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Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II. Photo: UK Home Office / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

The royal family is a miserable historical hangover, an anachronism at odds with a fair and just society, writes Morgan Daniels

"The British monarchy, hypocritical British conservatism, religiosity, servility, sanctimoniousness—all this is old rags, rubbish, the refuse of centuries which we have no need for whatsoever."

— Leon Trotsky, 1924

As the Union Jacks proliferate in our streets ahead of Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee this weekend, it’s surely a question worth asking, given that a hereditary head of state is quite the affront to democracy. After all, there is nothing special about Elizabeth II. Neither her parentage nor place of birth bestowed her with magical powers. Were we to cut her head off, her blood would not sparkle and shine.  

Symbolism

But perhaps this is the idea. One of the central ‘meanings’ of the Queen, so to speak, is symbolic: her grotesque existence helps to naturalise that which is wholly unnatural—a society divided by class. She stands as an undemocratic emblem of a system with a serious democratic deficit. 

The royal family serves a connected ideological function as a ‘unifier’. Jubilees, coronations, royal weddings and births all provide an opportunity for national celebration by way of bunting, street parties, and a banal concert at Buckingham Palace, most likely featuring Elton John. National unity is everything during these royal shindigs—such togetherness being an essential tool for the state, a poisonous myth which insists upon shared interests across class lines.  It is in the national interest, of course, that working-class people are sent off to kill other working-class people in conflicts around the world. (The Union Jacks proliferate in wartime, too.)

Perversely, the royals need to be at once superhuman and as ordinary as can be. They are exalted, decked out in gold and medals and robes, yet they are also just like us. Hence ‘hilarious’ stories in the press of the Queen Mother performing an Ali G impression at Christmas dinner. Hence the royal visits to schools, hospitals, village fetes, or whatever. It’s a precarious position, no doubt about it, but one built into the (part-time) job. As the anthropologist Michael Taussig put it in Defacement (1999), ‘it is the essence of royalty to “come down” in order to “stay up”,’ as in the Queen ‘displaying the marrow of royalness by visiting ordinary working-class people in their ordinary homes and shaking their ordinary hands and drinking tea with them.’

Hard power

For all this talk of symbolism, however, it is important not to think of the Windsors as simply ceremonial window dressing. As John Rees demonstrates, their ‘hard power’ is real and immense, not least when it comes to land: the Crown Estate is worth more than £15 billion, with holdings including all of Regent Street and over half of the country’s foreshore. This landed wealth translates into political muscle; Prince Charles infamously wrote 27 letters to members of Tony Blair’s Cabinet over an eight-month period in 2004 and 2005. 

I would add that for centuries, the royals have been embedded in British imperialism, which is a very hard power indeed. In the Elizabethan era, the Crown licensed early maritime expansion, providing a Royal Charter to the likes of the East India Company. The Royal African Company, the most prolific of English slaving enterprises, was led by the Duke of York, later James II. Britain’s giddy days of nineteenth-century global hegemony were synonymous with Queen Victoria, who was crowned Empress of India in 1876.  

Since the 1950s, as British imperialism has entered a new and difficult phase, the Windsors have been at the forefront. Elizabeth II has visited all the countries in the Commonwealth bar Rwanda and Cameroon; in fact, she became Queen in 1952 whilst in Kenya, at the beginning of the eight-year Mau Mau Uprising which the British sought to crush so brutally. More recently, Princes William and Harry have both done their bit for the War on Terror, the latter serving twice in Afghanistan. If the royals provide a vital ideological service for the state as unchanging symbols of privilege, they are simultaneously political actors. Hard and soft power co-exist, the one vital for the other.

Crisis

Symbols are funny things, however. Their power can wax and wane. Right now, there is plenty of indication that the House of Windsor is in disfavour at home and abroad. One recent YouGov survey, for instance, found that 54% of Britons are not interested in the Platinum Jubilee. Prince Andrew’s tribulations and Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry can hardly have helped whip up enthusiasm for Liz’s big bash. There is also perhaps less of an appetite for celebrating the royals and their life of luxury when the reality on the ground is marked by rising bills and the increased use of food banks. So much for national unity.

Meanwhile, the Queen’s Commonwealth subjects are in revolt. In November 2021, Barbados, originally colonised by England in 1627, removed Elizabeth II as its head of state. Earlier this year, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were met with protests during a royal visit to the Bahamas, with Prince Marcus of the House of Rastafari telling the Independent: ‘We can never forget slavery or the atrocities done to my people from the royal family.’

This picture of widespread discontent is a striking one, and runs counter to notions that working people are either inherently conservative or else helplessly brainwashed by generations of patriotic propaganda. For sure, these are ominous times for the royals, and not just because they are far less popular than they would like to be; they are also set to be enmeshed in a first-rate constitutional crisis once the Queen dies. As a noted interventionist, Prince Charles’ rule as king would only make explicit the political power of the royal family.  

Time is ripe, then, for Trotsky’s ‘old rags’ to be swept away. The royal family is a miserable historical hangover, an anachronism at odds with a fair and just society. The Queen is a rotten symbol of a rotten state, and our fight for a better world is necessarily a fight against the House of Windsor.

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