King Charles III hosts a reception at Buckingham Palace for Heads of State and overseas visitors. King Charles III hosts a reception at Buckingham Palace for Heads of State and overseas visitors. Source: Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office - Flickr / cropped form original / shared under license CC BY-NC 2.0

The coronation celebrates a monarchy central to British capitalism – and John Westmorland argues its time is up

It is safe to say that the majority of people couldn’t give a flying ferret for King Charles III. When inews journalist Kasia Delgado tried to find just one ‘King Charles III superfan’, she failed miserably. Most of the people she approached were largely indifferent to him, none were keen. And yet we have to suffer the tidal surge of gushing royal correspondents desperate to manufacture the image of a man who is both extraordinary and at the same time extraordinarily ordinary. The monarchy survives at least in part not because it is an anachronism but because it is intimately tied up with capitalism and imperialism in Britain.  

The origins of our constitution and the place of the monarchy in it have been written about in Counterfire before. The 17th century was tumultuous with civil war, the execution of the king, a brief period of a republic and then the restoration of the monarchy. Political uncertainty remained, however, and the aim of this settlement was to deal with that and ensure a stable state as capitalism developed. In 1688 the so-called Glorious Revolution gave birth to the current constitutional set-up. This revolution was ‘glorious’ for the ruling class because it was achieved without any help from the labouring masses, and the ’democratic’ Bill of Rights it produced also excluded the masses from any benefits too. 

The Glorious Revolution gave us the monarchy we have today. It forms the unelected head of a capitalist state. Although the actors of 1688 didn’t think in the same way as capitalists today, they knew the importance of political stability, especially as the world was increasingly open to imperialist exploitation. 

The most important feature of the Glorious Revolution is that it established the limits of royal powers. Although the monarchy retained unique powers and privileges, the monarchs could never act against the interests of the elite. The main limit on royal power was the direction that the succession was to exclude Catholics and therefore excluded interference from the Pope and most of the crowned heads of Europe.

A Protestant monarchy 

The creation of a Protestant monarchy was a compromise that united the interests of the emerging capitalist class and the remnants of the feudal aristocracy. At the time, the term ‘a Protestant monarchy’ had far more political significance than it has today. The word Protestant was associated with English radicalism and modernity. It was linked in the minds of leading intellectuals to science, reason, trade and industry. This appealed to the rising capitalist class. Then there was the monarchy. A monarchy was necessary to block off political access from the radicals who wanted more democracy, and at the same time allowed the landed aristocracy to keep the titles that land ownership gave to them. After all, the king himself was the biggest land owner and would be sure to defend aristocratic interests.

The value of the monarchy to the capitalist class was enormous. Capitalism is a dirty business. As Marx put it, capitalism comes into the world ‘dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt’. The labouring poor at home were driven from the land, while, ironically, landed wealth was the guarantor of parliamentary representation for the rich. The plight of those at the sharp end of British imperialism was even worse. Conquest was followed by colonisation. Colonisation was often followed by enslavement and the extermination of rebels. 

The army and navy, the imperial civil service, the governors, and administrators that drove capitalist interests across the globe did it under the political cover supplied to the capitalists in 1688. It was all done in the name of the king and needed to be celebrated. 

Democracy and empire 

Throughout its history, the modern British monarchy has needed to be continually adjusted and reframed. As the working class began to develop its power in the early 19th century, democracy became a popular demand. The first demonstrations in favour of electoral reform were met with savage repression, as in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.   

In 1832 the misnamed Great Reform Act gave the vote to a small number of property holders. Disappointment with the Act led to Chartism and a mass movement for democracy. Chartism, ridiculed as a failure by liberal and conservative historians, mobilised millions of workers in demonstrations across the country for a decade. With the working class centre stage, the standing of the monarchy, already tarnished, crumbled further. One effect of the 1832 Act was that it had strengthened the House of Commons against the House of Lords, and reduced the Crown’s ability to interfere in politics at the same time.

Things got so bad that Queen Victoria avoided the streets of London where crowds were frequently moved to shout insults and throw stones and horse dung at her carriage. The democratic change was looking increasingly necessary. By mid-century Britain was the ‘workshop of the world’ and the working class had much more potential power. The need for further electoral reform was obvious. 

The Conservative MP and later Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was the most forward-thinking of that generation of right-wing politicians. He saw that the monarchy needed to be reinvented to make them more popular. The speed of British imperial expansion was another issue. The Chartists had been internationalists, supporting Canadian and Irish independence. Disraeli saw the possibility of linking the monarchy and empire. This would make the monarchy more central to political life and strengthen authoritarian politics. 

India was the most important part of the British Empire – the ‘Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire’. In 1876 after the deaths of millions of Indians through starvation and repression Disraeli, now Prime Minister, made Queen Victoria the Empress of India. In 1877 an Imperial Assemblage took place in Delhi that cost millions of pounds at a time of acute starvation that saw millions die. The cause of the famine was the export of food by British merchants. But that fact was buried by reports of the glorious celebration that marked Queen Victoria’s coronation there.

British rule in India was brutal – and monarchical. The ruler in India was the British Viceroy (king’s representative) and rule was by command and decree. Indian independence was denied until the Second World War settlement forced it on the British in the late 1940s. Britain used ‘divide and rule’ tactics that tried to stop the unity of Hindu and Muslim workers, the end result of which, was the division of India and Pakistan and the sectarian violence that killed millions once again.

The British Empire was one on which the sun never set and the blood never dried. The monarchy was the institution in whose name an endless list of atrocities was carried out. The white-governed countries of the British Commonwealth have all been infected with supremacist ideology and discrimination. The rights of indigenous peoples have been denied and are still being denied.

Despite their ghastly history, the royals still have a central role in British foreign policy. They tour places of diplomatic importance to British capitalism. Vile heads of state like Netanyahu and Donald Trump have been feted at Buckingham Palace. The royals have acted as salesmen for British arms dealers across the Middle East and court some of the worst dictators on the planet. We are unlikely to be shown King Charles enjoying a good old monarchical sword dance in Saudi Arabia, where human rights are non-existent. 

Time’s up!

The monarchy is part of capitalist rule. It serves to give some gravitas to a system of brutal exploitation and repression. It is part of a political set-up that is failing us on every level. The elevation of monarchy shows contempt for democracy. Royalist culture is the philistine worship of wealth and power. It insults our intelligence by demanding our subservience at a time when we are cheering on those workers fighting for justice.

Getting rid of the monarchy involves coming to terms with our past. The monarchy was foisted on us by the same oligarchy that rules us today. When the monarchy falls we have a chance to put right the injustices they have presided over.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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