Imperial lather

Support for the monarchy is not this sceptred isle's only narrative, insists Clive Bloom. From Thomas Paine to bolshie bunting-subverters, arguments for a Republic weave in and out of our national story

April 28, 2011
Source: Getty
High treason: Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria and Prince Albert while they were riding in a carriage on Constitution Hill on 10 June 1840

Prince Philip turns 90 in June and, according to His Highness, bits are dropping off the old royal personage. Not that long ago, his ageing son and daughter-in-law saw the shadow of the guillotine as angry students attacked their car in London's Regent Street and posted the results on YouTube. Earlier this month, the annual Republican Socialist Convention was held at London South Bank University: three speakers, some blokes in woolly jackets smelling of beer and fags, and a dog - or perhaps a room full of young fired-up revolutionaries hot from Black Bloc exploits?

I had been inveigled into talking about revolutionary flags, a topic so esoteric that it suggested I was an expert in some harmless but really nerdy hobby like milk-bottle collecting. Peter Tatchell was also a speaker and let forth on "the case for republican secular democracy" while being filmed for Australian television. There was a subtle talk by Steve Freeman, an economics lecturer at the university, on English republican socialism. Revolutions are not what they used to be. It was all rather jolly and the flag of the British Republic fluttered above it all. The republican movement has held on through thick and thin, a reminder of what Britain might have been and may be yet. Oliver Cromwell is the hero of the movement, famous for chopping off a king's bonce, but even he succumbed to the seduction of absolute power.

We have happily put up with invaders, lunatics, serial philanderers and Germans who spoke no English so long as we could have a monarch while everybody else quietly ditched theirs. We call this perverseness tradition - something we apparently do better than all the countries of the world put together, if we believe the English Tourist Board, which insists that the royals are worth every penny to our economy. Even when they are socialising with colourful characters, as was Princess Margaret in the 1970s when she mixed with John Bindon, or enjoying dubious parties with oil-rich sheikhs or wealthy US paedophiles, as the Duke of York is alleged to have done.

UK Uncut and the protesters who enjoyed the hospitality of Fortnum & Mason during the March for the Alternative in London last month are, I am told, about to take to their bikes on a mass anti-monarchist rally somewhere in safe Tory-land, kettling the disability scooters of blue-rinse OAPS in the very heart of Waitrose country. Alternative plans involve nude flash mobs in front of the world's media and a possible mass "zombie wedding" somewhere in central London.

We live in troubled times indeed. Is it all up with the Windsors, and are we about to go revolutionary? Will the tricolour fly above Buckingham Palace? Not quite yet, perhaps. After all, we like to think of the UK as a reasonably peaceful place, loyal to our royal heritage. Revolution happens elsewhere. Yet something simmers below the surface.

They've not taken potshots at the monarch for years. It was once an annual affair, like the Henley Royal Regatta. Somebody with a gun would stake out Buck House and have a pop. But none of these individuals were representatives of the coming revolution, and all of them were deemed lunatics and transported or sent to Broadmoor, as shooting at the head of state is considered an act of sheer madness, something no one but a lunatic would do. There must be a lot of lunatics, because people shot at George III and Edward VIII, and Victoria must have become positively athletic dodging the numerous assassination attempts during her long reign. Princess Margaret narrowly escaped being kidnapped and shot as she travelled in her car from Buckingham Palace in 1974 and even Elizabeth II was shot at in 1981.

There is no fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square sporting a revolutionary statue to rival all those equestrian monarchs cast in bronze, and the only revolution anybody knows about is the one on stage at Les Mis. The republican history of Britain isn't taught in schools. It isn't taught anywhere, but it existed, just as much as Good Queen Bess and the Merry Monarch, the one a bald old harridan who farted and the other a not very merry closet Catholic who nevertheless baited Catholics during the Popish Plot. In the past 200 years alone, many more people than might be expected have taken up arms and fought pitched battles in the streets of Welsh towns, the leafy lanes of southern England and the moors of Scotland before being overwhelmed by the forces of government and cast into oblivion by official histories.

Thomas Paine, perhaps our greatest republican and arguably the first "professional" revolutionary, made the republican case as long ago as 1776, in Common Sense, his awakening call to the colonies. Here, he pointed out that "the most plausible plea, which hath ever been offered in favour of hereditary succession, is, that it preserves a nation from civil wars; and were this true, it would be weighty; whereas it is the most barefaced falsity ever imposed upon mankind. The whole history of England disowns the fact. Thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the conquest, in which time there have been (including the Revolution) no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions." And that was only up to the 18th century.

The dream of Cromwell's republican commonwealth almost came true. The first 20 years of the 19th century, influenced as they were by the French Revolution and the dismal record of the Hanoverians, might have ended with a British "Terror" and the heads of the royal family displayed on spikes, as Arthur Thistlewood and his Cato Street gang hoped when they plotted to kill the Cabinet in 1820 and declare London a Jacobin stronghold.

Victoria might have brought sobriety and respect to the royal family, but the death of Albert in 1861 and her retreat from public life for the next 10 years as the "Widow of Windsor" gave a huge boost to the republican movement during the early 1870s. The radical MP Charles Dilke was cheered in Newcastle when he attacked royal financial extravagance and called for the abolition of the monarchy.

In England, republicanism was reignited for a brief moment with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, but the public's temporary distaste for monarchy soon faded. In Scotland and Wales the struggle for a republic was abandoned in the last 20 years of the 20th century and its renewal was avoided through devolution; the political struggles of the Cornish too have long ceased.

Meanwhile, the UK's current counter-culture does not favour insurgency as a policy (despite the recent fun and games in the West End and the proposed jolly in the country), and the financial destabilisation that began in 2008 has not encouraged revolution or created a revolutionary voice. Parliamentary reform is in the air and the monarchy seems more popular than ever in a destabilised age. The threat of Islamic terrorism driven by religious zeal seems, at least for the moment, a guarantee against secular revolution.

The red, white and green flag of the British Republic is last recorded flying amid the red, white and blue bunting at the jubilee of George V in 1935, some bolshie householder no doubt intent on spoiling things for the neighbours. The royal family seems to hold a mystique in times that need stability, but the ideas that informed the republican conspirators of the past, the lives of the participants and the struggle between revolutionaries and the "secret state" over the past few hundred years is also the hidden history of British democracy.

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