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Judith Orr & Lindsey German

Not long to reign over us?

(November 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The monarchy is going through its deepest crisis for many years. Judith Orr and Lindsey German look at the truth about the royal family

The heady days of the balcony kiss are a long way from headlines proclaiming the last days of the Windsors. There is an endless barrage of scandal and speculation about the royal family’s future. This notorious family of hereditary millionaires, whose money grabbing, laziness, hypocrisy and snobbery knows no bounds, is as unpopular as it has ever been.

This ‘ideal family’ has been shown badly wanting. Prince Charles’s upbringing at the hands of the Duke of Edinburgh sounds more like a Dickens novel than the loving family so painstakingly portrayed in women’s magazines.

The royal family wants to appear as a unifier, a typical family just like the rest of us. Part of their appeal is based on this assumption, with some people even believing that the queen votes Labour ‘like the rest of us ordinary people do’. A Labour politician could even declare in the 1940s that ‘in England the king does what the people want. He will be a socialist king.’

This grotesque sense of one of the richest families in the world being just like any other is widespread and deliberately fostered by the monarchy’s supporters. A family, some of whose main interests are horses, full of emotionally stunted individuals whose idea of work is just over 100 days of official engagements a year, is projected as able to understand or be like working people.

The image put across is not one of feckless aristocrats but of the dutiful, hard working middle classes, head of one not very divided nation. People now know that the whole image is based on a lie. The fairytale royal marriages are fakes, entered into for commercial and public relations considerations. The parents spend only an hour or two a day with the children, and pack them off to barbarous boarding schools at the age of seven.

None of this should come as any surprise, for hypocrisy is what the royals do best. Where else would you find someone who is a patron of Mencap, the Royal Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults, at the same time having two severely mentally handicapped cousins locked up in an institution, never receiving visitors for fear the secret would come out? Then, to cover up the scandal, she claimed they had both been dead for years! All this from the country’s ‘favourite granny’ whose long life is a tribute to idleness and Gordon’s gin.

Charles wants us to believe he is a caring man, ill at ease with his privileged position. Nothing could be further than the truth.

The royals are rich, selfish and unintelligent. Left to themselves they would barely be able to hold a job. The queen’s personal wealth (which excludes the millions of pounds worth of gifts from rulers all over the globe, stored in an air raid shelter under Buckingham Palace) is massive. Her stocks and shares are worth at least £340 million, her jewellery a mere £3.5 million and the hundreds of works of art which the public never sees are valued no less than £150–200 million.

There has always been widespread opposition to the waste of millions of pounds of our money on these people. Socialist Worker headlines such as ‘Stuff the Jubilee’ and ‘Noddy marries Bigears’ have been among the highest sellers. Among particular groups in society the royal family has consistently been very unpopular. A Mass Observation survey in 1965 reported that 31 percent of all people had more or less negative attitudes towards the monarchy. Nearly 60 percent of all men had negative or indifferent attitudes.

Today there is incomparably more hostility to the monarchy than there was then. Poll findings show that the overwhelming majority do not want the royals to be financed out of public money and over a third no longer want a monarchy at all. So why is Britain still lumbered with this motley collection of the mad and bad at Buckingham Palace?

Some still cling to the explanation that the royals are good for the economy because they bring in trade and tourists. A look at the balance sheet tells a different story. The visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to the Helsinki Trade Fair in 1970 resulted in a drop of exports to Finland of £5.2 million by 1972. One study of royal visits between 1971 to 1984 concluded that ‘the amount of time devoted to state visits by the Queen was almost a precise reversal of the order of the increase in trade to the places concerned’. The country which until last month had never been visited by the royals, Russia, increased its trade with Britain over the period fivefold, while trade with the Commonwealth increased only by a factor of two.

If the royals don’t increase trade then it seems universally accepted that tourists flock to these shores on the basis that our palaces are still, occasionally, occupied. Yet tourism figures for Italy and France are higher than Britain’s although they are both republics – sunshine, good food and cheap wine being more important features of a enjoyable holiday than the remote chance of glimpsing Diana lunching in Mayfair.

A survey by the British Tourist Authority showed that the royal family came ninth out of ten reasons for visiting Britain, just above night life! Only 12 percent of those asked even mentioned the royal family as a reason.

So why do they hang on? The monarchy heads a form of parliamentary rule which has existed for centuries. Britain has never endured fascism or dictatorship because of its unique combination of elected House of Commons and hereditary House of Lords and monarchy. Dispensing with this system would lead to the danger, so the argument goes, of dictatorship from either left or right.

This is the argument of many Labour leaders, who are some of the most deferential to monarchy. Recently shadow cabinet member Mo Mowlem even argued that the royals should get a new high-tech palace to equip them for the 21st century!

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, writing in the 1920s, described this feature of British politics: ‘The English bourgeoisie has erased even the memory of the revolution of the 17th century, and recast its entire past in the form of “gradual changes”.’

‘Gradualism’ permeates the trade union and labour movement, leading to the dominant view that voting is the only way of changing anything and nothing can be done to remove the royal family or lords, whose roots seem to go back for centuries.

But the monarchy is much more modern than it looks. Most of what we’re told now is royal ritual and tradition stretching back for centuries goes back no further than the time of Victoria when the monarchy often seemed in terminal decline.

Following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria became a virtual recluse. In 1864 a note was found pinned to the fence of Buckingham Palace saying: ‘These commanding premises to be let or sold, in consequence of the occupant’s declining business.’

In the end the Tory prime minister Disraeli dragged Victoria out of retirement to counter what he saw as a rising tide of republicanism and social unrest.

Her Golden jubilee became a grand state pageant on the streets of London. Even the clergy’s outfits of ‘copes and coloured stoles’ on the day were an innovation. The occasion seemed to have the effect the ruling class wished for. The Archbishop of Canterbury commented, ‘days afterwards, everyone feels that the socialist movement has had a check’.

The jubilee was also seen as a celebration of Britain’s empire and was followed by Victoria’s declaration as Empress of India and her Diamond Jubilee. Her son Edward VII continued in this tradition, with more and more grandiose state weddings and funerals, and the introduction of the state opening of parliament by the monarch.

The era of imperialism at the end of 19th century did wonders for monarchs all over Europe. Competition between the growing capitalist powers for colonies, exports and in the field of military might, meant that each also competed in the power and splendour of their royalty.

Most European monarchies, however, did not survive the First World War: the German, Austrian and Russian emperors were toppled by revolution. The same fate was not to befall the House of Windsor. But this was not because the monarchy prevented revolution. Rather the workers’ movement was not strong enough to make a revolution and so the monarchy survived.

The royal family itself has sometimes had a crude understanding of its weakness. So Edward VII was convinced that his heir George V would be the last king of England. More recently, the abdication of the Hitler loving Edward VIII, who became Duke of Windsor in 1936, led to a deepening crisis for the monarchy. Then around half the population thought it should be abolished.

The Second World War was very important to restoring the popular image of a family at the head of a nation all pulling together. There was of course no equality of sacrifice, with menus at Buckingham Palace as sumptuous as ever, and the king and queen leaving for Windsor nearly every night to avoid the worst bombing. Nonetheless, the image projected helped to revive an institution which had seemed doomed.

The long boom and relative affluence of the 1950s and early 1960s helped to create the accepted notion of a constitutional monarch at the head of a united nation. Royalty’s popularity in modern times has also been encouraged by the development of the media: the mass circulation popular newspapers which began at the end of the last century, the cinema newsreels, radio broadcasting and now television. These media have always covered the royal weddings and funerals with great reverence, reporting in the most obsequious fashion.

Every newspaper and television station has its gaggle of royal reporters who churn out the line delivered to them by Buckingham Palace without question, and have usually loyally kept any honest information from the public. They went along with the charade of Charles and Diana’s marriage for years.

The present royal family has consciously encouraged most of this media attention. In particular since the mid 1960s, when the royal image began to seem slightly old fashioned and tarnished, there was a deliberate effort to make the monarchy seem relevant.

The British monarchy is characterised more by the changes that it has undergone over the years than by continuity. As one commentator in the last century said, ‘There is hardly a country that has succeeded in so continually adapting her medieval institutions so as to avoid their complete overthrow or their entire reconstruction.’ In modern times the royals have accepted the need to respond to public criticism.

This has most recently been seen with the Queen’s abrupt change of heart on the length of the civil list and the paying of taxes, following popular outrage at the announcement that the tax payer would be paying for the refurbishment of burnt out Windsor Castle.

However, as each new scandal erupts, it is not a foregone conclusion that the royals can adapt their way out of this crisis. There is a fundamental change going on. Firstly, Britain has declined as a great power. The royal family with all its palaces and trappings of splendour more fitted to a huge empire, can appear anachronistic.

During the 1980s the repackaging of the monarchy was part of the general conservative mood of Thatcherism. We were told Britain was great again, economic crisis was a thing of the past, that the free rein of the market was the only guarantee of prosperity. The sense of betrayal and bitterness in recent years over recession, unemployment and cuts has hit the monarchy as hard as all the other institutions of government and control.

When the structures that hold society together are in such crisis it leads to an ideological ferment even among some of the monarchy’s strongest supporters, the Tory middle class who feel so betrayed by the royal family’s present behaviour.

In such a situation any move for change can really threaten the monarchy, which is one of the weaker of the mediating structures. People begin to think the unthinkable, that perhaps we would be better off without this outdated and costly form of rule. The unfavourable media images are not solely responsible for this, but they do help to dispel the mystique which is supposed to surround the family. An institution whose whole existence is based on people looking up to them has little left for it when people start holding it in contempt. That is why there is more talk of abolition than for at least 60 years.

Some people believe that until this is achieved and there is an elected presidency we cannot even get a modern democracy, but this is to miss the point. We already have a modern capitalist democracy in a fully developed, although declining, capitalist economy. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 ensured that any king or queen in Britain would be totally subservient to parliament. The House of Lords has, since 1911, been unable to block legislation passed by the Commons for any length of time.

In the Middle Ages the king and lords – along with the church – had absolute power. Today real power lies with the capitalist class and its collective expression the capitalist state, of which the monarchy and House of Lords are only component – and by no means the central parts.

Part of the worry of many commentators today is that the behaviour of the royals is upsetting the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ whereby the monarchy stays so long as it doesn’t exercise real power. They fear that disaffection with the royal family will spread to opposition to their class in general. Some of our rulers would even favour abolition – but they fear altering things in case it upsets the whole of the system which they represent.

The future of the monarchy is intimately connected with the fate of the capitalist class, a fact often missed by those who simply campaign for constitutional reforms. Charter 88 is dedicated to such reforms, and the Labour MP Tony Benn campaigns to abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords.

The hereditary principle is completely reactionary and elitist, and the principle of election much more democratic than being in a position because an ancestor was the mistress of a king or on the right side in a battle so we should favour such abolition.

But the elective democracy on offer under capitalism presents no real alternative. The US or France are not more democratic in any fundamental sense than Britain or Holland. Those countries spend as much on their presidents as we are forced to on the royal family. We know that any elected government can be remote and out of touch.

This is one reason why simply swopping the queen for a president has no great appeal for most people, if it means that the rest of their lives stay the same. A political movement which fought not for narrow constitutional change but for a real upheaval in society – with a new form of democracy – might seem harder to get, but it also seems much more worth fighting for.

The fight to abolish the monarchy should be part of the struggle against the system which has preserved them so generously and to which they in turn are so devoted.

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