Opposing the royals: a brief history of republicanism in Britain

Following Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to curtail their royal duties, Professor Antony Taylor explores the history of republicanism and asks: would the British monarchy ever be abolished?

Members of the royal family at an event marking the centenary of the Royal Air Force. (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Monarchy is often seen as integral to and inseparable from ‘Britishness’. From the 18th century onwards, the British monarchy has been represented as a reassuring emblem of continuity and tradition. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision in January 2020 to leave the royal household and to curtail their royal duties rekindles again an issue that re-emerges periodically in British politics and culture – republicanism and an end to the monarchy. In Europe during the 18th century, hostility towards the monarchy was often seen as a British disease, originating with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and in Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth.

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What is republicanism?

Much hinges on definitions of republicanism and the term is often misused. With its origins in traditions of thought dating back to the Greco-Roman world that were revived during the Renaissance, classical republicanism envisages balanced government, civic virtue, the separation of power and authority, checks on a centralised executive, and resistance to tyrannical or arbitrary rule. Traditionally, removing a monarch disperses centralised power and has the above effects.

Britain, however, is usually seen as a ‘veiled republic’ in which all the above elements are present, but the monarch retains an important function as a figurehead or as a symbol, with a purely vestigial ceremonial role and little real power.

Queen Elizabeth II at a state banquet in 2015. Her role as monarch is largely ceremonial, with
Queen Elizabeth II at a state banquet in 2015. Her role as monarch is largely ceremonial, with “little real power”, says Taylor. (Photo by Michael Ukas-Pool /Getty Images)

It was this aspect of the crown that the constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot (1826–77) saw as key to the ability of the British monarchy to adapt to the democratisation of the British parliamentary system in the later 19th century. Numerous historians of royalty have emphasised the success of the monarchy in taking up civic, public and charitable roles that provided financial donations and royal patronage for hospitals, charities for the disabled, animal welfare groups, and civic groups like the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Royal Humane Society, both of which promoted lifesaving interventions.

From the latter part of the reign of Queen Victoria onwards, there was increased emphasis on all members of the royal family taking up public duties and officiating at civic and public ceremonial events. Under the current queen the role of the royal household as an institution characterised by a vigorous sense of public duty was restated in the documentary Royal Family in 1969, which also highlighted the monarchy’s strong family bonds.

More recent studies of royalty have seen these elements of duty and family obligation placed at the heart of the institution of monarchy in Britain. Frequently, however, the royal family has proved vulnerable when it fails to live up to these expectations, particularly at the time of the exposure of the rift between Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1991 and in the newspaper coverage of Charles’s relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles in 1993.

British newspaper headlines in December 1995 report that Queen Elizabeth II has sent a letter to both Prince Charles and the Princess Diana spelling out her
British newspaper headlines in December 1995 report that Queen Elizabeth II has sent a letter to both Prince Charles and the Princess Diana spelling out her “desire for an early divorce”. (Photo by JOHNNY EGGITT/AFP via Getty Images)

Decolonisation and the withdrawal of British forces from Aden in 1967 and formally from Malaya and Singapore in 1971 undermined the imperial function of the crown, leaving it with a weight of heavy imperial ceremonial and symbolism that contributes to its expense and archaic image at home.

When and how did the republican movement begin?

British traditions of opposition to the monarchy date back to the 18th century. Inspired by the model of the French Revolution, in the 1790s the British radical Thomas Paine (1737–1809) envisaged the complete overhaul of all court patronage in Britain entwined around the person of the monarch, and recommended a clearing out of the titled pensioners, sinecurists, placemen and family retainers who comprised a system christened ‘old corruption’ by reformers.

He advocated instead the drafting of a written constitution, the abolition of the crown and the royal court, the dismantling of the Church of England and the reform of aristocratic land ownership. While offering a potent critique of monarchy and all it stood for, Paine’s ideas garnered little public support in Britain. They stand at the theoretical end of the republican spectrum and had little grounding in popular and public attitudes towards monarchy.

‘Crude republicanism’

More typical of opposition to monarchy in Britain was the tradition of anti-monarchism. Anti-monarchism highlighted the shortcomings of the royal family. Sometimes called ‘vulgar’ or ‘crude’ republicanism, it focused on the moral failings and character flaws and deficiencies of individual royals. It flourished particularly at the time of Queen Victoria’s withdrawal from public life following the death of Prince Albert in 1861 and found a target in Prince Albert Edward (later Edward VII), the heir to the throne. At a time when Queen Victoria was in effect an absentee monarch and Albert Edward’s infidelities and escapades with actresses and prostitutes, and at the gambling table, were well known, anti-monarchism drew on a vein of ribald and often obscene abuse that depicted society’s leaders as morally wanting.

During these years even Bagehot described Albert Edward as that “unemployed youth”, while the radical publication Reynolds’s Newspaper questioned “the degrading associations with which he is connected”. Queen Victoria herself didn’t escape such scrutiny, and rumours circulated about alleged intimacies between herself and her ghillie, John Brown.

What did republicans want to achieve?

At a speech in Newcastle in 1871, Sir Charles Dilke, a Liberal politician, expressed hostility to an institution that appeared to have abandoned its public role during Victoria’s seclusion. His ‘Cost of the Crown’ speech highlighted the expense of the royal family, estimating its cost to the taxpayer at £1 million a year in civil list payments by the state to offset the expenses of the monarch and for the upkeep of the royal household.

His speech described a lengthy list of dependents and household members supported from the public purse, beginning a debate about state financial support for Victoria’s nine children (later the five children of the Prince of Wales as well) and expectations that the taxpayer would pay the dowries of the royal children when they married (these royal heirs were the ‘royal cormorants’ often alluded to in the Chartist press of the 1840s).

Royal ‘outsiders’

The ‘alien’ nature of the royal family was also at issue here. Many contemporaries highlighted the descent of the royal family from the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and suggested that they retained a preference for all things German over the interests of Britain. Disrespectful images of ‘Coburg sausage’ at court after Prince Albert married Victoria in 1840, and cartoons of Albert as a penniless German prince holding out a ‘begging bowl’ to the British taxpayer, became common in this period.

The issue of ‘outsiders’ admitted to the ranks of the royal family, how they are received, and how they are perceived, remains pertinent here in regard to Meghan Markle. Dilke’s speech inspired the formation of as many as 168 republican clubs around Britain and led to public rallies and accompanying clashes between supporters and opponents of monarchy. In Bolton, a bystander, William Scofield, present at one such meeting in December 1871, was killed in a melee, becoming Britain’s only recent republican martyr.

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, have faced consistent scrutiny for their relationship over the years. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)
Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, made the decision in January 2020 to curtail all of their royal duties. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

What arguments are put forward for abolishing the monarchy?

Narratives relating to the expense and the dissolute character of members of the royal family remain central to an anti-monarchist hostility towards royalty. In the early 20th century they often overlapped with a critique that highlighted the alignment of royalty with titled dynasts and arriviste ‘new money’ who remained a significant presence at court, attended exclusive hunting parties, and represented the aristocracy at play.

The length of the civil list (even though reduced to core members of the royal family in the early 20th century) and the hidden wealth of the royal family in land and property continue to attract criticism, as does the tax-exempt status of the Duchy of Cornwall (although Charles does pay voluntary tax on the surplus of the estate, he is not legally required to do so). Harry and Meghan have removed themselves from the civil list, now known as the ‘sovereign grant’, and dispensed with many of the formal expenses that require financial support from the public.

Despite wishing to curb the excesses and the expense of the royal family, republicanism has made little headway in Britain. Writing in 1914 the future Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald acknowledged that “so far as republicanism (is) concerned in this country, it was, at the moment, at a discount”. Aside from Sinn Fein, there is no political party that openly espouses the end of the monarchy.

In contrast to European social democratic and socialist parties, and despite the overt republicanism of Keir Hardie (1856–1915), founder and first leader of the British Labour Party, Labour has always avoided constitutional reform agendas that tackle head-on issues of royal privilege. The party considered the issue of the monarchy at its party conference in 1923, and ‘Red Clydeside’ Scottish Labour MPs tabled a motion in parliament for a debate on the future of the monarchy at the time of the abdication crisis in 1936, but these events had little lasting impact on the party’s programme. Overall, critics of royalty like the Communist MP Willie Gallagher (1881–1965) and Tony Benn (1925–2014) remained isolated voices in parliament. Without a vehicle, this made British republicanism an impotent force.

Realistically, would the British monarchy ever be abolished?

In Britain, republicanism has often appeared a matter of ‘gesture politics’ – not singing the royal anthem, boycotting royal visits, or refusing to curtsey. Indeed, as at the time of the death of Princess Diana in 1997, much liberal, radical and left-wing sentiment has supported Meghan Markle and Prince Harry as insurgents against an apparently uncaring royal household and right-wing and hyper-critical newspapers.

Ramsay MacDonald, however, refused to rule out the possibility that “events” might lead to the abolition of the monarchy and at times there have been periodic revivals in the narrative of anti-monarchism, notably at the time of the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992 and its expensive renovation after 1994, and the death of Princess Diana. Members of the royal family who abandon their public duties; who abuse their power, privilege and connections – as Prince Andrew has been accused of doing – or who appear to enjoy a luxurious and opulent lifestyle can, and do, attract very public opprobrium.

Minor royals like Prince and Princess Michael of Kent (the Queen’s cousin and his wife) have been criticised for some of these flaws – the royal couple made headlines in 2002 when the palace announced that the Queen would pay the rent for their five-bedroom Kensington Palace apartment from her own private funds. It was reported the couple had, prior to 2002, been paying only a peppercorn rent for the apartment. In 2008 it was announced that the pair would be charged the full commercial rate from 2010 to remain at their home.

The abolition of the monarchy in the near future remains unlikely

Imperatives to a British Republic

With public approval ratings for the current queen still high, the abolition of the monarchy in the near future remains unlikely.

Modifying or reforming the monarchy when it comes is likely to begin with pressure from the Commonwealth countries. Australia, which retains the monarch as head of state, has already debated whether to opt for a president appointed by the Australian parliament (in a referendum in 1999), and even Prince Charles has expressed some understanding of the Australian republican position, commenting in 1994 that the republican debate in Australia was a sign of “a mature and self-confident nation”.

A more slimmed down royal family with a reduction in the number of royals in receipt of sovereign grant pensions is an acceptable option for some. However, the future coronation of Prince Charles who, given the bad omens relating to a previous King Charles, might (it has been speculated) rule as King George VII, will usher in a new era in the history of the royal family that will test its ability to adapt or to survive as a loved British institution.

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Antony Taylor is professor of modern British history at Sheffield Hallam University. He has written extensively on British republicanism, opposition to aristocracy, and the debates surrounding the expansion of the franchise in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries