Commemorative plaque, Scotland. Photo: Thomas Nugent, Geograph Project/cropped from original/licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, linked at bottom of article Commemorative plaque, Scotland. Photo: Thomas Nugent, Geograph Project/cropped from original/licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, linked at bottom of article

The British constitution exists to resist democratic demands, writes John Westmoreland

The right royal mournathon will reach its crescendo on Monday. After that we will have to get back to the reality of life: inflation, looming recession, war and climate catastrophe. No doubt the Tories will try and milk the passing of the late queen for all its worth, but they face enormous problems. 

Charles III is going to reign amid crisis and chaos, and he comes to the throne as the gap between rich and poor is greater than ever. The past week has been a hugely choreographed event that seems to have been prepared for a while. At the centre of the propaganda is the laughable myth that the monarchy is essential to a functioning nation. Yet this was the centrepiece of Charles’ speech to Parliament. We need to tear down this nonsensical idea of the monarchy and parliament growing together to create a modern democratic nation.

England’s revolution killed the king

Between the emergence of parliament in the thirteenth century and 1688, the relationship between monarchy and parliament was frequently antagonistic. Parliament existed to advise the king and grant taxes to fund wars.

Kings thought of themselves as a living part of God’s plan, and their proximity to God put them out of the reach of their subjects. The supporting hierarchy of episcopy and landed aristocrats was also blessed. If they served the king, they served God. The rewards, both spiritual and material, were significant.

Capitalism developed from medieval trade, not part of God’s plan. It was rooted in towns and ports, most notably London. The interests of the early capitalists, to acquire capital, often clashed with the interests of the feudal hierarchy who wanted to fight costly wars. However, the monarchy came to depend on the wealth that trade brought to the kingdom.

This led to capitalists gaining more social and political weight, which they tried to hide by seeking aristocratic status. Kings and commons came to understand their mutual antipathy. It found expression in a number of ways including religious worship.

The capitalists favoured Protestantism because Catholicism upheld a strict social hierarchy. The capitalists wanted to control municipal government and trade, and this was rational. They also embraced the forces of change in science and technology. But these things disturbed the divinely inspired hierarchy of feudalism.

Conflict was inevitable, and when Charles I insisted on asserting his monarchical powers and privileges, it led to the English Civil War that ended with the separation of the king’s head from his body. The execution of Charles I was carried out by Parliamentarians.

So much for a happy symbiosis of monarchy and parliament.

For and against democracy

Capitalists favour parliamentary government (not necessarily with a wide suffrage) and the rule of law for the simple reason that they own the means of production and they rely on the market to do their business. Ideally, issues of capitalist policy can be resolved through rational debate and the market can be fair. Choice is an important right for capitalists who invest capital. Interference from other social groups is a threat, which is why the right to vote was restricted to wealthy property owners until mass struggles widened it during the nineteenth century.

Radical democracy poses a threat to the wealth the capitalists acquire. After the execution of Charles Stuart, the leader of the Parliamentary forces, Oliver Cromwell, led a period of republican rule known as the Commonwealth. It lasted from 1649-60, when the dead king’s son, Charles II, was restored to the throne.

The Commonwealth brought radical-democratic ideas to the fore. These radical ideas were rational and progressive. They emerged precisely because monarchical rule had ended, and consequently a more just society appeared to be possible. For example, the Levellers, who formed the leadership of the radicals, advocated land reform, religious toleration for dissenters and the rights to free speech and political representation beyond the major property owners.

The party of the capitalists was the Whigs. The Whig nobles were more frightened of democracy than they were of monarchy. This was especially true in the face of the Levellers who had gained military experience fighting for Parliament. The result was the restored monarchy of Charles II.

Monarchy restored and removed

Charles II reigned from 1661-85 and was succeeded by his brother, James II, who fled the country during the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.

The ‘Restored Monarchy’ of the Stuarts put the capitalist party of the Whigs between a rock and a hard place. The rock was that the Stuarts wanted to reassert the rights of the Crown. The hard place was that the only way to get rid of them was through force. Another civil war could only be won by an army of democratic radicals.

By 1688, the Whigs were in disarray. Whig office holders, who were also elected MPs, had been dismissed and replaced by Tories. A counterrevolution was under way. On his deathbed, Charles felt confident that kingly power was restored and he converted to Catholicism. Yet, he had only been acceptable in the first place because he was Protestant.

James II was a committed Catholic, and luckily for the Whigs, was also politically inept. He gave offices of state to Catholics, and was a firm ally of the hated and feared French King Louis XIV. In fact, Louis had bankrolled the Stuarts to give them more space to manoeuvre against parliament.

James made a huge miscalculation. The Whigs had a stronger social base than the Tories and they had money. Furthermore, the Tories were as invested in foreign trade as were the Whigs. Neither camp wanted to jeopardise profits from the Americas, West Indies and the East India Company. Unity against France was also a factor because France was a competitor in imperial adventures.

History-changing moments are never planned in advance, but have to be seized when they present themselves. The Whigs had luck on their side. In 1685, the Duke of Monmouth led a rising in the West Country that had sizeable popular support, including some Levellers. But an army loyal to the Crown crushed the rising.

This turned out to be good fortune for the Whigs. Above all it forced them to rethink their strategy and convinced them that civil war and revolution from below was not the answer.

With radical democracy out of the picture, the Whigs hatched a plan involving the Protestant king, William of Orange. William had a claim to the throne through his wife Mary, daughter of James II. He was also at war with France and needed allies.

William was persuaded to invade England by a small group of Whig nobles. The ‘Immortal Seven’ went to Holland to convince William by offering him a deal. William was desperate to defend his patch against the French, and England could be a powerful ally.

The deal would give William the Crown of England, but with limits on his power laid down. The new king would be subject to parliament, and under capitalist control. In the event, William’s army landed unopposed at Torbay on 5 November 1688 and the political mood changed quickly. One by one, the Tory grandees deserted James, including his military commanders, and without any resistance of note, James fled.

This was the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. The revolution could be called ‘glorious’ precisely because the masses had no part in it. It was a transfer of power under threat of arms. The finale was to create a settlement that the landed aristocracy and the merchant capitalists could agree on.

A capitalist constitution

The political settlement of 1688 that ensured a Protestant succession to the throne is the foundation of our constitution today. Two points need to be stressed. The settlement excluded any form of popular democracy, and the monarchy, a potential source of tyranny, was limited in its powers and could not dictate policy. That would be left to the parliament of the propertied classes.

The Bill of Rights produced by the settlement gave a few rights to a few people. Freedom of speech was a right that could be exercised only within parliament. Regular parliaments of three years were also included. An inevitable outcome of this great ‘democratic’ turn was the emergence of the two-party system, both of which served the interests of the ruling class.

Much has been written about the 1688 settlement. AJP Taylor argued that it was an act of political genius because: ‘In this country we do not kill each other for political reasons. Is there any other great community where this has ever been true?’.[1] From the point of view of the ruling class he was right.

Right-wing historians tend not to like any reference to a revolution at all. They stress the continuity of the monarchy and draw attention to the many monarchical rights that William and Mary retained. However, the limits to the power of the Crown were real. In fact, the reason there is so much pomp, ceremony and choreographed adulation of the monarchy today is precisely because it does not threaten capital. 

The revolution of 1688 was, as Marx argued, an historic compromise that overcame the factional interests of the landed aristocracy and the rising capitalists. The monarchy was to act as referee, and become a symbol of power and good order. This is the role it plays to this day.

Nevertheless, the 1688 settlement was crucial to the creation of Britain as a nation. It was a political solution to the threats of radical democracy and royal tyranny. The removal of these threats led to the creation of Great Britain and a fully functioning national state apparatus.

The capitalist class took from the monarchy its right to state violence. Justice was in the king’s name but at their direction. The army and navy served the king in name, but capital in practice. Royal insignia, ceremonies and paraphernalia would be used to add some glory and lustre to the money-grubbers.

The bloody rule of capital begins

The 1688 settlement was not about creating democracy; it was about removing obstacles to capitalist growth. The main feature of this growth was state violence. In his writings about the ‘so-called Glorious Revolution’, Marx identified an oligarchy (government by a powerful and wealthy elite) pulling the levers of power. This oligarchy set out to strengthen its power using the rights it gained from the political settlement.

In 1690, James II landed in Ireland and raised an army to win back his throne. After his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, the Irish threat had to be nullified. Ireland was reduced to a colony under English landlords. Colonisation was to be a major feature of British imperialism. Further imperial expansion required the uniting of Scotland and England in the Act of Union.

The oligarchy seized common lands and turned the countryside into parcels of private property. Peasant smallholders were driven off the land and turned into landless labourers for capitalist agriculture on a mass scale. Democratic consultation about this there was not. Capitalism was a form of economic absolutism.

The oligarchy Marx described consisted of the capitalists and merchants, the landed aristocracy, the Crown, the Church of England and what he called the ‘bankocracy’: ‘The new [having stolen the common lands] landed aristocracy was the natural ally of the new bankocracy, of the newly-hatched haute finance.’

The oligarchs needed capital beyond their immediate reserves. Their governments needed capital to secure British interests, and the supply from taxation could not keep up with their demands. Loans were facilitated by the creation of the Bank of England that became ‘the eternal creditor of the nation to the last shilling advanced’, as Marx put it. The threads of finance and empire were to be inextricably linked thereafter.  

It is interesting that the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson also sees 1688 as a capitalist victory. He celebrates the settlement of 1688 as the springboard to Britain’s imperial glory, and backhandedly reinforces Marx’s analysis of the role of the bankocracy:

‘This “Glorious Revolution” is usually portrayed as a political event, the decisive confirmation of British liberties and the system of parliamentary monarchy. But it also had the character of an Anglo-Dutch business merger. While the Dutch Prince William of Orange became, in effect, England’s new Chief Executive, Dutch businessmen became major shareholders in the English East India Company. The men who organised the Glorious Revolution felt they needed no lessons from a Dutchman about religion or politics. Like the Dutch, England already had Protestantism and parliamentary government. But what they could learn from the Dutch was modern finance.’[2]

The English oligarchs were quick learners. Dutch finance is the root of the ‘magic money tree’ that funds wars ‘whether we can afford it or not’. On condition that war for imperial gain would return a profit, the bankers lent the necessary funds.

The problem of government finance was solved through the issue of government bonds and paper money. These loans were taken on the basis that the labouring masses were good for the debt. The government and bankocracy mortgaged future generations by the creation of a national debt that served imperialist war.

The figures for the first hundred or so years after 1688 speak for themselves.

  • The Nine Years War with France (1688-97) cost £18m.
  • The Seven Years War (1756-63) was a global war against France and Spain and cost £82m.
  • The American War of Independence took the national debt from £126m to £230m.
  • The Napoleonic Wars took the national debt from £237m to £819m.

The magic money tree is still giving – unless you’re using it for socialist reforms.

Democracy for the many

If workers take strike action, the Tories and their media accuse us of ‘holding the country to ransom’, while they pose as the defenders of democracy. Yet we only take action after a democratic decision.

When the Tories remove the cap on bankers’ bonuses and dole out fracking licenses to their rich backers, they are not just going against the public consensus on these issues, they are showing utter contempt for any notion of democracy. The pledge they gave on fracking in their 2019 manifesto was meaningless.

Tory authoritarianism tears up our human rights, attacks our democratic trade unions and spends billions on war while poverty is destroying poor families and communities. The system lets them get away with it. The monarchy and House of Lords are unelected facilitators of Tory austerity.

Parliamentary opposition achieves nothing either. Labour has never taken on the power of the oligarchy that Marx described. The best of it amounts to a radical speech here and there from an MP, and the Tories laugh it off.

The fight for democracy has to go beyond parliamentary manoeuvres and root itself in the workers’ movement. Only here can the radical politics that the ruling class has excluded for the past three centuries bear fruit. The job of the left is to expose our political set up for what it has always been: a democratic front behind which our ruling class does whatever it takes to defend its power and wealth.


[1] AJP Taylor, Essays in English History (Penguin 1991), p.56.

[2] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (Allen Lane, 2003), p.24.

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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.