Interview with Graham Smith from anti-monarchy pressure group Republic
by Ian Sinclair
Graham Smith is not one of the estimated two billion people who will be watching William and Kate get married on Friday. “I have no interest in what dress Kate Middleton is wearing or whether they fluff their lines or anything”, he quips. Actually that’s not quite true. As Campaign Manager for the anti-monarchy group Republic, Smith says he would probably catch a little bit of the coverage so he can comment in the media.
Sitting in his apartment cum office in South London, Smith, 37, explains that Republic was established in 1983. Then, about six years ago Republic was reinvented as a serious, professional pressure group, employing full-time staff and a long-term strategy. Today it has over 14,000 supporters, up from 8,000 in November 2010. Perversely, the royal wedding seems to have given a boost to republicanism in the UK. “Even if they don’t like it that much, most people don’t really give it much thought”, he pontificates. “But when they then get saturation media coverage telling them that they must celebrate and get excited, I think it grates and they get motivated to come and find us.”
According to its website, Republic wants “a democratically accountable head of state and an end to any constitutional role for the royal family”. In pursuit of this aim, it carries out media work, e-campaigns, gives talks in schools and universities and lobbies parliament. Currently, Republic has the support of a wide range of public figures such as Will Self, Mike Leigh and, er, Stan Collymore, and a number of MPs including Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas. Smith notes the organisation’s long-term aim is to be able to engage effectively with public opinion, something he admits they are not quite capable of at the present time.
So why does Republic oppose the monarchy? “Principally for us it is a political issue, a democratic reform issue”, he replies. “Although the monarchy is often promoted as a benign, harmless institution that is maybe entertaining to some people, it is not. It’s actually a deeply political institution. Behind the throne there is vast power and vested interest.”
Smith argues that the prime minister and government have too much power today, having gained power over the monarch and parliament during the last two centuries. “Because the crown is sovereign there is no authority over it”, he explains. “If the prime minister exercises the Queen’s powers there is not a court in the land or anybody anywhere that can do anything about it.” To counter this Republic want a system that limits the power of politicians with a written constitution and an elected head of state who is independent of the prime minister. As in Ireland, Smith says the head of state would be a constitutional position, rather than a political one. “The person would do all of the ribbon cutting but also be able to speak and act independently of the prime minister if they believe the politicians are stepping outside of their remit of the constitution”, he explains.
Republic also opposes the monarchy as a matter of principle: “If we go around claiming we are a democracy we shouldn’t have a hereditary head of state because democracy is founded on the idea of being equal citizens”.
Although the monarchy has little formal power, Smith argues it wields enormous amounts of power behind the scenes. For example, it is well known Prince Charles lobbies the government on issues such as architecture and homeopathy, while Prince Andrew has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons regarding his role as the UK’s trade ambassador. “The monarch, of course, has secret meetings with the prime minister almost every week”, he adds. “They are unminuted and there is no one in the room apart from the prime minister and the Queen. So we have no idea of what is being said.” Previous prime ministers, he notes, have been said to have gone to the palace and come back with their mind changed on certain issues. As Margaret Thatcher noted in 2006, “Anyone who believes that such meetings are a mere formality would be greatly mistaken”.
Smith gives short shrift to common arguments for maintaining the status quo. Regarding the idea the monarchy is good for tourism, he notes he hasn’t seen any evidence that people would come to a republican Britain in fewer numbers. “In fact you could even argue you might even get more people coming because Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle would be entirely open for everyone to look at all year round.” However, he sees this argument as a red-herring: “Even if we could prove that we could make a profit out of it, we would still want to get rid of the royal family. It’s worth paying for democracy.”
How about the argument the royal family work hard for charitable causes? “Again it’s a question of where the evidence is”, he counters. “This isn’t to be churlish and say they are lazy and feckless but the evidence isn’t there to suggest they work hard.” He references Mark Bolland, Prince Charles’s former press officer, who has said “The Windsors are very good at working three days a week, five months a year and making it look as though they work hard.”
Turning to the wedding itself, he describes the media coverage as “completely obscene”. In particular, he singles out the BBC which has a legal and moral obligation to provide balance when reporting on contested issues. “They are going on about it like it’s the second coming of Christ”, he jokes. “But you suspect if it was actually the second coming of Christ they would be more balanced by having Muslims and Hindus discussing whether he really is Christ.” Why does he think the BBC’s coverage is so rabidly pro-monarchy? “I think it’s driven by a miscalculation of what the public want. I think it’s driven by fear – that if they get it wrong the tabloids will be on their backs.” He continues: “I think it’s driven to a certain extent by commercial pressures. And it’s driven by certain elements who simply support the monarchy and want to give it a good show, helped along by lobbying from the Palace and the Government.”
Although Smith admits polls consistently show majority support for keeping the monarchy, he is hopeful for change in the future. “Roughly 20 percent give or take a couple of percentage points say they want to get rid of it, which in the hostile media environment is actually quite a healthy place to be starting from”, he argues. He also believes the majority support for the monarchy is a little more nuanced than the numbers suggest. For example, a recent YouGov poll found that 36 percent of respondents oppose public funding for the royal wedding.
“There has been quite a big shift from 30 years ago, when people were much more excited about it and much more positively and actively pro-monarchy”, he notes. “This made it much harder for republicans to stick their head above the parapet. Nowadays most people are happy to engage with us, listen to us and discuss the issue. Even if they strongly disagree with us they accept it’s a credible position to have.”
For more information see www.republic.org.uk