in Westminster as Ireland, Australia, Canada, Fiji, Gambia, Grenada, and Turks & Caicos know too well. The desire for national independence should not eclipse the necessary considerations required for constructing a workers’ republic and a workers’ government.
A left that rarely thinks about what it wants from government, rarely has any idea about the state-building project that is required in building a republic. But no new state is solely made from the institutions it creates; all states are based on a level of consciousness that drives them forward. A consciousness that addresses the needs of the moment must also contain the ways of thinking that address the issues of tomorrow. Socialist principles are insufficient. It is not enough to claim that being a socialist makes someone a republican. Each requires concentrated, focussed thinking and actions. And, at the very least, a strong comprehension of the components of each strand of thinking.
We should advocate a republic because at the level of constitution, government and state it is an expression of the popular will. However, the popular will can carry assumptions that leave many minorities or other groups excluded. Consciousness has to be prepared and mechanisms need to be built that bring those groups into the popular will or protect their right to remain outside it. This can only be done on a case-by-case basis.
After the defeat of the Commonwealth, republicanism as well as what it inspired did not entirely disappear. Various outlooks and clubs continued, but rarely developed the republican tradition. Milton’s writings, James Harrington’s Rota Club, the Green Ribbon Club and many more organisations that historians have overlooked. However, enough in exists of republican values for it to be reshaped in the era of proletarian revolutions for it to add to socialist struggle. Untangling its distinctiveness from democracy-in-general, nationalism, self-determination, socialism and communism, environmentalism and other conceptual understandings stops it from losing its essential sharpness. Ironically, the UK’s ruling classes have always understood this.
- Cited p.308, James Connolly, Volume One , Collected Works, New Books Publications, 1987. I am unable to locate if this text cited in the works was actually written by Connolly himself.
- Allan Armstrong “Genuine Self-Determination Means Acting As Republicans Now.” http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2012/11/20/radical-indy-conference-10-genuine-self-determination-means-acting-like-republicans-now/
- The defeat of the Royal Navy by the Dutch in 1667 was probably the most important defeat it has ever experienced. The Battle of Medway or Battle of Chatham saw the Dutch fleet sail up the Thames to Gravesend then up the Medway to Chatham docks destroying three capital and ten lesser ships as well as capturing the HMS Unity and the fleet’s flagship the Royal Charles.
- “The expedition comprised fifty-three warships, of which thirty-two were ‘capital ships’ designed for combat … the rest escort ships. There were ten fire-ships and about four hundred other vessels to transport troops, artillery and horses. The army was made up of 10,692 regular infantry and 3,660 cavalry, plus gunners of the artillery train and five thousand gentlemen volunteers –expatriate Englishmen, Huguenots, and other sympathisers. On top of this there were 9,142 crew and a further ten thousand men on board the transport vessels…. Like the D-Day landings, this was a huge feat of transportation rather than a navy seeking a sea battle.” (p8 Lisa Jardine, Going Dutch. How England Plundered Holland’s Glory, Harper Perennial, 2008.)
“The [Dutch] Blue Coats continued to guard Whitehall, St James Palace and Somerset House for many months, ‘to the general disgust of the whole English army.’ The entire London area remained under Dutch military occupation until the Spring of 1690. No English regiments were allowed within twenty miles of the city. The English and Scots regiments of the States General’s forces which had led the triumphal entry (in order not to alarm the citizens of London too much) were stationed at the Tower and Lambeth. Dutch and German regiments encamped at Woolwich, Kensington, Chelsea and Paddington, while another crack regiment was positioned at Richmond, and the Huguenots put up in various parts of London. As far as possible the Prince avoided billeting his troops in private households, and insisted that they behave courteously and pay for any goods acquired. Nevertheless, in spite of his efforts to avoid the appearance of foreign occupation, the continuing presence of large numbers of heavily armed troops in the city caused consternation and unrest.” (p23, ibidem)
- p.128, Jonathon Israel, “The Dutch Role in the Glorious Revolution” in Essays on the Glorious Revolution and its World Impact, Cambridge University Press, 1991 cited in p27, Jardine op cit..
- p.90, Jane Dawson, “Anglo-Scottish Protestant Culture and Integration in Sixteenth Century Britain,” in Conquest & Union. Fashioning A British State 1485-1725, edited by Steven G. Ellis & Sarah Barber, Longman, 1995.
- p.60, Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- p.74, James Harvey & Katherine Hood, The British State, Lawrence & Wishart, 1958.
9, Scottish Referendum. The Crown versus the People. England’s Case for Voting ‘Yes’ Republican Socialist Alliance firstname.lastname@example.org,
- The Constitution of the French Republic, adopted November 4th, 1848. Notes to the People London No 7, June 1851.
- p.351, Peter Hennessy, Whitehall, Secker & Warburg, 1989.
- p.2, Christopher Vincenzi, Crown Powers, Subjects and Citizens, Citizenship and the Law Series, Pinter, 1998.
13. p.134, Perry Anderson, The Figures of Descent, in English Questions, Verso, 1992.” These were … not just to do with income. It was also the case that the peculiar form of English capitalist agriculture, with its triad system of proprietor, tenant farmer and rural labourer, typically freed its beneficiaries from detailed and direct estate management, in local and parliamentary politics. The Victorian landowners possessed the advantages of the rentier over the entrepreneur in this respect.”
- p.29, James Harvey & Katherine Hood, The British State, Lawrence & Wishart, 1958.
- p.340, Perry Anderson, The Light of Europe, in English Questions, Verso, 1992.
- p.213, Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, Penguin Classics, 1969.