Republicanism in the United Kingdom

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Republicanism in the United Kingdom is a movement that seeks to replace the British monarchy with a republic. For those who want a head of state, the method by which one should be chosen is not agreed upon, with some favouring an elected president, some an appointed head of state with little power. Others support something akin to the Swiss model, without a head of state at all.

A republican government was briefly established in the mid-17th century, after the Parliamentarian victory in the English Civil War.

The main lobby group that campaigns for the abolition of the monarchy is Republic.


Within Great Britain, republican sentiment has largely focused on the abolition of the British monarch, rather than the dissolution of the British Union or independence for its constituent countries.

In Northern Ireland, the term "republican" is usually used in the sense of Irish republicanism. While also against monarchical forms of government, Irish republicans are against the presence of the British state in any form in Ireland and advocate re-creating a united, all-island state, comprising the whole of Ireland. Unionists who support a British republic also exist.

There are republican members of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales who advocate independence for those countries as republics. The SNP's official policy is that the British monarch would remain head of state of an independent Scotland, unless the people of Scotland decided otherwise.[1] Plaid Cymru have a similar view for Wales. The Scottish Socialist Party and the Scottish Green Party both support an independent Scottish republic.


Cromwellian Commonwealth

The countries that now make up the United Kingdom, together with the present Republic of Ireland, were briefly ruled as a republic in the 17th century, first under the Commonwealth consisting of the Rump Parliament and the Council of State (1649–53) and then under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653–58). The Commonwealth Parliament represented itself as a Republic on the classical model, with John Milton writing Latin justifications for use as propaganda in Continental Europe. Cromwell's Protectorate was less ideologically republican and was seen by Cromwell as restoring the mixed constitution of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy found in classical literature and English common law discourse.

First the Kingdom of England was declared to be the Commonwealth of England and then Scotland and Ireland were briefly forced into union with England by the army. This decision was later reversed when the monarchy was restored in 1660. In 1707 the Act of Union between England and Scotland was signed; the two countries' parliaments became one, and in return Scotland was granted access to the English overseas possessions.

A Dutch satirical view of Cromwell as a usurper of monarchical power

Many of Cromwell's actions upon gaining power were decried as "harsh, unwise, and tyrannical".[citation needed] He and General Thomas Fairfax were often ruthless in putting down the mutinies which occurred within their own army towards the end of the civil wars (prompted by Parliament's failure to pay the troops). They showed little sympathy for the Levellers, an egalitarian movement which had contributed greatly[citation needed] to Parliament's cause but sought representation for ordinary citizens. The Leveller point of view had been strongly represented in the Putney Debates, held between the various factions of the Army in 1647, just prior to the King's temporary escape from army custody. Cromwell and the Grandees were not prepared to permit such a radical democracy and used the debates to play for time while the future of the King was being determined. Catholics were persecuted zealously under Cromwell[citation needed]. Although he personally was in favour of religious toleration – "liberty for tender consciences" – not all his compatriots agreed. The war led to much death and chaos in Ireland where Irish Catholics and Protestants who fought for the Royalists were persecuted. There was a ban on many forms of entertainment, as public meetings could be used as a cover for conspirators; horse racing was banned, the maypoles were famously cut down, the theatres were closed, and Christmas celebrations were outlawed for being too ceremonial, Catholic, and "popish". When Charles II eventually regained the throne, in 1660, he was widely celebrated for allowing his subjects to have "fun" again.[citation needed]

Much of Cromwell's power was due to the Rump Parliament, a Parliament purged of opposition to grandees in the New Model Army. Whereas Charles I had been in part restrained by a Parliament that would not always do as he wished (the cause of the Civil War), Cromwell was able to wield much more power as only loyalists were allowed to become MPs, turning the chamber into a rubber-stamping organisation. This was ironic given his complaints about Charles I acting without heeding the "wishes" of the people. But even so he found it almost impossible to get his Parliaments to follow all his wishes. His executive decisions were often thwarted – most famously in the ending of the rule of the regional major generals appointed by himself.

In 1657 Cromwell was offered the crown by Parliament, presenting him with a dilemma since he had played a great role in abolishing the monarchy. After two months of deliberation, he rejected the offer. Instead, he was ceremonially re-installed as "Lord Protector", with greater powers than he had previously held. It is often suggested that offering Cromwell the Crown was an effort to curb his power: as a King he would be obliged to honour agreements such as Magna Carta, but under the arrangement he had designed he had no such restraints. This allowed him to preserve and enhance his power and the army's while decreasing Parliament's control over him, probably to enable him to maintain a well-funded army which Parliament could not be depended upon to provide.[citation needed]

The office of Lord Protector was not formally hereditary, although Cromwell was able to nominate his own successor in his son, Richard.

Restoration of the monarchy

Although England, Ireland and Scotland became constitutional monarchies, after the reigns of Charles II and his brother James II & VII, and with the ascension of William and Mary to the English, Irish and Scottish thrones as a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, there have been movements throughout the last few centuries whose aims were to remove the monarchy and establish a republican system. A notable period was the time in the late 18th century and early 19th century when many Radicals such as the minister Joseph Fawcett were openly republican.[2]

During the later years of Queen Victoria's reign, there was considerable criticism of her decision to withdraw from public life following the death of her husband, Prince Albert. However this did not translate into clear support for republicanism. Most of the criticism was dismissed when she came out of mourning and returned to public life. During the 1870s, calls for Britain to become a republic on the American or French model were made by the politicians Charles Dilke[3] and Charles Bradlaugh, as well as journalist George W. M. Reynolds.[4]

Some members of the Labour Party, such as Keir Hardie, also held republican views.[5]

In 1923, at the Labour Party's annual conference, two motions were proposed, supported by Ernest Thurtle and Emrys Hughes. The first was "that the Royal Family is no longer a necessary party of the British constitution", and the second was "that the hereditary principle in the British Constitution be abolished".[6] George Lansbury responded that, although he too was a republican, he regarded the issue of the monarchy as a "distraction" from more important issues. Lansbury added that he believed the "social revolution" would eventually remove the monarchy peacefully in the future. Both of the motions were overwhelmingly defeated.[6][7][8] Following this event, most of the Labour Party moved away from advocating republican views.[6]

Prohibition of republican advocacy

Parliament passed the Treason Felony Act in 1848. This act made advocacy of republicanism punishable by transportation to Australia, which was later amended to life imprisonment. The law is still on the statute books; however in a 2003 case, the Law Lords stated that, "It is plain as a pike staff to the respondents and everyone else that no one who advocates the peaceful abolition of the monarchy and its replacement by a republican form of government is at any risk of prosecution."[9]

21st century

MORI Polls in the opening years of the 21st century showing support for retaining the monarchy stable at around 70% of people, but in 2005, during the time of the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, support for the monarchy dipped with one poll showing that 65% of people would support keeping the monarchy if there were a referendum on the issue, with 22% saying they favoured a republic.[10] In 2009 an ICM poll, commission by the BBC, found that 76% of those asked wanted the monarchy to continue after the Queen, against 18% of people who said they would favour Britain becoming a republic and 6% who said they did not know.[11]

In February 2011, a YouGov poll put support for ending the monarchy after the Queen's death at 13%, if Prince Charles becomes King.[12] However, an ICM poll shortly before the royal wedding suggested that 26% thought Britain would be better off without the monarchy, with only 37% "genuinely interested and excited" by the wedding.[13] In April 2011, in the lead up to the Royal Wedding, an Ipsos MORI poll of 1,000 British adults found that 75% of the public would like Britain to remain a monarchy, with 18% in favour of Britain becoming a republic, and in May 2012, in the lead up to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, a Ipsos MORI poll of 1,006 British adults found that 80% were in favour of the monarchy, with only 13% in favour of the United Kingdom becoming a republic. This was thought to be a record high figure in favour of the monarchy.[10] In a recent survey, for the Guardian, support for the monarchy was shown to be at least 75%.

The main organisation campaigning for a republic in the United Kingdom is the campaign group Republic. Formed in 1987, Republic is frequently cited by much of the UK media on issues involving the royal family.[14][15][not in citation given]

In September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour MP with republican views, won his party's leadership election and became both Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labour Party. In 1991, Corbyn seconded the Commonwealth of Britain Bill which called for the transformation of the United Kingdom into a "democratic, federal and secular Commonwealth of Britain", with an elected President.[16] However, Corbyn stated during his 2015 campaign for the leadership that republicanism was "not a battle that I am fighting".[17][18]


Advocates of republicanism in the UK

Political parties

At present, none of the three major British political parties[clarification needed] has an official policy of republicanism. However, there are a number of individual politicians who favour abolition of the monarchy (see above). Tony Benn of the Labour Party introduced a Commonwealth of Britain Bill in Parliament in 1991.[63] The current leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn is a republican, but has stated that he will not seek to abolish the monarchy whilst he remains leader. The Green Party of England and Wales, which has one MP in the House of Commons, has an official policy of republicanism.[64] The Irish republican party Sinn Féin has four MPs, but they do not take their seats.[65] The Scottish Green Party, which has two MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, supports having an elected Head of State in an Independent Scotland.[66]

Lobby groups

The largest lobby group in favour of republicanism in the United Kingdom is the Republic campaign group, founded in 1983. The group has benefited from occasional negative publicity about the Royal Family, and Republic has reported a large rise in membership since the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. In June 2006 the group handed in a petition of over 3,000 names to 10 Downing Street calling for a serious national debate about the future of the monarchy.[citation needed] Since then Republic has lobbied on changes to the parliamentary oath of allegiance, royal finances and changes to the Freedom of Information Act relating to the monarchy, none of which have produced any change. However, Republic has been invited to Parliament to talk as witnesses on certain issues related to the monarchy such as conduct of the honours system in the country.

In 2009 Republic made news[67] by reporting Prince Charles's architecture charity to the Charity Commission, claiming that the Prince was effectively using the organisation as a private lobbying firm (the Commission declined to take the matter further). Republic has previously broken stories about royals using the Freedom of Information Act. The organisation is regularly called up to comment and provide quotes for the press, national and local radio and national TV programmes, with much criticism as to the portrayal of the monarchy by the BBC which has been accused of celebrating the monarchy rather than keeping its politically neutral stance on issues related to it.


The Guardian, Observer and Independent newspapers have all advocated the abolition of monarchy.[68] In the wake of the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal, a poll of readers of the Guardian and Observer newspapers placed support for abolition of the monarchy at 54%, although only 3% saw it as a top priority.[69]

Arguments in favour of a republic

The benefits of a republic

Republicans suggest that republicanism is a constitutional step which answers a number of key issues.

The advocacy group Republic argues:

The monarchy is not only an unaccountable and expensive institution, unrepresentative of modern Britain, it also gives politicians almost limitless power.

It does this is in a variety of ways:

  • Royal Prerogative: Royal powers that allow the Prime Minister to declare war or sign treaties (amongst other things) without a vote in Parliament.
  • The Privy Council: A body of advisors to the monarch, now mostly made up of senior politicians, which can enact legislation without a vote in Parliament.
  • The Crown-in-Parliament: The principle, which came about when Parliament removed much of the monarch's power, by which Parliament can pass any law it likes – meaning our liberties can never be guaranteed.[70]

Republicans also want to see a constitution that they claim will inspire aspiration (by allowing anyone to become head of state) and political responsibility (by introducing popular sovereignty, the notion that the people are ‘in charge’). They also claim that they want what is ‘best for Britain’, which includes the best democracy.[71]

Arguments against monarchy

Republicans assert that hereditary monarchy is unfair and elitist. They claim that in a modern and democratic society no one should be expected to defer to another simply because of their birth. Such a system, they assert, does not make for a society which is at ease with itself, and it encourages attitudes which are more suited to a bygone age of imperialism than to a "modern nation". Some claim that maintaining a privileged royal family diminishes a society and encourages a feeling of dependency in many people who should instead have confidence in themselves and their fellow citizens.[71]

Further, republicans argue that 'the people', not the members of one family, should be sovereign.[71]

  • Monarchy contradicts democracy
    • Monarchy denies the people a basic right – Republicans believe that it should be a fundamental right of the people of any nation to elect their head of state and for every citizen to be eligible to hold that office. It is argued such a head of state is more accountable to the people, and that such accountability to the people creates a better nation.[72]
    • Monarchy devalues a parliamentary system – Monarchical prerogative powers can be used to circumvent normal democratic process with no accountability, and such processes are more desirable than not for any given nation-state.[70]
  • Monarchy is gender-discriminative

Succession to the crown has been decided by male primogeniture, which has meant that the crown has been inherited by the eldest son, and only passed to a daughter if the monarch had no sons. In October 2011 it was announced in the Perth Agreement that succession laws in the UK and in other Commonwealth realms would be changed so that sons of any future monarch would no longer be preferred over daughters. The Succession to the Crown Act gained Royal Assent on 25 April 2013 but commencement depends on an order being made by the Lord President of the Council once all sixteen Commonwealth realms have passed similar legislation.[73][74]

  • A monarchy demands deference

It is argued by republicans that the way citizens are expected to address members, however junior, of the royal family is part of an attempt to keep subjects 'in their place'.[75]

  • It is the enemy of merit and aspiration

The order of succession in a monarchy specifies a person who will become head of state, regardless of qualifications. The highest titular office in the land is not open to "free and fair competition". Although monarchists argue that the position of Prime Minister, the title with real power, is something anyone can aspire to become, the executive and symbolically powerful position of Head of State is not.

  • It devalues intellect and achievement

Republicans argue that members of the royal family bolster their position with unearned symbols of achievement. Examples in the UK include the Queen's many honorary military titles of colonel-in-chief, regardless of her military experience.[76] There is debate over the roles which the members of the monarchy have played in the military; many doubt that members of the Royal Family have served on the front line on the same basis as other members of the Armed Forces. Examples here include Prince Andrew, whose presence during the Falklands War was later criticised by the commander of the British Naval Force who stated that "special measures" had to be taken to ensure that the prince did not lose his life,[77] and Prince Harry, who was moved to a safe room and placed under guard during an attack on the Camp Bastion base in Afghanistan.[78] It is seen to some as more of a PR exercise than military service. Members of the royal family are fast-tracked to higher ranks in the army.[citation needed]

  • It harms the monarchs themselves

Republicans argue that a hereditary system condemns each heir to the throne to an abnormal childhood. This was historically the reason why the anarchist William Godwin opposed the monarchy. Johann Hari has written a book God Save the Queen? in which he argues that every member of the royal family has suffered psychologically from the system of monarchy.[79]

  • Monarchs are not impartial, and lack accountability

Republicans argue that monarchs are not impartial but harbour their own opinions, motives, and wish to protect their interests. Republicans claim that monarchs are not accountable. As an example, republicans argue that Prince Charles has spoken and acted in ways that have widely been interpreted as taking a political stance, citing his refusal to attend, in protest of China's dealings with Tibet, a state dinner hosted by the Queen for the Chinese head of state; his strong stance on GM food; and the contents of certain memos which were leaked to the press regarding how people achieve their positions.[80][81][82]

Republicans see a lack of important democratic accountability and transparency for such institutions.

  • The monarchy is expensive

Republicans claim that the total costs to taxpayers including hidden elements (e.g., the Royal Protection security bill and lost rental income from palaces and state-owned land) of the monarchy are £334 million per annum.[83] The Daily Telegraph claims the monarchy costs each adult in Britain around 62p a year.[84] However, this figure does not take into account royal security, nor the money paid by regional councils to fund the costs of visits by members of the Royal Family, and assumes the "official" figure of £34m per annum to be divided between every man, woman and child in the land. Republic also argues that the Royal finances, which are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, are shrouded in secrecy and should be subject to greater scrutiny. Although monarchists argue that this does not take into account the 'hereditary revenues' which generated £190.8 million for the treasury in 2007–2008, republicans assert that the Crown Estate, from which these revenues are derived, is national and State property, and that the monarch cannot surrender what they have never owned.[85] The monarchy is estimated to cost British taxpayers £202.4m, when costs such as security are included, making it the most expensive monarchy in Europe and 112 times more expensive than the presidency of the Republic of Ireland.[86] The argument that tourism benefits from the continued existence of the British monarchy is refuted by Republic, who suggest that the reverse may actually be true – if the palaces were open throughout the year, tourists would be better able to visit them (as has happened with the Tower of London).[87]

  • The monarchy makes the UK appear 'backward'

Republicans argue that the monarchy is to be considered embarrassing: as a concept it is archaic, too reminiscent of medieval feudalism, and while the UK has a hereditary head of state it cannot claim to be a modern nation.[88][89]

Arguments in favour of constitutional monarchy

  • Monarchy can be complementary to rather than a replacement for democracy

Some argue that the current system is still democratic as the Government and MPs of Parliament are elected by universal suffrage and as the Crown acts only on the advice of the Parliament, the people still hold power. Monarchy only refers to how the head of state is chosen and not how the Government is chosen. It is only undemocratic if the monarchy holds meaningful power, which it currently does not as government rests with Parliament. However, it was revealed in October 2011 that both the Queen and Prince Charles do have the power to veto government legislation which affects their private interests.[90] The Queen attended a cabinet meeting on 18 December 2012 – the first Monarch to have done so since George III in 1781.[91]

  • Provides a safeguard against government instability

Some argue that the Monarch's constitutional position (with the little-used power to dissolve or refuse a government) could safeguard against Britain ever becoming a dictatorship; however, Republic has denied claims that the monarchy has this sort of power. Examples of this argument being used often include the 1981 April Fool's Day Coup in Thailand and the El Tejerazo coup in Spain when King Bhumibol and King Juan Carlos I respectively stepped in to restore democracy in their countries.

According to the Democracy Index 2014, seven of the ten most democratic countries in the world are constitutional monarchies.[92]

  • Safeguards the constitutional rights of the individual

The British constitutional system sets limits on Parliament and separates the executive from direct control over the police and courts. Constitutionalists argue[93] that this is because contracts with the monarch such as the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Rights, the Act of Settlement and the Acts of Union place obligations on the state and[94] confirm its citizens as sovereign beings. These obligations are re-affirmed at every monarch's coronation. These obligations, whilst at the same time placing limits on the power of the judiciary and the police, also confirm those rights which are intrinsically part of British and especially English culture.[95] Examples are Common Law, the particular status of ancient practices, jury trials, legal precedent, protection against non-judicial seizure and the right to protest.

  • Provides a focal point for unity and tradition

Monarchists argue that a constitutional monarch with limited powers and non-partisan nature can provide a focus for national unity, national awards and honours, national institutions, and allegiance, as opposed to a president affiliated to a political party.[96]

  • If there were a republic, the costs may remain the same

Some argue that if there were a republic, the costs incured in regards to the duties of the head of state would remain more or less the same. This includes the upkeep and conservation of the royal palaces and buildings which would still have to be paid for as they belong to the nation as a whole rather than the monarch personally. On top of that, the head of state would require a salary and security, state visits, banquets and ceremonial duties would still go ahead. In 2009, the monarchy claimed to be costing each person an estimated 69 pence a year (not including "a hefty security bill").[97][98][99] However, the figure of 69p per person has been criticised for having been calculated by dividing the overall figure by approximately 60 million people, rather than by the number of British taxpayers.[100]

  • A British Republic has already been tested and failed

Even though no modern republicans advocate a republic modelled on Cromwell's Protectorate, some[101] point out that a Republican Commonwealth of England, Ireland and Scotland has already been tried when Oliver Cromwell installed it on 30 January 1649. Yet by February 1657 some people[102] argued that Cromwell should assume the crown as it would stabilise the constitution, limit his powers and restore precedent. Cromwell declined. Within three years of his death the Republic had lost support and the monarchy was restored. Later, during The Glorious Revolution of 1688 caused partially by disillusionment with the absolutist rule of the Scottish James II of England (VII of Scotland), Parliament and others, such as John Locke[103] argued that James had broken "the original contract" with the state. Far from pressing for a republic, which had been experienced within living memory, they instead argued that the best form of government was a constitutional monarchy with explicitly circumscribed powers. (This overlooks a few factors, however – Cromwell's republic was based on the ideals of puritanism and land-based privilege, whilst modern republican advocates have strong links to secularism and expansion of democracy. Cromwell was also not a republican in the strict sense, and opposed groups that were, such as the Levellers. Furthermore, the motivation behind the Glorious Revolution was not public opinion, but the need to overthrow the monarchy without causing a disturbance in public rest, and John Locke himself was a key thinker behind republicanism and an influence on the American revolutionaries.)

See also


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Further reading

  • Bloom, Clive. Restless Revolutionaries : a history of Britain's fight for a Republic. Stroud, Sutton. 2010. ISBN 9780752458564
  • Mahlberg Gaby, and Wiemann Dirk. European Contexts for English Republicanism. Farnham  : Ashgate, 2013. ISBN 9781409455561
  • Nairn, Tom. The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy. London :Verso Books, 2011. ISBN 9781844677757
  • Scott, Jonathan. Commonwealth Principles : Republican Writing of the English revolution. Cambridge, U.K. : Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0521843758.
  • Taylor, Anthony. "Down with The Crown" : British anti-monarchism and debates about royalty since 1790. London : Reaktion Books, 1999. ISBN 1861890494
  • Taylor, Anthony and Nash, David. Republicanism in Victorian Society Stroud : Sutton, 2000. ISBN 075091856X.

External links