Recent explosive events have shone a spotlight on the murky world of the British Monarchy. Many workers and youth are rightly questioning what role this pillar of the establishment plays in modern society.
In these articles – one by James Kilby and Rob Sewell from the latest issue of Socialist Appeal, and one by Alan Woods from 1997 after the death of Princess Diana – we explain how the Monarchy is a tool of the ruling class, a reserve of reaction and a threat to a future Labour government. This feudal relic must be abolished!
By James Kilby and Rob Sewell
By using the Queen’s ‘royal prerogative’ to suspend parliament, Boris Johnson has further revealed the rottenness of the British state. In normal times, the Monarchy’s involvement in politics is kept to a minimum – to provide pomp, grandeur, and mystical awe to the ceremonial opening of Parliament. But these are not normal times.
An unelected prime minister, with no majority in parliament, has used an unelected head of state to help force through the programme of his Tory chums. This has rightly caused outrage amongst all those opposed to Johnson’s right-wing agenda.
Most alarmed, however, are the serious strategists of the ruling class. By utilising the Queen, Johnson has cast a spotlight on the real powers of the Monarchy – powers that, from the point of view of the establishment, are best kept hidden in the shadows.
“Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament has created a unique crisis for the Queen,” stated Graham Smith of the campaign group Republic. “The convention is that the Queen does as she’s told by the PM. But in normal times the PM has the full support of a majority in the Commons.”
“Constitutionally the Queen is free to decide whether or not to go along with the government’s plans or support the sovereign parliament.”
“So the Queen has a choice to make, and she’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.”
In other words, if the Queen had decided to reject Johnson’s request to suspend Parliament, she would have been vilified for imposing her own position on Brexit. By doing so, she would have shattered the myth of the Monarch’s ‘political neutrality’.
But by accepting Johnson’s request, she has also revealed how an unelected head of state can be used as a tool by a minority in Parliament, to bypass the scrutiny of Britain’s elected representatives.
By involving the Queen in forcing through a no-deal Brexit, the Tory cabinet is therefore dragging Buckingham Palace into a full-blown constitutional crisis. This could be one scandal too many for the Monarchy, the role of which is already being called into question.
With austerity cutting the living standards of millions, many are furious over the £369 million of public money spent on refurbishing the Royals’ accommodation. Or the £345m spent every year in keeping these parasites in the lap of luxury. With Prince Andrew continuing to face awkward questions over his friendship with alleged child-sex trafficker Jefferey Epstein (see below), Boris’ move could not have come at a worse time for the Royals.
For the powers of the Monarchy to be effective, it is vital for the Queen to be seen as ‘above politics’ – i.e. above the interests of the capitalist class that she ultimately defends. Hence the fury of the establishment towards Boris for embroiling the Queen in Brexit. With the Queen’s authority being called into question, her role as a safety valve for capitalism is further diminished.
We’re told that the role of the Monarchy is benign; that it represents – at worst – a quaint anachronism, worth keeping in order to ‘attract tourists’.
In reality, the Monarchy is kept in place as a reserve weapon of the ruling class. Among the many of the Queen’s powers include being able to dismiss an elected government from office. We are led to believe that such powers only exist ‘in theory’; that they are a relic of our feudal past that someone carelessly forgot to remove.
In fact, these powers have not been forgotten about. They are simply held back to be used as a last roll of the dice for the ruling class. For example, they were used in the constitutional crisis in Australia to remove the elected Labour government of Gough Whitlam on 11 November 1975.
As head of the Commonwealth, the British crown was able to intervene through its representative Governor-General Sir John Kerr. Sir John then commissioned the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser of the Liberal Party, to act as caretaker Prime Minister. The Queen acted in both her royal personae, as the Queen of Australia and the Queen of the United Kingdom, in order to see through this ‘coup’ against a Labour government.
People in Australia assumed that the Queen exercised no residual monarchical power over their system of governance. But they were wrong. It shows the shadowy constitutional powers of the British Monarch, which can be used whenever they see fit, even to dismiss a democratically-elected government.
This is a serious matter. It is a warning to the labour movement in Britain of how the Queen’s powers can be used against a Corbyn-led Labour government that threatens their interests.
It is therefore regrettable that Corbyn joined the call of the Lib Dems to ask the Queen for a meeting, in order to stop Boris’ plan to suspend Parliament.
Rather than sowing illusions in the Queen, Corbyn should come out strongly against the whole rotten establishment – the Monarchy included. Instead of ‘humble requests’ to Her Majesty, Corbyn should mobilise the entire labour movement to bring down the Tories, using the methods of working-class militancy.
The latest constitutional crisis in Britain has served to lift the lid on the role of the Monarchy in times of crisis. With the election of a Corbyn government, every attempt will be made by the establishment to undermine such a government.
Weakness invites aggression. Under these circumstances, a Labour government must be prepared to take defensive measures to prevent a ‘coup’ or dismissal by royal decree. Upon coming to power, it should take immediate action to push through an Enabling Act to abolish the Monarchy and the House of Lords, and establish a workers’ republic. These feudal relics must be consigned to where they belong – the dustbin of history!
Prorogation wouldn’t politicise the Queen, they said.
It was absolutely obvious it would.
Now not one of our political institutions remains untouched or undiminished by Brexit. Extraordinary that it should be a Conservative government that wrought it. https://t.co/2PfkxBFgm5
— Lewis Goodall (@lewis_goodall) August 31, 2019
By Alan Woods
The starting point of modern Britain was the bourgeois revolution of the 17th century. That culminated in the execution of Charles I. Subsequently, the bourgeoisie did a deal with the landed aristocracy, agreeing to the return of Charles II on condition that there would be no return to absolutism. As could be expected from them, the Stuarts broke the agreement and were duly ousted by a coup d’état which placed William III (a Dutch adventurer) and Mary on the throne.
The next 150 years were full of upheavals and scandals, and for most of the time the Monarchy was anything but popular. Only at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign and the beginning of the 20th century did the ruling class take steps to build up the institution of the Monarchy, lavishing large sums of money on huge spectacles such as Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. Most of the present-day ceremonial pantomimes, which most people imagine to be ancient British traditions, date from this time.
Paradoxically, what saved the Monarchy was the widening of the franchise and universal male suffrage. “The ruling elite, forced to widen the voting franchise,” admitted The Economist magazine in one article, “decided that the country needed the Monarchy as a symbol of stability and they needed it to help them retain control of the government.”
The real role of the Monarchy
It is necessary to understand that the Monarchy is not simply a harmless anachronism with no powers. It is an important reserve weapon of reaction. The Queen has significant reserve powers which can be brought into play at a time of national crisis.
Such powers will undoubtedly be used against a left Labour government that attempts to challenge the power and privileges of the big banks and monopolies that own and control most of Britain. Although most people do not realise it, this is the main role of the Monarchy and the reason why it has been kept in being by the ruling class for so long.
This fact was explained in admirably frank terms by Walter Bagehot, the 19th century expert on the British establishment and its institutions, in his famous work The English Constitution:
“For the educated thousands there is the ‘efficient’ aspect, the whole system of Parliaments, Cabinets, Party Government, and the rest. For the unintelligent millions there is the ‘dignified’ aspect (described also as ‘theatrical’, ‘mystical’, ‘religious’, or ‘semi-religious’), which delights the eye, stirs the imagination, supplies motive power to the whole political system, and yet never strains the intellectual resources of the most ignorant or the most stupid. It is, of course, bound up with the Monarchy; indeed to all intents and purposes it is the Monarchy.” (Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, p. xviii.)
The message is very clear. The ‘ignorant masses’ do not understand politics and cannot really be trusted with the vote. But since they have conquered the right to vote, the ruling class must devise a kind of pantomime to keep them happy, while the real exercise of power is kept firmly in their hands.
It is worth spending a certain amount of hard cash on ceremony and glitter, in order to divert attention away from the real state of affairs. It is essential that the masses believe in the Monarchy. This is therefore a worthwhile investment, just like any other. It is also a necessary insurance policy, in case things go badly wrong.
Unlike other countries, Britain does not have a written constitution. Most laws are based upon custom and practice. But for that very reason, there are many grey areas. For example, what would happen in the case of an elected government which attempted to take over the banks and monopolies? Bagehot answers with his customary frankness:
“It may perhaps be replied that if a majority of the House of Commons want a revolution they ought to have one; and no doubt if the House of Commons on this point fully represented the settled convictions of the community the reply suffices. But if not? Is there any means of ensuring that in these extreme cases the House of Commons would represent the settled will of the community? Is there any ground for expecting that our Cabinet system, admirably fitted to adjust political action to the ordinary oscillations of public opinion, could deal with these violent situations? Could it long survive the shocks of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence? I know not. The experiment has never been tried. Our alternating Cabinets, though belonging to different Parties, have never differed about the foundations of society. And it is evident that our whole political machinery pre-supposes a people so fundamentally at one that they can safely afford to bicker; and so sure of their own moderation that they are not dangerously disturbed by the never-ending din of political conflict. May it always be so.” (Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, pp. xxiii-xxiv.)
A reserve of reaction
But what happens when this no longer applies? In such a situation, Bagehot explains the role of the Monarchy. After all, the army swears an oath of allegiance to the ruling monarch, not to the elected Parliament. The Queen’s signature is necessary before any decision of Parliament becomes law. By withholding her signature, the Queen would automatically provoke a constitutional crisis. Whom would the army, police and civil service obey?
In other words, we would have all the conditions for a ‘legal’ coup d’état. The Queen could suspend Parliament and rule through the Privy Council, an organ of state which is not often referred to, but prefers to remain in the shadows – until a ‘national emergency’ gives it the green light to show its real face.
The reserve powers of the Monarchy are like the dagger which the assassin keeps hidden in his sleeve. They are all the more dangerous because they are unseen. Here is what Trotsky writes on the subject:
“Royalty is weak as long as the bourgeois Parliament is the instrument of bourgeois rule and as long as the bourgeoisie has no need of extra-Parliamentary methods. But the bourgeoisie can if necessary use royalty as the focus of all extra-Parliamentary, i.e. real forces directed against the working class.” (Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, vol. 2, pp. 40-1.)
And Bagehot makes exactly the same point:
“The king, too, possesses a power, according to theory, for extreme use on a critical occasion, but which he can in law use on any occasion. He can dissolve; he can say to his minister in fact, if not in words, ‘This Parliament sent you here, but I will see if I cannot get another Parliament to send someone else here’.” (Bagehot, p.71.)
In such a moment, when the reserve powers of the Monarchy are finally wheeled out, it is imperative that the Monarchy should command the unswerving obedience of a large part of society. This is the real reason for the maintenance of the Monarchy and all the mystique that – at least until recently – surrounded it.
As Bagehot points out:
“The mystic reverence, the religious allegiance, which are essential to a true Monarchy, are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people. These semi-filial feelings in government are inherited just as the true filial feelings in common life.” (Bagehot, p. 3.)
And finally, the most famous quotation of all:
“A secret prerogative is an anomaly – perhaps the greatest of anomalies. That secrecy is, however, essential to the utility of English royalty as it now is. Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. When there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic. We must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many.” (Bagehot, p.53.)
Again and again the same theme is hammered home. With astonishing cynicism, this consummate representative of the ruling class lays bare the inner mechanism and secrets of the British Monarchy.
Bagehot explains that a mystery is destroyed when daylight is let in. The open conflicts, splits and brawls within the Royal Family, openly paraded in the pages of the tabloid press in recent years, have done precisely that. People now realise that their so-called rulers are not at all ‘special’, but only a collection of empty, unintelligent and very unlikeable people living it up at the general expense.
Socialists and the Monarchy
In a letter written to F.A. Sorge in December 1889, Engels wrote:
“The most repulsive thing here is the bourgeois ‘respectability’ bred into the bones of the workers. The social division of society into innumerable gradations, each recognised without question, each with its own pride but also its inborn respect for its ‘betters’ and ‘superiors,’ is so old and firmly established that the bourgeois still find it pretty easy to get their bait accepted. I am not at all sure, for instance, that John Burns is not secretly prouder of his popularity with Cardinal Manning, the Lord Mayor and the bourgeoisie in general than of his popularity with his own class. And Champion – an ex-Lieutenant – intrigued years ago with bourgeois, and especially with conservative, elements, preached Socialism at the parsons’ Church Congress, etc. Even Tom Mann, whom I regard as the finest of them, is fond of mentioning that he will be lunching with the Lord Mayor. If one compares this with the French, one can see what a revolution is good for, after all. However it will not help the bourgeoisie much if they do succeed in enticing some of the leaders into their toils. By that time the movement will have become strong enough to overcome this sort of thing.” (Marx and Engels, On Britain, pp. 568-9.)
For generations, under the Empire, wide layers of British society, not only the middle class but also sections of the working class were under the influence of the Monarchy. But in the period of Britain’s decline, all the old traditions of servility have gradually fallen away. New generations are no longer willing to accept the rule of their alleged ‘betters’ as something God-given and natural. This process has been going on for some time. But sometimes it takes an accidental event to act as a social catalyst which, as in chemistry, serves to accelerate enormously a tendency which was already present.
Is it permissible for socialists to defend the Monarchy? Such a question would appear to answer itself. Even from the most elementary standpoint of democracy, the institution of the Monarchy is a survival of barbarism. By what right does a man or woman become the titular head of the nation merely by an accident of birth? What has genetics got to do with democracy and the administration of society? Such things should be taken for granted by any consistent supporter of democracy, let alone a socialist.
The acceptance of the Monarchy by the Blairites is the most blatant example of the abandonment of even the most elementary principles of socialism by the right-wing ‘modernisers’. By the way, what kind of ‘modernisation’ is it that defends a reactionary remnant of feudalism?
Yet, strangely enough, the question of the Monarchy is not even understood by those who seek its abolition. It is generally thought that the Monarchy is merely an expensive anachronism. That is the position of most of the Labour left.
Expensive it is, of course. It is impossible to find out the real wealth owned by the Queen. The Queen, allegedly standing ‘above classes and party politics’, is a member of the capitalist class with an investment portfolio conservatively estimated at over £250 million. Not content with this vast amount of wealth, the Royal Family also continues to demand a huge annual subsidy paid for by the state, when necessary public expenditure is being cut to the bone on the grounds that ‘there is no money’.
The millions wasted on this bunch of parasitic idlers could and should be spent on other things – schools, hospitals, houses. That is the real answer to those who prattle endlessly on about the supposed ‘good works’ and charitable activities of the Royal Family.
A Labour government worthy of the name should expropriate the property of the Royal Family and abolishing the Monarchy once and for all.
Socialist transformation – the only answer
The strategists of capital are worried, just as Bagehot was worried when he wrote that it was just as well that the “politically untutored” masses did not realise how close they were to power.
Before the Second World War, Leon Trotsky pointed out how easy it would be for the leaders of the Labour Party to take power in Britain. In fact, he explained that it could even be achieved peacefully, through Parliament – if the Labour leaders willed it:
“In Britain three-quarters of the population is working class. It is a purely proletarian country. It has a small handful of landlords and capitalists – they are very rich and powerful, it is true, but still they are only a handful.
“If MacDonald walked into Parliament, laid his programme on the table, rapped lightly with his knuckles, and said, ‘Accept it or I’ll drive you all out’ (saying it more politely than I’ve phrased it here) – if he did this, Britain would be unrecognisable in two weeks. MacDonald would receive an overwhelming majority in any election. The British working class would break out of the shell of conservatism with which it has been so cleverly surrounded; it would discard that slavish reverence for the law of the bourgeoisie, the propertied classes, and church and the Monarchy.” (Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, vol. 1, p. 194.)
It is worth recalling that the three basic pillars of the establishment in Britain were always the Monarchy, the Church of England, and the Tory Party. It is no accident that all three are now in a deep crisis. Even more extraordinary is the way in which the splits and divisions are openly paraded in the full glare of public opinion. This too is unprecedented, especially in Britain.
As Trotsky pointed out elsewhere:
“Nowhere in Europe does canonised hypocrisy – ‘cant’ – play such a role as in Great Britain. Different political groupings and even the most ‘extreme’ of them are, when fighting against each other, accustomed not to touch upon certain questions or to call certain things by their proper names. The reason is that from time immemorial the political struggle has been waged inside the ranks of the possessing classes who have never forgotten that a third party is listening in.” (Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, vol. 2, pp. 162.)
We have already explained the role of the Monarchy as a reserve weapon of the ruling class. This weapon has now been seriously dented, but it is not yet completely destroyed. It still has important reserves of support in the masses. Therefore, the ruling class will do everything in its power to prop it up.
We have entered an entirely new and turbulent period in Britain and on a world scale. The socialist transformation of society will once more be placed firmly on the order of the day. By whatever means, the ruling class will attempt to maintain the Monarchy as a weapon against the labour movement and a bulwark against social progress.
The task of removing this obstacle – along with the House of Lords and all the other accumulated rubbish left over from feudalism – will be the prior condition of success for a future Labour government that is not content to accept the dictates of capitalism but is determined to abolish it.