The left should love the Queen

Republicanism is the least successful democratic project in my lifetime, says Sunder Katwala.

A sand sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II
Sand sculpture artist Nicola Wood's sand sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II is seen at the annual Weston-super-Mare Sand Sculpture festival. Photograph: Getty Images.

“The King’s death really has swamped politics,” wrote a bemused Richard Crossman, the New Statesman’s assistant editor, in his 1952 diary. Even the Staggers office had become convulsed by debate over whether the magazine’s front page should carry a black border or not. The Diamond Jubilee marks 60 years in which the British left has been consistently surprised by the enduring popularity of the monarchy. This year’s surprise is that the monarchy has arrived in 2012 looking just as secure as it did in 1952, and rather more robust than it did 20 years ago. Perhaps it would be asking too much to suggest that the left should learn to love the monarchy, but it could learn quite a lot if it were to pause and try to understand the popularity of the British Crown.

For the Silver Jubilee in 1977, at least republicans could claim that the Sex Pistols captured the zeitgeist with their punk anthem “God Save the Queen”, which was banned by the BBC but still reached number two in the singles charts. The song’s taboo-breaking lyrics – “God save the queen/The fascist regime/They made you a moron/Potential H-bomb” – spoke to a generation. Thirty-five years on, with the monarchy more popular than it has been for two generations, many of those young punks are probably preparing to put out the bunting at a more sedate street party. I shall celebrate this jubilee, not protest it.

I can leave that to the few thousand who will join Republic’s anti-monarchy event. Its central target, rather oddly, is the jubilee flotilla on the Thames. Never before can the British left have mobilised to signal their disapproval against a thousand boats floating down the river on a summer Sunday afternoon. Republic promises “placards and speeches” in the area of Tower Bridge. Free speech and dissent are a good thing, so it all sounds very British. Presumably the aim is to persuade the million or so of their fellow citizens who will have turned out to enjoy the spectacle that it is time to dethrone the Queen. If the weather is good I, too, may head down to the river with my children. But I think we will probably watch the boats. Heresy for a former head of the Fabian Society? My teenaged self would have thought so.

I was a republican for a long time, growing up in the 1980s, living in Cheshire, in possession of a Scouse accent. My parents were from India and Ireland and it seemed the natural side to take. It wasn’t that I couldn’t identify with Britain. I grew up with the BBC. My parents both worked for the National Health Service. It had never occurred to me not to support England at football or cricket – especially against my dad’s beloved India – until Norman Tebbit tried to make it compulsory, by which time it proved a little too late to think about changing sides in protest. Yet the monarchy seemed to represent another Britain: tight, narrow and hierarchical.

I have given up. Partly it was the futility of the cause. Republicanism is probably the least successful democratic project of my lifetime, advancing not a single inch during the Queen’s reign. MORI found that 19 per cent wanted a republic in 1969 and that support has flatlined within a percentage point or so’s difference at almost every juncture across the four decades since. The jubilee effect has now induced a dip in support for republicanism to a record low of 13 per cent in a recent poll, as warmth towards the Queen combines with approval of the infusion of new blood from Kate Middleton.

Fortunately this doesn’t matter. No social change that matters to Britain is blocked by our constitutional monarchy. Britain was a relatively equal country for the first 30 years of the Queen’s reign, and more relatively unequal for the past three decades, if more socially liberal. Whether we are in or out of the European Union, whether we change the electoral system or elect those who sit in the House of Lords or devolve power or break up the United Kingdom are separate political choices. Those who want to emulate a more equal, Swedish-style society can hardly sustain a serious case for monarchy as the linchpin of inequality. Egalitarian Sweden has a monarchy, too, yet combines it with more equal opportunity and social mobility than the proud US republic, where attempts to challenge much starker structural inequalities often founder because of widespread belief in the “log cabin to White House” narrative of the American dream.

I was put off by the shrill and sour certainty of too much British republicanism. Any thinking republican can see that his is a minority cause, yet there is usually a complete lack of interest in why any sane person might disagree. The only explanation is that three-quarters of the population have been duped by monarchist propaganda. There is no democratic route to a republic without persuading a majority. Telling the people you need that they are stupid, unthinking drones has seldom proved an effective way to persuade converts. Democratic republicans are right to claim that theirs is a legitimate democratic project and, indeed, that it is in a noble tradition. However, they should also acknowledge that our constitutional monarchy, too, has democratic legitimacy as well as strong and sustained public support.

It was not always obvious that the British monarchy could adapt to the age of democracy. In the late 19th century, it struggled. Queen Victoria did not agree with Walter Bagehot’s description of her limited constitutional role. She did her best to keep William Gladstone out of Downing Street. The monarch was dangerously involved in partisan battles during the great constitutional crises over the Lords, to the paradoxical point of treason in supporting armed rebellion in Ulster.

Yet, from the mass enfranchisement of 1918, the monarchy proved an effective midwife to British democracy. It co-operated with the rise of the Labour Party, smoothing its path to being a trusted party of government. This helped to secure the allegiance of every Labour leader to the Crown, so that the monarchy faced no serious challenge at all from the New Jerusalem of Beveridge Britain.

The past 60 years presented new threats – declining deference and the rise of a 24/7 media culture; a social liberalism for which personal choice often trumps duty; above all, a change in who the British are, as we became a decisively multi-ethnic society. Had you described to Crossman in 1952 how much Britain would change over the next six decades, he would surely have been more confident that the monarchy would slip away into history.

The combination of celebrity culture and social liberalism looked like it would do irreparable damage. The decision to let “daylight in upon magic” by showing the Queen’s home life in the popular television documentary about the royal family in 1969 seemed a disastrous choice by the mid-1990s.

The projection of the model family with its fairy-tale weddings was undermined by the House of Windsor soap opera of the Charles-Diana marriage and Fergie’s troubles. After Diana lost her title, her celebrity status outshone royal protocol. Yet the remarkable public grieving for the “people’s princess” that followed her death was never a republican moment, as was said at the time. In retrospect, it looks more like a democratising bridge to the accessible royal touch of the William and Kate generation. The gradual rehabilitation of Charles and Camilla similarly suggests that the Windsors’s personal troubles ultimately did as much, maybe even more, to normalise them as the “model family” footage had done, making them seem more like us, not less. The nation’s first family now reflects the everyday complexity of many a Christmas in households around the country.

The final surprise has been how, against the backdrop of Britain’s increasing ethnic diversity, the monarchy has become more relevant. The journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown surely exaggerates when she writes that “I am the only black/Asian republican I have ever met”, but perhaps only a little. Bernie Grant, Labour’s most left-wing MP of recent times, was among the most vociferous royalists, taking much pride in the Queen’s interest and reputation in the Caribbean. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was mocked for wearing traditional African dress each year to the State Opening of Parliament. However, by making the connection between his black Guyanese origins and his seat in the Commons, he was reminding us that we share more history than we think.

The Diamond Jubilee tour began in Leicester – which by the end of this decade will become the first city in Britain that is no longer majority-white. The choice of location was deliberate, to celebrate the rise of multi-ethnic Britain since 1952. It was a deeply contested development a mere generation ago. Enoch Powell declared it a case of national suicide. Britain was madly “building its own funeral pyre”, he said in 1968, unless it sent our parents back in time to ensure that no more of us would be born here. Seeing that sea of thousands of Union Jacks being waved by those who, Powell had said, could never feel truly British, not even if they were born and bred here, I felt confident that most people would now see he was wrong.

What is the story of the British monarchy, if not that of a thousand years of immigration and integration? It has rebranded its Norman, Dutch and German origins into sturdy English oak. In this, it resembles most of the main sources of modern British pride – literature and history, sport and science, the NHS and the army, too. The fear is always that the foreign infusion will make us less us, but that isn’t how we think about tea, or fish and chips, or curry, or the Christmas trees popularised by the German Prince Albert. We don’t even think of the Queen as having married an immigrant, so well integrated into British life has her Greek-Danish prince become. Prince Philip enjoys broad popularity, running neck-and-neck with Trevor McDonald ahead of sports and pop stars in an Ipsos MORI poll asking which foreign-born figure has made the biggest positive contribution to Britain.

Rather fittingly, at the first of thousands of street parties across the country over the weekend, refugee Britons will gather in Brixton at lunchtime on 1 June to express their jubilee pride and gratitude to their “Queen of Sanctuary”, as well as the country that has given them the chance to contribute to a new life. Talking to some of those involved, I heard of several routes to a jubilee connection. For Grace Adok, there was the memory of the Silver Jubilee party in her school classroom in Uganda. To Bob Vertes, who left Hungary with his parents at the age of nine, the monarchy represents the stability that allowed him religious freedom in Britain. Paul Sathianesan’s journey as a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka now gives him, as a councillor in Newham, the experience of conducting the borough’s citizenship ceremonies each week. You won’t meet a prouder, more loyal subject of the Queen as he welcomes new members to the new British family.

The central republican point is that it is irrational to prefer a hereditary head of state to one we choose ourselves. Everybody understands this offer, but most would prefer to choose the Queen and her heirs and successors. Yes, we could elect a politician or celebrity to represent our sense of who we are. For a few people, that would provide a liberating sense of opportunity. For many more, the dominant emotion would be a deep sense of loss. Our constitutional arrangements would become a little tidier, more rational, and a little more like those of most other countries.

What we would lose is a distinctive, living link to centuries of British history, tradition and change, deeply resonant of the history of state and church, empire and Commonwealth, sacrifice and remembrance. The historic connection can be expressed in abstract terms, across three centuries of the United Kingdom and beyond, but I suspect its emotional power comes from the role it also plays, more across decades than centuries, as a public backdrop to our personal histories, as our memories of these national high days and holidays remind us of who we were and what we were doing in, say, 1977 or 2012.

The case for and against the monarchy has little to do with the instrumental accounting for trade and tourism, calculating taxpayer pounds put in and numbers of public visits put out in return. It stems from how we want to think about who we are as a people and a nation.

Reason isn’t everything in politics. That is why George Orwell’s 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn” set out a vision of a very English revolution that would “leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere”. His socialist England would abolish the Lords, but not the monarchy. “What,” he asked, “can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”

This jubilee is not only about the Queen. It is about us. As we reflect on six decades of change, we have a chance to decide whether Britain can be proud of who we have become. Perhaps you would still rather wish the monarchy away. But, if you can’t make the protest, do consider raising a small jubilee glass to that.

Sunder Katwala, the former head of the Fabian Society, runs the think tank British Future.