“Prime Minister Corbyn” once sounded like a far-fetched idea. Now, days from the U.K. general election, it’s a possibility. The thought is exhilarating to his supporters and alarming to his detractors, who range from rightwing politicians to moderate followers of his own party, Labour. But perhaps the person most surprised is Jeremy Corbyn’s opponent, the current prime minister and leader of the Conservative party, Theresa May.
For May, this election is a problem of her own making. In April, she called for a “snap” general election (the last general election was just two years ago, and the next was originally scheduled for 2020), to be held on June 8, in an effort to strengthen her position in Brexit negotiations and beat back criticism that she is, currently, an unelected prime minister. At the time, the announcement was seen as a strong move. Back then May averaged, as Nate Silver calculated, a 17-point lead over Corbyn. But after a campaign in which May has underperformed and Corbyn has surpassed low expectations, that lead has shrunk to anywhere from 12 points in one poll to just one point in another. May is still likely to win, but with a smaller majority in parliament than expected. And given that the same pollsters incorrectly forecasted the 2015 general election and the EU referendum, nothing is guaranteed.
One thing, however, is certain: Either May or Corbyn will have to share power with another person—the Queen of England. Queen Elizabeth II, who has reigned for 64 years this month, is technically the head of state. This setup—of ceremonial power for the monarch and political power for the parliament—is an accepted part of British politics. But in this election, there is a point of tension: Jeremy Corbyn is an anti monarchist.
Corbyn has made his disdain for royalty clear publicly. He has refused to sing the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” preferring instead to stand in “respectful silence.” And he told The New Statesman in 2015, “I am at heart, as you very well know, a republican.” More broadly, Corbyn, 68, who has often been likened in appearance to a university professor with his scruff and beige jackets, is a socialist, anti-war politician who has spent his life far away from the pomp and circumstance of the monarchy.
Corbyn has indicated that he believes the monarchy’s political influence should be weakened. He has previously said the royal prerogative—the Queen’s power to make decisions, including to allow the prime minister to take the country to war without consulting parliament—should be “subject to parliamentary vote and veto.” Corbyn has also criticized the Queen’s “Privy Council,” a mostly symbolic group that advises the monarch. As the leader of the opposition, Corbyn is part of that group. He declined his first invitation to be inducted, citing a prior engagement; however, he later did go to Buckingham Palace and is now a member of the Council. (Corbyn’s membership grants him the title, “The Right Honorable Jeremy Corbyn,” though he would not likely use it.) Still, Corbyn declared before the ceremony that he would not kneel for the Queen, as is traditional.
Corbyn standing in “respectful silence” during the national anthem. (BBC)
Despite his views, Corbyn insists he would not seek to abolish the monarchy: “It’s not the fight I’m going to fight,” he said in a 2015 interview. “I’m much more interested in rebalancing our society, dealing with the problems, protecting the environment.”
Indeed, abolishing the monarchy is nowhere to be found in the Labour party manifesto being offered to British voters. In a TV interview last week, British broadcaster Jeremy Paxman asked Corbyn why many of his personal beliefs do not appear in Labour’s platform. “I’m not a dictator who writes things to tell people what to do,” Corbyn replied in explanation, wearing a dark suit, which his advisers reportedly insisted would help him appeal to a broader audience. The way he views his job as Labour leader, Corbyn continued, is “to give a voice to our members and those affiliated to our party.”
Paxman asked specifically about Corbyn’s anti-monarchy sentiments: “There is nothing in this manifesto about getting rid of the monarchy, which is another thing you believe in, isn’t it?” Corbyn paused before responding, though he did not deny the charge.
“Look, there’s nothing in there because we’re not going to do it.” That was clearly the right answer: The audience laughed and cheered.
Paxman, known for his aggressive interview style, asked the question again, but Corbyn stood his ground. “It’s not on anybody’s agenda, it’s certainly not on my agenda,” he said, before quipping, “And you know what, I had a very nice chat with the Queen.”
“But you don’t like her, do you?” Paxman pressed him yet again, “You don’t like what she represents.”
Newly disciplined for a general election campaign, Corbyn demurred with a smile: “We got along absolutely fine.” He nevertheless added, “But I don’t think she should be brought into political discussion.” After another back and forth, Corbyn said, “Look, the law is there, and that’s what will prevail.”
Corbyn’s anti monarchist beliefs are not his only controversial ones, and for the last two years he has been an embattled leader of the Labour party. Corbyn once called Hamas and Hezbollah “friends”—a statement he has since said he regrets—and has been accused of antisemitism. He called the assassination of Osama bin Laden a “tragedy,” because he believes bin Laden should have been captured and tried in court. Last summer, after being accused of weak campaigning for the Remain cause in the EU referendum, Corbyn lost a vote of no confidence among Labour members of parliament. Nevertheless, Corbyn, on a platform of radical reform to reduce inequality, has won the Labour leadership twice in landslide victories, largely thanks to grassroots support.
Corbyn has repeatedly said that abolishing the monarchy is not as important as tackling social justice issues, and so he won’t do it. The other factor Corbyn does not mention, though, is that if he suggests the monarchy be abolished, he could never win over the British electorate.
The monarchy is decidedly popular in the U.K. In a 2015 poll, 68 percent of Brits surveyed said the monarchy was good for Britain, and 62 percent said they predicted the monarchy will exist in 100 years. In 2011, an estimated 24.5 million people in the U.K. (the population was 63 million at the time) watched the royal wedding on TV, and another million lined the streets in London to see it in person. With that much attention, the monarchy seems untouchable.
If, against the odds, Corbyn is elected this Thursday, he will travel in a motorcade to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen will give him her blessing to form a government. Only then can he arrive at No. 10 Downing Street the new prime minister. Every week Corbyn will return to the palace for an “Audience” with the monarch, during which he will keep her up to date on government affairs. And if he refuses to bow his head, or briefs the Queen on how he plans to strip power from her, Corbyn cannot be so sure that his next royal encounter will be a “very nice chat” like the last one.