Lindsey German on what the monarchy represents and the coming intensification of class struggle
The monarchy is, by definition, a symbol of inequality. It creates an elaborate hierarchy which, with all its trappings, suggests a society where only the smallest change is possible and where continuity is the ‘natural order of things’. The spectacle of mourning that we have seen over the past week has underlined this inequality. The pomp and ceremony, the proclamations and processions, all point to a celebration of wealth and power. Dissent is silenced, even for those holding up blank placards which might be about to say something against the monarchy.
For those of us who live in Britain it gives us insights into another world: the estimated £8 million for the funeral alone contrasts with the parsimony over pensions and universal credit payments. The solicitude for those in the queue – blankets handed out, theatres and restaurants open to provide refreshment, late-night trains to carry mourners to their homes outside London – all stand in contrast to the misery of thousands of homeless in the city every night, who receive nothing from the authorities. The largesse lavished on everything to do with mourning compares to the very different approach to public spending generally, with the NHS at the point of collapse, with school heads worried how they will heat their buildings, a ramshackle transport system, and fears that many of the 4 million children in families living in poverty will sink even further into misery this winter.
To even mention any of this is regarded as near sacrilege, as it is to point out that under shabby deals with previous Tory prime ministers the new king will pay zero inheritance tax on one of the biggest fortunes in the world. The obscene wealth of the Windsors will not be touched, while the new prime minister looks set to raise the cap on bankers’ bonuses and usher in more tax cuts for the rich and big business. The enforced nature of the mourning is everywhere: minute’s silences at cinemas, cancelling of football matches, closure of supermarkets and many events and venues, school children told to pray for the queen. The lengthy queue to file past the coffin is itself a deliberate attempt to give visibility and some theatre to the mourning – why not issue timed tickets instead?
Nowhere is the top down nature of this spectacle more obvious than in the role of the main broadcast media – amply abetted by their print counterparts – who have spent nearly two weeks enforcing the message that ‘the nation’ is united in grief. The extent of the coverage is mind boggling, the assumption that any alternative views simply can’t be put, the reverence for monarchy, the obsequious nature of the news only matched by its triviality, all of it combines to present a view which would be derided if it were in a dictatorship. It should have nothing to with any serious democracy. It also does not reflect the real feelings of people on the ground. Friends tell me that ‘official London’ around the government and royal centres is indeed in mourning, with many people in black, flags everywhere, and a great deal of ceremonial. Even a 14-year-old grandson of the queen is wearing medals. The link between the monarchy and the military is clear not just through the Ruritanian uniforms (and note the major controversy over whether Prince Harry was allowed to wear one) but also through the major armed services presence at every turn. But in most parts of London it isn’t like that. There are few signs of mourning and life is continuing as normal.
There are of course a range of reactions to the queen’s death and monarchy more generally. These go through different shades of royalism to a more agnostic approach to outright republicanism and socialism. There are many who express respect for the queen that they do not extend to her descendants. There are others who see this as an end of an era, or who see her as representing a more stable and happier time. She also evokes memories of the Second World War, which my parents’ generation fought in. The large numbers queuing will be doing so for a number of reasons, as a poll of some of its members showed. For some, the passing of the queen may represent a yearning for the lost post-war era of welfare state, full employment and house building, before the depredations of neoliberalism during the second half of her reign.
The monarchy also has a very important role ideologically, which is to act as a seemingly harmless and impartial institution which reinforces the rule of capital (and imperialism, never forget). This role is very much to the fore at present and the period of mourning will be used as much as possible by those who want to defend the system. But deference, respect, a sense of place in the hierarchy, are not necessarily permanent attributes. One very important aspect of the queen’s death is that it comes at a turning point in British society. The same week that we transitioned from one unelected monarch to another, we also had a new prime minister, elected by around 80,000 Tories from the narrowest social base imaginable. She faces multiple problems to do with economic crisis, the continuing war in Ukraine, and above all the energy price hikes and inflation more widely. The pound has slumped against the dollar in recent days. So despite those, like Andrew Neil in the Daily Mail, who see the pomp and ceremony denying Britain’s decline, hard economic facts tell another story.
On Tuesday some of the harsh reality of life in Britain will begin to resurface on the news. The rail unions are set to announce more strikes for 1 October, when there will also be postal workers and dockers on strike. The first weekend of October will be a big day of action by campaigns over the cost-of-living crisis, and the multiple issues facing working-class people in this deeply unequal society will begin to come to a head. As winter approaches, real misery will be on the cards for millions of people.
It's possible that adulation of King Charles III will help defuse tensions, even lead people to abandon the new wave of class struggle that has risen during the summer. But that seems unlikely. He does not have support that the queen has had, his sense of entitlement is all too obvious even from the limited scrutiny as king so far, and the problems with other members of the queen’s descendants, most notably Prince Andrew, are much deeper. The coronation will be about Charles, not the queen, and we will see how he fares in the run up to that. But it may be that this is as good as it is going to get and that support for the monarchy is going to decline further, as it already has among the young in recent years.
There is a big ideological battle going on over these questions. It will shape how British society develops. The parliamentary parties have all lined up to support the monarchy (witness even Green MP Caroline Lucas gushing about rainbows over the palace) and despite major questions ahead, such as the future of the Union, there is little sign of any official abandonment of support for royalty. But the effect of event on workers’ lives can begin to lead to questioning on this and many other issues. Neither Truss nor Labour’s Keir Starmer have the remotest idea about how to deal with a crisis of the magnitude facing Britain, and Starmer’s Labour has been virtually silent on the monarchy – even its supposed left.
What is for sure is that a new bout of class struggle is absolutely necessary to protect us from this rapacious government. It can also lead to a debate about why we are supposed to look up to an unelected leader whose only qualification is that of birth.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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