Say what you like about the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations next weekend, but they will be the kind of public event that we have seen precious little of in the past two years. They might even go well. The bunting is being hung for local street parties as I write. Union Jacks adorn Regent Street in central London, leading some of our more excitable commentators to compare their presence to fascism. A special kind of Pimms is on sale in Waitrose. The Elizabeth line has opened. Queen, fronted by Adam Lambert, will perform at Buckingham Palace. And the only “r” word to be found anywhere in the media is “royalty”.
Yet when the hangovers clear and the bunting is taken down, the success (or otherwise) of the party will not obscure the fact that the royal family’s public standing has taken an existential knocking over the past couple of years. If you say “Harry and Meghan” or “Prince Andrew” to most people, you will be met with either a glazed, unhappy expression or an outburst of anger. Old traditions of noblesse oblige and unthinking deference are being swept aside, replaced by questions as to why, exactly, an unaccountable, hereditary and deeply anachronistic institution still exists, and what it might be replaced with if republicanism – the unspoken “r” of the moment – was ever given a hearing.
The personal popularity of the Queen remains the central bulwark against any republican movement. The fearfulness felt recently as to her apparent ill health and concomitant relief at recent public appearances showing her fit and well was not merely a clever piece of media manipulation by a few pro-monarchist outlets, but a genuine expression of public loyalty and affection towards a woman who has been the country’s national figurehead for longer than any other British monarch. Rumours that she will abdicate in favour of Prince Charles, or that he will assume a regency, seem wide of the mark. Yet the fact remains: she is 96, and unlikely to celebrate any more jubilees after this one.
When she is gone, hitherto dormant republican sympathies might emerge, whipped up by sympathetic publications and social media. What will happen then?
Such a cause would naturally fall to a politician, yet there is no one on the front ranks who shows any signs of wanting to lead a nascent republican movement. Even Nicola Sturgeon, who would seem instinctively the most anti-monarchist leader of the major parties, praised the Queen in 2015, saying at the opening of a railway in the Borders that Her Majesty “has carried out her duties with dedication, wisdom and an exemplary sense of public service… The reception she has received today demonstrates that that admiration and affection is certainly felt here in Scotland.” Jeremy Corbyn’s more ambiguous sympathies might, once, have made him a potential leader of such a campaign, but so degraded is his public standing that he will struggle to keep his Islington seat at the next election, let alone overturn centuries of tradition, heritage and protocol. After all, he has already laid waste to one much-beloved national institution in his career, namely the Labour party.
In any case, the public are bored of politicians. If the head of state were to be replaced by an elected president, is it not more exciting for that person to be a celebrity, or at the very least a well-known and well-loved public figure, rather than another staid besuited dispenser of platitudes?
The difficulty is that very few of these men and women remain universally popular for any degree of time. One can imagine a time in which the disparate likes of Morrissey, Michael Barrymore and (dare we say it) Jimmy Savile might have been metaphorically borne aloft on the shoulders of their admirers and swept to the highest office in the land, however much or little they would have desired it (Savile, an infinite amount; Morrissey, rather less). But disgrace or a shift in public attitudes would soon have rendered their lionisation either horrifying or deeply embarrassing (in the case of Savile, both), turning a position of great symbolic worth into something of no more value than those rather strange honorary Brit Awards that always seemed to end up going to Annie Lennox or Robbie Williams.
Still, if Lennox or Williams were – admittedly, unexpectedly – to champion republicanism, it might at least get some attention. For all of the fiery anti-monarchical energy of punk and underground movements past and present, the republican movement has always lacked a charismatic, authoritative figurehead who would not only galvanise the young and disaffected, but could convince Middle England that dispensing with the royal family is a valid, even commendable idea. Perhaps a universally liked public figure – a Gareth Southgate or an Olivia Colman – might succeed, but neither has shown the slightest interest in taking on such a task: they are also, respectively, proud possessors of an OBE and CBE.
Republicanism is easy to mock as the hobbyhorse of the perpetually disaffected and malcontented. But is it not time that we took stock of its potential advantages? It could represent a genuinely progressive chance to bring about a truly modern Britain, without the tiresome centuries of forelock-tugging that have permeated our relationship with the royal family and the dismal prospects of Princes Charles, Harry et al.
There remains one man who, although himself advanced in years, would undeniably be a coup for the republican side, if he could be persuaded to join it. Authoritative, trusted, statesmanlike, devoid of party political associations, genuinely beloved – I refer, of course, to David Attenborough. And while it is highly unlikely that Sir David (that knighthood would have to be discarded, of course) would ever wish, at the age of 96, to take on such a responsibility, it is someone of his standing that the movement needs to stand the slightest chance of being taken seriously.
Do not underestimate the potential. Attenborough’s most recent show, Prehistoric Planet, has attracted praise for resurrecting the dinosaurs. If he can do that, surely restoring a long-extinct cause is in his grasp, too.