On 25 November, 2023, at the historic Conway Hall in London, I met Graham Smith, the CEO of the anti-monarchy campaigning group Republic—an organisation whose origin can be traced back through the pages of The Freethinker. Read more about that connection in ‘The Freethinker and early republicanism’. See also ‘Bring on the British republic’ for my review of Smith’s book Abolish the Monarchy: Why We Should and How We Will.
Smith was the guest speaker at the National Secular Society’s Members’ Day at Conway Hall, and I managed to talk to him in the foyer café before he went off to give his very well-received talk on the connections between monarchy and religion, and between secularism and republicanism. Below is an edited transcript of our short but illuminating conversation.
Freethinker: At the coronation of Charles III, you and several other anti-monarchy protesters were arrested [see links above for more]. Could you give us an update on how the case is going?
Graham Smith: There are no major updates. It has gone off to a judge for an application for judicial review. The assumption is that we will be granted the judicial review and then we will see what happens after that.
What are the historical links between secularism and republicanism?
If you look historically, you will very often see intellectual links between those arguing against the domination of established churches and those who opposed monarchy. There is an old quote, whose origin I cannot remember right now: ‘Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.’ [These are, in fact, the words of the 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot.]
This is not something that I would condone! But the sentiment is that these things are very much linked and so the opposition to them is linked and always has been. And certainly, the National Secular Society and Republic have quite a lot of overlap in terms of our interests and members and so on, even though we have not really worked together. I think it is difficult to argue for a secular state without arguing for the abolition of the monarchy and vice versa.
Could you have a secular monarchy?
No, I do not think you can. You can have a non-secular republic—in Ireland, God gets a mention in the constitution, and for many years the Irish constitution gave a privileged position to the Catholic Church. But I do not think that makes intellectual sense. You also have disestablishment in monarchies like Sweden and Norway, but that is a bit of a halfway house because the monarch is still a member of one church and is very much a churchgoer, and thus that church is privileged through that relationship even if it is technically, by law, not established. I do not think you are going to get a secular state without getting rid of the monarchy. [For an alternative view, see Emma Park’s interview with Paul Scriven, a Liberal Democrat peer who introduced a disestablishment bill in the House of Lords on 6 December.]
Does one or the other—republicanism or secularism—have to come first?
It is hard to say. I think it may well be that the monarchy goes first because it is the bigger, more potent symbol of everything that has to change in Britain. I do not think there is the same appetite for disestablishment in the way that there is an appetite for abolishing the monarchy. It is interesting that over the last 25 years, we have seen a lot of pressure to get rid of the House of Lords, the monarchy, and the established church. Hopefully, the Lords will go in the next one or two years. And these three things are all connected. I think we will see them all unravelling—one will go, then another, then another. Though in which order it will happen, who knows?
How was your anti-monarchy book received?
On the whole, it has gone down well. I got a couple of annoying reviews from monarchists, which is a good sign. One of the reasons I wrote it is because there is not enough literature about the monarchy and why it should be abolished. Most books about the royals are just inane nonsense.
Even though the history books talk about many of the monarchs being thugs and murderers, there is always this undertone—‘Oh, isn’t the monarchy so great and interesting? And don’t worry, they’re not like this anymore!’. But that history is one of the reasons we should get rid of them—not because they are still doing things like that, but because it is a celebration of that history, which is not a reason to celebrate.
Have you had any thoughtful reviews from monarchists?
Yes. Surprisingly, The Telegraph’s review was the most interesting. The reviewer described herself as a ‘soft monarchist’, which is a term I use in the book, and she really engaged with my arguments. She thought monarchists should be worried because there are lots of cracks in their armour and lots of weaknesses in their position, and they should be alert to that.
What is the strongest argument for the monarchy in your view? I have always thought it was the superficially convincing one made by, among others, George Orwell: that it is a check on political extremism because it diverts extreme emotion away from politicians. In other words, it prevents tyranny.
Yes. The fact that Orwell, a respected writer, made it, means that it is an argument that is taken seriously. Churchill said something similar—that if they had kept the Kaiser, Germany would not have had Hitler. But these claims are completely ahistorical. Two of the Axis powers were monarchies. The Italian king Victor Emmanuel III put Mussolini in power and sat there for 20 years and let him get on with it. And the Kaiser was keen to put his family back on the throne under or with Hitler. So, if anything, the Orwellian argument shows the weakness of monarchy.
And, of course, Emperor Hirohito was not just a monarch, but apparently a divine being.
Indeed! The problem is that that stifles critical thinking and it stifles opposition, and those things are very important if you want to avoid things like imperial conflicts.
How do you think Charles III is doing as king?
That is like asking how a chair is doing as a chair. It just sits there and is a chair, and he just sits there and is a king. He does not have to do anything. He just is. And people judge them [monarchs and royals] by their own standards, so if they go around waving and allowing their acolytes to say good things on their behalf, then that is judged to be fine, so long as there is not some huge scandal. The bar is set incredibly low.
But Charles is a man who is accused of exchanging honours for cash. He is accused of handling millions of pounds of cash from Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, a Qatari businessman and former Prime Minister of Qatar accused of having links with al-Qaeda. He is accused of lobbying behind the scenes for all sorts of things. He is not a good head of state. Anybody could be a good king because being a monarch is about biological descent alone, but to be a good head of state is to be someone who is principled, eloquent, accountable and accessible, and on all these scores Charles is dreadful.
In terms of religion, Charles was never going to be genuinely ecumenical or for all faiths, and certainly not for those who do not have a faith. The royals pay lip service to ecumenicism, and I think some people were really surprised by how much Charles doubled down on all the feudal religious nonsense during the coronation—but it was because he believed all that nonsense!
One of the problems is that you do not get to ask Charles questions directly and challenge him about these issues. So it is all about reading the tea leaves and believing people like Jonathan Dimbleby when it comes to the true beliefs of the royals.
Have you ever met Charles? Or been in the same room as him and tried to ask him a question?
I have been within shouting distance! I have been almost as close to him as I am to you now, calling out questions, but obviously, he just blanks me. That is the one thing the royals are good at, blanking people. They just blank people they do not want to acknowledge, including their own staff.
What would a British republic with a written constitution look like?
It would look like a modern, grown-up democracy where we would have a fully elected parliament. We would still have a prime minister but they would not have the same power, derived from the Crown, that they have now. We would have clearly defined limits to that power and these limits would be policed and monitored by an elected head of state. The head of state would be there to be our ambassador but also to guard our constitution. So a republic would just take all the nonsense out of it. And if we want pageantry and ceremony, we can do that. Other republics, like France and Greece, do it quite well.
Having a republic would ultimately mean that our constitution and our politics would be done in a serious, intelligent, accountable way.
What is the single, essential thing that makes the monarchy and our political or constitutional system rotten, in your view?
The fact that we still have the same system we had after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-1689. All that has happened since then is that there have been compromises between those in Parliament and those in the Palace. There has never been a serious democratic evolution that shifts power to the people in this country. Instead, we have had the centralisation of power propped up and disguised by all the trappings of the monarchy—that is the big problem.
Is it anti-British to be anti-monarchy?
I would say it is very pro-British to be anti-monarchy. Being against anything bad is being in favour of where you live. One of the things that annoys me the most about monarchists is when they say that we would not be anything without the monarchy. I think that is the least patriotic thing you could say. To rubbish this amazing country of 65 million people by saying that it would not be much without this very, very tedious and ordinary family—that is a weird and unpatriotic thing to say.
And, of course, there is also the great British tradition of republicanism and radicalism, which is just as much a part of our patriotic heritage as the monarchy.
Yes. History is written by the victors, by those in power, and we do not get to hear about the radicals. And when we do hear about them, they are dismissed as fringe people, while everyone else is just getting on with their lives as serfs and plebs.
Yet the anti-slavery movement was one of the largest, if not the largest, working-class movements in British history. You do not hear about that. You only hear about William Wilberforce and the anti-slavery MPs.
We have a long history in this country of fighting against the things that monarchy represents, and we just have to continue until it is gone.
What is the future of British republicanism?
We will win. I think that the monarchy will come to an end. I think that people have realised in the last twelve months that that is quite likely. There is no longer this sense of an immovable object. I think that republicans will continue to see the polling shift in our favour. Support for the monarchy has dropped significantly over the years. Once support for the monarchy drops below 50 per cent, we will see things unravel in quite good order.
Would you care to venture a prediction as to when exactly the monarchy will go?
No. I suppose I would say that there is a reasonable chance that Prince William will become king, but I think the chance of his son George becoming king is quite small.
Further reading on secularism and republicanism:
Introducing ‘Paine: A Fantastical Visual Biography’, by Polyp, by Paul Fitzgerald
Freethought in the 21st century – interview of The Freethinker editor Emma Park by Christoph De Spiegeleer
Christopher Hitchens and the long afterlife of Thomas Paine, by Daniel James Sharp