By Sunder Katwala
It is the constitutional duty of the head of a republican pressure group to provide a dissenting note during the high days and holidays of Monarchical ceremony.
But if Graham Smith of Republic may have half a point in his call on the mediato ensure the alternative anti-Monarchy view gets a voice he also massively overstates his two central claims, that the Monarchy “is able to co-opt almost the entire media output of this country to its own advantage and a media that is failing to report the true story of a changing public attitude toward royalty and monarchy”. Neither claim stands up to scrutiny of the evidence.
To concede one point, many listeners to the Today programme yesterday, whatever their own views of the Monarchy, might have been struck by just how different in tone the discussion of the Queen’s reign was to everything else on the programme. It does sometimes seems difficult for broadcasters to discuss the Monarchy, and especially the Queen herself, without sounding as though they are broadcasting, with all due deference, from the 1953 Coronation itself.
Still, the Republican claim of a blanket pro-Monarchy media is clearly false. There will, as ever, be plenty of debates about the principle of the Monarchy and whether people still want one. There are four pro-Republic national newspapers in the Guardian, Observer, Independent and Independent on Sunday, making up no less than half of the “broadsheet” press against theTimes and Telegraph titles. (The FT pays little attention to the subject). Since around one in five would scrap the Monarchy, that looks more like over-representation than the opposite. Republicanism is also advocated by two of our political weeklies – the Economist joining the Staggers – against the loyalistSpectator.
What Republicanism lacks is a tabloid voice, beyond the Morning Star. But why is that? Being pro-Monarchy is as much part of the identity of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express as being sceptical of it is to the Guardian. Beyond that, it gets more complicated. Britain’s most powerful Republican is, of course, the Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch. That his newspapers do not express his view must be either a laudable example of editorial freedom or, at least, a sense of which side of the argument will sell more copies of theSun. The Mirror is another disappointment to the cause. Its big name political columnists, like Kevin Maguire and Paul Routledge, make little secret of their own sympathies lying with a democratic means of guillotining the hereditary head of state; that the newspaper’s own editorial line is as traditionalist as that of the Express doubtless reflects research into what the majority of working-class Mirror readers think.
The personal and political turmoil which hit the House of Windsor through the 1990s hardly demonstrated a tame media replicating the self-censorship of the abdication crisis of the 1930s. Pro-monarchy papers hit pretty hard in the battles between the Charles and Diana camps; over Fergie’s troubles; and taking on the government to push for the Monarch to pay taxes after the Windsor fire.
What is most striking is just how little difference all of that made to public attitudes. There is very limited evidence for the “changing public attitude” which Smith says the media is ignoring. Robert Worcester of pollster MORI has more persuasively identified attitudes to the Monarchy as “the most stable measure of public opinion that exists in this country”, remaining remarkably consistent at just under one in five across recent decades.
Support for a Republic was 18 per cent in 1969. It was also 18 per cent in 1993, 19 per cent in 2002, 18 per cent again in 2007 and 18 per cent again in 2011. During the turbulent period of 1993-2002, MORI found support for remaining a monarchy remained within the narrow range of 69 per cent to 74 per cent in favour. The Jubilee polls are very likely to find very similar levels of support. The threat to the monarchy seemed greatest after the death of Diana, though, in fact, when the Monarch was seen to respond to her people with a televised address and flying the Royal Standard at half-past, support for a Republic very briefly halved, for just a month, before returning to its extremely steady state. Attitudes have fluctuated more on other questions – the status quo versus reform; or attitudes towards particular individuals – but remarkably little on the core question of the monarchy itself.
It is not clear how far there is growing indifference to the Monarchy – nor that this would be to the advantage of republicans, who need there to be a reason to bring about change. Jonathan Parry, the Cambridge historian, has written, perhaps counter-intuitively, that there is little evidence that monarchism was so much so fervent in the past, and that it would be as misleading to take reverential newsreel footage as automatically representative of public sentiment as it would be to assume that everybody shares one approach today. He has written that:
“For most of the time since 1750, monarchy has not been very important … It would be misleading to assume that royalty occupied a larger place in people’s thoughts at the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 than at the Queen Mother’s in 2002”.
Indeed, benign indifference might be thought more appropriate to a constrained constitutional Monarchy than excessive flag-waving, except on special occasions. British Future state of the nation polling found a broad appetite for the Jubilee celebrations, with 68 per cent believing that the Jubilee will boost the British national mood, while 7 per cent say it will have a negative impact and 23 per cent say it will make no difference. It is an attitude held by 69 per cent in England and 70 per cent in Wales, and by a majority (55 per cent) in Scotland too. This put the Jubilee narrowly ahead of the Olympics, which 64 per cent believe will have a positive impact, and 11 per cent negative. (An intriguing detail is that the Jubilee has a considerably stronger cross-class appeal in Scotland than the Olympics: 63 per cent of AB respondents, 56 per cent of Scottish C1/C2 respondents and 50% of DE Scots say the Jubilee will have a positive impact. While the Olympics score 61 per cent among AB Scots, this falls to 31% among social group DE in Scotland, where 51 per cent are indifferent to the Games and 13 per cent say they will be negative)
Perhaps, as Graham Smith claims, “any residual affection” will end with the Queen but it sounds like wishful thinking. The end of a reign and the accession of a new Monarch is as likely to be powerful a moment when the Monarchy is as secure as ever.
In the very different world of 1952, contemporary reports suggest a nation taken aback by the scale of its own sense of shock.”The King’s death really has swamped politics”, wrote a somewhat surprised Richard Crossman, New Statesman assistant editor, exactly sixty years ago this week, noting in his diary that even the left-wing magazine’s offices were convulsed by debate over whether the magazine’s front page should carry a black border or not.
Sixty years on, republicans are bound to want to use the Jubilee celebrations to raise their own banner. The monarchy seems as secure in 2012 as it did in 1952 – and indeed somewhat more so than it seemed in 1912, the 1860s or the 1990s.
Republicanism remains, of course, an entirely legitimate democratic project, but its advocates must admit that they are a democratic minority, with a sustained democratic majority for a constitutional monarchy, and has made little apparent effort to understand why most people are not persuaded or to respect the views of those who disagree, tending to portray most people as unthinking drones who have been duped by the propaganda. The challenge for republicans is that, while most people understand the arguments for and against, a majority remain unpersuaded that there would be any significant gain, while many would feel a deep sense of loss at the removal of this living link to British history in order to tidy up the constitution and make the country just a little bit more like everywhere else.
Republicans need to do more than shoot the messenger. There is no evidence that newsworthy republican statements would be ignored. The republican street party during the most recent toyal wedding got a fair hearing, as both a light-hearted addition making the national festivities more inclusive, and as a platform to make a more serious point.
A Jubilee year demonstration of 50,000 people calling for the Queen to abdicate would certainly gain national and international press and TV attention. The republican problem would not be getting the media coverage for such an event, but in persuading anybody to turn up.
This article was first published by the New Statesman. View it here.