Republicanism in the Labour Party is the ‘dog that doesn’t bark’ argues Kenneth Morgan, with reference to Sherlock Holmes who deduced from the absence of a fact who carried out the crime. Today the Labour Left Alliance may be the ‘mad’ dog of Starmer’s Labour, but only if it starts barking. A good starting for anybody trying to learn the appropriate canine noises would be Tony Benn.
In the forward to ‘Common Sense’ Tony Benn (with Andrew Hood) in 1993 asks what is the nature of Britain – a constitutional monarchy – He says “there is now a rapidly growing cynicism about these ‘great’ institutions – the Crown, Parliament and the civil service, the mass media and the financial establishment…The public confidence on which their authority has hitherto rested has been thoroughly shaken”.
“This cynicism is dangerous because it breeds arrogance on the part of those who govern without popular consent and defeatism and demoralisation in those whom the government and its agencies ignore. Such an atmosphere of defeatism could easily prepare the way for a very unpleasant authoritarianism in which demagogues seek to fill the moral vacuum with appeals to sweep away the apparatus of this ‘decadent democracy’”.
Hence he concludes “The time has come to refound our public institutions upon principles of the common weal, democracy and an internationalism more in tune with the needs of the 21st century”. He sums up his proposals as follows; “the most important change in law and practice would be that every Briton would become a citizen of a democratic federal and secular commonwealth dedicated to the welfare of all and with fundamental human rights enshrined in a charter dealing with political, legal, social and economic dimensions.”
The LLA is debating and deciding its programme for the coming period. There are two versions on offer. Both aim for some future of socialism or communism, but the major decision is which path are we going to take to get there? We have Version 1 about rebuilding the 1945 social monarchy, which Corbyn lifted from obscurity, and version 2 to fight for a democratic social republic.
There are problems with both of them. Neither may be the best versions of the strategic and tactical road they are trying to represent. But we shouldn’t let the detail get in the way of choosing one broad path or another. The republican road has Keir Hardy, Tony Benn, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on it. If we take the social monarchist road then we have the ‘success’ achieved by Ramsey McDonald, Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, and James Callaghan. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown abandoned the social but not the monarchy.
I don’t think that those who want to continue on the social monarchist road, which Corbyn revived, are monarchists who love royalty. Far from it. I don’t think they would have to leave the LLA on some point of principled support for the Crown. It is just that they may think Labour’s Faustian Pact with the ruling class, whereby the ruling class keep their monarchy and right to rule and we get more houses and better health care, is a price worth paying. It is a social contract long since broken by Thatcher, Blair and Cameron.
The social contract of 1945 was the outcome of a World War with the revolutionary upheaval in Europe. We don’t need another war but a democratic transformation mobilised by extra-parliamentary political action. It is not necessarily about the content of a new social contact, which is at the heart of Tony Benn’s programme, but the means of getting there, which was his and is our main point.
Many on the left think monarchy is merely a symbol or ideology or even like a statue not worth time or effort to get rid of. Why pull down the statue of a long dead Bristol slave trader? It is only a symbol after all! Thatcher proclaimed that class was only an out-dated idea, which could be gotten rid of if we stop thinking about it. Yet these are ideas with a material reality and force behind them, which cannot be abolished by thinking differently. Benn understood the UK monarchy is a symbol of class rule and the power of the Crown-state in an antiquated constitution designed to defend property against the working class and the likes of Corbyn. No serious class politics can avoid it.
The LLA conference should make a basic choice between an immediate (or minimum) programme, which is on a social monarchist (i.e. accepts the constitution of the Crown-In-Parliament) Version 1 or republican road Version 2. If the conference votes to take the latter road then there will have to be much more discussion and education for all of us. There is no reason why we couldn’t work on a second draft or even a drafting commission involving both sides in this debate. This conference is a choice between continuity Corbyn or going back to the lessons learned and conclusions drawn by Tony Benn, who understood the reality of political power from his earlier experiences as one of Her Majesty’s Ministers and as a left wing socialist.