Monarchy in the UK

“The string that ties the robbers bundle”

The monarchy still does the ideological heavy lifting for the bourgeoisie, as this Spring’s two major Royal events have shown. The marriage of the Queen’s grandson William in April was a carnival of the elite, parading inequality and repression in front of a population struggling to cope with wage cuts, slashed pensions and job losses. The details may have differed, but it mirrored his father’s 1981 wedding to Diana Spencer – which was staged against a backcloth of urban riots, Irish republic hunger strikes and a Tory-stoked recession.
500,000 were estimated to have attended the ceremonies in London. It’s tempting to speculate that the number was chosen as a deliberate match for the previous month’s TUC march against the cuts. A counter-mobilisation no less.
Three weeks later the Queen visits Ireland – at a time of economic bankruptcy and vicious austerity in the South (with Britain’s multi-billion pound bail-out a reminder of who calls the shots) and British rule in the North stabilised by the latest Stormont elections. The suggestion that this first Royal visit in a century is made possible by the resolution of the national question and a meeting of equals doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
These are dress rehearsals for the Queen’s diamond jubilee next year, which will in turn segue into the London Olympics. A non-stop nationalist pageant with accompanying civil liberties crack-down. Millions may be out of work, the government may be trashing education, health and welfare services. But the message will be, “with the Queen’s help, the nation got back on its feet after the austerity of the post-war years, together we can do it again”. The subtext: “don’t blame finance capitalism or look to class struggle as a way out, instead be content to wave flags.”
The question posed over the next year is: will this be met by an alternative? Not only: will there be a movements of strikes, mass action and demonstrations of the type seen in Greece, Italy, France and Portugal? But also: will there be an alternative ideological perspective? One that not only prioritises people and need over profit and greed but stands up for democracy and basic rights?
As tyrants are confronted and overthrown across the Middle East, what does the British monarchy represent and what are the prospects of removing it?
The mainstream perspective is that the British Queen isn’t an autocrat and doesn’t wield power; the monarchy is slowly modernising and anyway its role is purely symbolic; opposition is either a waste of time because there are far more important jobs at hand or because its popularity makes this counter-productive. Even the left tends to follow suit, rarely raising its head above the parapet on the issue.
The predominant feature of the British monarchy is that the head of state inherits that position through birth and can only be removed through death. Constitutional monarchies, like the British, are properly distinguished from autocracy because of the limited amount of formal power. But many dictators will still lay claim, however dishonestly, to some process of popular legitimation (for instance a stitched up election in which candidates are hand-picked) rather than an absolute right in perpetuity, purely governed by family origin.
A society that accepts a monarchy is quite explicit in requiring no such legitimising process. There need be no confirmation and no endorsement. No qualification is required. Monarchs may go through the formality of obtaining some type of education just to avoid looking ridiculous – but this is entirely unnecessary. A monarch will still be such even if he or she is an imbecile.
There is a ritual of public activity for the sake of appearances, but it is not absolutely essential. The job description is simply: to be the first born male of the previous monarch or the nearest relative according to a set of complex hereditary principles; not to be Catholic or marry one; to “defend the faith”; and to look the part.
A society that accepts that such a process is an appropriate way to choose its head of state is making a very significant compromise. That personage is irremovable, its reign and that of its descendants and its descendants descendants is timeless and infinite.
Putting to one side the anti-Catholicism and sexism, this flatly contradicts basic principles of democracy and self-determination. However little substantial power is wielded, making such a compromise even on a symbolic level will inevitably sap the independence, self-confidence and political will to act of the population that acquiesces.
To have the Queen’s head on postage stamps, to have all criminal prosecutions in the name of “Regina” (and not “The people” or “The state of” as in the USA), to have countless public spaces, institutions and honours identified in “Royal” terms are daily symbolic acts of self-humiliation for all whose daily lives are in some way impacted. All this is doubly so in respect of former colonies that claim self-determination and yet have the British monarch as head of state.
Irish revolutionary socialist James Connolly had a clear understanding of this. On the occasion of the last sovereign visit to Ireland, that of King George V in 1911, he issued his third anti-monarchical proclamation (the others marking Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and King Edward’s coronation in 1902). It included the following: “A people mentally poisoned by the adulation of royalty can never attain to the spirit of self-reliant democracy necessary for the attainment of social freedom. The mind accustomed to political kings can easily be reconciled to social kings – capitalist kings of the workshop, the mill, the railway, the ships and the docks … fellow workers, stand by the dignity of your class. All these parading royalties, all this insolent aristocracy, all these grovelling, dirt-eating capitalist traitors, all these are but signs of disease in any social state…”
Five years later Connolly played a leading role in the insurrection that led to his execution in the name of the same King. War followed and the King’s descendants were unable to return to Ireland for 100 years. Say what you will about Connolly, he certainly made his point.
Until the 18th century the monarchy or related hereditary and feudal systems of government, was near universal globally. The first wave went with the American and French revolutions. But progress was slow, as the initial surge was met by counter-revolution. In Marx’s time monarchies were still very much the norm. A big wave of further progress followed the first World War spurred by the influence of the Russian Revolution and the struggle for self-determination that swept the world over the following half century. One of the early impacts was the Irish Easter Rising in 1916 and the war of independence that followed.
The roots of this history go back to the 17th century English Revolution and the beheading of King Charles I. Although followed by the Restoration this ended the divine right of king’s to rule, providing an important precedent for the flowering of republicanism two centuries later. But despite Britain starting out in the vanguard of anti-monarchism, it now lags at the back as a last bastion defending the institution.
Excluding the Pope, there are 43 monarchies in the world today. Five of them absolute (Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Swaziland) and the rest constitutional. Of the 43, 16 are Commonwealth countries making QE2 head of state in over a third of the world’s monarchies. If you exclude micro-states like Andorra and Lichtenstein, the proportion is higher.
It goes without saying that the ability of monarchies to sustain themselves in the remaining countries must owe something to Britain’s power and influence (“if it’s good enough for them, why not us”). Only Japan, among the others, is at the top table politically and economically.
The British state’s bloated global pretensions – as nuclear power and UN Security Council member, maintaining a wholly disproportionate defence expenditure and invading countries at will – require all the puffed up posturing and pomposity it can lay it’s hands on to fool the rest of the world into acquiescence. If reduced to an “ordinary” republic, its status would tend to shrink to its true significance as a small North Atlantic nation.
The monarchy helps project British power play at an international level, enabling the state to “punch above its weight”. A not-so-discrete but constant reminder of the days of Queen Victoria when Britain ruled a quarter of the globe.
Consider the recent Royal Wedding and the two billion strong global TV audience – top end ratings on a planetary scale. The organisers knew what they were doing when they built a two story studio complex on the Mall with a prime view of Buckingham palace for dozens of the world’s top TV companies.
To some it seems perverse that commercial popular culture in a republican (small “r”) USA appears to be so enamoured of British royalty. But it isn’t a contradiction at all. The British monarchy projects the kind of “soft power” imperial status that the USA is desperate for as it throws its military hardware around to compensate for growing economic weakness and insecurity.
The monarchy’s close affiliation to militarism and imperialism is nothing new. It goes to the heart of its raison d’etre and has been centuries in the making.
Tom Paine described the appropriately named “William the Conqueror” as a “French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives”. That was in the 11th century.
From the vicious English civil wars of the 14th and 15th centuries that Shakespeare plotted in his history plays; through the invasion, subjugation and occupation of Wales, Scotland and Ireland between the 14th and 18th centuries; to the wars against Spain and France from the Elizabethan era to the early 19th century and so on and so on – the blood-soaked empire was established, monarch at the helm, consent or no consent. The core role of monarch at the heart of the state was central to its stability and strength.
The monarchy’s ideological role extends to the domestic plane, acting as lynch pin of an archaic class system and the state it props up. Its current form evolved out of a two phase compromise: first with the feudal nobility following the Civil War and then with the rising capitalist class in the 18th and 19th century.
British society is ridden with the institutions and cultural trappings of that archaic system: the continued existence of a non-elected House of Lords in which some members still get a vote by virtue of their birth; the unwritten constitution; the prerogative powers, exercised “on behalf of the Queen” by the prime minister (to call elections, wage war etc); the prominent influence of the public school system; the lack of any serious separation of powers (a cornerstone of most bourgeois democracies) centralising power in the hands of the government and undermining accountability; and the antiquated voting system.
The last of these may seem out of place. After all other countries have first past the post systems. But is it possible to say that the Royal Wedding and the very substantial No vote in May’s Alternative Vote referendum were not connected? An electorate that symbolically cedes such important principles of self-determination and democracy is hardly going to get on to the barricades over such issues. It certainly hasn’t done since the days of the suffragettes.
The monarch does in any event retain certain “residual” powers – to appoint a prime minister, to convene the Privy Council (whose members are sworn to secrecy) and such like. A powerful glimpse of such powers came in December 1975 when Australia’s Governor General, appointed by the Queen, sacked the country’s Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at a time when he was challenging US-British security interests.
The monarchy’s ideological role also operates at a deeper cultural level. It is code for a reactionary populist nationalism – typified by the many commentators during the Royal Wedding, some claiming to be Republicans, chirping away about how the event and its attendant street parties “brings the nation together”. In some countries flag waving is quite commonplace. In Britain it rarely occurs en masse outside of royal events.
The monarchy, and particularly the concept of “The Crown”, helps to prop up a conception of the state as being not only a neutral body (in the sense of being outside of party and class interest) but also “above” the people. This in turn undermines notions of democratic accountability. The fact that juries never convict police officers who are accused of killing surely owes something to the pervasiveness of this culture.
The Royal Family also embodies the concept of “the ideal family”. Enshrining marriage, heterosexuality and monogamy – even though hypocrisy and double standards rule behind closed doors. The Monarch also embodies the church-state relationship, as head of the Church of England and “Defender of the faith”.
Liberal-left acolytes of royalty, at pains to reconcile this role with their secularism, like to hang on to Prince Charles’s supposed commitment to remove “the” from this formula. This is what counts as radical reform. But why wait for Charles? Or William? Why can’t parliament do that tomorrow? Better still remove all four words and cut the connection to God.
The monarchy’s cultural role is nowhere clearer than as a soap opera-type distraction. Never more evident than in times of austerity. The people ask for bread, but they are given circuses.
The claim that the monarchy is either modernising or at least harmless doesn’t bear analysis. The principle of male primogeniture is completely sexist and should have been scrapped at least when women got the vote.
Sweden got rid of it in 1980. By 1991 Holland, Norway and Belgium followed suite. 20 years later it still isn’t on the agenda here. Similarly the 1701 Act of Settlement prohibition on Catholics and those who marry Catholics – a provision correlating with the brutal subjugation of Ireland into colony status. These are hopelessly reactionary and archaic principles. Why haven’t they been reformed?
Liberal apologists for the Crown squeamishly tip-toed around this awkward subject in the run up to the wedding. Media pundits, exuding quiet authority, assured their viewers that reform would be “immensely complicated”. The reason? Because it would supposedly require simultaneous change in 16 Commonwealth states. This is like blaming empire on the colonies or slavery on the slaves.
The British ruling class wouldn’t dream of waiting on minor ex-colonies if it wanted reform. The fact is that it doesn’t.
These archaic institutions are all part of a complex system of props and supports for the particular form that the capitalist state takes in this country. The fear is that such tinkering will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. Ask an ex-colony to pass a minor procedural law on monarchy and it may get ideas above its station and junk the lot. Best leave well alone.
The reason we have had an unfinished bourgeois revolution for 350 years is because the bourgeoisie have no interest or desire for completion. That remains the case despite the occasional very minor shift being forced upon it – borne out of the necessity of co-operating with other nation states in Europe or to avoid some of the worst appearances.

Part 2 of this article will follow shortly

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