THE death of the Queen and the accession of a new king have provided the best opportunity in many generations to develop and deepen the case for a republic in any and all parts of Britain. But what is a republic and are there different types of republics?

Some of the most famous republics were born out of revolution and armed struggles of national liberation. The most obvious examples are those in the US and France in the late 18th century and in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. A number of countries, such as former colonies of the British Empire, used the opportunity to become republics too. Ireland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe are examples.

That may suggest republics are inherently of a left-wing nature. But this would be a mistaken conclusion. They can be but they are not necessarily so.

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While the first French Republic declared liberty, equality and fraternity for all, this did not then mean freedom for the likes of the people of Algeria or Cambodia. Armed struggle and popular uprisings were needed to win national liberation from the French Republic. The case of Ireland indicates that, after gaining its independence, it was not the more thorough-going republican and radical Sinn Fein that benefited politically; for the two establishment mainstream parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, completely dominated until very recently. Both of these parties are social and economically conservative.

But the most obvious case of the promise of republicanism turning sour is found in the United States. After freeing itself from British rule, the US went on to establish an empire that was at least as big and as violent as the one Britain had created. The oppressed became an oppressor with former black slaves denied the right to full and free citizenship for countless decades.

The execution of King Charles I in 1649 led to a short-lived republic in England. Nobody can know how this might have turned out because the monarchy was restored just over a decade later. There were certainly groups such as the Diggers and Levellers which wanted to take change much further, but they were suppressed.

A republic is premised on more than just the rejection of a monarchy. It is based upon the notion of popular sovereignty. In other words, power should rest with the people.

But just how that is interpreted in practice can lead to quite wide variations. Different types of democratic practice can lead to right-wing or left-wing outcomes. It is not a question of whether parliaments exist or not but which social classes control these parliaments and how this control is used and to whose benefit. In other words, which people power resides with.

Some 80% of the world’s states are self-proclaimed republics. There are liberal democratic republics and Islamic republics. There used to be many so-called socialist republics before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In all of them, there is a dominant social class which somewhat turns on its head the notion that a republic is quintessentially about popular sovereignty.

Parliaments choose not to control many aspects of life and society so that the rights of private property remain sacrosanct. This gives rich and powerful groups within society the opportunity to protect and advance their own interests to the detriment of others.

So, just like independence, republicanism can take different forms and be of different types. Republicanism is necessary but far from sufficient for creating a fair, just and equal society. Electing a head of state does nothing more – in current circumstances – than create another member of the ruling class. Presidents in Ireland, for example, are overwhelmingly drawn from the existing elite.

Closer to home, the republican campaigning group Republic was formed in 1983. While it has done some sterling work, it is not a particularly radical outfit. Stopping the abuses of power and privilege by monarchs is one thing but creating a positive alternative is quite another.

People’s popular parliaments through the means of citizens’ assemblies are needed for that task – but only if they are willing and able to challenge the vested interests in society. The monarchy is one of many of these.

The National: Being republican did not make people such as former Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell especially left-wingBeing republican did not make people such as former Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell especially left-wing (Image: unknown)

People should also be reticent in celebrating the likes of former Scottish Labour MPs such as Willie Hamilton and Tam Dalyell. Being republicans did not necessarily make them especially left-wing. For that, the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are needed.

When all is said and done, a republic is needed. It is not a distraction from more pressing issues but rather part and parcel of resolving them.

The rub is people need to be very clear-minded about what kind of republic is needed. Otherwise, they could be buying themselves something akin to the proverbial “pig in a poke”.

Professor Gregor Gall is editor of A New Scotland: Building an Equal, Fair and Sustainable Society (Pluto Press, 2022)