What do you do if you are an outsider in the Labour leadership race and need to grab some extra attention fast? Answer: come up with something eye-catching that you think will go down well with party members even if it is not necessarily a realistic proposition.
First we had Jess Phillips suggesting that she might campaign to rejoin the European Union. Now we have Clive Lewis calling for a referendum on the monarchy.
‘Why not have a referendum on the future of the Royal Family?… I’d rather see us as citizens than subjects in the 21st Century,’ said Lewis, who is currently short of the 22 Labour MPs or MEPs he needs to nominate him if he is to make the leadership ballot paper.
Just as Phillips swiftly rowed back on her anti-Brexit flight of fancy, Lewis also abandoned the republican gambit from his campaign launch today, tweeting soon afterwards:
‘In response to my comments about the royal family. I didn’t say they should be abolished, I have lots of respect for the hard work they do. I simply think the question about their size and the money they receive should be one for the public. Asking these questions is democratic.’
Well, not really. How is one supposed to interpret ‘I’d rather see us as citizens than subjects’? It seems an avowedly republican statement to me. Indeed, it’s very difficult to interpret it any other way. But at least there is a Clive Lewis leadership campaign story up and running now, eh?
The trouble with such high-octane and ill-thought-through campaign statements is that over time they sap authority from the people making them. The danger is that, even among the Labour selectorate, the response will not be ‘Oh I see Clive Lewis has made a radical suggestion’, but rather ‘Oh I see Clive Lewis has made a fool of himself again.’
The past few years have of course taught us to take opinion polling with a pinch of salt. But the public’s attitude towards the monarchy seems particularly clear cut. The last major survey, by YouGov about 20 months ago, found 69 per cent of British people were monarchists and 21 per cent republicans, or at least anti-monarchists.
With the Queen closing in on the astonishing achievement of a Platinum Jubilee in 2022 (how long till she is recognised as Elizabeth the Great, by the way?) no sensible or serious republican would choose now as the time to have a plebiscite on the subject. The public appetite for non-essential voting seems stretched to the limit too, as evidenced by the fate of the very well-funded People’s Vote campaign.
Of course, the very best case in favour of a constitutional monarchy is the same as the very best case in favour of capitalism: that it is the worst system apart from all the others.
Throughout the 1990s all one needed to do to win a debate on the subject was to utter the phrase ‘president Kinnock’. Currently the killer phrase is probably ‘president Blair’.
By the time having a referendum on the royals gets to be a serious prospect maybe it will be ‘president Lewis’. But that won’t be for a long time. Not least because there probably won’t even be a Labour members’ referendum on Clive Lewis this year, as his campaign bandwagon simply refuses to roll.