Restoration or Republicanism


“Jeremy Corbyn is taking Labour back to the 1640s” claims historian, David Horspool, reviewing John Rees’s book on the ‘Leveller Revolution’ for the Spectator. He says “Jeremy Corbyn will probably enjoy this book” because John Lilburne, leader of the Levellers, is an historical figure Corbyn most admired. (1). The Levellers had a “radical democratising politics” which “sporadically appeared on the agenda of the left”.


Horspool says the Levellers stand out because “unlike later other groupings, be they Tory, Whig or Labour, the Levellers cannot in any real sense be said to have been reborn as something else.....even if some of their ideas....long outlived them”. (2). The Levellers were defeated and suppressed. Their democratic republican ideas were buried. England has produced no republican party ever since.


Those who survived the defeat of the Levellers and later generations of radicals, referred to Leveller views on republicanism and freedom of worship as the ‘Good Old Cause’. Horspool claims that whether this is a “Bennite reincarnation or yet another roll of the Marxist-Leninist dice, it is the ‘Good Old Cause’ that Corbynism represents”. (3) Appealing though this might be, it is a theory that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Perhaps we need a different historical reference.




On 23 May 1660 Charles Stuart boarded the battleship, Naseby, in Holland. The ship was immediately renamed Royal Charles before sailing for Dover. England’s republic, the Commonwealth, came to an end. The restoration was completed when Charles II was crowned on 23 April 1661. (4) . The restoration returned the aristocracy to its former position. The House of Lords was re-established and the Church of England reinstated and a new standing army set up.


The Stuart Restoration (1660 to 1688) was a reactionary period taking back state power from the Commonwealth, or ‘Interregnum’ as royalists call it, edging its way back to royal absolutism. “The Restoration put the clock half back in a thoroughly English spirit of muddled compromise”. (5). Freedom for religion and the freedom of the popular press were soon restricted by a series of draconian Licensing Acts and the Treason Act.


Political change went hand in hand with a redistribution of wealth from the state. The Restoration handed back Church and Crown lands but without their previous feudal obligations. (6). The aristocracy could now hold their land as freehold. As Marx said “they vindicated for themselves the rights of modern private property in estates to which they had only a feudal title”.(7). It was a kind of privatisation.


The 1980s the Tories embarked on a ‘Great Restoration’ of public assets to private interests of the financial aristocracy in the City of London. The ‘Thatcher revolution’ as it was known transformed the UK by privatisation, market deregulation and anti-union laws. By the 1990s the Tories’ big fear was that Labour would reverse her policies and restore ‘socialism’. In 2002 Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievements - “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds”. (8). There would be no restoration.


In 2013 Blair confirmed the importance of Thatcher’s legacy when New Labour won in 1997. “I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she (Thatcher) had done” (9). Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of New Labour, confirmed that without Thatcher defeating the unions, Labour would never have been able to ‘reform’ employment laws or privatise utilities.


Restoration or Republicanism


The British socialist movement was greatly influenced by the Russian revolution (1917-21) and the Stalinist counter-revolution. The Communist Party (CPGB) became influential in the trade unions and the Labour Party, not least through the ideas in their 1950 programme of a ‘British Road to Socialism’ as a ‘Marxist’ theory of ‘social monarchy’. This was the basis of what would be “Broad Left” politics.


The decade 1984-94 saw the defeat of the trade union and socialist movement and the collapse and break-up of the USSR and the liquidation of the CPGB. New Labour grew out of these practical and ideological changes. New Labour sought to eradicate socialist ideas and trade union influence within the party. Defenders of the old ideas became known as ‘Old Labour’ who wanted to restore the social monarchy with its mixed economy and welfare state.


New Labour followed Thatcher by taking the UK back before 1945, taking Labour back before 1918 to nineteenth century free market social liberalism. ‘Old Labour’ was now disoriented and in decline and pushed to the fringe of the Labour Party. This crisis saw two strategic answers emerging, if at first hesitantly, in the guise of ‘republican socialism’ and ‘socialist Labour’.


This strategic dilemma can be identified with the two main leaders of the Labour left during the 1980s - Arthur Scargill, the President of the National Union of Miners during the 1984-5 miners strike, and Tony Benn MP who had nearly become deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981. Scargill and Benn opposed Thatcher’s neo-liberalism and supported the miners during their historic strike. Neither were royalists, both formally supporting the abolition of monarchy.


The token anti-monarchism of the British left does not constitute republicanism. Benn was about to change direction on programme but not party. He would remain in the Labour Party and develop republican ideas. Scargill would do the opposite and leave the Labour Party and defend the traditional social monarchist politics of Old Labour. Can the ‘spirit of forty-five’ be rekindled and the neo-liberal revolution reversed or must the UK be replaced by a republican Commonwealth? Their differences over programme, strategy and the kind of party needed remain relevant issues today.


Benn’s republican socialism


The Labour Party is not and has never been a republican socialist party. The first and last time the Labour Party discussed the monarchy was in 1923 when a conference resolution stated that ‘the royal Family is no longer necessary as part of the British constitution”. It was moved by a delegate from the Stockton and Thornaby Labour Party and seconded by a delegate from the Shoreditch Trade Council. (10)


The vote was lost by 3,694,000 to 386,000. George Lansbury, a left radical socialist Labour MP opposed the resolution from left with the Whig slogan “what is the use of bothering about this just now”? (11). The Labour right are openly royalist and deferential. The Labour left say “not now” so we can we can concentrate on social reforms - the politics of social monarchism.


Tony Benn was unique among the 1980s Labour left in recognising the need for a constitutional break with 1688. In 1991 he put forward his ‘Commonwealth of Britain Bill’ in parliament setting out a written constitution for a British federal republic. Jeremy Corbyn seconded the proposal. In 1994 Corbyn demanded a vote on abolishing the monarchy saying “A referendum on scrapping the monarchy should be in the next manifesto, it would be very popular”. (12).


Benn’s proposal was to establish through the Westminster parliament a new constitution for a democratic, secular federal Commonwealth comprising the nations of England, Scotland and Wales. The Crown and Privy Council would be abolished and the royal prerogative powers transferred to parliament. The Church of England would be disestablished.


The head of state would be elected by a joint sitting of parliament. There would be parliaments for each of the three nations. Britain would end its link with Northern Ireland. The House of Lords would be elected as a House of the People. The Commons would have equal male and female representation and county court judges and magistrates would be elected.


In 1996 Corbyn challenged the speaker of the Commons over the right to debate “the future of the monarchy”. (13). On 1st July 1996 an early day motion 1075 was tabled in the Commons by Tony Benn supported by Jeremy Corbyn and four other Labour MPs to establish a democratic and secular Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Wales.


The movers believed “that this House and the people must find time to discuss and decide upon proposals for fundamental democratic reforms in the constitution in order to prepare Britain for its future in the next century”. (14). This was Benn’s last attempt at a parliamentary road to a republic and was at the time when Arthur Scargill was about to leave the Labour Party.


This was a heroic effort by one of the most far sighted left wing socialists. By the 1990s Benn was still by far the most important political leader of the left. But in the parliamentary Labour Party, he was an isolated figure on the margins. In a royalist or loyal House of Commons he had very little support for his proposal. For many, his republicanism was just one more sign of his irrelevance.


Benn’s republican Bill was a rational democratic reform introduced through parliament under the existing constitution. It would be, nevertheless, to a political and constitutional revolution, an historic break ending the constitution of the ‘Crown-In-Parliament’ established by the Glorious Revolution (1688-1707). More than two decades later these “fundamental democratic reforms” are no nearer being achieved. Tony Benn passed away but his main support Jeremy Corbyn is now leader of the Labour Party.


Scargill’s socialist Labour


In October 1995 Tony Blair defeated the last attempts to restore Labour’s clause IV commitment to public ownership. Scargill announced he was leaving the Labour Party. He launched a new party in May 1996. Four hundred gathered at Camden Town Hall including leading trade unionists like Bob Crow, Mick Rix, Joe Marino and the labour lawyer John Hendy to launch the Socialist Labour Party.


The Socialist Labour Party (1996) had an immediate programme of reforms and a long term aim of replacing capitalism. The “programme for Britain” laid out a plan to reverse the decline of manufacturing, and the destruction of coal mines, steel plants, ship yards and the rail industry. The NHS would be reconstructed. There would be a national house building plan, decent pensions for all, a national investment fund and full employment etc. In 1997 the Socialist Labour Party stood 64 candidates.


It is perhaps no coincidence that Arthur Scargill, who had led the miners’ heroic resistance to Thatcher and the Tory state, was the first to set up a new party, a socialist-Labour party, with a programme of restoring the social monarchy. The aim was to build a militant party with Old Labour ideas and values. Although the Socialist Labour Party failed, it was the pioneer of a series of attempts to build new socialist-Labour parties to restore ‘socialism’. The ‘spirit of 45’ did not die.


Subsequently the SLP was followed a new redesigned Socialist Alliance (2000), then Respect (2005), the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (2010) and finally Left Unity in 2013. The Scottish Socialist Party played a similar role north of the border but took up the issue of the Scottish constitution. In England and Wales these various parties included Dave Nellist, George Galloway, John Rees, Ken Loach and trade union leaders such as Scargill and Bob Crow.


These parties organised those who believed that working class struggle could not be carried on effectively within and by the Labour Party. It had to be conducted openly and publicly through the political opportunities presented by parliamentary elections. This meant organising and building independently from New Labour. Each of these parties was different. Yet they shared in common a desire to restore the politics of Old Labour or ‘social monarchy’.


Restoring the social monarchy on a British road to socialism was no abstract theory. It was a practical and widely understood form of populism. These new parties promised to build more council houses, nationalise the railways, water and energy suppliers, save the NHS by investing in health and social care, raise the minimum wages and end the anti-union laws etc. They opposed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nuclear weapons, Trident and NATO.


In the whole epoch from 1996 to 2015 only one MP was ever elected to parliament. It is easy to dismiss these parties as a wasted exercise in time and money. But they kept alive the idea that the social monarchy could be restored. When Thatcher and Blair said there is no alternative, these parties kept up vocal public opposition. By fighting New Labour they helped secure the eventual election of Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party.


Trotskyist restoration


Like Scargill and Benn, the Trotskyist groups such as the Socialist Party, SWP, Socialist Resistance, CPGB, and Workers Power etc. defended the post war social gains made by the working class. But they proposed a workers revolution, like October 1917 in Russia. In opposing New Labour they began to seek political unity with the ex-Labour left. They adapted to Old Labour’s social monarchist politics as the means of achieving left unity.


The SWP, for example, did not want to stand working class candidates under its own programme and party name, but saw the chance for an Old Labour populist electoral appeal. This began with the Socialist Alliance standing candidates in the 2001 election. It continued in 2005 with Respect and in 2010 with the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition.


In standing parliamentary candidates, the Trotskyists did not think outside the social monarchy box. They not consider radical democratic change beyond the liberal demand for proportional representation. It was not that any of these groups were pro-monarchists. They were all against hereditary privileges which would have no place under socialism. This was so obvious there was no need to mention it.


Replacing the constitutional monarchy with a democratic and social republic, which Benn proposed, would be a diversion or irrelevant. So when Trotskyist groups abandoned ‘revolution’ for ‘reform’, they naturally thought of economic and social reforms not revolutionary democratic ones. When they abandoned their ultra ‘revolutionism’ they became unthinking ‘reformists’ demanding ‘more houses’ ‘better health care’ and ‘taxing the rich’.


Each attempt to establish a ‘socialist-Labour’ party was greeted by a wave of left wing optimism before ending in failure. The Socialist Alliance was abandoned by the Socialist Party and the SWP. The Iraq war shifted opinion against New Labour and brought George Galloway MP to prominence. The Respect moulded Old Labour politics with the personality of Galloway. The Socialist Party launched the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition in conjunction with Bob Crow and leading members of the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union.


In 2013 Ken Loach made a unity appeal between Old Labour and Trotskyists and Left Unity was launched in the ‘spirit of 45’. Unlike the TUSC this initiative adopted a democratic model of organisation which enabled groups to join with freedom for tendencies. Socialist Resistance, CPGB and Workers Power signed up. LU began with high hopes and great expectations that it would succeed where the others had failed. Two years later Corbyn became Labour leader and reclaimed the ‘spirit of 45’.


Corbyn and republicanism


When Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party it opened a contradiction between his republicanism and the fact that Labour is not a republican party. In 2015 the Telegraph noted the change of attitude from his Bennite days in the 1990s. Now he has “attempted to play down his republicanism saying that abolishing the monarchy is not a priority”. (15).


Saying fundamental democratic reforms are “not a priority” is a diplomatic way of saying “never in a month of Sundays”. Corbyn told the New Statesman “Listen, I am at heart, as you very well know, a republican. But it is not a fight I am going to fight: it’s not a fight I am interested in. I am much more interested in rebalancing our society, dealing with problems, protecting the environment”. (16)


Jack Conrad, writing in Weekly Worker says “while Corbyn advocates many eminently supportable demands, there is an acceptance of the existing constitutional order. Corbyn calls himself a republican, but does not consider the abolition of the monarchy a priority. (17). The Mirror confirmed this saying that “Jeremy Corbyn’s real views on the Queen aren’t as radical as you think.” (18)


The right wing Tory press approached the question from the opposite side. For them Corbyn is a rabid republican who can’t be trusted. To prove the point the Daily Star unearthed quotes from 2001 when Corbyn said that after the Queen had completed her reign then it would be an appropriate time “to call it a day and have an elected head of state.” (19). Sixteen year later the Queen has not ‘called it a day’.


As Labour leader Corbyn has thrown in his republican towel. He rejected suggestions that he would abolish the monarchy saying “It’s not on anybody’s agenda; it is certainly not on my agenda and, do you know what, I had a very nice chat with the Queen”. (20). On questioning by Jeremy Paxman he said “I believe in a democracy and we live in a democracy. We have a titular head of state as the monarch but without political power.” (21).


Privy Council


On 15 September 2015 the Telegraph was pleased to inform its readers that Jeremy Corbyn was to join the Queen’s Privy Council. In November a court circular from Buckingham Palace stated that “Jeremy Corbyn was, by Her Majesty’s command, admitted, on affirmation, as a member of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council and took his place at the Board accordingly” (22)


The Privy Council is a six hundred and fifty strong body which advises the monarch and authorises executive instruments known as orders in council. It stands alongside the Commons and Lords as bodies representing three different interests in the constitution - monarchy, landed aristocracy and people. Yet its role in government is hardly recognised. Like the secret service, we may know it exists but we are not sure what it is getting up to.


“The Privy Council is an undemocratic feudal club” says Tony Benn, describing the “magic circle of the Privy Council” as the means of securing ‘national’ consensus among the political class. In public the Tory and Labour leaders play the ‘democratic’ game. The Crown uses the Privy Council Crown to maintain “close relations between the government of the day and opposition leaders” behind the scenes. (23)


The Privy Council functions around its oath of loyalty and secrecy. “You do swear by Almighty God to be a true and faithful Servant unto the Queen's Majesty as one of Her Majesty's Privy Council” and “in all things to be moved, treated and debated in Council, faithfully and truly declare your Mind and Opinion, according to your Heart and Conscience; and will keep secret all matters committed and revealed unto you, or that shall be treated of secretly in Council”.


Tony Benn explained the significance of a constitution supported by a network of legally enforceable oaths of loyalty to the Crown sworn by MPs, privy councillors, civil servants, and armed forces. (24). By joining the Privy Council and receiving its oath, Jeremy Corbyn joined and was accepted into the political establishment. It was his rite of passage from left wing rebel to a ‘serious’ politician leading Her Majesty’s Opposition.


Benn says “There is in this system an element of the conspiracy by the governing class against the governed which has serious implications for freedom of information and makes an unhealthy consensus on some issues.” (25). It is vital for those in power, especially in time of war or economic and political crises that rival politicians present a common front to the people. There can be no alternative.


End of an epoch


In 1640 royal government consisted of three representative bodies advising the king - the Privy Council, the Houses of Lords and Commons. In 1649 the newly proclaimed Commonwealth took a revolutionary decision to abolish the monarchy, Privy Council and Lords. All were restored by Charles II after he returned in 1660 and incorporated into the constitutional arrangements of the Glorious revolution.


Today radical politics can be traced back to the republican Levellers (1649) and the liberal Whigs (1688), between a social republic and a social monarchy, between constitutional revolution and constitutional reform. Tony Benn stood on the Leveller side of that divide and the Labour Party stands on Whig-liberal tradition. He died in March 2014 without any idea that his main ally, Jeremy Corbyn, would soon become Labour leader.


The election of Corbyn as Labour leader marks the beginning of the end of an epoch (1996-2016) in socialist politics in which New Labour controlled the Party and a section of the Labour left joined with various Trotskyist groups to set up independent socialist-Labour parties – the SLP, Socialist Alliance, Respect, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition and Left Unity. Jeremy Corbyn restored hope in Labour, reclaimed the ‘spirit of 45’ and pulled the rug from under the feet of all the socialist-Labour parties.


In 2015 George Galloway said if Corbyn was elected he would rejoin the party “pretty damn quick”. He became a vocal supporter of the Labour Party under Corbyn. (26). Respect was deregistered on 18 August 2016 and ceased to be a party. Neither TUSC nor Left Unity stood any candidates in 2017 and supported the Corbyn campaign. For all ‘restorationist’ parties standing candidates outside Labour the time was up.


Tony Benn was right to say “I think that democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world”. Yet despite this, his republican programme had something missing. Republican aims need the means to achieve. The absence of a republican party remains the fatal flaw.


9 December 2018



  • (1) David Horspool, Spectator 7 January 2017
  • (2) David Horspool, Spectator 7 January 2017
  • (3) David Horspool, Spectator 7 January 2017
  • (4) A history of Britain 1603-1776 The British Wars Simon Schama BBC 2001 P207.
  • (5) A history of the English people - Paul Johnson Weidenfeld Paperback 1985 p214.
  • (6) A people history of England A.L. Morton Left Book Club London 1938 P266
  • (7) A people history of England A.L. Morton Left Book Club London 1938 P266
  • (8) Conservative Home 11 April 2008 Conor Burns
  • (9) BBC News 8 April 2013.
  • (10) Mike Davis Chartist 22 March 2014
  • (11) Mike Davis Chartist 22 March 2014
  • (12) Telegraph 15 September 2015
  • (13) Telegraph 15 September 2015
  • (14)
  • (15) Telegraph 15 September 2015
  • (16) Mirror 16 September 2015
  • (17) Weekly Worker 6 August 2015
  • (18) Mirror 16 September 2015
  • (19) Daily Star 5 July 2017
  • (20) Independent 29 May 2017
  • (21) Guardian Sparrow 30 May 2017
  • (22) BBC news 12 November 2015
  • (23) Common Sense A new constitution for Britain. Benn and Hood p56
  • (24) Benn and Hood ‘Common Sense a new constitution for Britain’ p42
  • (25) Common Sense - A new constitution for Britain. Benn and Hood p56
  • (26) Independent Siobhan Fenton 21 August 2016.



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