We print some thoughts from socialists past and present on why democracy and monarchy don’t mix
Royalty, they declare, ‘does not hinder’ the country’s progress and works out cheaper than a president if you count all the expense of elections, and so on and so forth. Such speeches by Labour leaders typify a facet of their “idiosyncrasies” which cannot be called anything other than conservative block-headedness. Royalty is weak as long as the bourgeois parliament is the instrument of bourgeois rule and as long as the bourgeoisie has no need of extra-parliamentary methods. But the bourgeoisie can if necessary use royalty as the focus of all extra-parliamentary, i.e. real forces directed against the working class. The British bourgeoisie itself has well understood the danger of even the most fictitious monarchy. Thus in 1837 the British government abolished the title of the Great Mogul in India and deported its incumbent from the holy city of Delhi, in spite of the fact that his name had already begun to lose its prestige. The English bourgeoisie knew that under favourable circumstances the Great Mogul might concentrate in himself the forces of the independent upper classes directed against English rule.
To proclaim a socialist platform and at the same time to declare that royal power does not ‘interfere’ and is actually cheaper, is equivalent, for example, to a recognition of materialistic science combined with the use of magical incantations] against toothache on the grounds that the witch comes cheaper. In such a ‘trifle’ the whole man is expressed, along with his spurious acknowledgement of materialist science and the complete falsity of his ideological system. For a socialist the question of the monarchy is not decided by today’s book-keeping, especially when the books are cooked. It is a matter of the complete overturn of society and of purging it of all elements of oppression. Such a task, both politically and psychologically, excludes any conciliation with the monarchy.
Messrs. MacDonald, Thomas and the rest are indignant with the workers who protested when their ministers arrayed themselves in clownish court dress. Of course this is not MacDonald’s main crime: but it does perfectly symbolize all the rest. When the rising bourgeoisie fought the nobility they renounced ringlets and silken doublets. The bourgeois revolutionaries wore the black dress of the Puritans. As against the Cavaliers they were nicknamed Roundheads. A new content finds itself a new form. Of course, the form of dress is only a convention, but the masses – rightly enough – do not have the patience to understand why the representatives of the working class have to adopt the buffoonish conventions of a court masquerade. And yet the masses will come to understand that he who is false in one small thing will be false in many things.
While we are being told by many people 'now is not the time' surely there is no better time to discuss monarchy and republicanism than with the passing of the longest reigning monarch in British history and in a period of great uncertainty for many people in Britain? Yet this is the one discussion that you will not see or hear in the British media, or in public discussion by politicians, or public debate. Instead, we are treated with the absolute assumption that all of us want the monarchy to continue and that there are absolutely no issues with the hereditary principle, which denies the democratic principle.
The assumptions behind this that the monarch embodies 'the nation' and must therefore be supported by all sections of the population. Polling tells us that something around a fifth of people in Britain are republicans. You would not think that they exist in the days we are now going through. The nation is also divided into classes, and we have seen in recent months a heightened class struggle, caused on the one hand by workers' demanding pay rises to compensate for rising inflation, and on the other by employers who remain as intransigent as ever. But while CWU and RMT unions have called off strikes, and the TUC has been postponed for another month, there is no let-up in the attacks on workers. The rail bosses are not asked to desist from their attacks on rail workers' conditions in the national interest.
Calling off the strikes risks loss of momentum, and that isn't always easy to re-establish. More importantly there is the danger that we will be lulled into thinking we are 'all in it together'. We most certainly are not. The monarchy is one of the summits of wealth and power in this country and its support is for the conservative values that maintain that wealth and power.
There is a long tradition of republicanism in Britain. England established one of the first republics in the world and did so by cutting off the monarch's head. Strong anti-monarchy sentiment was part of the early labour movement and has resurfaced time and again. We need to reassert it now, because a supposed democracy with an unelected king, a House of Lords bigger than the Commons and a corrupt honours system is no democracy at all.
It's normal to extend condolences and to seek not speak ill of the dead but skimming social media, it feels like a bidding war among trade-union leaders, left-liberal commentariat, NGOs, third sector Labour/Plaid politicians as to who can be most sycophantic towards the institution of monarchy in what they have decided is a moment of 'national unity'.
As a human being I feel empathy with the family and loved ones of anyone who passes, but I am not united in grief with the rest of the nation over someone I have never met, and whose role I never identified with, nor supported.
Why do we have a monarchy? Because we were once all serfs with no human rights. The people fought a long battle for democracy to get this family off our back, but they managed to cling on to a role, as a symbol of class privilege and a culture of deference. People died, were executed, cut down, exiled, transported to far flung lands in the battle for democracy against the royal family and their class.
Remember the peasants revolting in 1381, the Levellers and Diggers of the English Revolution of the 17th century, the Chartists, Peterloo Martyrs and Tolpuddle Martyrs of the 19th century, and the Suffragettes and anti-colonial movements of the 20th century.
Who would have imagined that the trade-union leader whose punchline was 'We refuse to be poor anymore!' and whose self-proclaimed political hero was the ferocious anti-monarchist rebel leader James Connolly would show such deference to hereditary privilege.
Who would have imagined the trade-union leaders that said, 'Enough is Enough' would declare a one-sided truce in the class war, both of them calling off strikes for pay rises matching rising living costs in the same breath as the Prime Minister is announcing that our energy bills will rise again and plunging us into what must be the bleakest winter for the working class in generations.
What is this national unity really about? It is the BBC News presenter Clive Myrie saying the Energy Bills Price Crisis is ‘of course insignificant now given the gravity of the situation we seem to be experiencing with Her Majesty.’
‘We pity the plumage, and forget the dying bird.’ These words were spoken by the poet Shelley in rage and sorrow in a pamphlet on the death of a princess in the 19th century. He opens by painting a picture of a tragic death, but then he remembers the establishments’ indifference to the lives of the poor and working class cut short by poverty:
‘Yet thousands of the poorest poor, whose misery is aggravated by what cannot be spoken now, suffer this. And have they no affections? Do not their hearts beat in their bosoms, and the tears gush from their eyes? Are they not human flesh and blood? Yet none weep for them—none mourn for them—none when their coffins are carried to the grave (if indeed the parish furnishes a coffin for all) turn aside and moralize upon the sadness they have left behind’
Amid the national mourning, the poet wondered why some lives are worth so much and some so little to the establishment. Three working-class rebel leaders were beheaded and hanged around the same time as the princess died. They had simply wanted more from life than a life of toil and eking out a miserable existence.
What should the trade-union leaders have done? They should have simply continued the strikes.
If challenged, they could have spoken about it being a mark of respect towards the pensioners who will shiver to death in their homes because they could not afford to turn the heating on, the people who die outside on the streets in one of the wealthiest societies in all of human history, they could have said that workers earning less £15 per hour can't afford to take time out to mourn the departed from a wealthy family, above all, they could have asked if the rich and powerful refuse to declare a truce, or call off the war, why should our class?
There are people in this country tonight who have not only been denied dignity in life, but will be denied dignity even in death. There are carers who look after people suffering their last days, who will not be paid a real living wage that covers rent and bills. There are families who will only be able to afford a pauper's funeral. How dare the leaders of the workers’ movement of Britain not speak to these catastrophic realities?
The establishment will milk for days the notion that we are one nation united, as a useful distraction from the fact that they are inflicting the most savage winter in generations on working-class people, many of whom are wondering how they will survive it. Meanwhile the trade-union leaders and sections of the left will be busy observing a truce, calling off protests and strikes, muting any talk of class, wealth, power and privilege, for days, as a 'mark of respect'. Sometimes you have to make a tough argument, if the London Stock Exchange will stay open tomorrow, then why should the rail strike in over a week be called off?
Now is the time to press for the abolition of the monarchy, for a democratic republic, for the abolition of the House of Lords, private schools and all the institutions of hereditary privilege.
As the 19th century novel, Sybil, put it:
“… Well society may be in its infancy,” said Egremont … “but say what you like, our Queen rules over the greatest nation that ever existed."
"Which nation?" asked the young stranger, "for she reigns over two … Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy: who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws."
'"You speak of -", said Egremont, hesitatingly.
'"THE RICH AND THE POOR."'
Surely, we owe the English revolutionaries of 1649 something better than the Windsor soap opera. There is an important sense in which the English Revolution of the seventeenth century inaugurated political modernity not only for Britain, but also for the world. The trial and execution of Charles Stuart, `the man of blood', was much more than a merely `English' event; it was `world-historical', in the Hegelian sense of the term, insofar as it marked the beginnings of the end for both feudalism and absolutism.
The Restoration in 1660 and the subsequent execution of the regicides (in the vilest possible manner) is already injury enough to the memory of the first modern republic. That yet another Charles should become king over 350 years later, and be ‘represented’ in Australia by some timeserving Labor lieutenant of capital, would only add desperately sad insult to that initial injury. The first Charles was executed, the second exiled. Let the third be pensioned off, both in England and Australia, and let the last pathetic legacies of feudalism be gone with him.
Neither in science, nor in art, nor in literature, nor in exploration, nor in mechanical invention, nor in humanising of laws, nor in any sphere of human activity has a representative of British royalty helped forward the moral, intellectual or material improvement of mankind.
A people mentally poisoned by the adulation of royalty can never attain to that spirit of self-reliant democracy necessary for the attainment of social freedom. The mind accustomed to political kings can easily be reconciled to social kings - capitalist kings of the workshop, the mill, the railway, the ships and the docks.
The misery of the world is economic, but that does not mean that it is cash. That is a bourgeois error. Just because they are economic, they involve the tenderest and most valued feelings of social man. For the satisfaction of all rich emotional capabilities and social tenderness which bourgeois relations have deprived him, he turns vainly to religion, hate, patriotism, fascism, the sentimentality of films and novels, which paint in imagination loves he cannot experience in life. Because of this he is neurotic, unhappy, sick, liable to the mass-hatreds of war and antisemitism, to absurd and yet pathetic Royal Jubilee or Funeral enthusiasms to mad impossible loyalties to Hitlers and to mad Aryan grandmothers. Because of this life seems to him empty, stale, and unprofitable. Man delights him not, nor woman neither.
70 years ago, Elizabeth became Queen while visiting her colonial subjects in Kenya. It was also around this time that the Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule began, to which Her Majesty’s government unleashed a campaign of pure savagery to crush the rebellion. Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were detained and subjected to forced labour, starvation, torture, rape, castration and murder.
Ian Henderson, the man who was credited with doing “more than any single individual” in crushing the Mau Mau and who later went on to become the Butcher of Bahrain for crushing the movement fighting for democracy there, was honoured by Queen Elizabeth with an OBE, George Medal and King’s Police Medal.
This is just one example of what the Queen’s empire did to those it colonised. Queen Elizabeth was the head of the British Empire and its crimes against millions of people across the world were carried out in her name. The wall-to-wall celebration of her life in the British media entirely ignores why so many people around the world and their descendants in Britain are not mourning her passing.
Those who were subjugated under her rule and slaughtered for daring to oppose it, whose countries are still blighted by the remnants of the divide and rule structures that were established and the ongoing neocolonial relationships to the Crown that maintain the robbery of resources will be shedding no tears today.
So I’ll instead be remembering the horrors she’s responsible for and mourning all those who resisted her cruel and barbaric rule.
It is undoubtedly the case that Queen Elizabeth II was held in genuine popular affection by a large section of the British population. For a variety of reasons. She was the most popular member of the royal family – by a mile.
But what of the institution of monarchy? It is currently likely understood very much as the same thing. Most people have not known another monarch: Elizabeth has been the reigning monarch for more than seven decades. To put that in context, that’s longer than life expectancy in Scotland. It’s longer than my maternal grandparents were alive. It speaks to class inequalities in a real way. My point though is that she’s coterminous with the monarchy for most people who are alive in Britain – they’ve known no other monarch.
The new monarch – Charles III – is not widely liked. From the times of Diana onwards, there is a dark cloud over him. He may get some sympathy now, but both he and Camilla, and the rest of the royal family are largely seen as out of touch. ‘Megxit’ and Prince Andrew’s scandals and other issues have eroded the popularity of the monarchy in recent years. Just a few years ago, the proportion of those backing monarchy against a republic was 3-1. Earlier this year, it was 2-1. A poll last year said that 41% of 18 to 24-year olds thought there should now be an elected head of state compared to 31% who backed monarchy. We don’t know how long Charles III will reign, but it is clear he faces major challenges following in Elizabeth’s footsteps.
The change of monarch could not come at a worse time for the British ruling class. First, because they face an economic crisis worse than anything in living memory this autumn. Second, because their preferred ruling party has been in power for over a decade and is now led by a pretty hapless representative of the maverick wing of the ruling class. Third, their reserve party is led by a dependable is somewhat hapless leader in the form of Sir Keir Starmer. Fourth, Northern Ireland and Scotland and even Wales are drifting from the union. Fifth, the world is moving from a unipolar to a multipolar one in which the West is losing ground to China, and there is real havoc in international affairs.
This should be a time when the labour movement could be making headway in arguing against monarchy and for a fundamentally different constitutional order. But we face real obstacles. First, the major obstacle is still the weight of the past, the defeats of the 1980s in particular, on the consciousness of the many. Second, the leadership of the labour movement is lacking. The Labour Party is in the grip of the right, while the trade union leaderships are still meek: look at how they called off strikes in the wake of Elizabeth’s death. Third, the forces of the revolutionary anti-capitalist left are still small. But there are real opportunities: hundreds of thousands have been radicalised through protest movements in recent decades (Stop the War and People’s Assembly, to name a few). Cobynism was a sign of things to come, as is the mass response to Enough is Enough (however problematic EIE actually is in terms of weddedness to the meek labour bureaucracy). We still have a world to win for a res publica: the public affair, or put differently, the common good.
More articles from this author
- Royal Mail: best and final offer met with no confidence in CEO - News from the Frontline
- University strike: the rising has begun
- ‘The point is to change it’: Why you should come to Marxism in a Day
- Fair pay or fire strike: FBU move to industrial action ballot - News from the Frontline
- Sporting values built on bloodied sand: Qatar 2022
- Birkbeck: reckless job cuts put property before people
- Universities strike: all out against the market model of education