Ian Cox campaigning in Leeds. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
It may not, but such window dressing is surely a big part of how the monarchy endures, via its emotional bond with people. In that sense, the cold realities Republic talks about – the cost, secrecy and hidden power – may not count for much at all.
“That’s something we have discussed,” he says. “How do you argue against emotion with logic? You often hear emotional responses: ‘I love the Queen.’ And you can’t argue with that. You say: ‘Yeah, but it’s undemocratic.’ And you’ll get: ‘Yeah, but I like the Queen.’”
For the past quarter-century or so, opinion polls have tended to put support for the monarchy at more than 70%, while just under one in five of us have seemed to favour a republic. The royal wobble after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales seemed temporarily to affect support for the institution, there was a big hiccup at the time of Prince Charles’s marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles – and the PR problems the next king will face are highlighted by an August 2017 poll suggesting that, if given the choice between Charles becoming king or the role passing straight to his eldest son, only 22% would favour the former, whereas William would be backed by 51%. Republicans, of course, point out that such questions only serve to highlight the monarchy’s absurdity – Charles will become king no matter what anyone thinks.
Support for the monarchy is noticeably lower among younger people: in 2016, it was reported that 84% of those over the age of 55 wanted to keep it, compared with 66% of 18-34s. The royal soap opera, though, may not be quite as popular as some people think: when Harry’s engagement was announced, 52% of respondents to a poll by YouGov said they were “indifferent”. But, overall, the royals seem to have precious little to worry about: at the last count, Ipsos Mori reckoned that 76% of people in the UK want the monarchy to continue, against only 17% who would like to see the back of it.
What is perhaps remarkable is the disappearance of republicanism from the culture. In past decades, anti-royalism was embodied by the aforementioned Sex Pistols and their Jubilee-year masterpiece God Save the Queen and the Smiths’ 1986 album The Queen Is Dead, supported by the quotes Morrissey used to utter before he became what the modern vernacular calls “problematic”. (“I despise royalty. I always have done. It’s fairy-story nonsense.”) It’s perhaps an arbitrary point of comparison, but where pop-cultural attitudes had arrived 25 years later was probably symbolised by the occasion in 2013 when Prince Harry was invited backstage by those down-home scions of the establishment Mumford and Sons. According to the Daily Mail: “He absolutely bear-hugged Marcus [Mumford] and apologised for missing their set. Marcus told him not to worry and to help himself to the beer.”
Such are the raging seas of absurdity in which Republic tries to stay afloat. For the moment, the Yorkshire branch remains its only active regional offshoot and the vast majority of its work is done from its office – or, rather, three-person workstation – near King’s Cross station, in London. Thanks to an annual income of about £140,000 – which comes from a membership base of 4,000 people, topped up with a few occasional donations of between £5,000 and £15,000, Republic has two full-time staff: its 27-year-old campaigns officer, Michael Moore, and Graham Smith, 44. The latter has been Republic’s chief executive and strategic brain since 2005, when he returned from seven years working as an IT specialist in Australia. Smith says he experienced “this huge sort of reverse culture shock” related to how much the monarchy was covered in the media and was reminded of the fact that “I’ve felt strongly about all this for as long as I can remember”.
I talk to Smith in a branch of Costa Coffee near his office, where he explains how he changed Republic from being a tiny organisation that had been set up in 1983 to something with a decent membership and a sense of purpose. “We spent quite a bit of time looking at a longer-term strategy,” he says. “We tried to imagine, as an exercise, all the MPs filing through the division lobbies and giving us a referendum on getting rid of the monarchy. We tried to imagine what kind of country would witness that happen.”
This remains the vision that most of Republic’s work is built around. As a way of steadily advancing its cause, Smith and his colleagues regularly make Freedom of Information requests, commission research, and publicise overlooked information about how the monarchy works – such as the fact that Prince Charles’s private organisation, the Duchy of Cornwall, is exempt from corporation and capital gains tax, or that the 18 royals officially classed as “working” each cost the taxpayer an average of £19m a year.
“We don’t say that the fact that the monarchy is expensive is a reason to get rid of it,” Smith cautions. “It’s not. The fact that it’s expensive is a symptom of the fact that it’s unaccountable and secretive. It’s really a way of pointing to the institution and saying: ‘Essentially, the monarchy is corrupt.’ I don’t think it’s going too far to say that. If corruption is the abuse of public office for personal gain, that is what the monarchy does. And it’s routine; it’s built into the system.”
Republic would like an elected head of state similar to the one who serves the Republic of Ireland – where the role is largely ceremonial and apolitical, but the president can speak up at times of national crisis or uncertainty.
“One example would be the two weeks after the Brexit referendum, when we were essentially devoid of political leadership,” says Smith. “We had just taken this huge, very scary decision and there were all these reports about racist attacks … it felt like a very febrile atmosphere and there was no one to rise above all that, calm nerves and show any leadership. It was a classic example of an occasion when a head of state might say: ‘This is something we’re going through and we’ll sort it out – we’re going to be OK.’”
He says he takes heart from the fact that a republican is now leader of the Labour party, and from the other anti-monarchy organisations across Europe that will be coming to London on the day of the royal wedding for this year’s convention of the Alliance of European Republican Movements (Sweden, apparently, has the strongest; in Spain, “the polling is good, but the movement is splintered”). The end of the monarchy, he says, “could happen in my lifetime – it depends how long my lifetime is”.
His main source of optimism is the prospect of King Charles III. “I think there’s a very real risk of a constitutional crisis. It’s not difficult to imagine that, after he becomes king, the government could change a policy and the new policy could be in line with what we know Charles thinks. The question will then be asked: ‘Have you done that because you think it’s the right policy or because Charles has been pressing you to change that?’”
But what if the prospect of William taking over works as a convenient distraction?
“Charles could easily be king for 20 years. That’s quite a long time to wait. By that time, William will be well into his 50s, if not his 60s. And I think all this stuff about how popular some of them are … I think it’s overblown. I don’t think people care that much. William has lost that youthful Diana look, and he’s a fairly dull, uninspiring individual. There’s time for the gloss to wear off. You can find headlines from the 1970s that say: ‘Prince Charles is the young prince who’s going to save the monarchy.’ All this stuff gets said over and over again.”
Back in Leeds, as Republic’s activist quartet start to pack up the green gazebo, they explain their immediate plans. On the day of the royal wedding, they will be in Parliament Street in York. “I think we’re providing a public service, in some respects,” says Nigel Catling. “There are a lot of people out there who are probably Republicans, but who don’t know. We’ll be there, saying: ‘If you don’t agree with an unelected head of state, you’ll be able to talk to people on the same wavelength.’ It’s a bit of therapy, really.”
A few minutes later, a young man with a pierced nose appears at the stall and gets into a polite argument with Iggleden. “We’ve had them for ever, haven’t we? It’s tradition,” he says. “I really like the royal family.”
Iggleden mentions the question of the monarchy’s cost. “I’m not bothered,” comes the reply. “I’d be happy to give more money to support it. It’s a good thing.”
It turns out that, with his dad and two cousins, 17-year-old Thomas has train tickets to Windsor booked for 19 May. “I’m going to see the procession. I just want to see them. Harry and Meghan. In the flesh.”
The exchange lasts barely a minute, but it is enough to prove beyond doubt that between monarchists and republicans lies a philosophical chasm that makes the leave/remain divide look like a mere tiff. Iggleden exhales and gets back to packing up, but there is one more thing. “I’ll take a leaflet,” says Thomas. “Just to read, you know?”