In the name of God, go. Labour is too eager to prostrate itself before the throne. Nick Cohen on why Britain will never be a true democracy while a monarch reigns

The Republic of Britain: 1760 to the Present

Frank Prochaska <em>Penguin, 293pp, £20 </em>


Frank Prochaska's history of British republicanism begins with a servile "by gracious permission of Her Majesty the Queen, I have been able to make use of material from the Royal Archives at Windsor". By the final page, Prochaska has yanked his forelock so hard and for so long that I feared he may have scalped himself. British republican movements achieved nothing, he decides. They were diversions from genuine issues, cul-de-sacs fit only for dreamers "driven by a vision of mankind perfected" who failed to understand the "down-to-earth" wisdom of Herbert Spencer's warning that "the republican form of government . requires the highest type of human nature - a type nowhere at present existing".

Most citizens in modern democracies live in republics. They display the usual human frailties. The chief difference between them and us is not their "perfection", but their sovereign power to choose their head of state. How can a system of government that is commonplace elsewhere in the world be hopelessly idealistic in Britain? Prochaska deploys not only the obsequiousness of the court historian and the Podsnappery of the 19th-hole bore to circumvent this objection, but also a certain slyness.

His case for British exceptionalism is made within strict limits of time and space. You might think that a study of republicanism should begin with the beheading of Charles I in 1649, rather than in 1760, but Prochaska does not examine the first English republic, nor the underground survival of its ideas. (A more confident royalist would gloat about its failure and note that Oliver Cromwell was offered the crown. But there are reasons why monarchists today are uneasy, which all Prochaska's bluffery can't quite hide.) The American revolution of 1776 - a revolt of British colonists against the Hanoverian Crown which led to the creation of a republic that, Prochaska must have noticed, survives to this day - falls within his period, as does the revolt of the Crown's subjects in 1916 and the creation of the Irish Republic in 1921. Neither is treated as a British phenomenon. The best modern historians show how England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and empire interacted. Prochaska's mind seems parochial. His cramped view allows him to claim that British republicanism always fails because, when it succeeds, it is - QED! - no longer British.

A second and more startling tactic allows republicans to be presented as utopians. They were doomed to irrelevance because they could not and cannot grasp that Britain already is a republic - and has been for centuries. In case you think that Prochaska is taking us into a world where words have no meaning, I should add, in fairness, that he uses "republic" to mean any country where the monarch's power is limited by law. Walter Bagehot saw Britain as a republic hidden "beneath the folds of a monarchy", and so did many others before him. For all these authorities, Prochaska's resurrection of an archaic definition leads him to strange conclusions. According to him, Edmund Burke was working within "the classical republican framework" when he lamented the fall of the Bourbons, while Prince Albert was the "classic civic republican in the 19th century". The gambit of arguing that real republicans were wasting their time by asking for something that was already there allows Prochaska to take a warm, Whiggish view of British history. He cannot deny that the radicals and revolutionaries of the 18th and early 19th centuries were persecuted, and that the success of repression, along with the comfort of a few genuine liberties and the patriotic reaction against the French revolution, accounted for the failure of Britain to imitate America.

Yet, at all times, Prochaska seeks to minimise official violence and show the past as a warm precursor to the present. While monarchs such as George IV and William IV - who were mocked and despised by conventional as well as radical opinion in their time - are treated with indulgence, Tom Paine is dismissed as a twisted neurotic who was "deeply influenced by his resentments" and "prejudices". (That reactionaries in the 21st century continue to show hatred for Paine is a sign not only of his greatness, but also of Britain's addled democratic spirit, and is worth a study in itself.) E P Thompson is slapped down for saying that the revolutionary impulse was "strangled in its infancy" in the 1790s. As Thompson was describing the suspension of habeas corpus, sedition trials and state-sponsored mobs being set loose on reformers, he could be accused of understatement. To Prochaska, however, Thompson is an incendiary who must receive the ultimate academic sneer of being a "less than dispassionate observer" for his inability to realise that early democrats were guilty of the same category error as early republicans. Just as Britain was a republic even though it was, in fact, a monarchy, so it was a democracy even when it had rotten boroughs, a tiny franchise and a hereditary House of Lords. "Democracy comes in many forms," Prochaska writes, "and, in the early 19th century, it did not necessarily mean majority rule or popular sovereignty."

Such self-serving silliness makes Prochaska an unreliable narrator. But his stooping in the Royal Archives was not a complete waste of time. He follows up his previous work, Royal Bounty, and shows how monarchs earned and continue to earn popularity by supporting charity - "no other role offered such rich returns in publicity and deference for so little effort". He is occasionally interesting on the hatred of the royal family for any kind of radicalism, a loathing that extends from Queen Victoria's desire that the wretched Rebecca rioters of Newport in 1843 should have "measures of the greatest severity taken against them" to the support of that old sweetie the Queen Mother for appeasement, apartheid and Thatcherism, which Prochaska is too deferential to mention.

When all caveats about his sophistry and condescension have been made, glum readers may be tempted to reflect that Prochaska's central argument remains valid. Many Chartists decided that republicanism played into the hands of the enemies of democracy. Socialists saw the monarchy as a distraction from the class struggle. The 20th-century Labour Party was embarrassing in its eagerness to prostrate itself before the throne. The arrival of democracy in Britain, somewhat late in the day for all Prochaska's subtle distinctions, coincided with the huge popularity of the Windsors. Today, ministers we assume to have republican instincts - Gordon Brown, Mo Mowlam, Jack Straw - keep silent for fear of causing controversy. Armed with these precedents, Prochaska can utter a belch of satisfaction and dismiss modern republicans as frothy chatterers who will never sway the "pragmatic British public".

Prochaska's argument would carry more authority if he showed the smallest sign of understanding his country's creaking constitution and its discontents. Because it is precisely when he seeks to draw contemporary lessons that he is forced to dive for the golf club. If we got rid of the royals, the prime minister would be "an elected monarch", he declares. He doesn't appear to realise that it is the survival of royal powers and the passing of royal prerogatives to the executive which have made the prime minister just that. When Thatchers and Blairs can win huge majorities on a minority of the vote, the prerogative powers to conduct international relations, sign treaties, make the Civil Service do anything they want, stuff quangos, fill the House of Lords with cronies, as well as pretty much make up the constitution as they go along, are there for the taking. And while we are on the subject of prerogatives, the Queen retains the right to appoint the prime minister and dissolve parliament. These are not quaint survivals. Neil Kinnock worried about what she might do in the event of a hung election. If we are living in a "crowned republic", shouldn't her ability to interfere be stifled? And shouldn't a busy prime minister be told that he needn't waste valuable time reporting to her each week?

Prochaska dismisses demands for a written constitution as the notions of metropolitan think-tanks of no concern to the plain, if cowed, folk of England. Although predictions are for fools, I'm not sure that his bluster will be convincing for much longer. Scotland and Wales have devolution, and hopefully the neglected English regions will soon have assemblies, too. The arguments for a clear constitution that sets outs their different rights and allows arbitration by a constitutional court is already strong, and it has been made far stronger by the devolution brought by the Good Friday Agreement. Beyond that lies Europe and the confusion and resentment that arises when the populace half-realises that the sovereignty being given up is not, in fact, theirs to dispense with as they will.

Doubtless, if the present constitutional impasse is broken, most reformers, like their predecessors, will want to steer clear of republicanism for fear of endangering other goals. Prochaska and his conservative friends would presumably be happy to guarantee the future of the monarchy by demanding that a referendum on its future be thrown into any settlement. If the Windsors are as popular as they claim, what possible objection can they have to remaining at the head of a "crowned republic" by the simple and thoroughly republican means of subjecting the royal rule to periodic ballots? Funnily enough, Prochaska does not find the space to discuss this modest proposal.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.