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Artillery Row

The fairytale of British Republicanism

My coronation day with Republic

“You seem to find this whole thing rather amusing,” snapped a short angry man with a Not My King sign, about half an hour into the Republic protest against the coronation of King Charles III. I must admit I did. Kettled into a small enclave just off Trafalgar Square, an angry swell of old school socialists, Twitter anarchists, Lib Dem mums, eccentric vicars, boomer hippies, blue haired students and Covid conspiracists had somehow found themselves part of the coronation spectacle. Before the bells of St Martin in the Fields, the full shouty brunt of British republicanism was aimed at a bewildered stream of Chinese tourists and young families out for a day in London.

The survival of the British monarchy is one of the great wonders of modern history. Spending the morning of the coronation with Republic, it began to seem less mysterious. Despite everything in recent years, the Monarchy is still liked more than most of our institutions and probably every one of our elected politicians. No one gathered there could really explain why. The arguments were articulated in between the shouty chanting: things about “modern Democracy and a “family of Lizards”, none of which quite landed the blow as the day unfolded around us. 

Somewhere beyond the crowds, towards Westminster Abbey, an ageing, eccentric dandyish farmer, who secretly wants to be King of Transylvania, was being anointed in holy oil and crowned by an Archbishop wearing hearing aids in a seven hundred year old chair vandalised by 18th century schoolboys. All the while this ceremony was being fawned over across the world by everyone from Kay Burley to one of the world’s most remote tribes. None of it made sense, and that is precisely the point.

Earlier that morning, the CEO of Republic Graham Smith, a man not even the protestors could name, achieved the greatest success of his kind since Cromwell, by being arrested at the hands of the jobsworth Met. For a brief moment, a shiver of excitement spread through the protest. Whilst the country was entranced by a fugue of sombre ritual and Zadok the Priest, Republic were experiencing their own desired reality unfold on the streets of London. Here was a police state enforcing the will of a “politically illiterate” nation brainwashed by bunting and tabloid journalism. The mask was finally off. The incoherent gaggle of shouty slogans and reddit thread arguments made sense. The fight was here and now. 

The plebs will not worship hereditary blood, but NHS rainbows

Except that was all a fantasy too. As stupid as the arrests were, nothing could disguise the fact this was a fringe event for a movement that just can’t seem to take off — a Coronation curio to gawp at. “They’re a bunch of wronguns, aren’t they?” said one bored steward to me as we watched a man larping Les Miserables as he chanted Not My King at a trio of giggling Chinese students. The deeper I dug into the many arguments and protestations offered as an alternative to the “fairytale” of monarchy, the more the core transgressive energy of British republicanism revealed itself. It is itself strangely twee and fantastical. Rid us of the Royals, and everything will become better. Gone will be the “psychological baggage of Britain’s past holding us back. Democracy will triumph. The crown jewels will be sold off and spent on food banks. The plebs will not worship hereditary blood, but NHS rainbows. Britain will become less racist, elitist and classist. The left might even win an election. We could have a poet president like Ireland, a Lineker or a Stormzy shaking hands with the American president. 

It would be wrong to judge an entire movement based on a morning’s protest. Nonetheless, one of the few things holding together that strange huddle was variations on the theme of this strange fantasy of a British paradise lost. At some point in my life, I expect there may be a more serious challenge to the monarchy that goes beyond the narcissism of modern protest. There’s a swell of anti-Monarchist sentiment from the younger generations who are also becoming less conservative as they grow up. Republic, though, will never win the argument on its terms. That is precisely because the stubborn British love affair with this 1000 year rite is not a source of mystery, but frustration towards the country Britain has never been.

Beyond the Republic protests were all the sources of that mystery. The boozy bank holiday weekend unfolding, pubs and churches where you could watch the British public observe their King with a mixture of curiosity and pity. For once, thank God, this was not about us. It was about the King, history, tradition. Gone was the daily burden of having to live in a country in the midst of an existential crisis. For a brief moment all that was placed on the head and shoulders of Charles III, the ceremonially neutered figure who sat stoic and almost reluctant on the throne. The man who dreamt of being King, he was now magically transformed into the embodiment of what Roger Scruton called the “fragility” of monarchy. 

In the build up to the coronation, much has been made of the King’s mysticism, his weirdness, his idiosyncrasies rooted in what is essentially a dislike of modernity. More should be made of the even stranger, much more mystical attitude of the British public towards the monarchy. It wavers between relishing a Royal calendar full of opportunities to get pissed and partake in a bit of history, and a visceral aversion to the activist fantasies of groups like Republic. This is probably one of the last few serious vestiges of our famous small-c conservatism, now driven largely by a fear of what bizarre rituals an alternative British republic might unleash on a country that doesn’t really know who or what it is anymore. For now, one thing is for certain: whatever Republic has to shout about will never solve this mystery.

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