What’s a republic for?

It is one of the basic tenets of the left that we want to see the establishment of republic whether it be a British or Scottish level. Yet what do we mean by a republic? Is it simply the absence of monarchy or the vision of a more radical society? In this sense, the argument has never been simply about abolition. In the British context, it has been tied to a package of reforms including the scrapping of the Lords, electoral reform and reform of the role of Prime Minister. In fact, constitutionally, the Prime Minister acts as a kind of elected dictator with similar powers once held by monarchs. The British political system grew out of an older aristocratic order and retains many of the features of that order – not just the stomach churning ceremony but the defence of wealth and privilege.

The first priority of our political system is to defend the status quo and the interests of Britain’s ruling class. It is the reason Britain’s ruling establishment has fought against every meaningful democratic reform. From the extension of the franchise to working class men then women and the establishment of basic civil rights, these have been won through struggle in the face of vociferous opposition. Concessions have only been made when deemed inevitable and with the fear that further resistance would lead to even more radical demands. Part of the mythology of our political system was that the road to democracy began with William and Mary and the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As the late Marxist historian, A.L Morton in his History of the English Working Class; noted: ‘the Glorious Revolution actually brought in a Whig dictatorship that tyrannised the British people for the next 150 years’. It was only through mass struggle in the nineteenth and early twentieth century that brought about meaningful change. Today, radical political reform means profound changes to this post-feudal system cutting at the heart of wealth and privilege and the structures and culture which underpin it. The removal of the monarchy, welcome in itself, is only part of this process.  

In Scotland, the argument for a republic is completely entwined with the case for independence. The official SNP position is that an independent Scotland would retain the Queen as head of state just like other members of the Commonwealth. One suspects it’s a position not supported by the majority of SNP members and supporters who see it as a tactical stance to be sorted out after independence. In England, it is clear that a solid majority support the monarchy. In part this is due to carefully crafted affection towards the current queen who embraces a ‘cult of the personality’. In Scotland, things are very different. Support for the monarchy has increasingly become a minority pursuit with most people either actively opposed or completely indifferent. Evidence of this can be seen in the level of public support for occasions such as royal weddings.

The discussion around retaining the monarchy in Scotland is actually a wider discussion about the nature of the political system post-independence. In some ways, this is a clearer discussion than for Britain as the basis for the new political system is already in place in the form of existing Scottish Parliament. Scotland does not have an unelected second chamber and already has a form of proportional representation. Apart from the oath to the queen taken by MSPs, it does not have the aristocratic baggage of Westminster. In an independent Scottish republic with an elected head of state, the issue will be whether the post is largely ceremonial or carries major executive powers.

We would all become citizens of Scotland rather than subjects of the crown. This opens up a discussion on citizenship in an independent Scotland. Who would qualify for citizenship? Citizenship is essentially an address so if someone is living in Scotland on a permanent or semi-permanent basis they should be automatically granted citizenship.

The idea of a republic is as much philosophical as political; involving a broad range of progressive ideas. Equality, freedom, democracy, civil rights, secularism and the rule of law have all been associated with the republican ideal. The idea that a modern, democratic and independent Scotland should not be a republic is plainly ridiculous. So, how to proceed?

In the last referendum in 2014, the issue of the monarchy was taken out of the equation on largely tactical grounds. It is likely to be so again in the next referendum. However, if there is a ‘yes’ vote next time and Scotland becomes an independent country, the issue cannot be dodged. A decision will have to be taken. This can either be through a simple vote of parliament or another referendum.

There are advantages and disadvantages with both. If the proposal is to abolish the monarchy as part of wider proposals to reform the political system then this should be through a vote in parliament. Some will argue that it needs the popular mandate that a referendum would bring although at no time in our history were the Scottish people ever given a vote on whether they wanted a monarchy. It was simply imposed. However, the advantage with a referendum is that it would open up a wide ranging public debate about Scotland’s future political system.

Bill Bonnar is a member of the editorial committee of the Scottish Left Review