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A Very British Radicalism

As the Jubilee approaches I am looking forward to the increased republican mobilisation. However, I fear that much of the republican discourse is in a language that will not really resonate with most people. Much of the arguments seem to be based around the liberal ideas of fairness, meritocracy and allowing anyone to achieve the honour of being our head of state. I totally agree with all of these arguments and think that their advancement is an important way of winning over a particular section of the alliance that is needed to win a republic, but progressives need to go further and recapture the the national stories of the peoples of Great Britain in the campaign against the monarchy.

One of the main arguments used by royalists is that they have tradition on their side and that the monarchy is a link to our history, thereby presenting republicanism as un-British and being the preserve of an urban liberal elite that are out of touch with the peoples of Great Britain. To counter this characterisation we need to embed our cause in the national narrative, proving that radicalism and republicanism are very much part of our heritage and that, in actual fact, it is the Windsor-Mountbatten family that is totally alien to the peoples of Great Britain.

For instance take my own background. I am descended from Irish peasant immigrants to Oldham in Lancashire who toiled in mills, foundries and on roads, working in dangerous conditions for long hours and very poor pay and I am sure that most people share a similar background. The pomp and ceremony of a hideously wealthy family living in a palace is totally alien to me and my family heritage; and is totally alien to the vast majority of the people of this country and their own ancestral narratives.

The royalist idea that the monarchy somehow connects us with our heritage is nonsense as the lifestyle and culture of the Windsor-Mountbattens means that, as far as the ordinary people of this country are concerned, they may as well be from Mars. Republicans need to frame the debate as one not simply of tradition versus progress, but a conflict of their traditions versus our traditions. A conflict of the traditions of a small elitist group that dominates our society, versus the proud tradition of the peoples of Great Britain for protest and popular mobilisation in defence of our political and economic rights.

This is also a lesson for the left more generally. We must draw on the heritage of the Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers and Diggers, the Radical War, Peterloo and the Chartists in our appeal to the peoples of Great Britain and invoke figures such as John Ball, William Cuffay and George Loveless. A good recent example of such a strategy being successful was Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s large rally at the Bastille in March which proved a hugely effective launch event for his campaign in terms of poll ratings and firmly placed his radical socialism at the heart of the French national story. Above all we need to paint the establishment as alien and out of touch to the peoples of Great Britain and firmly place left and progressive ideas at the heart of our popular identity. It is time we took the right wing idea that the peoples of Great Britain are somehow fundamentally conservative head-on and firmly argue that the left is as much at home here as anywhere else.

3 Comments

  1. Mary Lloyd says:

    Wonderful to read Dominic Curran celebrating the hard-won struggles of our English (and Cornish, Welsh, Scots, Irish ancestors). However, I think it’s a pity that he fails to mention the fact that we were the first European nation to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic, even though it DID only last for 11 years (1649 – 1660).
    I found it ‘interesting’ that, on Thatcher’s state visit to France for the 1989 celebrations of their revolution, she actually stated that ‘England, of course, never HAD a revolution!’ Maybe history wasn’t on the syllabus of her Law degree…. Perhaps even the Left also chooses to ignore the reality. And maybe Mr. Curran, too, is embarrassed by the rather punitive regime established by Cromwell’s Puritans and – like me – is more of a fan of ‘Honest John’ (Lilburne) who opposed the ‘Protector’ and spent several years imprisoned in the Tower, where he co-wrote three editions of ‘An Agreement of the Free People of England’ before his death in 1657. Here, he demanded regular elections, universal male suffrage, religious freedom and equality before the law for women, as well as men. Two other demands he made were for the adoption of a written constitution and the reform of the House of Lords: two essential defences of the people which, even today, we have so far failed to deliver.
    By the way, since Mr. Curran seems to feel that qualifications are needed to establish working-class street cred, my dad started his working life as a boilermaker on Devonport Dockyard, where his father was the shop steward. This makes me reflect on the failure of the article to make any mention of the painful and glorious development of the British trade union movement. In my own current experience working with the Labour Party, the union reps are often the best informed and most actively committed to the ongoing struggle.
    However, the monarchy isn’t necessarily on their (or my) list of immediate targets. By any measure, QE2 continues to work hard, even into her late 80s, and has clearly been committed to an anti-racist celebration of the range of Commonwealth citizens for decades. As a republican by conviction, I fear over who we might elect if we had the freedom of the French to elect our Head of State. MAYBE, now, Blair is too hated and Thatcher too ill to be voted to such an office. But we don’t seem to be too clever at picking our Prime Ministers since 1945.

  2. Dominic Curran says:

    I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I must admit my attitudes to Cromwell are somewhat complicated by my Irish background as one can imagine but nonetheless I agree that the period of 1649-1660 is hugely significant and we should draw on the better elements that were involved. I must say that I think its less a matter of street-cred and more about engaging with people’s sense of historical narrative and heritage. I was focussing mainly on the history of the left in the medieval to early-modern period but certainly the modern industrial trade union movement that came to the fore somewhat later is absolutely fundamental to our history and indeed I would say that the Chartists and Tolpuddle Martyrs were its pioneers. I quite agree with you in that my first priority is not the abolition of the monarchy but I think that now is the time to discuss the issue as the Jubilee approaches. Tony Benn’s proposal to have a head of state elected by Parliament is certainly interesting and I think that I would favour such a plan over direct election so as to avoid any veering into presidential, celebrity politics.

  3. […] been dominated by a very certain version of history. As the BBC fawned over the diamond jubilee, Dominic Curran, writing on Left Futures, was right to point out another British tradition and history: that of […]

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