Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On republicanism

Tom Nairn has a review of Stephen Frears's drama about the Queen over at openDemocracy. I'm technically a republican but wonder sometimes when confronted with the likes of Nairn. For example, he compares the British monarchy to republican Ireland thus:
"One need only look across to Ireland and observe how the population of a republic enjoys voting for a symbolic president. And in a way, that's what the enormous mourning crowds were doing in 1997, and why they had to be stopped: they were as good as "voting" with feet and flowers for something hopefully better, more humane, sweeter and more meaningful.

But shortly thereafter, in 2001 and 2005, about half of them wouldn't bother to vote at all, for anything on offer from the post-funereal, living-dead regime. They were not to be allowed a Mary Robinson, or a President Mary McAleese. Like an elected second chamber, a president might have interfered with the preserved and sacred essence: prime-ministerial and party authority, the old pantomime that has "served us so well"."
Where to begin? You'd think to hold the idea that the 'Queen of Hearts' tabloid cult of celebrity, replete with public appearances to the strains of Chris De Burgh, represented something more meaningful than the British monarchy might be something he'd be too embarrassed to admit to now. But this isn't the substantive issue. Rather, amongst the problems I have with the republicanism of people like Nairn, Hitchens and his imitator Johann Hari is the complete lack of historical context.

For example, can anyone think of a monarchy becoming a republic without a regime-change? Because the examples that are so frequently cited - Ireland, the United States, France and Germany - obviously did. Now, in many ways I envy republican France and America - but that 18th century window has closed and I'm not sure other examples, or even these, provide a particularly good template. Germany is a republic - but does anyone envy their path to modernity? And I'm not sure I'm not glad we didn't share anything like the experience of the French or the Irish - and the American example isn't applicable for obvious reasons.

And don't they recall that Britain had a brief history of being a republic itself? Hitchens, for one, is too intelligent to ignore this but beyond an amusing if obvious remark about having sympathy with Cromwell's abolition of Christmas, I don't recall him ever having anything particularly sensible to say about this historical episode, nor the impact that this might have on people's consciousness to this day.

Finally, one can't help noticing that when the supposedly moribund British monarchial state is compared unfavourably to the dynamism of other examples, the choice of republics is rather selective, to say the least. What, for example, has Tom Nairn to say about republican China, or the USSR, or those states in Latin America or the Middle East?

Not a lot - he's too busy watching telly and humming 'Candle in the Wind', it seems. I wish the advocates of republicanism would make better arguments because as it stands I'm often rather embarrassed to be associated with this particular political disposition.

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