Members of the Royal Family enjoy the flypast. Members of the Royal Family enjoy the flypast. Source: Michael Garnett - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As the spare wheel comes off the royal carriage, John Westmoreland looks back at the roots of English republicanism

Kings come and go, and the sooner we say goodbye to our current one, along with his heir and ‘spare’, the better. The French have had a few King Charles – Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat, Charles the Mad and Charles the Flatulent (spot the odd one out). There are any number of flaws and traits that we could give our Charles too, but why be petty? Let’s hope ours is remembered simply as Charles the Last.

The rottenness of the House of Windsor has been gradually exposed during the reign of the late Queen and looks set to be fully revealed in the year ahead. If we had a political opposition worthy of the name, the country would be having a serious discussion about the future of the monarchy. It is a disgrace that the Labour Party has willingly submitted itself to being an apologist cum cheerleader for monarchy and a constitution dominated by wealth and privilege.

Labour’s role is important in propagating the myths about the royal family selflessly serving the nation as a pillar of government, civilisation and the rule of law. Labour has studiously cut itself off from the rich history of republican thought, even though that same republicanism has helped to secure the very democratic rights, limited as they are, of working people. 

It is worth looking back at a couple of the most important contributions made by radical thinkers in English history. What we find is that monarchy is rejected because it inevitably leads to, and relies on, a tyrannical government that abhors real democracy.

The people against ‘the man of blood’

When feudal government collided with the forces of modern capitalism, the latter inevitably asserted the alleged rights of kingship. Not that the kings had any rights in the modern sense, they had power. They got their power, not from God, as the royalist theory of the ‘divine right of kings’ would have it, but from the armed forces at their disposal.

There was nothing remotely divine about the Norman Conquest, the Wars of the Roses, or the matrimonial relationships of Henry VIII. They rose and fell by the sword. No wonder Harry Windsor candidly informs us that killing twenty-five Taliban was of no more consequence than removing chess pieces from the board.

Kings always insist that they are close to God as their end nears and that an attack on the Crown is an attack on God’s will. By the same logic, republicans have to be in league with the Devil. God’s rule under the monarch means good order, whereas republicanism means the hell of anarchy and chaos.

In times of social peace when the Crown appears immovable, the right of the king to rule is affirmed by the forced acquiescence of the majority. But in times of crisis when oppressed classes enter the stage of history, the status quo gets challenged. The actions of kings and courtiers then get interpreted through the lens of popular justice.   

On 20 January 1649, after some six years of civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people, King Charles I was put on trial in Westminster. King Charles was wholly responsible for starting the Civil Wars because he refused to be guided by Parliament in matters of economy, religion and foreign policy. He raised an army against Parliament and his subjects for his own private gain. As a result, he was charged as ‘a man of blood’ who was responsible for having ‘traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented’. 

The fiction of a king appointed by God to lead the people to righteousness had been exposed in the Civil Wars. Charles was found guilty, sentenced to death and beheaded, but that got rid of one problem and raised another: what form of government should he be replaced with? The regicides who put their names on the king’s death warrant were not of one mind about what should happen. The propertied classes wanted another set-up that held power at the top: a power that would defend the sanctity of private property.

This put the propertied elite against the massed ranks of the New Model Army that had fought against what they rightly perceived as monarchical tyranny. The radicalism of the soldiers had been developed through the confidence they had gained from defeating the Royalist forces on the one hand, and the dissemination of radical ideas that focussed on what kind of government they were fighting for.

The Levellers at Putney

In 1647, the Army Council was set up to represent the views of all the ranks. In broad terms, the officers wanted the soldiers to lower their democratic expectations in favour of the rights of property, whereas the soldiers wanted both material and political gains from their victory. These demands included the distribution of lands taken from the supporters of the Crown and the king’s estates, and the right to vote for their own representatives in a parliament accountable to the people.

In a series of meetings that heralded the sort of radical democracy we need today, the Army Council held debates about what a new constitution might look like. These were held in the autumn of 1647 in Putney Church and are remembered as the ‘Putney Debates’.

The Levellers put forward arguments against the Crown that still resonate today. A king promotes tyranny by setting the protection of his own power and comfort as the highest duty of the people, diverting wealth to luxury and idleness, and stifling the lives of the people themselves.

In a famous speech in Putney, the Leveller leader Thomas Rainsborough said: 

‘For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.’

This powerful indictment of arbitrary rule gives rise immediately to the need for a democratic government based on informed consent. The right to choose how we are governed also gives us the right, indeed the duty, to fight against tyranny. In the face of arbitrary rule, revolution becomes a right. True democracy can only function in a country that espouses the need for genuine equality in all things. Political and social inequality can only be maintained by force and the suppression of the rights of the majority, which is why the ruling class want to maintain the Crown at all costs.  

The defence of the Crown has led to the creation of a mythology that promotes magical thinking about the monarchy acting as the central pillar around which good government revolves. The monarch, on the one hand, is alleged to stand above politics, and on the other, acts as a guiding hand to prime ministers. As the royals are not involved in politics, it begs the question of where their fitness to guide politicians comes from.

To the victims of British state violence, the fairy tale of a national family watched over by sympathetic monarchs is an insult to which the whole history of resistance to British imperialist rule testifies. In the eighteenth century, the oppression of English colonists in North America and the denial of their right to any form of self-government, such as the right to raise and spend taxes, led to the American War of Independence (1775-83). A key participant in that conflict, and one totally committed to the cause of liberty for all, was the English radical Tom Paine. 

‘There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of Monarchy’

Tom Paine was a radical who had made a favourable impression on Benjamin Franklin when they met in London. Paine had studied the works of the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson, whom Marx was later to quote favourably. Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society is a pioneering attempt to understand the interconnections and totality of economy, politics and society. Franklin found Paine to be worthy of recommendation, and shortly afterwards Paine set off for Philadelphia with Franklin’s letter of introduction in his pocket.

Paine’s own development had seen him grapple with manual labour and intellectual application, which gave him the ability, and indeed the strongest desire, to infuse the labouring classes with the ideas that could lead to liberation and fulfilment. Paine was without a doubt convinced that human potential was stifled by oppression. When Paine arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774, the opening manoeuvres of the coming war for independence were already underway.

The year before Paine’s arrival, the famous Boston Tea Party had established the determination of the colonists not to pay unjust taxes. ‘No taxation without representation’ was the slogan that fed the demand for a break with England.

The British parliament was made up overwhelmingly of the propertied classes in a political regime known to history as Old Corruption. Franklin had tried to reason with the government when he spoke in parliament. He was treated with open contempt for suggesting that the colonial roughnecks could govern for themselves. The colonists were told they were rebelling against their king and were derided as traitors.

In the run-up to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, the colonists faced a barrage of repressive legislation that included the imposition of the quartering of English troops and their horses (including detachments of mercenaries) at full cost. This was done in the name of King George III to whom the colonists had sent their petitions, calling for the monarch to intervene on the side of justice. Their appeals were denied.

The battle of the English Crown against the American rebels inspired one of the greatest political pamphlets of all time, Tom Paine’s Common Sense. Something like 300,000 copies was sold within six months to a population of just three million. As farmers, artisans and labourers joined the rebel militias that went on to defeat the armies of King George, Common Sense was the mainstay of their political education. It was an excoriating attack on monarchy and a passionate advocacy for popular democracy.

Paine’s Common Sense speaks directly to the labouring classes stressing the commonality of all. His belief in equal rights drove a powerful argument without frills. Above all, for King George to rule a land at the other side of the world was an absurdity:

‘There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of Monarchy; it first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required. The state of a king shuts him from the World, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly.’ 

To any reasonable person, the sight of a monarch laying a sword on the shoulder of a war criminal like Tony Blair, and saying ‘Arise Sir Tony’, is as absurd as it is insulting. But this royal act of giving titles to the chosen is a major part of the royal duties. Tom Paine was indeed a man of reason:

‘In England a King hath little more to do than to make war and give away places [titles]; which, in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears [through force]. A petty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for. And he gets worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society … than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.’

And still today one nurse, firefighter, and teacher, is worth more to society than the whole gaggle of royals, lords and their assorted lackeys.

Revolutionary republicanism

Like Rainsborough and the Levellers before him, Paine was not just a commentator. He gave all the proceeds from his book to the cause. He bought a musket and joined the militia. He was a teacher, activist, and comrade. He was with Washington’s freezing troops as they retreated across New Jersey where he penned the now famous lines:

‘THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.’

Washington had the words read aloud before the crucial victory over the British forces at Trenton that turned the fortunes of the war. 

Paine’s republicanism aimed at a commonwealth where human talent would flourish. The soldiers he camped with were the heroes fighting for full human liberty and deserved to be celebrated as equals. Paine condemned the officers who went to dine on the estates of Tory aristocrats while the troops had to forage for their sustenance. At the war’s end, Paine turned to those very questions of how a democratic form of the political economy might be made, but this was a message Washington wanted to bury.  

Yet again, like Rainsborough and the Levellers, once victory was secured, Paine was abandoned by the revolutionary leaders who had cherished him. Washington, Franklin, Sam Adams and the rest found his call for liberty an inconvenience to their own love of wealth and property. 

It has been said that the victory of the colonists meant that, metaphorically, the Americans killed their king. And with it they got rid of the nonsense of archaic titles and customs. The trajectory of American growth shows that ditching the monarch was a pretty good idea too. Yet, the blood spilt in making the USA a super-power has to be reckoned with too.

The vision of radicals like Rainsborough, the Levellers and Tom Paine for a form of economy and government that has justice and equality at its core has still to be realised, but their ideas are as powerful today as they were then.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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