Saturday, 14 May 2011

Keith Flett on Monarchy and Old Corruption

From London Socialist Historian Group Newsletter #42 (Summer 2011)
The historian Antony Taylor makes the point that while a tradition of republicanism in Britain, whether defined on the left or the right, is difficult to pin down and mostly a minority trend, sentiments of antimonarchism have often been popular and sometimes part of the political mainstream.

We need only think back to the death of Princess Diana in 1997 to see all of these trends very much in the modern political mix. Historically Britain—or more strictly given the date, England—can claim to have been first in the antimonarchy stakes. It was in Whitehall on 30 January 1649 that King Charles I had his head cut off and a Commonwealth under Cromwell was created. It lasted only to the Restoration in 1660, and the work of modernisation had several more turning points, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to something which almost was a revolution, the 1832 Great Reform Act.

It is difficult to sustain an argument that a genuine anti-monarchist tradition can be directly traced back to 1649, although if one looks at the efforts to ignore or play down the history of Cromwell and the New Model Army in many places in England—particularly churches and castles—it is obvious that the ruling class have never quite forgotten the significance of that day. Its equivalent in France is a national holiday. Not here.

Anti-monarchism was certainly alive in the early nineteenth century with the Queen Caroline affair (when a parliamentary enquiry into the queen’s conduct, instigated by the king in hopes of getting rid of her, unleashed a popular scandal), and the wider tradition of republicanism was given a huge boost by the revolutions of 1848 across Europe. It was this that sparked the left Chartist leader George Julian Harney to start his Red Republican journal, its title, one suspects, deliberately aimed at provoking the authorities who had concerns about how many such red republican refugees had made their way to then-liberal England in the
aftermath of the defeat of the 1848 revolutions.

As Taylor argues, the antimonarchist tradition was something a little bit different, (in modern terms perhaps more reformist than revolutionary) and he makes the point that while it is often difficult historically to find a coherent and unified republican tradition—there was not agreement on what such a republic would look like—the antimonarchist movement is better defined and more popular.

In the anti-monarchist mind it was not the principle of a monarchy as such that was the problem but the behaviour of individual monarchs, how much they cost, and the whole aristocratic edifice of wealth and privilege that went with them. In other words, it was less an overt programme for political change and more a class movement, seeing the monarchy as a symbol of an unequal and divided society.

Popular critique of monarchy was an extension of the hatred of a society based on patronage and favour, the very real practice of Old Corruption. As a mobilising political programme, this had real strength long after the 1832 Reform Act and arguably up to the reform of the House of Lords in 1911.

A focus on opposition to the aristocracy, including in practice the monarchy, united Fabian socialists and popular Liberals. Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, the popular mass circulation radical working-class paper of the second half of the nineteenth century—it sold 350,000 copies a week in the 1870s—had anti-monarchism and stories relating to scandals about the royals as a cornerstone of both its editorial policy and its success in attracting a huge readership.Papers more directly associated with the Labour tradition as the century drew to a close were still more audacious and politically direct. The Clarion published, and gloried in, lists of aristocrats injured in hunting accidents.

The Land and Labour League of the early 1870s was one attempt to draw together the strands of popular radicalism—land nationalisation and republicanism—on the left, but we should also be aware of the countervailing tradition in the working class, the Tory one of ‘Beer and Britannia’, which also had a degree of popular support.

Keith Flett

LSHG Seminar Reminder
Monday 16th May 5.30pm [Pollard Room, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House London]
Republicanism & anti-monarchism.
David Renton 'Horatio Bottomley: from republican to conservative';
Keith Flett ‘The anti-monarchist tradition in England’

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