Essentially, the monarchy is corrupt will republicanism survive Harry and Meghan?

The campaign group Republic is committed to bringing down the House of Windsor, despite a bridal that may deepen the publics emotional bond with the royals. Is it right to argue that this soap opera is less popular than people think?

On a scorchingly hot Saturday lunchtime in Leeds, the varied strands of the British left have collected outside the city’s art gallery for their annual May Day parade. They are all here: the Labour party, the Communist party, the Socialist party, a handful of trade unions, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and a handful of vegans chalking slogans on the paving stones. Meanwhile, under a green gazebo adorned with the tagline” End the Reign”, activists from a radical organisation that defies any left/ right stereotyping are setting up their stalling and hoping for a decent couple of hours’ business.

On a trestle table, they have arranged a handful of laminated blowups of newspaper articles, largely from the Guardian, about Prince Harry being interviewed by police about the killing of rare birds, the Queen’s PS8 2m income and the ” black spider letters “– named after Prince Charles’s eccentric handwriting- that exposed the future king’s efforts to influence some of the policies of the last Labour government. The basic phase all this bumf is intended to illustrate is presented in a four-page A5 leaflet. “Monarchy must go,” it tells, explaining why having a hereditary head of state” goes against every democratic principle”, as well as claiming that looking after the royals costs the public purse PS334m a year.

The Yorkshire branch of Republic- the pressure group dedicated to” campaigning for a democratic alternative to the monarchy”- has been in existence since 2012. Its prime movers reckon they have a database of” a few hundred” advocates across the region, but the group’s once-a-month campaigning work tends to be carried out by a handful of committed activists. Today, there are four: Shaun Iggleden, 52; Nigel Catling, 59; Ian Cox, 64; and 41 -year-old Mark Baxter.

Nigel Catling from Republic campaigning at the May Day rally in Leeds. Photo: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

The fact that they are all older white humen perhaps shows the parts of the population their campaigning has yet to reach, but they are far from being the cranks and anoraks some people would have you believe. Their arguments against the monarchy are calm, lucid and eloquent; they all have a clear sense of how difficult this enduring, often bizarre, organization is to campaign against and how long it may take even to start to dislodge it.

The arduous nature of anti-monarchy activism is rapidly proved by the 10 minutes I expend talking to Tracy, Helen and Nigel, who play in the brass band that is about to lead the May Day mob on a five-minute lap of the surrounding area. Do they, I wonder, know what Republic is all about?

” Disestablishing the empire ,” tells Nigel, without missing a beat.” I think that was a better debate before Donald Trump got elected. That puts me off .”

” I’d keep it like it is ,” tells Tracy, who plays the tenor cornet.” I like it. I think it’s brill: all the processions and the pomp and rite. And I believe the Queen’s amazing .” She will be watching Prince Harry marry Meghan Markle next week. “It’s going to be great.”

What do they think about how much the autocracy expenses?

” They bring so much money in ,” she tells.” And everything expenses a lot. The government expenses a lot .”

Do they fret at all about the prospect of King Charles III?

” I actually think it should be William next ,” says Helen, who plays the cornet.” But you don’t get to change those things .”

Tracy adds:” I don’t think Charles will be able to do what he wants, though. They get told what to do, don’t they ?”

‘ Will I be watching the wedding? Will I buggery ‘: Simon Till offers his thoughts on the royal family. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Over the next two hours, passersby highlight most shades of opinion. Simon Till, a 61 -year-old punk rocker whose leather coat features the logo of those infamous seditionaries the Sex Pistols, takes a leaflet and get straight to the phase:” I’m not a monarchist. I’m not for the rich. Will I be watching the marriage? Will I buggery .”

A handful of twentysomethings cross the square, look askance at the Republic stall and greet my the issue of the empire with a baffled astound that soon tilts into claims that we’d be better off keeping the royals, if merely for the amount of tourist fund they bring in. This is a point that, needless to say, Republic fiercely contests- to quote from their campaign material:” Research shows that tourists come here for our world-class museums, beautiful scenery, fantastic shopping and captivating history- not because they might catch a glimpse of Prince Andrew .”

A woman here with the Labour party tells me that the royals” represent that massive gap between rich countries and the poor”, whereas Sam, a history of architecture student, says that the empire” personifies the constitution”, and” Britain has never had a Hitler because the Queen wouldn’t allow it “.

Back at the Republic stall, even as the sunshine beats down and a sudden gust of wind threatens to blow the gazebo over a wall, the people in charge preserve a calm, steely demeanor.” I don’t know whether this is a good example, but with the suffragettes- how long did it take for women to get the vote ?” asks Catling, international civil servants.” That took decades. There were women who started it who didn’t see the end of it. We’ve got to start from somewhere, and that’s what we’re trying to do- plant seeds in people’s minds .”

Do they worry that the arrival of Markle has built campaigning even more trying? They must know the debates: that a person of colouring to intervene in the House of Windsor is supposedly a sign of modernisation, consigning to memory the facets of the institution that have been among the most problematic( such as, tell, Prince Philip’s racist ” quips” or his son’s recent comment that someone with brown scalp didn’t look like they were from Manchester ).

” Whether Harry weds Meghan Markle or not, it doesn’t alter the political nature of how the country is operate ,” says Iggleden, who works as a lorry driver.” That’s ultimately what we’re campaigning against. These are side issues. I’m not bothered who Harry does or doesn’t marriage. It doesn’t concern me .”

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 empire 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 tells.” How do you argue against feeling with logic? You often hear emotional reactions:’ I love the Queen .’ And you can’t argue with that. You tell:’ 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 set is supportive of the monarchy at more than 70%, while simply 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 matrimony 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 monarch or the role passing straight to his eldest son, merely 22% would prefer the former, whereas William would be backed by 51%. Republican, 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 perceptibly lower among younger people: in 2016, it was reported that 84% of those over persons under 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 gues: 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 empire to continue, against merely 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 exemplified 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 are applied to utter before he became what the modern slang calls “problematic”. (” I hate royalty. I always have done. It’s fairy-story nonsense .”) It’s perhaps an arbitrary point of comparison, but where pop-cultural postures 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 creation 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 sillines in which Republic tries to stay afloat. For the moment, the Yorkshire branch remains its only active regional offshoot and the great majority of its work is done from the home office- or, instead, three-person workstation- near King’s Cross station, in London. Thanks to an annual income of about PS140, 000- which comes from a membership base of 4, 000 people, topped up with a few occasional donations of between PS5, 000 and PS15, 000, Republic has two full-time personnel: 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 empire 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 recollect “.

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 training exercises, all the MPs filing through the division vestibules and dedicating 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 induce 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 expense the taxpayer an average of PS19m a year.

” We don’t say that the fact that the autocracy 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:’ Basically, the empire 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 instance would be the two weeks after the Brexit referendum, when we were essentially devoid of political leadership ,” tells Smith.” We had just taken this huge, very scary decision and there were all these reports about racist assaults … it felt like a very febrile atmosphere and there was no one to rise above all that, calm nerves and prove any leadership. It was a classic example of an occasion when a head of state might tell:’ This is something we’re going through and we’ll kind 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 tells,” 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 governmental forces could change a policy and the new policy could be in line with what we know Charles believes. The topic will then be asked:’ Have you said and done 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 runs 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 50 s, if not his 60 s. And I believe 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 somewhat dull, uninspiring individual. There’s time for the gloss to wear off. You can find headlines from the 1970 s that tell:’ Prince Charles is the young prince who’s going to save the autocracy .’ All this stuff get 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 working day of the royal bridal, 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, telling:’ 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, truly .”

A few minutes later, a young man with a pierced nose appears at the stalling 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 ,” arrives the reply.” I’d be happy to give more fund to subsistence it. It’s a good thing .”

It turns out that, with his papa and two cousins, 17 -year-old Thomas has developed tickets to Windsor booked for 19 May.” I’m going to see the procession. I merely 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 gap that constructs 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 ?”

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