“Whereas the liberties of England, its laws, statutes, system of justice and administration, had their beginnings in the Kingdom of Wessex;
Whereas that Kingdom in its heyday was at once the cradle of the English language and culture, and the bastion of freedom against the marauding Danes and Norsemen;
Whereas the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty is directly descended through the female line from the House of Cerdic, by far the longest-ruling of all the Royal dynasties among Her forebears;
Whereas the people of Wessex have always shown unparalleled allegiance to the Crown;
Whereas the loyalty and affection of the people of Wessex towards their homeland have never totally disappeared despite a thousand years of remote and centralised rule;
Be it therefore enacted by the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, as follows:”
Preamble to The Statute of Wessex, our constitutional policy statement from 1982
Some of us are monarchists. Some of us are republicans. We at least agree that we would not now publish anything dripping with the deferential sentiments we expressed 30 years ago. It’s not just that the Monarchy has done nothing to earn our loyalty. It has given our region’s name to an Earl and Countess who still seem unsure whether that was just a joke that got out of hand. The disconnect remains between ceremonial roles that act as no more than a distraction from real political issues and those issues themselves. More of that later. There has been more substantial change too. We would today place less emphasis on the constitutional role of the Monarchy because the kind of Ruskinian, High Tory benevolent paternalism that used to infuse Conservative politics in particular – but was by no means confined there – has now all but expired.
Its apogee was the ‘royal socialism’ of the Attlee Labour government, which deftly converted surplus military servants of the Crown into its civil servants, creating swaths of bureaucracy in which senior officers could discover a new but familiar role. St Edward’s Crown became in due course the universal logo of everything from the Forestry Commission to the National Blood Transfusion Service. The question of how the smaller nations could be reconciled with this soon arose. One of the great debates of the 1950s in Scotland was whether pillar boxes should bear the English or the Scottish crown and whether the royal cypher there should be E II R or just E R. The same decade saw the Welsh flag officially recognised and Cardiff declared the capital of Wales. It saw too the foundation of Mebyon Kernow, advocates of another nation not wishing to be sidelined. The day before, 5th January 1951, historian W. Stuart Best read a paper to the Dorset Natural History & Archæological Society entitled Relations between Wessex and Cornwall in Early Days. With the wartime exploits of the 43rd (Wessex) Division still strong in the memory and post-war conscripts organised under the Wessex Brigade, with the wyvern as its cap badge, it could have been a fertile time for regionalism but regionalism, remember, is tainted with democracy. No post-war government has wanted very much to do with that. Not when it can hide behind the skirts of the royal prerogative.
In the late 1980s, Town & Country Planning, the magazine of the Town & Country Planning Association, ran the headline ‘Regionalism: creeping up the agenda again after all these years’ to accompany a piece by Dr Michael Hebbert. A sketched illustration filled the front page: a sketch of a putative Cornwall-Wessex border post. On the Cornish side, a bearded border guard with a peaked cap on his head and a rifle slung over his shoulder stands beneath a fluttering flag of St Piran. On the other side, eastbound travellers are welcomed by a sign bearing the wyvern and the words ‘H.M. Government of Wessex’. Someone had great fun drawing that.
The problem for all those who wish to see meaningful regions in England is what lies either side of these episodes. The 1950s did not lead to a self-governing Wessex region in the 1960s. Nor did the 1980s bring forth anything relevant in the late 1990s. The romantic idealism of the lean Conservative years is always translated by a returning Labour government into an obese caricature, a regionalism heavy on bureaucracy, desperately thin on real democracy, and based on compass-point boundaries that seem deliberately drawn to thwart the emergence of any credible regional identity. They keep on doing it because their intellectual tradition lacks the moral imagination to be capable of anything else. Regionalism is creeping up again in Miliband’s New New Labour and from its past failures that party has learned precisely nothing.
Those who have heard Tony Benn speak will know how much he values the idea of Parliament as scrutineer of the executive. For Benn, as for so much of the fossilised Labour brain, politics is stuck in the 1640s. The great divide is between the Crown and its Ministers and the critical voice of a free Commons. We are all still Cavaliers and Roundheads, in varying proportions. Well, not all of us. Some of us have enough of the spirit of the Clubmen to question why it should matter so much who controls the destiny of the centralised state. And why we need it anyway.
One reason why republicanism has a strictly limited following in Britain is the Cromwellian legacy. Yes, Cromwell gave Britain its first written constitution – the Instrument of Government – and its second – the Humble Petition and Advice – but it was not a Britain we would enjoy living in. Many of the ideas that ultimately came to be associated with the London regime in its most centralised form were first trialled in that era. It was Britain’s first unitary state – the Scottish and Irish Parliaments were abolished for its duration. Local government had first come under the control of committees of MPs and ultimately Major-Generals were appointed to oversee regions remarkably reminiscent of the Prescott zones. Cromwell was no Leveller and he knew who his paymasters were. The City of London’s finest were among those who benefited from the sale of Church, Crown and Duchy lands.
If Cromwell’s legacy was to provoke the reaction that sped the Restoration, it has also defined subsequent nostalgia for a kingless society. Mainstream republican discourse in Britain always imagines the substitution of an elected British figurehead for the hereditary one. And nothing more besides. Any other reforms that are taken for granted to be part of the package – because they provide the real justification for change – turn out upon examination to have no necessary connection to the monarchy/republic issue, while others that can reasonably be said to be intimately connected are ignored. It’s the usual tale, told by a whiny Islington idiot with a one-dimensional view of our history.
The United Kingdom is assumed to morph effortlessly into the United Republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The issues of nationhood that a monarchy can to some extent dampen down are assumed to be unimportant, as indeed they are when viewed from London. No doubt the national question seemed equally irrelevant when viewed from Vienna in 1918. The Republic will inherit the centralising work of the Monarchy intact. Dream on.
There are places where the transition from monarchy to republic has indeed maintained central control, and increased it, France being the textbook example. The terrors of transition may even have provoked that increase, in order to maintain a vice-like grip on provincial forces of reaction. The absurd mechanicalism of the French Republic however, as Jonathan Meades has perceptively pointed out, is a cult rather than a coherent philosophy, a Parisian salon conspiracy imposed upon a country still reluctant to join in. British republicanism would be much the same, if – and it’s a big IF – it actually had a republican conception of Britain as a place. Getting rid of the monarchy in order to strengthen a sense of Britishness is a delusion that fools no-one but those who cling to it.
What British republicanism is actually about is a sense of entitlement concealing an otherwise naked lust for power. Those who are not born into privilege should have an equal right to take the top job, to be Mr or Ms Britain PLC, to travel the globe, to shake hands with the natives, and to review the military might of Bloody Britannia. And for an elected head of state there might even be a lucrative lecture tour added on.
Just why is it that we have a head of state? So many presidential systems unthinkingly displace the monarch’s person while retaining the role. The President does all the things a monarch would do, even down to inviting a leading politician to form a government. Does the politician kneel and kiss the President’s hands too? The Swiss manage well enough without a head of state. Their federal cabinet members take it in turns to be President for one year. And when a foreign dignitary lands on Swiss soil, all seven of them line up to say hello. Collegiate government is the real alternative to the system of l’Etat, c’est moi or führerprinzip that generally prevails in monarchies and republics alike. We don’t need elected leaders if we can learn to live without leaders at all.
One fascinating compromise is the idea of a monarchy without a monarch: perpetual vacancy. Hungary has tried this a number of ways, all deriving from its unique idea that sovereignty resides not in the person who wears the crown but in the crown that the person wears, the Holy Crown of St Stephen, which no monarch has worn since 1916. Poland had a slightly similar doctrine and there are lesser parallels in Czech and Spanish practice. In England, the last lawfully crowned king died in 1066. In perpetual vacancy, the cost of having a monarchy is avoided but so is the cost of converting all past legislation to republican language. Courts, for example, can continue to be held in the name of the Crown, as the symbol of the nation. A crown does not have to be headgear: being a circle it can just as well represent unity and equality, like King Arthur’s Round Table. Such thoughts, however, are unnecessary in contemporary circumstances. Britain/England is not likely to become a republic of any kind any time soon. And it would take a royal foot put very badly wrong indeed to change that.
Our policy has evolved step by step. We recognise that there is no barrier to having a federal monarchy: Australia and Canada provide two common-law examples. We also recognise that vesting sovereignty in a sovereign is the precise opposite of our vision of grass-roots democracy. Whatever ceremonial role the Monarchy may play in our future, it cannot be allowed to define our actual political status. We are not subjects, to be accused of ‘treason’ if we dare speak our minds. We are… well, not citizens either. That’s the metropolitan, Roman, Jacobin view, blood forever running in the streets. We are members of society, rural as well as urban. The Monarchy, if it survives, must exist on terms with which we are comfortable. Today, we exist on the Monarchy’s terms and that must change.
Last year, we adopted a policy on regional control of resources. The Crown Estate in Wessex, including revenues from seabed resources such as sites for offshore wind farms, should come under regional control as part of the Wessex common wealth. Many of these assets, especially those on land, could be passed on to even more local control. Revenues generated from our labour or from the use of our environment should not be drawn away for the free benefit of those in London, whether they wear a crown or not. Mainstream republicans don’t mind the money going to London – it’s all the more for Islington to play with – and that is how they have proved themselves irrelevant to our cause. The way forward, we suggest, is not to attack individuals or institutions as such but to follow the money and demand it back.