Lindsey German considers the role of ruling class figureheads in maintaining the status quo
The excessively fawning tributes following the death of Prince Philip demonstrate how important the monarchy is to the stability of British capitalism. The whole of the BBC switched to mourning mode, abandoning its radio and television programmes. Huge pictures of the prince were projected on motorway screens and public hoardings. We were repeatedly told that ‘the nation’ was in mourning. An 8-day mourning period has been announced, and campaigners in next month’s elections – affecting pretty much the whole country – abandoned their leafletting and activities ‘out of respect’.
In effect, we are being told that we have to mourn an unelected public figure, who led an extremely privileged and comfortable life, paid for by the rest of us, and whose openly expressed opinions (we can only guess at his private ones) indicated a man of reactionary and racist views.
This enforced mourning ignores the fact that a considerable minority of people in Britain are republicans and don’t want a monarchy at all. It is a safe assumption that if there were a serious and honest debate about the institution – rather than the state sanctioned royalism present in every news outlet and relayed by sycophantic ‘royal correspondents’ – that figure would rise.
The monarchy is dependent on this sycophancy – one of the revealing things in the Meghan interview was the symbiotic relationship between the royal family and the tabloid media – and requires a constant stream of events, marriages, births, jubilees, in order to sustain itself in the public eye.
Yet the institution is an affront to any form of democracy and plays an important part in denying genuine democratic rights in Britain. After the civil war of the 1640s, Britain became one of the first republics in the world, executing the king and abolishing the House of Lords. Although restored in 1660, the monarchy was now supposedly subservient to parliament, as was the Lords. The institutions, however, enshrine the hereditary principle in British society and are a major conservative force, both ideologically and in practice. There is no written constitution and both institutions have considerable powers as we saw recently with the queen’s veto on legislation.
The revolutionary origins of British capitalism are hidden in a way that they are not in, say, the US or France, because of this compromise between parliament and monarchy. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described how, ‘The English bourgeoisie has erased even the memory of the revolution of the 17th century and recasts its entire past in the form of “gradual changes”.’
It is a set-up which is supported not just by the most conservative sections of society and the Tory party which has close links to aristocracy and monarchy but also by the Labour party, which rejects republicanism, has helped create the largest House of Lords ever which is now dependent more on cronyism than on heredity, but which continues to play a reactionary role.
This denial of possibilities of revolutionary change, coupled with levels of frankly distasteful deference, is part of the cement of society in even the most stable times. In times of crisis, it becomes a major prop for the ruling class. In Britain we have seen one of the worst levels of Covid 19 deaths anywhere in the world, record inequality, attacks on working people. Levels of discontent are rising, and we see growing attempts at repression and curtailment of protest. The reliance on tradition, the flag, royalty, the military (very closely connected to the royals of course) is becoming a growing feature of a Tory government facing social conflict.
The present queen has had the longest reign of any monarch, and there are serious concerns that when she dies support for the institution will wane. Indeed this is almost certain to be the case, given the calibre of her heirs. So a great deal of time and money is put into the myth of monarchy, and to ensuring that the transition when it comes will be as smooth as possible. Hence with Prince Philip we are painted a picture of a man who gave his life to ‘service’ (untrue), and even – in a ludicrous identity politics take - that he was more progressive than some other contemporary husbands.
The idea of the royal family as just like the rest of us, with all the ups and downs of a soap opera, having to carry the burden of the crown, working hard in their ‘duty,’ is both pervasive and pernicious. They are some of the richest people in the world and are thus protected and pampered – as Scott Fitzgerald remarked, the rich aren’t like us. And they certainly don’t act in our interests.
It has not gone unremarked on social media – even if it is totally missing from the BBC and newspapers – that this lengthy outpourings of grief are reserved for one rich man while the near 130,000 dead from Covid 19 in this country have been marked by a 3-minute silence. The scandal of those of similar age to Prince Philip left to die in care homes throughout the pandemic attracts virtually no media attention. People are denied proper sick pay yet hundreds of thousands are spent on 41 gun salutes and tributes on public buildings.
None of it is surprising because the monarchy sits at the palatial pinnacle of a brutal class society where the rich are rewarded still further and the poor are penalised. There is still widespread support for the monarchy in this country but it is for the most part based on spurious reasons – that a presidency would be more expensive (highly unlikely) or that it helps with tourism (how does this explain the popularity of Versailles?) – or on levels of sentimentality and deference.
So the support is wide but shallow. And the social upheavals which lie ahead will test it further.
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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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