log in

  • Published in Analysis

Buckingham Palace. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chris Bambery explains the anti-democratic role of the monarchy in maintaining a system of hierarchy and privilege

There are many myths about the Royal Family. My favourite is that they are good for the British tourist trade, as if people don’t go to France because they guillotined Louis XVI.

But the greatest myth is that Britain is a constitutional monarchy. What constitutional checks are there on the monarchy? The answer is very few. Indeed the monarchy is the glue which binds together the constitution, law and government.

Like his mother, Charles appoints the Prime Ministers of Britain, and can dismiss them. His mother did just that in 1975, when Royal Assent was given to the dismissal of the elected Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam. The general view is that the United States wanted Whittlam and his Labour government out, because in 1973 they had ended all military support for South Vietnam (the anti-war movement had already forced the withdrawal of Australian troops from combat operations) and had recognised North Vietnam.

Charles has a track record of interference in how we are governed (over which we have little or no control apart from electing MPs every five years or so), writing umpteen letters to ministers setting out his views and urging action on them, even when his wishes contradicted government policy.

Monarchy is not democracy

The existence of the monarchy means there is no popular sovereignty – a system where the people decide. Crucial parts of the British state are not under the control of Parliament: the military, the secret services, the judiciary, and so on. They swear loyalty to the Crown instead.

The monarch dissolves parliament, appoints and dismisses prime ministers, assents to legislation, signs treaties, declares war and appoints judges. These powers are generally exercised by the prime minister under royal prerogative.

Using this prerogative, a British prime minister can declare war without a debate in parliament. Using this same framework Margaret Thatcher banned trade unions at the Cheltenham ‘spy centre,’ GCHQ, in 1984.

Whole areas of secondary legislation are handled by the Privy Council, the members of which are appointed for life, and these ‘orders in council’ never come before parliament. MPs swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen, not to the people they represent. The security and intelligence forces pledge loyalty to the monarch, not parliament or the government. That allows them to operate avoiding parliamentary scrutiny when required.

The monarch has been symbolic of the state, ideologically important at points of national stress and transition, and forms a central pillar of the uncodified constitutional apparatus.

King Charles simply proclaimed William and Catherine as Prince and Princess of Wales. The Welsh people were not consulted. Back in 1969, Charles was invested with the Princeship in a spectacular ceremony at Caernarfon Castle in North Wales amidst widespread protests. My understanding is that there will be no such ceremony at Caernarfon on grounds of security.

Why is this there no popular sovereignty?

The British ruling class likes to obscure the fact that what little parliamentary democracy we enjoy stems from a revolution in the 1640s in which Parliamentary forces defeated and executed an absolutist King, Charles I. After a period of republican government, his son Charles II was brought back with greatly reduced powers. His brother, James II, was sent packing in 1688 because he wanted to turn the clock back.

The ‘Glorious Revolution’ laid the basis for the present set up. The right to vote was won and extended by popular movements, involving civil unrest most famously in the case of the Suffragettes. Won not given.

The monarchy has been rebranded twice in modern times. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria was remade as Empress of Empire. Much of what are regarded as ancient traditions, such as the coronation ceremony, royal weddings, and even the ceremonial route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster, are a creation of that time.

World War II set a seal on that. The Royal Family were supposedly on the front line as Nazi bombs blitzed London. We were ‘all in it together’. Yet they slept at Windsor Castle, miles from the bombing, and were unaffected by rationing.

Under Elizabeth, there was another rebrand in the 1980s centring on Princess Diana. The Royals embraced celebrity culture in an effort to appear modern. But they discovered that with the glamour attached to weddings and births there was a price; they were fair game for the media, as Charles found over his treatment of Diana, and more recently we have seen Andrew forced into internal exile, and Harry and Meghan take flight to California.

However, the flummery and grovelling are not just a media creation, as important as that is. It is driven by the British state and the elite because of the importance they understand the monarchy to have. Beneath all of the froth lies a family of huge wealth and influence, closely tied into the political system and into the City of London, one of the major landlords in Britain and closely linked into the economic system itself.

A threadbare and tawdry spectacle

Let us return to the myths. Often we are told that the monarch is not really very important in the governance of Britain. Yet on the death of Elizabeth you suddenly saw just how much importance our ruling class invests in the monarchy.

A massive effort from the top was launched to ensure the nation mourned, seemingly united behind the monarchy more than ever. It has worked – to an extent. This is in part because people were ready to honour Elizabeth’s longevity on the throne, and because she was virtually the last of the World War II generation, a reminder of our ‘finest hour’.

But there is not the same affection for Charles. Many might recall that while The Sun lauds him, it once ran a front-page story revealing that he had written to his mistress declaring his wish to be her tampon.

Because the mourning for Elizabeth and the celebration of a new monarch has been driven from the top, with notable effect, it is important to recall that many of the institutions within British society which would once have driven cringing loyalty – the established churches, the Conservative Party, the Orange Order and so – have withered.

Identification with Britain has also diminished in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in many English cities where communities originating in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean have no great love of the monarchy, and can recall bitter memories of Empire and colonialisation.

For those of us who remember Princess Diana’s death and funeral, we were told it was an event which would change everything. It changed nothing. Charles married his mistress and everything reverted to as it had been.

We have been told a similar lie in recent weeks. One TV presenter even claimed people had stopped worrying over the price of their energy bills. If you can’t afford the heating bill you are unlikely to forget!

Very soon attention will focus on a new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, who looks less popular than Boris Johnson.

It hasn’t helped that the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has been competing with Liz Truss over who is the biggest sycophant, or that trade unions called off the strikes over falling wages and living standards.

That those at the top grasp that the display of reverence for the monarchy is fragile is underscored by the arrest of anti-monarchists for simply holding up signs or for shouting words at Prince Andrew. The reason football matches were called off – and not cricket or horse racing – was that the authorities feared the reaction to official mourning ceremonies. Indeed, when news of the cancellations was announced at a Heart of Midlothian match there was considerable booing, and this at an Edinburgh club historically linked to Unionism.

We will, of course, have a coronation to go through, but anger will quickly resurface over the cost-of-living crisis. Indeed, just as it did on the streets of London over the police killing of Chris Kaba. A reminder there is no black in the Union Jack.

When the anger does return, it is our job to fan the flames of revolt.

Before you go...

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now