“The string that ties the robbers bundle”
The monarchy, despite its longevity and its seeming stability (as evidenced by coming the jubilee – QE2 outstripping probably any other head of state in terms of throne-time) is an institution steeped in contradiction.
Capitalism declares itself to be a socio-economic system based on equal rights and opportunities. At every step from the formal equality of parties to the law to the cult of the entrepreneur, it is steeped in an ideology that asserts that “any one can make it, everyone is treated the same and has the same rights”. Twenty years ago this is what underpinned John Major’s declaration that Britain was a classless society.
It is all, of course, untrue. Britain ranks near the top among western capitalist states for high inequality and low social mobility. So inconvenient facts like these, alongside racism and sexism, have to be quietly ignored or their consequences violently resisted when they spill on to the streets.
The worse the contradiction has become – with neo-liberalism, the “free-est” form of modern capitalism, proving to be the most unfair and unequal – the more the production of an alternative fantasy world as reality has had to go into overdrive. The National Lottery, reality TV and game shows are the cultural flipside to this social order: telling people that, against all the evidence to the contrary, anyone can make it. If you are poor, don’t work, aren’t educated or are ill: it must be your fault.
The problem is that Monarchy – as the ultimate mass media soap opera, periodically enacted as a costume drama on the streets with millions of extras – runs counter to this mythology. John Major, the offspring of circus performers, became a Tory Prime Minister. But it is simply not possible for anyone to be monarch. Indeed it is a position reserved for the biological product of a miniscule fraction of the filthy rich.
Whereas, at every level capitalism espouses an ideology of “rights” and “democracy”, the monarchy stands for inherited privilege and repression. Far from being the “ideal family”, the veil has increasingly been torn aside to reveal its dysfunctional opposite. It is marked by more emotional illiteracy, failed marriages and insecure children than you are likely to find among the single parent inhabitants of urban estates that New Labour wanted to force into “parenting classes”.
The extent to which an old “deferential culture” really existed has always been exaggerated. In the last 100 years eroded by two world wars, the secularisation of society, welfarism and an era in which at least there was an aspiration for workers and democratic rights. But it remains integral to the idea of Royalty. What is the purpose of a king if he is not put on a pedestal? Deference may have meant something when Tories saw themselves as “benevolent patricians” and apprenticeship to pension security was, at least theoretically, part of a “social contract”. But that has all been ripped up in the last 30 years.
These contradictions are sometimes invisible but they are never far from the surface and they go to explain what can be called the “Diana effect”: an increasing public awareness of the contradiction between the monarchy and the claims that are made for it and the society it represents.
The immense popularity of Diana Spencer in part derived from her tragic death and empathy with her maltreatment by “The Firm” in the preceding decade. But the liberal modernising wing of the bourgeoisie, always aware of the contradictions underlying monarchy and perhaps fearful that this would one day blow up in its faces, snatched the opportunity to reinvent and repackage the institution. It did this around the story of a fairytale princess whose privilege and high standing was balanced by sneaking out at night, incognito, to care for the needy: the Mandelsonian “People’s Princess”.
The recent film The King’s Speech was more of the same. Revisionist history that reconstructed the King as the ordinary vulnerable human being that throughout his life his subjects never knew he was. A man who said (take a deep breath before reading the next word) “fuck”.
Likewise the recent royal marriage. Kate Middleton was spun as a “commoner” (albeit a public-school educated one with millionaire parents) with ordinary tastes. The wedding cake was made with digestive biscuits (albeit purchased from Fortnum and Mason’s).
The subliminal message we were being sent, chimed with the game shows, reality TV and lottery: anyone of you has a 1 in 50 million chance of being part of the monarchy. Desperate attempts were made to choreograph the wedding and spin it as “informal” and “normal”, which meant little more than being marginally less stiff-necked than Charles and Di’s in 1981.
Opinion poll evidence suggests the PR job has been a success. According to the Guardian/ICM 63% think we’d be worse off without the monarchy. Only 26% better off. Although there is a closer split when 47% said it is a unifying force against 36% who think it is divisive.
The monarchy’s nadir came in the immediate aftermath of Diana’s death in 1997, with only 48% thinking society was better off it. However, the Blairite relaunch of the new post-Diana Royal family paid off as this figure bounced back to 62% the following year.
Back to 2011 75% thought the wedding would cheer people up and only 17% thought not: showing that some who are basically hostile to the institution were prepared to be carried along by the celebrations. It achieved its aim in boosting the feel-good factor at a time of uncertainty and austerity.
The only good news was the relatively high proportion of 19-24 year olds (37%) thought Britain would be better off without it and the declining numbers who thought there would still be a monarchy in 50 or 100 years time.
But despite its superficially Diana-esque stage management and repackaging, the Royal Wedding just couldn’t help revealing its true dark side.
It was accompanied by punitive repression of a type the state would never get away with at any other time. In the run up there was a co-ordinated campaign of “preventative” arrests and the charging of students involved in the protests of late 2010. A further 55 were arrested in London on the day of the wedding. These included participants in a Soho Square “Royal wedding Zombie party” highlighting the impact of the cuts on LGBT people and “suspicious” people in the crowds on the wedding route. 40 officers in riot gear raided a community gardening squat in West London. Facebook pages of activists were shut down.
“Grey propaganda” was pumped out associating any opposition to the monarchy with Islamic terrorism. A street party in Covent Garden organised by the mainstream Republic campaign, supported by a range of public figures had been agreed by the police and Camden Council, but was then cancelled without explanation. After some protest, it eventually did successfully occur in Red Lion Square.
The half million that lined the streets had to stand behind double crowd control barriers, a line of police officers with a further line of armed officers equipped with machine guns. These gun-totting cops, in their hundreds were not forming a traditional “honour guard” which would face the parade, but faced the crowd in the manner of prison camp guards. Who ever organised the security feared more than a lone suicide bomber. They feared the masses.
Despite all the spin about modernity and informality, militarism maintained its traditional place. Prince William and his father were in full military uniform. There was a Royal Air Force fly-by. Battle of Britain (the lowest common denominator of nationalist militarism in this country) fighter planes followed by Typhoon and Tornado jets (presumably fresh from bombing Libya).
The wedding itself was a mono-cultural display of the English haute-bourgeoisie and its international allies: a motley array of human rights abusers and sub-royalty churned up with the odd media star. For all the post-Diana emphasis of diversity and “being in touch with the people” they seem to have forgotten to invite any black people. I certainly didn’t spot any in the TV coverage, although I later learnt that a princess from Lesotho had attended. Elton John and partner, gay courtier since he serenaded Diana’s funeral, a partial exception that proves the rule although he would have been preferable in the Louis XIV-era wig and costume that he once famously wore to his own birthday party.
14 years on from Diana’s death, despite all the outpouring about reform and updating for the 21st century nothing substantial has changed. The overall picture is of a bourgeoisie that grips monarchy deep in its embrace yet simultaneously harbours a deep rooted fear that its popularity will crumble under the weight of contradictions.
There was, of course, republican activism around the time of the wedding. “Republic” ensured that an oppositional viewpoint was heard, despite the clampdowns. Its list of supporting public figures including well known media figures. The political spread was broader than republicanism protest at the time of Prince Charles’s wedding when it was largely restricted to Ken Livingstone and the far left. The Guardian newspaper published a leader column for a republic for instance. But for all its worth, today’s republicanism has little social weight and is weakened by the absence of an organised left.
The subject is not on the agenda of any of the three main parties, nor of the wider “liberal left”, civil liberties and constitutional reform organisations. The issue was barely on the radar of Charter 88, the main campaign for constitutional modernisation in recent decades. A recent book marking two decades since it’s launch gave the issue only the briefest mention. The labour movement has been almost silent. Even the far left’s republicanism is largely kept under wraps. Wheeled out on occasion but generally regarded as a distraction from the more urgent needs of the class struggle.
Why is there so little public opposition to the monarchy? Why is the substantial republican minority (26%) not politically represented?
Modern republicanism has it’s origins in the French revolution. This had a big impact internationally, including in Britain. Tom Paine – involved in revolutionary activity in France, Ireland and America – helped popularise it’s ideas, in particular it’s republicanism. A group of intellectuals in England took this up, led by William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Women’s liberation was born out of this struggle and the related principle that all people are equal. A second generation, led by Wollstonecraft’s daughter Mary and the poet Percy Shelley ensured that these ideas spread in the early part of the 19th century.
Shelley may be lauded as one of the country’s greatest poets but his republicanism is not so well known. It is significant that first poems, published when 18, were under the pseudonym Margaret Nicholson, after a washerwoman who had attempted to assassinate George III in 1786. And in his first great poem Queen Mab (1812) he wrote,
“Whence, think’st thou, kings and parasites arose?
Whence that unnatural line of drones, who heap
Toil and unvanquishable penury
On those who build their palaces, and bring
Their daily bread? – From vice, black loathsome vice;
From rapine, madness, treachery and wrong;
From all that ‘genders misery, and makes
Of earth this thorny wilderness; from lush
Revenge, and murder … “
And he described the aristocracy around the king as,
“Those gilded flies
That, basking in the sunshine of a court,
Fatten on its corruption”.
He accepted that the political power of the monarchy was declining but developed a critique of the ideological role: “The power which has increased … is the power of the rich. The name and office of king is merely the mask of this power, and is a kind of stalking horse used to conceal those ‘catchers of men’, whilst they lay their nets. Monarchy is only the string which ties the robber’s bundle” (A Philosophical View of Reform, 1820)
And he understood the monarchy’s integral role in militarism and colonialism. In his “Proposals for an Association”, addressed to the Irish he laid into nationalism and jingoism: “I call expressions … political cant, which, like the songs of Rule Britannia and God Save the King, are but abstracts of the caterpillar creed of courtiers, cut down to the taste and comprehension of a mob; the one to disguise to an alehouse politician the evils of that devilish practice of war, and the other to inspire among clubs of all descriptions a certain feeling which some call loyalty and others servility”.
Where are the Shelley’s of today? The only leading politician of the last 50 years to carry this flag has been, very much to his credit, Tony Benn. The Sex Pistol’s 1977 riposte to the Queen’s silver jubilee, the scathingly sarcastic “God Save the Queen” reaching number one in the charts, was in this vein. But otherwise very little.
Paine and Shelley were very influential – widely read for many decades after their deaths. Both had a big influence on the Chartists, a militant working class mass movement for reform in mid-19th century.
But the bourgeoisie had no taste for the ideas of these radical intellectuals. The wave of revolutionary republicanism sweeping Europe coincided with the hegemonic rise of Britain’s imperial power. They were more interested in grabbing the fruits of this through the union with Scotland and Ireland and colonial expansion. This British capitalist boom time succeeded partly through the political stability and hegemony achieved by fusing the old nobility with the rising bourgeois class. The monarchy, symbol of the new power, was at the heart of this settlement.
Even the liberal reformist wing avoided suggesting any tampering with monarchy. John Stuart Mill, a radical of this type who played an important role in the fight for women’s rights had nothing to say on the subject in his most famous book “On Liberty” or his autobiography.
The organised working class movement centred around the craft unions and socialist organisations of the late Victorian period, lost much of the Chartists’ radicalism – developing an economistic outlook, focussed on winning the crumbs of empire, with little critique of the state and tending towards chauvinism and patriotism. Some of these unions, for instance the miners, remained active supporters of the Liberal party even after the launch of the Labour Party and this economism, reformism, chauvinism and Lib-Labism has tainted the labour movement ever since.
The legacy has been that republicanism dropped out of view. That it is over 100 years since both Liberals and Labour were committed to abolishing the unelected House of Lords, but it hasn’t yet happened, is testament to the same inertia.
It has been to the anti-colonial struggles, in particular in Ireland, that one must look for any real challenge to monarchism in the past century. Scottish socialism has retained a radical republican core, in the tradition of John MacLean. In recent times this torch was carried by the Scottish Socialist Party whose MSPs took a very public stance on the question. But the continued fealty of 16 commonwealth countries to Her Maj, along with the sovereign’s return to Dublin – shows that it is insufficient to place reliance on any “republicanism of the periphery”.
It is time for the left in this country to make the issue central to it’s vision of a new society. It is wrong, as many on the far left argue, to counterpose this to more pressing needs. The defeat in the AV referendum, the continued anachronisms of the parliamentary system, the prominence of private education, the elitism and snobbery perpetuated by the honours system and every single bombing campaign against a foreign country all owe something to the monarchy. The swamping of royalist propaganda has a suffocating and numbing effect that will also impact on the anti-austerity movement. It’s time we took on the beast.
Republican unity should include all who oppose the monarchy, but little reliance can be placed on any commitment of the British state to self-reform. The labour movement must make this issue it’s own. It must be placed at the heart of an agenda for radical democratic and internationalist demands including: proportional representation and voting at 16; abolition of the Lords; a written constitution; Irish self-determination and independence; Scottish and Welsh self-determination; withdrawal from the UN security council and NATO; scrapping the nuclear arsenal; slashing defence expenditure; scrapping the anti-terror and anti-union laws.
The last word should go to Shelley, who’s most famous poem Ozymandias (1817), a republican vision of the inevitable demise of tyrants and their empires, set in ancient Egypt, could be an anthem for the current Arab revolts:
“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on those lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
References: Donal Nevin, “James Connolly: A Full Life”; John Keane “Thomas Paine: A Political Life”, John Pilger “A Secret Country”, Paul Foot “Red Shelley”; “Unlocking Democracy: 20 years of Charter 88” edited by Peter Facey, Bethan Rigby & Alexandra Runswick; www.republic.com.