The death of Elizabeth II: an opening for a republican and federal path for the United Kingdom?

, by Xesc Mainzer Cardell

The death of Elizabeth II: an opening for a republican and federal path for the United Kingdom?
Credit: Michael Kooiman, Wikimedia Commons.

Changes in political systems worldwide have generally been borne out of a mix of times of crisis and an end of certainties. Look at the French Ancien Régime, for example, washed away by the waves of revolution amid a terrible financial and subsistence crisis during which the monarchy’s traditional prestige was obliterated. Or at the end of Socialist Yugoslavia, weakened by the departure of Marshal Tito’s figure, which acted as a sort of pater patriae, shaken by profound economic and political crises that eventually led to its violent dissolution. Though those are quite extreme examples, both conditions apply to the UK at present.

The crises are self-evident. The country is afflicted by acute political instability, as evidenced by the fact that the UK has seen 4 different Prime Ministers belonging to the same party in 6 years (an unprecedented feat in its post-war period) and two early elections. With that comes an economic crisis, linked to the fallout of the Russo-Ukrainian war but also to the lack of proper planning for the aftermath of a seemingly never-ending Brexit. And besides those we obviously need to mention the inter-regional tensions, with a Scottish independence movement that’s still alive and kicking despite the defeat at the 2014 Indyref, and reinvigorated calls for Irish unity which are becoming all the more evident after Sinn Féin became the largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time since partition.

Crises like those just become worsened by fading certainties. The reputation of the office of the Prime Minister as a respected figure has been steadily eroding since Theresa May became head of government in 2016, with Boris Johnson’s tenure issuing a deadly blow to whatever respect for the office was left with his clownish approach to power, marked by a series of long-reaching scandals. But the largest certainty that’s disappeared is the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. For over 70 years this incredibly popular figure embodied the stability of post-war Britain and had become a living symbol of the country itself.

While crises are generally a recipe for disaster, that doesn’t mean we should downplay the relieving role certainties can have in overcoming them. But when certainties are gone, the field just becomes an unexplored wilderness where many things can happen and many paths to be followed appear.

The state of republicanism and federal aspirations in the United Kingdom

While republicanism in the United Kingdom has largely remained on the fringes under the shadow of the former monarch’s incredible popularity, it has never fully disappeared. A telling example of that is that the newly appointed Prime Minister, Liz Truss, openly held republican ideas back in the early 1990’s as we can see from this video excerpt that has become trending in the days leading to her entry into office in which she stated that “I’m against the idea that people can be born to rule, that people, because of the family they’re born into, should be able to be the head of state of our country. I think that’s disgraceful”. Not to mention former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, another well-known republican.

It is true however that in spite of these specific, yet very high-profile examples of British republicans, republicanism is not very widespread among social or political circles. As an example, the only parties in the UK with representation above the local level that support a republican form of government are Sinn Féin and the Scottish Greens, to which we should add the NGO ‘Republic’ which campaigns actively for a British republic.

When it comes to federalism, however, the situation appears to be simpler. Federal reform proposals have been put forward in recent years both coming from civil society but also from the world of party politics. Federal Union, UEF’s member organisation in the UK, has been calling for the implementation of a federal system based on a written federal constitution as a way to channel the country’s “multinational, diverse character”.

Support for a federal solution for the United Kingdom’s problems has come from parties too. The Liberal Democrats have been long-standing supporters of federalism, both in an internal working fashion and an external one, as a horizon for the country. That premise is even engraved in the party’s constitution, which stands for “a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom”. The Green Party of England and Wales, in addition, while not using the word ‘federal’, defends in its policy platform a bottom-up approach to the organisation of the state in the spirit of the principle of subsidiarity, which is in fact explicitly mentioned in their policy platform. In 2021, a report commissioned by the Labour Party was released which aimed at establishing a “progressive federalism” for the United Kingdom with strong co-decision elements. And while Federalism hasn’t yet become official Labour policy, even current leader Keir Starmer has publicly supported a federal UK as a solution to the country’s ailments.

What scenario does Queen Elizabeth II’s death open?

The presence and high esteem of Queen Elizabeth II acted as a containing wall for many of the most pressing issues that have been stressing the fabrics of the United Kingdom. Her high standing among the wider populace led to occurrences such as the SNP promising to keep her as head of state during the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. However, with her disappearance, a strong symbol of Britishness disappears as a moment of certain trauma comes for the over 83% of British citizens (those born since 1952) who’ve just had her as their monarch. This becomes the most relevant when we consider that her successor, king Charles III, has consistently polled below her and below his own son, Prince William, in opinion polls measuring the popularity of the royals. Many explanations are to be found for that, with his separation from widely popular princess Diana and outspoken activism for certain causes such as nature protection (a clean break from the tradition of monarchs who keep their opinions and beliefs to themselves and far from the public eye) laying at the heart of the issue.

On the republican side of things, the scenario looks a bit complicated. Even though a large chunk of support for the monarchy was owed to Elizabeth’s enormous popularity, it remains to be seen how the arrival to the throne of a far less popular monarch will affect the general attitude towards the institution of monarchy. The prospect of a medium-term reign of now crown prince William, another highly popular figure within the royal family, might help ease the drawbacks of Charles’ reign. And the possibility (though not certainty) of a limited breakup of the country, be it either due to Scottish independence or Northern Ireland reunifying with the Republic of Ireland, could trigger a rebound effect in support for the monarchy given the role of sovereigns as the highest symbol of national identity and unity in present nation-states of a royal nature.

When it comes to Federalism, though, the way seems a bit clearer. The slow but steady acceptance of federalism as a cure for the United Kingdom’s perceived failure as a state during the post-Brexit referendum years and ever increasing mistrust for politics could be paving the way for a serious discussion on a federal reform for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. With the Scottish independence movement asking for a new referendum and the steady growth in support for Irish reunification, the risk of a fragmentation of the country may bring more parties, besides the LibDems and Greens, to bet on a political rearrangement along federalist lines as a solution.

However, only time will tell if British politics will finally tackle the structural issues of their country, and ease the deteriorating situation in the country.

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