I can't put my finger on the moment when my republicanism was born. I can however definitely say when it came of age, and a road bridge was responsible.
Like an elephant calf, my republicanism had a long gestation. I put its conception down to the steady drip-drip effect of my less-than-affluent Welsh working class childhood. I was born and brought up in Swansea, a city whose past industrial glories had long since faded, leaving unemployment, neglect and a general mood of resignation among its inhabitants. Welsh people who felt a sense of injustice about what had happened to the country's working tradition felt that they were more 'subjects' of British rule than citizens. The monarchy seemed to be totally immune to the laws of economic circumstance that then affected many of us. I believed then, as I do now, that there is no justification for one family, purely by right of birth, to live in exquisite luxury at the expense of the taxpayer while hundreds of thousand of others wonder where their rent is coming from.
The true resentment I have for the institution of monarchy doesn't originate wholly from a sense of social indifference and injustice, however. We don't sustain ourselves by material things alone. There is always the life of the mind: just the sort of activity in which the Royals would be least likely to get involved. Here at least is one sphere of human activity where people were valued because of what they accomplished rather than who their parents were.
Being a very capable child, but not being one of the 'aesthetically endowed', I turned to science rather than the arts as my bolthole. Dalton, Einstein, Darwin, and Newton: all developed ideas of a profound and lasting nature. Moreover, these ideas cut across social boundaries: you could appreciate the intrinsic beauty in natural selection, atomic theory or gravitation without (or even despite) having attended an expensive public school and being drilled in the classics.
As much as one can find a sense of individual purpose and meaning by following ideals, it's good, once it a while, to know that one's own passions strike a chord with others. I feel gratified when someone says at work 'hey, did you see that Horizon last night?' and asks for my opinion on the ideas being presented. It makes me feel even better when they can discuss these ideas in depth and makes a change from cars or what happened in East Enders. In just the same way, one can feel totally adrift from others when all that's on offer is sheer banality.
I came across a prime example of this banality, a total collapse of the imagination, when driving down to Kent some years ago. It had been an extremely long day: I had been on a client's site trying to fix a problem, and then had to drive hundreds of miles down to a conference I was attending. I was tired, it was dark, it was the M25, I had a neuralgia attack coming on and I felt miserable.
It was when we came to cross the Thames at Dartford that I saw a huge cable-stayed bridge. A thing of stark, sodium-lit beauty, it reared gracefully into the sky like a gigantic sailing sloop. This was obviously my way across the river, and it broke up the drudge of the journey on the M25.
I was just about to drive over the bridge when I saw the dedicatory plaque. Someone (who?) had decided to call it the 'Queen Elizabeth II' bridge. The first thought that sprang to my mind was 'why?' What had this woman done to deserve having a bridge named after her? What qualities of hers did this beautiful example of civil engineering embody? Why not the 'Thomas Telford' or 'Isambard Kingdom Brunel' bridge? And who had asked the country what they thought about this choice of dedication? The pain in my face got a lot worse at that moment.
It seemed to perfectly embody the poverty of our aspirations as a nation. When asked to think of something or someone to celebrate our nationhood, we cannot, or are afraid to, come up with anything better than a ridiculously pampered and increasingly less distinguished family. Many symbols of what made ours, for a very long time, the foremost scientific, cultural and industrial nation in the world, have become hijacked in the name of 'tradition' and deference. All the really progressive changes in our country's culture have come from the grass roots, and yet there seems to be little inclination to celebrate this dynamism and diversity.
The monarchy has, in this context, become the cultural and intellectual equivalent of a baby food processor, into which our more differentiated feelings about nationhood are thrust, rendered, and extruded in a pap of mindless sentiment, unquestioning obeisance and forelock tugging. They bury our dreams, and dig up the worthless.
In future, no doubt, even more undeserved and unthinking tribute will be extracted from some remarkable engineering or construction project. Or perhaps it is rather less insidious and more territorial: the act of slapping the Royal Crest on anything substantial that's built is simply like an L.A. street gang marking its turf with its signature graffito: 'the country belongs to the Crown, don't you forget it, sunshine'. Maybe after all, it's just a shot across the bows of the republican movement, a way of sending the clear and unchanging message that despite the fact that we can build a 21st-century construction marvel, we put aside any foolish notion of building a 21st-century state.
Any way you interpret it, it's a hell of a presumption on our behalf. Of course, when you point out this identity crisis at the heart of our nationhood, the sycophants - the St.John-Stevas's - implicitly cave in by quickly falling back on the utilitarian argument. 'But they do so much for the country; they bring in so much tourism'. Well I think I speak for many when I say that I'd rather live in a dynamic, challenging and progressive democracy than an island theme park of the coast of France, run for the primary benefit of its citizens rather than its tourists.
Coming back to the single issue with which I took so much exception, that of our national aspirations, their symbols and how they relate to how we see ourselves, I suggest those republicans among us start to fight back. If the Royal Family wants 'first call' on having their name on our symbols or treasures of this nation, they have to take the Nation as we are expected to do: a package. They'll have to swallow the stones as well the cherries, associating themselves indelibly with the rotten parts of our culture as well.
So how about having some traffic fume-induced asthmatic with a bottle of Pomagne dedicating a plywood plaque to the 'Prince Charles Spaghetti Junction'? Or an refugee, fearful for his life, dedicating the 'Prince Philip Asylum Seekers Deportation Centre'? I'm sure we can all think of various questionable and quintessentially British developments that deserve such a dedication. And, if they start to complain that they don't deserve this kind of attention, that they weren't responsible for these assaults on our senses and sensibilities, then we should remind them, gently (or if necessary, no so gently), that they didn't instigate, design, build or even pay for the good bits: graceful buildings, bridges and ships. It might even do them some good in that at last they get to see our country for what it currently is rather than how they might like to think it to be. The truth hurts - but only for those of us who have been swaddled in cotton wool for their lives.