Britain's republicans rejoice at royal wedding

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 31, 2011 7:46 AM

By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - Mention the royal wedding, and the eyes of Graham Smith, Britain's leading lobbyist for the abolition of the monarchy, light up.

Unlike many compatriots, the head of the Republic group will not be reveling in the patriotism and pomp on display at the April 29 marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Nor will he be waving a Union Jack flag with hundreds of thousands of well-wishers expected to line the streets of London to catch a glimpse of the young couple.

Rather Smith sees the wedding as a perfect opportunity to expose what he regards as an anachronistic institution with no place in a 21st century democracy, particularly at a time when royal subjects are feeling the financial pinch.

"It is good for us, because we have gained thousands of new supporters, new members, new donations, and a lot more media interest," he said in a small apartment a few hundred yards (meters) from the historic Tower of London, where prisoners were once held for plotting against the monarchy.

"It is indifference which sustains the monarchy rather than love and support, and when you have these big set piece events, all it does is start to make people think about it again."

Smith doubts there will be the same level of interest in next month's ceremony at Westminster Abbey as there was in 1981 for the wedding of William's parents, or in 1997 for his mother Princess Diana's funeral.

The 1981 wedding drew an estimated crowd of 600,000 people and a global television audience of 750 million. Over a million people turned out to pay their respects at Diana's funeral.

POLLS MAKE GRIM READING

Statistically, Smith knows he and Republic's 12,000 or so supporters face an uphill struggle to overthrow such a deep-rooted part of British culture.

Opinion polls remain stubbornly static in the monarchy's favor, media outlets appear willing to embrace the young royal couple unquestioningly and widespread indifference toward the institution has proved hard to turn into opposition.

Smith said surveys consistently showed one in five Britons wanted the royalty gone, but a new poll, published since Smith made his comments, made grim reading for the republicans.

A YouGov survey showed support for scrapping the monarchy at 13 percent from a peak of about 25 percent after the death of Diana, when there was widespread anger with the royal family over its perceived ill treatment of the "people's princess."

Republicans argue that the remaining majority does not necessarily favor the monarchy. Yet while many people may not care much about the royals, they are just as indifferent to the idea of seeing them removed.

"Obviously we've got indifference to battle," said Smith. "They've lost their interest in the monarchy so what we've got to do now is to find a bit of motivation, a bit of interest in the idea of getting rid of it."

The annual cost of the monarchy to the taxpayer is officially reported at just under 40 million pounds ($65 million), but including security and other costs, Smith and others estimate the bill at closer to 180 million pounds.

"It's just common sense -- we ought not to be lavishing money on people just because of who they are," Smith said.

As well as money, there is the question of power.

According to Britain's unwritten constitution, the reigning sovereign has extensive formal powers as head of state, head of the armed forces and "Defender of the Faith."

In reality, the monarch is a ceremonial figure with little say over the running of the country who leaves key decisions to parliament, a status quo that may explain public indifference. Republic has set a target date of 2025 to see the monarchy abolished, an ambitious, but not impossible aim, Smith added.

"For many years people who have supported us have said 'I want it to happen but not in my lifetime,' and we want to say you can't carry on like that, we can't keep on thinking not in my lifetime, we've got to put a date on it," Smith said.

EXPERTS VOICE DOUBTS

Several factors could hurt or harm that cause, say experts. Queen Elizabeth, who celebrates 60 years on the throne in 2012, is seen as such an entrenched part of the national psyche that she would be particularly difficult to dislodge.

William and Middleton will play an important role in shaping people's opinions of the monarchy, royal watchers say, and most believe the couple are already proving popular.

"The public loves a romantic story, particularly in a time of gloom and despondency which is where we are now, and this is an enchanting love story," said Penny Junor, a royal author.

Politician and constitutional expert Norman St John-Stevas gives the republican movement next to no chance of success.

"Like every one of our institutions, it (the monarchy) has to change and evolve," he told Reuters. "If it had not done so it would be a museum piece and would have gone years ago like so many other monarchies.

"As it is, the Queen will leave the monarchy in as strong a position as it's ever been."

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)