Pat Stack Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Pat Stack

Off with their heads

(November 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The monarchy is going through its deepest crisis for many years. Pat Stack examines some English republicans

Republicanism and opposition to monarchy in England has a long history. Kings and queens represent a hangover from the Middle Ages. The powers they have inherited allow them to side with the most reactionary elements in society in order to block all progress.

This was the thinking behind the most famous, and to date decisive, move against the monarchy: the English Revolution of 1640-49. The revolution came to a head on collision with the swaggering, boastful and despotic Charles I.

The revolution first tried to compromise with Charles, but to enjoy success it had to get to grips with the king and his power. Oliver Cromwell told his troops:

‘I will not deceive you nor make you believe, as my commission has it, that you are going to fight for the King and Parliament: if the King were before me I would shoot him as another, if your conscience will not allow you to do as much, go and serve elsewhere’.

Cromwell was as good as his word. He led the side that wanted Charles executed and the monarchy gone with him.

To those who sought compromise, Cromwell was clear: ‘We will cut off his head with the crown upon it’.

On 30 January 1648 Charles was executed as a ‘tyrant, traitor, murderer and enemy to the country’. That should have been that. However, the revolution had been made by all sorts of different groups in society. The emerging capitalist class wanted to get rid of the old feudal trappings and restrictions on trade, but did not want to challenge the rights of property. Many of the poorer people, who were usually very enthusiastic for the revolution, drew the conclusion that if power could no longer be inherited why should wealth?

They were crushed by the army generals. The men of property – fearing further social change – were happy to restore the monarchy in 1660.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 – when James II fled and the Dutch King William took the throne – ensured that never again would a king dare to seriously challenge parliament or the immensely powerful capitalist class.

The second great wave of republican sentiment was precipitated by the American Revolution of 1776. Those initially leading it groped slowly towards the need to sever all links with George III, the English king. As the king introduced a series of taxes and punitive laws against the colony more and more people asked why had a good system gone bad.

One man though understood that the system itself was at fault. Thomas Paine had moved to America from England in the early days of the revolution, and now became the populiser of republican and independence sentiments. His pamphlet Common Sense roared like a hurricane through the absurdities of monarchy. ‘Hereditary Monarchy,’ he wrote, ‘was as absurd as a hereditary wise man, a hereditary mathematician or a hereditary poet laureate’.

Common Sense sold a staggering 150,000 copies, and was second only to the Bible as the most widely bought book. It became a hugely popular pamphlet among the poor in England.

Paine tore apart the notion of the succession. Little wonder he was feared and loathed by the establishment. When he wrote The Rights of Man in defence of the French Revolution – he struck fear into the hearts of the English ruling class.

Paine was vilified, denounced and eventually had to flee the country. Nevertheless an incredible half million copies were sold. The masses hated the monarchy, and the movement had to be repressed and physically broken to prevent it spreading. Even so, its ideas remained popular in some circles, for example among the early 19th century poets such as Shelley.

But republicanism in the 19th century became more and more tied up with the working class movement, as the great division in society developed between those who owned property and those who did not. The Chartist movement contained many prominent republicans. The Red Republican, edited by the Chartist Julian Harney, published the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

The Chartists’ six demands a republic that became known as The People’s Charter were accepted with enthusiasm by hundreds of thousands of industrial workers – 200,000 rallied in Glasgow, 80,000 in Newcastle, 250,000 in Leeds and 300,000 in Manchester. Engels declared that the six points were ‘sufficient to overthrow the whole constitution, queen and lords included.’

In 1842 the Chartists presented their second petition to the House of Commons attacking the wealth of the royal parasites:

‘Your petitioners would direct the attention ... to the great disparity existing between wages of the producing millions and the salaries of those whose comparative usefulness ought to be questioned, where riches and luxury prevail amongst the rulers and poverty and starvation amongst the ruled.’

With the defeat of Chartism after 1848, and counter-revolution throughout Europe, republicanism became less of an issue. But it resurfaced in the 1860s and 1870s because of the unpopularity of Queen Victoria’s rule. In the early 1870s, 84 republican clubs were founded and there were complaints about the money spent on the queen. More than once the House of Commons debated a motion demanding the diminishing of royal power.

This tradition has been hidden behind decades of jubilees, royal weddings and coronations. But it is one we should claim as our own.

Pat Stack Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 4 May 2017