If you’ve been living on the moon for the last twenty-four hours, you may just not know about the royal baby. The news has predictably sand-blasted UK news schedules and obscured the traditional staples of murders, celebs and, quite possibly, a third World War (I didn’t catch the later bulletins).
And, at these times, we in the Labour party tend to separate into two camps: the die-hard republicans on the one side, scowling from the sidelines at those gushing over the happy couple; and the royalists, including practically any politician with any kind of career aspiration, on the other.
Why is that? Because it is pretty well-understood that you could hardly be a republican and become Prime Minister (not to mention that your chances of becoming a Privy Councillor, that title reserved for senior politicians, are really not very good at all). You either bite your tongue against your republican instincts, or say goodbye to serious political advancement. That is the realpolitik.
The republicans in our midst, at these times, tend also to gain the miserabilist mantle of a Scrooge at Christmas; the Smiths fans of the political world (now, happily, all pretty much officially Labour, thanks to Johnny Marr’s lifetime ban on David Cameron).
Thing is, I feel for those frustrated souls, in that they really do have a point. It’s completely, utterly unjustifiable for Britain’s unwritten constitution to allow people to end up in positions of power – albeit limited power – simply because of an accident of birth. It’s just wrong.
But I can’t go along with their absolutism, either. We are where we are. The Queen is not a bad old stick, and she takes her job pretty seriously. She’s been around long enough to know a lot about a lot of things, and it’s kind of useful to have some kind of continuity when you’ve a job as hard as being Prime Minister. If that makes me an evil bourgeois sell-out, so be it.
Then there are the strange flag-waving types, usually to be found in the Tory party, but of whom we still have a few. No offence, but I can’t get excited about royal news, aside from a vague historical and cultural interest. Sorry.
Mind you, this one is rather different from all the previous babies: thanks to some constitutional changes about the primogeniture thing, we now know who our next-but-two monarch will almost certainly be, while they are still a foetus. Odd. Not even remotely formed, and already their entire life mapped out for them. At least earlier royal babies had the decency to wait for the moment of their birth (or at least, an echo scan) to decide their future. And you’ve got to feel a bit sorry for the kids, really: no choice for them about who they’re going to be. Gilded cage and all that.
So, I find myself, perhaps like a few other comrades, in a strange centre ground: neither a Royalist nor a Roundhead, but not really wanting the situation to change, either. A sort of Civil War fence sitter, shot by both sides. Why? It really comes down to practicalities.
Let’s suppose that one day the extremely unlikely scenario, of a republican-leaning Labour Party getting elected, happens. It would then need to dedicate probably a whole parliamentary term, or more, to the project of making Britain into a republic, to dismantling the monarchical structures like the C of E, setting up the constitution for a President, and turning the royals into commoners. It would require a huge effort (and probably a massive consultation about how it should be done, to avoid alienating the entire population). All other projects would surely be secondary to this one; it would inevitably be the one thing the government would be remembered for: ending a couple of thousand years of history. An aghast, pro-Royal press would very likely set to work to destroy the Labour party for a generation. And heaven knows how much it would all cost.
And, at the end of it all, what would have changed if we pulled it off? Would we be freer? Would we be even…different in any way? Call me sceptical, but I find it hard to believe. Are the French or the Americans, or the Germans, with their republics, so vastly superior to the British? Not really. All our countries have their positives and negatives. We’re a bit odd, but so what? And, in the meantime, all our plans to reform education, to create a better health service, to look after the vulnerable, all those things which voters place their trust in Labour to do, well, they’d just have to take a back seat.
There is, of course, one exception to this case. Politics is a highly reactive business, whatever we like to kid ourselves. Big things only happen when something else big happens.
The monarchy, as French and Russian history has ably shown us, will likely expire only at a point when there ascends to the throne a monarch so dire, so unspeakably awful, that people will be lining the streets with republican placards, if not pitchforks (and sometimes, as Edward VIII could have testified, not even then). It really doesn’t look that likely in the near future. Y’see, these days the royals are mostly rather nice, telegenic and popular. Even Charlie seems to get quite a good press these days, and even if not, the truth is that he’s unlikely to be King for very long (if at all).
So, republicans, don’t hold your breath, because the truth is that you aren’t going to get your way any time soon. In fact decades, if not centuries, are likely to pass.
But, you know, maybe that’s not such a bad thing, either.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left