A Right Royal Debate: The Sex Pistols and the history of Republicanism
There are some moments in punk history that will forever be considered iconic- events that demonstrated something about what punk was trying to do; to convey and to be. For many people, a lot of those moments will feature one band in particular- The Sex Pistols.
A boat called the Queen Elizabeth bobbing along the Thames hosting a punk party during the Queen’s Jubilee might not sound particularly audacious now but the chaos and publicity that ensued was shocking to many. The boat party ended in 11 arrests and was part of a whole general string of controversies over a band and their song- the Pistols and God Save The Queen.
The song was originally titled ‘No Future’ and its sole purpose was not to rile up the Queen specifically but to make a comment on the inherent nature of a monarchy and what it means for those forced to live as ‘subjects’.
The song was released during the titular Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations- a fact that the band deny was intentionally provocative. O f course, it goes without saying that this was in fact, provocative to many people. Whilst a large swathe of the public were cracking out their Union Jack bunting and singing Rule Britannia, the Sex Pistols single was seen as an example of the moral bankruptcy (and lack of decency) that this new punk movement seemed to revel in. Even now such dissent might ruffle some feathers on the likes of BBC Breakfast or The One Show, so you can imagine how much of a bolt from the blue it was in 1977. The BBC refused to play the song, and it was denounced by all good and decent people everywhere. The timing of the release led many to believe it was a direct attack on the Queen- and the lyrics equating her reign with a fascist regime didn’t exactly paint it as a patriotic tribute.
The band maintained it wasn’t just about the Queen, the message of the song was about a country and its people held back by the inherited subservience to an unelected super rich and privileged family. The song was an attempt to evoke sympathy for the working class and make them think about the ethical and practical value of a monarchy.
Johnny Rotten explained the lyrics in these terms:
“You don’t write ‘God Save the Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up with them being mistreated.”
In 2010, the song was ranked among the top 10 most controversial songs of all time in a poll conducted by PRS for Music (it was ranked number 2, sandwiched between Smack My Bitch Up by The Prodigy and Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood).
It has been re-released (much to Lydon’s chagrin) in 2002 and 2012 for the Golden and Diamond Jubilee respectively but hasn’t made as much
Despite the controversy and the public and media responding as if it were a personal kick in the groin, Lydon is by no means the first person to suggest that maybe having a hereditary monarchy might not be the best way of doing things.
Republicanism as well as specifically anti-monarchy sentiment has been around as long as there were Kings and Queens to rail against but for the purposes of this instalment of Punk Rock Philosophy, we’ll cover periods in Britain from the 17th Century. ‘Cause shit got real.
FYI- Republicanism doesn’t necessarily start from the sole purpose of wanting to bin a monarch. Throughout its history, Republicanism focused its demands on a balanced democratic government, civic rights and responsibilities for all, and a resistance to tyrannical power or power too centralised in one place. So, by its nature, it is in opposition to a monarchy. And for those places that already have one, republicans want them removed.
Inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, a few people in Britain started to think that maybe getting rid of a monarchy is not just desirable but do-able. Revolution fanboy Thomas Paine was certainly in favour of having a clear out in Britain. For Paine, since all men are born equal, no man’s family should be presiding over others- the whole concept was logically absurd. He advocated for a written constitution, breaking up the Church of England, dismantling the Royal Court and taking land back from the aristocracy. Ideas that are still pretty revolutionary today, so goodness knows how the people of the 18th century felt. Well, we do know they weren’t particularly on board as he failed to get much public support for these ideas.
Thomas Paine wanted revolution and general reform of society and how it is made up, the monarchy was just one part of these societal overhauls. For others, getting rid of the monarchy was their sole issue.
Anti-monarchists would try and sully the character of the royal family, going after their flaws and gaffes and shortcomings of particular individuals. They found a great target in Prince Albert Edward (later Edward VII) who was pushed towards royal duties following the death of his father Prince Albert and his mother Queen Victoria’s withdrawal from public life. He was a bit of a waster by the standards of the day (and probably the standards of today as well) he liked to sleep around, gamble, indulge in many vices. He wasn’t called the Playboy King for nothing. His reputation could be easily exploited to demonstrate the avaricious nature of those with power. We can see the same thing happening now- a tenacious tabloid press making it easier to publish the sordid details of the lives of the ruling family. Think of all the scandal to hit the Windsor’s- the death of Princess Diana and the conspiracies around the royal family’s involvement; infidelities; the accusations against Prince Andrew; the furore surrounding Harry and Meghan. It is in many ways, an anti-monarchist’s dream.
In the Victorian era, politicians like Sir Charles Dilke, Charles Bradlaugh and Keir Hardie all held Republican views. Dilke gave a speech in 1871 that highlighted the cost of keeping the royal family. He focused on the ‘hangers-on’ and dependents who were all funded by the public purse- a sobering thought considering the Queen had 9 children. Dilke’s speech inspired the formation of as many as 168 republican clubs around Britain and led to public rallies and accompanying clashes between supporters and opponents of the monarchy. It wasn’t quite enough to seal their fate though.
British republican flag, originated in 1816, in use until at least 1935
There is a precedence though- a short window in the 17th century when things were a bit chaotic. Wales, Scotland and England and the Republic of Ireland were briefly ruled as a republic. First there was a Rump parliament in 1648 (The Rump Parliament was solely responsible for governing the nation without the traditional hierarchy of nobles, princes, and bishops). Then there was Council of State (1649-1653). Then ruled by Cromwell, then back to the Rump Parliament……long story short, the monarchy was restored in 1660 and has continued to this day.
But…..in modern-day UK, the Queen doesn’t really do much or have much power so what does it really matter now? In fact, this is what is sometimes used as an argument for keeping a monarchy- they don’t really wield any power so what difference does it really make?
Historians will point to the ceremonial nature of the modern monarchy as one of the reasons it has survived- not a threat to power and able to justify its continued existence by using the time that could have been spent lording it over the peasants, engaging in charity, PR, and general royal stuff.
The length of the civil list (even though reduced to core members of the royal family in the early 20th century) and the hidden wealth of the royal family in land and property continue to attract criticism, as does the tax-exempt status of the Duchy of Cornwall (although Charles does pay voluntary tax on the surplus of the estate, he is not legally required to do so). But with public approval ratings for the Queen still high, the abolition of the monarchy in the near future remains unlikely. Aside from Sinn Fein, there is no political party that openly espouses the end of the monarchy.
For The Sex Pistols, there were implications to their stance and the release of the single- it wasn’t all a fun bit of circus. It was only a few months after the Bill Grundy show debacle and public hostility towards punk was palpable, particularly from those on the Right. Lydon was attacked in June 1977 by a group of nine men armed with knives- one of a number of attacks on the band which Studio Manager Bill Price stated at the time was likely to be because of the God Save the Queen controversy.
Whilst it may not have brought down Liz and the fam, the release of the single did have a very important purpose in the story of punk in making a very clear statement that punk isn’t here to make friends- it is provocative, it’s political and it’s revolutionary. And long may it remain so- Thomas Paine would love it.