The British monarchy has been dealt a devastating blow after an Oprah Winfrey interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry was aired on 7 March in the US. The revelations of racism, jealousy and a petty backstabbing culture give a glimpse into the rotten and decrepit institution, known by insiders as ‘the Firm’.
Most of the British media establishment has thrown its weight behind the royal family, either by openly defending it or by slyly trying to question Harry and Meghan’s motivation for giving the interview. On social media, however, tens of thousands of young people, in particular, have been pouring scorn on the royal family, revealing the enormous chasm that divides ordinary people and the establishment.
The interview comes on top of the last year’s revelations about Prince Andrew’s involvement in the child abuse scandal surrounding Jeffrey Epstein, as well as the airing of the Netflix series The Crown, which has partially lifted the curtain on the reactionary role and nature of the monarchy. This explains the desperation of the media and its attempts to turn the present crisis into one of individuals, rather than the institution of the Crown itself. As opposed to what we are led to believe, the monarchy plays an extremely important role in the preservation of British capitalism. The crisis now unfolding, presents a threat to the system as a whole. In the following article, published after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, Alan Woods analyses the historical role of the royal family in the class struggle. This article retains its full force and relevance, and deserves to be studied carefully by anyone who wishes to understand the nature and role of the British monarchy.
9 March 2021
Diana, the Monarchy and the crisis in Britain
The dramatic events of the first week of September 1997 mark a sea-change in British society. The sudden death of the Princess of Wales was the signal of an outburst of popular feeling which was without precedent in recent British history. Of course, Britain has seen more than a few royal births, deaths and marriages, duly attended by large crowds of cheering or silently respectful people. But such a spontaneous eruption as this, such an overflowing of emotion, such a movement of the masses, unorganised, uncalled-for, uncontrollable – such a thing has never been seen. It is an entirely new phenomenon, reflecting an entirely new situation in Britain.
“Her violent death in a car crash last Sunday morning has been followed by a demonstration of popular feeling so deep and broad as to have alarmed the institutions of the state. She has shown the power of the crowd.” (Financial Times, 6-7/9/97.)
“Diana would not be thought good if the causes she had espoused had been privatisation, workfare and the charity ball; her instincts, amazingly for one with her background and education, took her unerringly to the liberal wing of the spectrum of supportable causes. Homelessness, Aids and landmines are all issues with which the Conservative mind is instinctively uneasy – and an important reason why the responses of William Hague and the Conservative Party to the past week have been so feeble.” (The Observer, 7/9/97.)
One might suppose that the mass response to the death of the Princess of Wales would have warmed the hearts of the monarchists and an Establishment which is the world’s expert in manipulating the feelings of the people in its own interests. But no. Far from being encouraged by these spontaneous demonstrations, the powers-that-be watched these “seven days of volatile and intense passion,” as The Guardian called them, with a mixture of astonishment and foreboding.
The reaction of the Queen was itself without precedent. It is self-evident that the Windsor family – whose feelings towards Diana are sufficiently well-known – had not the slightest intention of returning to London from their Scottish hideaway until the morning of the funeral on Saturday, when common decency and the need to keep up appearances would compel them to make at least a token show of mourning. But the Queen was compelled to climb into a jet aircraft on the Friday, returning to the capital at full speed in a desperate attempt to stem the wave of protests from the masses on the streets through a belated television broadcast. Equally unprecedented was the decision to fly the Union flag at Buckingham palace at half-mast, something which is not done even at the death of a monarch. All these things are sure signs of panic and alarm in Britain’s ruling circles. But why?
The figure of Diana
Inevitably, the mass media have concentrated on building up a mystique of Diana, her personality, good works, charity, “common touch,” and so on and so forth. Naturally! The same gentlemen, when she was alive, spent considerable time and money to rake up all the available scandal about her personal life, now write about her in the kind of terms normally reserved for the Virgin Mary. What nauseating hypocrisy! And yet perfectly predictable. These newspaper proprietors would skin their grandmothers to get a story that will sell more papers and swell their bank accounts. Now the blame for the Paris car crash is suddenly shifted to the mysterious “Paparazzi” who have been promoted from anonymity to the rank of regicides-in-chief. After all, someone must be to blame! But no-one asks the fundamental question: who pays the “Paparazzi”? It is a question that answers itself. They are paid by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and the handful of millionaires who control the press in our so-called “democracy.”
The question of Diana’s character and personal role is not without its importance. Marxism does not deny the role of the individual in history, but explains it in terms of the general state of society and relations between the classes. So it was in this case. It is impossible to understand the impact of Diana’s death solely in terms of her individual personality. It is necessary to ask ourselves why millions of people in some way identified themselves with her, and clearly and sharply distinguished between her person and the other “royals.” This question immediately takes us beyond the superficial rubbish of tabloid idolatry and into the real world of social relations and mass psychology, which does not always express itself in a simple and self-explanatory way.
It is common knowledge that Diana was not one of the Windsor clique but an outsider who rapidly came into conflict with her husband and the rest of the family. The reasons for this clash need not concern us, but the fact is that the public image of the Princess of Wales was unlike the other royals. She appeared as more humane, more natural, embracing children in hospitals and the like.
The ruling class has always understood the need to use the monarchy and religion as a means of perpetuating the slavery of women, convincing them of the need to obey their husband and meekly submit to oppression. In the words of the great English constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot, to whose views on the monarchy we shall return: “The women – one half the human race at least – care fifty times more for a marriage than a ministry.” ( Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, p. 34.) But the public break-up of the marriage of Charles and Diana upset the old image of the royal family as a pillar of respectability. Her unhappy marriage itself carried a message to millions of women locked into unhappy marriages or divorced who, unlike Diana, do not live in palaces, and yet, in some way saw their own plight reflected here. In the words of the Financial Times , (6-7/9/97): “Women looked up to her for refusing to succumb to a loveless marriage and deciding to make something more of herself.”
Of course, this identification of the masses with a woman who lived in a palace and left £40 million in her will, was always an illusion. As the Financial Times pointed out with brutal frankness:
“The refrain of a thousand messages has been: ‘You were one of us.’ But she was not. She was with the people, but not of them. Diana was a girl from an aristocratic family who decided, especially after her divorce from Prince Charles, to use the media power she had acquired to comfort – and find comfort in – people who had suffered, as she saw it, like herself.” (Financial Times, 6-7/9/97.)
And yet, illusions can and do play a role in the psychology of the masses, and a powerful one at that.
The reason for her popularity was that she seemed to stand for the “underdog.” This undoubtedly struck a chord with millions of ordinary people who contrasted this attitude with the stiff and lifeless formality of the royal family. “In life, Diana had the common touch of an Eva Peron in her sympathy for the poor and deprived.” (Financial Times, 6-7/9/97.) But this kind of thing is not appreciated by the Establishment. While Diana lived, her activities were a source of embarrassment, but when her death sparked off the intervention of the masses, it immediately sensed a threat to its vital interests. This was openly admitted by the Financial Times on its front page on Friday the fifth of September:
“Public reaction to the death of Diana is being watched with concern by officials sensing the pressure building up around tomorrow’s funeral. ‘There are aspects of this that are beginning to look quite unpleasant, as if mass hysteria was taking over,’ said one Whitehall official. Another commented: ‘It would appear that the survival of the royal family is being decided on how it handles the death of Diana’.”
The Financial Times, that organ par excellence of the ruling class, gave voice to these feelings in an article published under the significant title Crowds and Power, which appeared on September the seventh:
“Anybody who has attended the vigils of these past days will have felt the palpable expression of a collective will. It is conveyed by the numberless tokens left at the gates of palaces and at the instant shrines that have sprung up all over the country: the messages, cards and photographs, teddy bears, painted portraits and flags; the queues of people waiting up to 12 hours to sign books of condolence; the banks of flowers lit by candles burning through the night.
“Neither the Palace, the politicians nor the press have been able to comprehend the phenomenon. In spite of the royal family’s own need for privacy the Queen was compelled to waive protocol, break with tradition, and make an exceptional broadcast to the nation last night. On Wednesday her prime minister was worried enough by the mood to defend the family against public criticism of its silence.
“Meanwhile, the press and television have been baffled by the strength of a popular feeling they did so much to stimulate. Commentators have found themselves trailing in the wake of ordinary people. They have struggled to make sense of the flood of human emotion as the collective mourning has progressed – like that of any bereaved individual – from shock and numb disbelief, to pain and confusion punctuated by anger or guilt, to sorrowful acceptance.” (Financial Times, 6-7/9/97.)
The remarks about the press are interesting because they lay to rest the superficial explanation put forward by some on the Left that this was “all created by the media.” There is no doubt that the media can and does play an important role, and that here also they started the ball rolling. But the response of the masses was certainly neither expected or welcomed by them, any more than by the class they represent. Once it started, the movement immediately acquired a momentum and a logic of its own. It was not planned or orchestrated by anyone. More alarmingly from the standpoint of the ruling class, it could not be controlled by anyone. The media tycoons were as astonished as anyone else at what was unfolding before their eyes.
Splits at the top
If Diana’s way of behaving in public seemed more human and natural, it also underlined the inhuman and unnatural character of the rest of the “royal”, and by implication the monarchy itself. This is the reason for the hatred, fear and resentment which the Windsor clique and their hangers-on (including in the media) harboured towards this dangerous upstart. Increasingly, she aspired to an independent role. Increasingly this was seen by them as a threat. The more of an echo she got from the public, the greater the danger appeared to them. If they were not actually behind the press campaign against Diana, they at least would not have been displeased by it. But by indirectly causing her death, the whole manoeuvre rebounded on them.
Almost before Diana’s body was cold, there were extraordinary rows between the Queen and the Prince of Wales, as later revealed by the press. The Queen was determined to pursue her vendetta with Diana even beyond the grave. She initially insisted that Diana’s body should not be placed in any of the royal palaces but should be taken to a private mortuary. She also demanded that Diana must have a private funeral despite her status. Such was the degree of cold spite and hatred of Diana even when she was a corpse that her name was not even mentioned at the Sunday morning service at Crathie Kirk, because the Queen had stuck to her order that the princesses name should never be mentioned in front of her. These details tell us quite a lot about the moral and intellectual qualities of our most Christian sovereign!
Fearing the popular reaction, Charles had a violent row with his mother and the palace officials. “At one point,” reports the Guardian (9/9/97) “the rows became so heated that Charles and Sir Robert Fellows, the Queen’s private secretary, had a furious argument during which the prince told Sir Robert to ‘impale himself on his own flagstaff.” Finally, Charles had to ring Tony Blair from his flight from Scotland to Paris to discuss placing Diana’s body in Saint James’ Palace. He also had to ring on the return journey because no arrangements had been made by the palace to place a wreath on Diana’s coffin. Jon Snow of Channel 4 News reported that the Spencer family were so angry at the Queen’s plans for a private funeral that they initially refused to communicate with the palace. Only the intervention of Downing Street succeeded in papering over the cracks and forcing the palace to agree to a large-scale funeral. According to Channel 4 News, arguments were still blazing about who should walk behind the coffin only 55 minutes before the procession moved off. The bitterness continued afterwards when the palace, in a transparent manoeuvre to cover its tracks, made an offer to restore Diana’s title, taken away in a typical act of spite by the Queen after the divorce. The offer was understandably rejected by the Spencer family.
The remoteness of the Windsor clique from society stood exposed by the spontaneous movement of millions of people. Very quickly – more quickly than anyone could have expected – the initial mood of sorrow turned to anger and indignation, and this in turn was quickly directed against the royal family hiding behind the high walls of Balmoral Castle. Only the screaming headlines of the tabloid (read yellow) press and direct pressure from Downing Street forced the Queen into precipitate action, in a panic attempt to limit the damage. But the damage had already been done. The widespread anger at the House of Windsor was summed up in the speech of Diana’s brother at the funeral service – at which not one member of the royal family spoke – delivered before the silent ranks of the Establishment and before the astonished gaze of millions:
“The House of Windsor and its heir Prince Charles, sat in stony silence as Diana’s brother articulated the public anger at their failure to love her and, even at her death, to realise how much the country loved her.” (The Observer, 7/9/97.)
If Earl Spencer’s denunciation of the “bizarre” life of the royal family was unprecedented, the response of the public to it was even more so. The huge crowd watching the proceedings outside Westminster Abbey on video screens immediately began to applaud, compelling those inside the abbey to follow them:
“From within the Abbey it sounded like a shower of rain – a wave of applause that grew and grew. Then the congregation clapped too, even some of the journalists who had been the target of the Earl’s fury. The Royal Party sat in a pool of their own silence as the applause echoed around the Abbey.” (The Observer, 7/9/97.)
This picture of the scene in the abbey, worthy of the pen of Dickens or Galsworthy, sums up the total isolation of the royal ruling clique. It astonished all who saw it:
“The cool anger Diana’s brother directed against the royal family and press was stunning. As spontaneous applause broke out around the silent royal family, Charles and his sons must have wondered whether the consecration of their lives, with all its pain and sacrifice, to upholding a failing monarchy was any longer worth the candle. The institution’s gathering obsolescence has never been more cruelly exposed than over the last week; its hold on popular sentiment – crucial to its legitimacy – has been severely dented.” (The Observer, 7/9/97.)
The myth of monarchy
It is not true that the monarchy in Britain has deep roots, historically speaking. The starting point of modern Britain was the bourgeois revolution of the 17th century. That culminated in the execution of Charles I. Subsequently, the bourgeoisie did a deal with the landed aristocracy, agreeing to the return of Charles II on condition that there would be no return to absolutism. As could be expected from them, the Stuarts broke the agreement and were duly ousted by a coup d’état which placed William III, a Dutch adventurer, on the throne. The next 150 years were full of upheavals and scandals, and for most of the time the monarchy was anything but popular. The Economist exposed the myth of the 1,000 year monarchy as follows:
“The monarchy may have lasted 1,000 years, but until recently the British have only occasionally treated it with reverence (Charles I lost his head, remember). The current royal family, like the Hanoverians before them, are as much German as British. In fact George V invented the family name Windsor (after his favourite castle) in 1917 at the height of the first world war when the family’s name, Saxe-Coburg & Gotha, has caused grumbling. When the Kaiser heard of this he demanded, in a rare flash of wit, a staging of that famous opera, The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha.” (The Economist, 22-28/10/94.)
“The two first Georges,” wrote Bagehot, “were men ignorant of English, and wholly unfit to guide and lead English society. They both preferred one or two German ladies of bad character to all else in London. George III had no social vices, but he had no social pleasures ” (Bagehot, p. 45.). He was also a madman. “In 1817, at the funeral of Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, the undertakers were drunk. At George IV’s coronation in 1821, pugilists had to be employed to keep the peace among guests (not the rabble outside). Victoria’s coronation in 1838 was also a shambles according to contemporary accounts.
“Journalists and the public also showed little respect for monarchs themselves. On the death of George IV in 1830 The Times declared in an editorial that: ‘There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures.’ Cartoonists such as Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruickshank attacked the monarch in a manner which would look savage even today.
“Victoria was no more popular than her predecessors until her apotheosis near the end of her reign. She was at various times scornfully referred to as “Mrs Melbourne” (for her partiality to her first prime minister) or “Mrs Brown” (for her partiality to her servant John Brown). Her long retirement after the death of Albert was bitterly resented. In 1864 and advertisement was pinned to the railings of Buckingham Palace by some wag: ‘These premises to be let or sold, in consequence of the late occupant’s declining business.’ She was regularly attacked in newspaper articles. By the mid-1860s republicanism was becoming widely discussed even fashionable. Republican clubs sprang up throughout the country in the following decade. The monarchy seemed headed for the dustbin of history.” (The Economist, ibid.)
Only at the end of Victoria’s reign and the beginning of the twentieth century did the ruling class take steps to build up the institution of the monarchy, lavishing large sums of money on huge spectacles such as Victoria’s golden Jubilee in 1887. Most of the present-day ceremonial pantomimes, which most people imagine to be ancient British traditions, date from this time. We quote The Economist again:
“Long-forgotten medieval rituals were dragged out of the attic, dusted off and performed, such as the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1911. New ones were invented: the royal broadcast in 1932. When the public began to get bored even with this in the 1960s, the cameras were invited into Buckingham Palace.” (ibid.)
Paradoxically, what saved the monarchy was the widening of the franchise and universal manhood suffrage. “The ruling elite,” The Economist admits, “forced to widen the voting franchise, decided that the country needed the monarchy as a symbol of stability and they needed it to help them retain control of the government.” At the height of the republican agitation Walter Bagehot wrote his classic The English Constitution, which even now contains the best analysis of the role of the British monarchy.
The real role of the Monarchy
It is necessary to understand that the monarchy is not simply a harmless anachronism with no powers. It is an important reserve weapon of reaction. The Queen has significant reserve powers which can be brought into play at a time of national crisis. Such powers would undoubtedly be used against a left Labour government that attempted to challenge the power and privileges of the big banks and monopolies that own and control most of Britain. Although most people do not realise it, this is the main role of the monarchy and the reason why it has been kept in being by the ruling class for so long.
This fact was explained in admirably frank terms by the 19th century author of the best-known work on the English Constitution, who, referring in unflattering language to Queen Victoria and Albert Prince of Wales, asked why the British people should pay a large amount of money every year in order to maintain “a retired widow and an unemployed youth.” And he answered in the following way:
“For the educated thousands there is the ‘efficient’ aspect, the whole system of Parliaments, Cabinets, Party Government, and the rest. For the unintelligent millions there is the ‘dignified’ aspect (described also as ‘theatrical’, ‘mystical’, ‘religious’, or ‘semi-religious’), which delights the eye, stirs the imagination, supplies motive power to the whole political system, and yet never strains the intellectual resources of the most ignorant or the most stupid. It is, of course, bound up with the Monarchy; indeed to all intents and purposes it is the Monarchy.” (Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, p. xviii.)
“We have no slaves to keep down by special terrors and independent legislation. But we have whole classes unable to comprehend the idea of a constitution – unable to feel the least attachment to impersonal laws. Most do indeed vaguely know that there are some other institutions besides the Queen, and some rules by which she governs. But a vast number like their minds to dwell more upon her than upon anything else, and therefore she is inestimable. A Republic has only difficult ideas in government; a Constitutional Monarchy has an easy idea too; it has a comprehensible element for the vacant many, as well as complex laws and notions for the inquiring few.” (Bagehot, p. 34.)
This is very clear. The “ignorant masses” do not understand politics and cannot really be trusted with the vote. but since they have conquered the right to vote, we must devise a kind of pantomime to keep them happy, while the real exercise of power is kept firmly in our hands:
“Lastly. Constitutional royalty has the function which I insisted on at length in my last essay, and which, though it is by far the greatest, I need not now enlarge upon again. It acts as a disguise. It enables our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it. The masses of Englishmen are not fit for an elective government; if they knew how near they were to it, they would be surprised, and almost tremble.” (Bagehot, p. 48.)
It is worth spending a certain amount of hard cash on ceremony and glitter, in order to divert attention away from the real state of affairs. It is essential that the masses believe in the monarchy, and therefore this is a worthwhile investment, just like any other. It is also a necessary insurance policy, in case things go badly wrong. Unlike other countries, Britain does not have a written constitution, and most laws are based upon custom and practice. But for that very reason, there are many grey areas. For example, what would happen in the case of an elected government which attempted to take over the banks and monopolies? Bagehot answers with his customary frankness:
“It may perhaps be replied that if a majority of the House of Commons want a revolution they ought to have one; and no doubt if the House of Commons on this point fully represented the settled convictions of the community the reply suffices. But if not? Is there any means of ensuring that in these extreme cases the House of Commons would represent the settled will of the community? Is there any ground for expecting that our Cabinet system, admirably fitted to adjust political action to the ordinary oscillations of public opinion, could deal with these violent situations? Could it long survive the shocks of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence? I know not. The experiment has never been tried. Our alternating Cabinets, though belonging to different Parties, have never differed about the foundations of society. And it is evident that our whole political machinery pre-supposes a people so fundamentally at one that they can safely afford to bicker; and so sure of their own moderation that they are not dangerously disturbed by the never-ending din of political conflict. May it always be so.” (Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, pp. xxiii-xxiv.)
A reserve of reaction
But what happens when this no longer applies? In such a situation, Bagehot explains the role of the monarchy. After all, the army swears an oath of allegiance to the ruling monarch, not to the elected parliament. The Queen’s signature is necessary before any decision of parliament becomes law. By withholding her signature, the Queen would automatically provoke a constitutional crisis. Whom would the army, police and civil service obey? In other words we would have all the conditions for a “legal” coup d’état. The Queen could suspend parliament and rule through the Privy Council, an organ of state which is not often referred to, but prefers to remain in the shadows – until a “national emergency” gives it the green light to show its real face. The reserve powers of the monarchy are like the dagger which the assassin keeps hidden in his sleeve. They are all the more dangerous because they are unseen. Here is what Trotsky writes on the subject:
“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.” (Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, vol. 2, pp. 40-1.)
And Bagehot makes exactly the same point:
“The king, too, possesses a power, according to theory, for extreme use on a critical occasion, but which he can in law use on any occasion. He can dissolve; he can say to his minister in fact, if not in words, ‘This parliament sent you here, but I will see if I cannot get another parliament to send some one else here’.” (Bagehot, p.71.)
In such a moment, when the reserve powers of the monarchy are finally wheeled out, it is imperative that the monarchy should command the unswerving obedience of a large part of society. This is the real reason for the maintenance of the monarchy and all the mystique that – at least until recently – surrounded it. As Bagehot points out:
“The mystic reverence, the religious allegiance, which are essential to a true monarchy, are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people. These semi-filial feelings in government are inherited just as the true filial feelings in common life” (Bagehot, p. 3.)
“When a monarch can bless, it is best that he should not be touched. It should be evident that he does no wrong. He should not be brought too closely to real measurement. He should be aloof and solitary. As the functions of English royalty are for the most part latent, it fulfils this condition. It seems to order, but it never seems to struggle. It is commonly hidden like a mystery, and sometimes paraded like a pageant, but in neither case is it contentious. The nation is divided into parties, but the Crown is of no party. Its apparent separation from business is that which removes it both from enmities and from desecration, which preserves its mystery, which enables it to combine the affection of conflicting parties – to be a visible symbol of unity to those still so imperfectly educated as to need a symbol.” (Bagehot, p. 40.)
And finally, the most famous quotation of all:
“A secret prerogative is an anomaly – perhaps the greatest of anomalies. That secrecy is, however, essential to the utility of English royalty as it now is. Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. When there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic. We must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many.” (Bagehot, p.53.)
Again and again the same theme is hammered home. With astonishing cynicism, this consummate representative of the ruling class lays bare the inner mechanism and secrets of the British monarchy. Bagehot’s book deserves to be studied carefully by every socialist and every thinking worker. Here is the explanation of the “aloofness” of the Windsor clique. It was an attempt to preserve the old mystique of the royal family, to preserve it as a reserve weapon of the ruling class. But now that weapon has been badly damaged. That explains the consternation, not only of the “royals” (who have their bank accounts to think of!), but of the strategists of Capital. Bagehot explains that a mystery is destroyed when daylight is let in. The open conflicts, splits and brawls within the royal family, openly paraded in the pages of the tabloid press in recent years, have done precisely that. People now realise that their so-called rulers are not at all “special” but only a collection of empty, unintelligent and very unlikeable persons living it up at the general expense. To the degree that Diana was excluded by the clique, she used her position to expose them in all their hypocrisy. For that they could never forgive her. But in reality, the exposure of the monarchy had begun even before this. What happened in the aftermath of her death only brought to the surface processes that were already at work, and which reflect profound changes in society.
Cold cruelty of ruling class
The cold calculation which subordinates everything to the profit motive has always been an essential part of the capitalist system. It is the negation of all human feeling, warmth and compassion. It sentenced small children to slave on dangerous machines in the last century, and it sentences millions of people to the humiliation of unemployment today. In the 1980s, Thatcherite Britain led the way in returning to the “norm” of capitalism, the capitalism of the 19th century, the unfettered rule of Profit and the laws of the Market – that is, of the jungle. The British ruling class are well suited to this role. Not at all the mythical face of “fair play”, compromise and democracy. In these Isles every democratic concession had to be wrung from the ruling class in struggle.
But the real face of British capitalism can be seen in the history of the empire – a bloody history of oppression and slavery with few equals in the world. Like the infamous Amritsar massacre of 1919, when Brigadier General Reginald Dyer ordered his men to open fire on an unarmed demonstration, killing 379 people and wounding at least another 1,000. Before ordering his troops to open fire, Dyer made sure that the exits to the square were blocked by his men. This mass murderer was not imprisoned or even cashiered from the army, but only “reprimanded” and asked to resign, although he kept his pension. As The Times puts it:
“Most of the British in India applauded his action and launched a collection for him, raising what was then the immense sum of £26,000, which enabled him to retire prematurely but comfortably in England. He maintained throughout his life that he had done a ‘jolly good thing’.” (The Times, 18/8/97.)
And all these horrors were perpetrated by nice, civilised English gentlemen educated at Eton and Harrow. The cold cruelty of the English ruling class is no better for the fact that it is concealed behind an emotionless mask, which they like to refer to as the “stiff upper lip.” No tears, no passion, no emotion of any kind. This is the first house-rule of the English ruling class, personified by the members of the House of Windsor. Their charity is just a game, something to help them pass the time, maybe ease their conscience (if they possess one), and at the same time, keep them in the public eye, creating a vague impression that the “royals” are, after all, good for something. The question arises, however, as to why so many unfortunate people are reduced to asking for charity in Britain in the last decade of the 20th century, and why there are so many beggars sleeping rough in the West End while the wealth of a few (including the royal family) continues to increase to obscene levels. Such questions, of course, are never asked in polite circles, and least of all by the Labour leaders. But it goes a long way to answer the riddle of the reaction of the mass of ordinary people to the death of a person who, in their minds at least, seemed to stand out against this background of a cold, heartless, unfeeling world, in some way a victim like themselves; someone, moreover, who described herself as “the ultimate rebel.”
So what if it was all a dream? Sometimes, it is necessary to cling to something, even if it is a dream, if it gives just a faint ray of hope. We are not dealing here with politically advanced people but with the millions of ordinary men and women whose lives are in turmoil and for whom the world is now a very confusing and unfriendly place. They are looking for some point of reference, and thus far have failed to find it. People in such a situation may well clutch at straws. It is all part of a process of learning. In such a process, the important thing is not that the masses make mistakes. The important thing is that they are beginning to think and act for themselves.
In the autumn of 1997, Britain is not a happy country. The long drawn-out decline of British capitalism has been compounded by 18 years of Tory rule which destroyed a quarter of the manufacturing base of the erstwhile “workshop of the world.” Social inequalities have widened into an unbridgeable gulf. The rich have got richer, the poor poorer. The crisis of the system is reflected by the dismantlement of the welfare state, the closure of hospitals, the decay of schools, and tens of thousands of homeless youths living on the streets. Despite all the talk of economic recovery, there is a widespread feeling of insecurity and fear for the future even among the middle class in the South of England, hit for the first time by the threat of unemployment and negative equity.
The general mood was summed up in The Observer thus:
“The British of the egalitarian post-war years, creating a welfare state in which all had a stake, could unreservedly cheer Elizabeth II at her coronation as their collective embodiment – but the past 20 years of rising inequality, decaying public institutions and celebration of private activity in private free markets has created a new society that is more individualistic, more insecure, less anchored in its values and more alone.” (The Observer, 7/9/97.)
All of a sudden, the old certainties lay in ruins. There is a doubting, a scepticism, a lack of trust in everything and everything. These are profoundly disturbing symptoms for the ruling class and its representatives. The lack of confidence extends to politicians, parliament and the royal family, as a recent article commented in a worried tone: “Faith in our own institutions has plummeted. Barely 30 per cent think Britain will have a monarchy in 50 years time. Only 10 per cent have confidence in parliament.” (The Independent, 8/9/97.) The burning desire for a change was reflected in the last general election. This also was a symptom of a mood of deep discontent in society. The Tories suffered an unprecedented defeat. The “Party of the Union” lost all its seats in Scotland and Wales and was annihilated in the North of England. It is reduced to a party of the English suburbs and rural areas. It remains split and in crisis.
Yet it cannot be argued that there was massive enthusiasm for Labour either. Despite the campaign of the media to build up Blair’s image – a campaign that has been stepped up over the last week – the facts show that this was by no means Labour’s best result. It was not Labour that won the election but the Tories that lost. Even now, one cannot find a mood of genuine enthusiasm for any political party. Particularly among the most downtrodden and oppressed sections of society there is a sense that “No-one cares about us.” At a time when millions see their living standards, jobs and conditions under attack, their nerves and muscles stretched to breaking point, they find no point of reference, no bold perspective, no rallying call that might offer a way out.
Beneath the apparently calm, motionless surface of society there is a seething discontent, anger, suppressed rage, and above all frustration, which is seeking an outlet. If this is not provided by the mass organisations of Labour, it will inevitably find other outlets, in the most unexpected ways and under the most unlikely banners. This is true not only in Britain, but in other countries as well, as the events of the last year have shown.
Belgium and Spain
There are parallels for what took place in Britain elsewhere in Europe. Socialist Appeal has stressed repeatedly the new volatile situation that has emerged nationally and internationally over the last five years. The shallow boom accompanied by intensified exploitation in the workplaces, mass unemployment, and increased stress, has resulted in growing insecurity and anxiety throughout all levels of society. Deep undercurrents of discontent have periodically surfaced in the most explosive manner. It is a period of sharp and sudden changes in the situation.
In Belgium, in an unprecedented movement, millions poured onto the streets over the death of children murdered at the hands of a paedophile gang whose influence spread into the highest reaches of the state and Belgian society. There have been many horrific deaths before, but these murders triggered off a mass movement, which drew behind it layers never involved before. The “White” protest was a spontaneous mass movement completely outside the official structures of the labour movement. It was called by no-one. The trade union and socialist leaders, even the shop stewards, were completely taken by surprise. All of them were far removed from the real mood developing in society. The murders of little children, the bungling of the police, the removal of the investigating judge, revealed the rotten corruption of the Belgian state. What would normally have been an accidental event became the catalyst for a massive upheaval throughout the country. All the pent up frustration and anger that existed below the surface over the cuts, the attacks on the social wage, the merciless pressures in the workplace, suddenly burst through to the surface.
More recently in Spain, the murder by ETA of a PP councillor in the Basque Country resulted in six million people demonstrating on the streets. In Madrid alone over one million marched in protest. Yet the murder of individuals by ETA is not new. It has gone on for years without any such protests. Now millions were on the move. This was not a reactionary protest. The fascists who attempted to exploit the situation were driven off the marches. It was an expression not only of a general revulsion against a brutal and senseless killing but also of the seething discontent in a country where more than 20 per cent are officially unemployed.
The general election on 1st May in Britain represented a similar phenomenon. The sheer scale of the Labour victory was without precedent. The Tory party was completely shattered, with no political representation in Scotland and Wales. Labour had won its biggest representation in history – 418 MPs – a Labour majority of 179. This represented a sea-change politically in Britain. Again, it was a rejection of 18 years of Toryism. But it also reflected a deep sense of bitterness and anger at the deteriorating situation faced by the mass of the population, the insecurity, the stress at work, and the general frustration at the situation. This explosive mix revealed itself previously in the mass revolt over the poll tax and the huge movement in October 1992 over the Tory’s pit closure programme. Again these were not called by the official labour organisations, but were a spontaneous reaction to events.
Lenin pointed out that there were four conditions for a revolution. The first was a split in the ruling class. The tensions building up in the recesses of society find their first expression, not in a movement of the masses, but in conflicts, crises and divisions at the top. The rulers of society feel the pressure from below and one section senses that they cannot continue to rule in the old way, while another wing stubbornly resists change, fearing to open the floodgates. The split in the monarchy has now assumed an open and embittered character, just as occurred also in the Tory party and the Church of England. The second condition was that the middle class should begin to detach itself from the ruling class and begin to vacillate. The collapse of the Tory vote in traditional middle class strongholds, and now the widespread criticism of the monarchy among these traditionally conservative layers, are a clear indication of a new and volatile mood in society which can have enormous repercussions in the future.
The third condition was a movement of the masses, and that the working class should be prepared to fight to the end. That condition has not yet matured in Britain, although the big movements in France, Belgium and Germany are an indication of what is in store. Moreover, the movement of the masses does not proceed in a straight line, but is a contradictory process that can take all kinds of peculiar forms, especially when a conscious leadership is lacking. The eruption of the masses over the past week was, in a peculiar way, an anticipation of what is being prepared in the depths of society. If one takes it in a superficial way, then the idea that this could have a revolutionary significance would seem preposterous. And yet the strategists of Capital were deeply perturbed. The articles in the Financial Times about “the Crowd” were highly significant. The thinking representatives of the ruling class understand that a crowd has a psychology, a logic and a movement of its own. Once the snowball begins to roll, it can be hard to stop. The mood can change very quickly. That explains the indecent haste with which the royal family was compelled to do a 180 degree somersault against its wishes.
Socialists and the Monarchy
What is really incredible is the role of the right wing Labour leaders in all this. As on every other question, the so-called realists of Labour’s right wing are in fact the furthest removed from reality. Every serious political observer agrees that the monarchy has been badly damaged and is losing support. This seems to be particularly true of sections of the middle class. The Observer noted that:
“Foreign reporters who moved among the crowds found the deepest wells of disillusion among the petite bourgeoisie who had once been keen royalists. They judged their alienation from the Queen to be more worrying for the Establishment than the more flamboyant of the mourners.” (The Observer, 7/9/97.)
Yet precisely at a time when even life-long monarchists were beginning to question the monarchy, Tony Blair steps in to prop it up, acting, in effect, as the unofficial adviser to the Queen on how to extricate the monarchy from the mess it had gotten itself into. Blair’s role has been underlined by the press:
“Tony Blair yesterday held four hours of private talks with the Queen at Balmoral hours after publicly predicting that the monarchy will ‘change and modernise’ in the wake of the national trauma of Princess Diana’s death.
“In a tactful attempt to make light of tensions within the Establishment over the royal family’s behaviour since last weekend, the Prime Minister praised the Queen’s Friday night broadcast and her decision to stay at Balmoral.
“Mr Blair remains a monarchist, he stressed when he appeared on BBC1’s Breakfast with Frost.” (The Guardian, 8/9/97, my emphasis)
Yet the same article adds:
“But there is little doubt among politicians in all parties that the monarchy has been rocked by the scale of public feeling for the dead princess.” (The Guardian, 8/9/97.)
In a letter written from London to F.A. Sorge in December 1889, Engels wrote:
“The most repulsive thing here is the bourgeois ‘respectability’ bred into the bones of the workers. The social division of society into innumerable gradations, each recognised without question, each with its own pride but also its inborn respect for its ‘betters’ and ‘superiors,’ is so old and firmly established that the bourgeois still find it pretty easy to get their bait accepted. I am not at all sure, for instance, that John Burns is not secretly prouder of his popularity with Cardinal Manning, the Lord Mayor and the bourgeoisie in general than of his popularity with his own class. And Champion – an ex-Lieutenant – intrigued years ago with bourgeois, and especially with conservative, elements, preached Socialism at the parsons’ Church Congress, etc. Even Tom Mann, whom I regard as the finest of them, is fond of mentioning that he will be lunching with the Lord Mayor. If one compares this with the French, one can see what a revolution is good for, after all. However it will not help the bourgeoisie much if they do succeed in enticing some of the leaders into their toils. By that time the movement will have become strong enough to overcome this sort of thing.” (Marx and Engels, On Britain, pp. 568-9.)
For generations, under the empire, wide layers of British society, not only the middle class, but also sections of the working class were under the influence of the monarchy. But in the period of Britain’s decline, all the old traditions of servility have gradually fallen away. The new generations are no longer willing to accept the rule of their alleged “betters” as something God-given and natural. This process has been going on for some time. But sometimes it takes an accidental event to act as a social catalyst which, as in chemistry, serves to accelerate enormously a tendency which was already present. The death of Diana is just such an historical “accident.”
All serious observers agree that the events of September have seriously damaged the monarchy in the eyes even of the middle class. Yet the Labour leaders continue in the old tradition of bowing and scraping to the monarchy, and even of posing as its Deliverers! It now seems that Charles phoned Tony Blair from the aeroplane on his way back from Paris with the dead body of his estranged wife, asking the Labour Prime Minister to intercede with the Queen over the funeral arrangements.
Blair has abandoned the socialist programme and openly embraced the market and all its works. He represents the right wing clique at the top of the Labour Party and the unions which is under the direct pressure of big business and which foolishly imagines that, by currying favour with the Establishment, they can bring about “national unity.”
Just a few days after the funeral, the TUC opened its doors. Its main guest speakers were Tony Blair, the president of the CBI (employers’ association) and – the Archbishop of Canterbury! How well old Engels’ words characterise the leaders of the British trade union movement who, instead of organising a serious campaign to secure a decent minimum wage, call in the help of the Almighty! There is no doubt that Trotsky was right when he said that the British trade union and Labour leaders were the most conservative and reactionary force in society. And the biggest joke of all is that they are preaching sermons about the unity of the nation just when that so-called “unity” (that is, the unity of horse and rider, of exploiters and exploited) is about to be burst asunder.
Monks and Blair dream of national unity at a moment when the employers are ruthlessly piling on the pressure. Not since the Second World War has there existed such an open dictatorship on the shop floor, such a nightmare of toil and drudgery, such intolerable stress. The capitalist system was always inhuman. Now it has turned into a nightmare for millions of men, women and young people. But this is producing a mood of anger and bitterness which will not be kept suppressed forever. It can burst through. It will burst through, preparing a general radicalisation of society that will shake the Labour organisations from top to bottom. The grip of the right wing will be broken, opening the road to the transformation and re-transformation of the unions and the Labour party.
Is it permissible for socialists to defend the monarchy? Such a question would appear to answer itself. Even from the most elementary standpoint of democracy, the institution of the monarchy is a survival of barbarism. By what right does a man or woman become the titular head of the nation merely by an accident of birth? What has genetics got to do with democracy and the administration of society? Such things should be taken for granted by any consistent supporter of democracy, let alone a socialist. The acceptance of monarchy by Tony Blair is the most blatant example of the abandonment of even the most elementary principles of socialism and the Labour Movement by the right wing “modernisers”. By the way, what kind of “modernisation” is it that defends a reactionary remnant of feudalism?
Yet, strangely enough, the question of the monarchy is not even understood by those who seek its abolition. It is generally thought that the monarchy is merely an expensive anachronism. That is the position of most of the Labour Left. Expensive it is, of course. The millions wasted on this bunch of parasitic idlers could and should be spent on other things – schools, hospitals, houses. That is the real answer to those who prattle endlessly on about the supposed “good works” and charitable activities of the royal family. It is impossible to find out the real wealth owned by the Queen. The last issue (1996) of the Sunday Times’ Britain’s Richest 500 gives a conservative (in their own admission, “cowardly”) estimate of £450 million. However, this does not include a private art collection worth, according to some estimates, £10 billion, as well as other property, jewels, horses and other assets worth countless millions more. The Queen, allegedly standing “above classes and party politics”, is a member of the capitalist class with an investment portfolio conservatively estimated by the Sunday Times at £250 million. The rise in land prices over the last year has further swelled the value of their properties, especially in East Anglia, where prices rose by no less than 40 per cent in the year before this study came out.
This, at a time when thousands of middle class families are facing the nightmare of negative equity and the loss of their homes. Not content with this vast amount of wealth, the royal family continues to demand a huge annual subsidy paid for by the state when expenditure on schools and hospitals is being cut to the bone, on the grounds that “there is no money.” If they really want a monument to the late Princess of Wales, why not demonstrate their heartfelt concern for the poor, the sick and the underprivileged by donating all their riches for a programme of useful public works? They will not do so voluntarily, of course. So a Labour Government worthy of the name ought to give them a little encouragement by expropriating the property of the royal family and abolishing the monarchy once and for all.
Socialist transformation – the only answer
Last May, the people of Britain inflicted a crushing defeat on the Tory Party. In voting for a Labour government, they were voting for change. This fact is accepted even by bourgeois commentators, who, in fact, have related it to the same kind of mood that propelled a million people onto the streets of London on September 6th. In drawing this analogy, the strategists of Capital show that they understand the real situation in Britain far better than the Labour leaders who, in effect, are offering “more of the same.” To tell the truth, they understand more than the Lefts, and more than many people who call themselves Marxists. And they are worried, just as Bagehot was worried when he wrote that it was just as well that the politically untutored masses did not realise how close they were to power.
Before the Second World War, Leon Trotsky pointed out how easy it would be for the leaders of the Labour Party to take power in Britain. In fact, he explained that it could even be achieved peacefully, through parliament – if the Labour leaders willed it:
“In Britain three-quarters of the population is working class. It is a purely proletarian country. It has a small handful of landlords and capitalists – they are very rich and powerful, it is true, but still they are only a handful.
“If MacDonald walked into Parliament, laid his programme on the table, rapped lightly with his knuckles, and said, ‘Accept it or I’ll drive you all out’ (saying it more politely than I’ve phrased it here) – if he did this, Britain would be unrecognisable in two weeks. MacDonald would receive an overwhelming majority in any election. The British working class would break out of the shell of conservatism with which it has been so cleverly surrounded; it would discard that slavish reverence for the law of the bourgeoisie, the propertied classes, and church and the monarchy.” (Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, vol. 1, p. 194.)
It is worth recalling that the three basic pillars of the Establishment in Britain were always the monarchy, the Church of England, and the Tory Party. It is no accident that all three are now in a deep crisis. Even more extraordinary is the way in which the splits and divisions are openly paraded in the full glare of public opinion. This too is unprecedented, especially in Britain. As Trotsky points out elsewhere:
“Nowhere in Europe does canonised hypocrisy – ‘cant’ – play such a role as in Great Britain. Different political groupings and even the most ‘extreme’ of them are, when fighting against each other, accustomed not to touch upon certain questions or to call certain things by their proper names. The reason is that from time immemorial the political struggle has been waged inside the ranks of the possessing classes who have never forgotten that a third party is listening in.” (Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, vol. 2, pp. 162.)
So discredited is the monarchy that even bourgeois publications like The Economist have called for its abolition. In the immediate aftermath of the funeral, many other papers have expressed doubts about the future of monarchy:
“The institution can stagger on but amid so much other constitutional change – notably the elimination of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, an important buttress to hereditary monarchy – it is clear the end is approaching.” (The Observer, 7/9/97.)
This conclusion is undoubtedly premature. We have already explained the role of the monarchy as a reserve weapon of the ruling class. This weapon has now been seriously dented, but it is not yet completely destroyed. It still has important reserves of support in the masses (this was evident even over the past week). Therefore, the ruling class will do everything in its power to prop it up. Despite the powerful impact on the minds of the masses of the recent dramatic events, memories fade with time. The mass media remain a tremendous instrument for moulding public opinion. There are still a few cards up their sleeve. If Charles has been discredited, he can always be shunted aside in favour of young William. Or he may get a new image and bounce back again. The different combinations are unimportant. The main thing is that the monarchy itself be maintained as a weapon against the Labour Movement and a bulwark against social progress. The task of removing this obstacle – along with the House of Lords and all the other accumulated rubbish left over from feudalism – will be the prior condition of success for a future Labour government that is not content to accept the dictates of Capital, but is determined to abolish it.
Inevitably, some good workers will have been bewildered and disheartened by the recent events. But it is necessary to see a little further than what is immediately in front of us. For this, a Marxist analysis is indispensable. In January 1905, the first Russian revolution began with a “crowd” – a mass demonstration of men, women and children bearing religious icons in their hands, a priest at their head and a petition to the tsar, the “little father.” When socialist agitators tried to distribute leaflets attacking the tsar, they were attacked and the leaflets were torn up. But in the space of 24 hours, the mood changed into its opposite. The masses rapidly graduated from the school of petitions to that of the general strike and armed insurrection. Of course, that is not the situation here. The movement is only at its early beginnings. But the strategists of Capital immediately understood that behind these first confused stirrings, there was something menacing, something potentially dangerous to them. That is why they moved swiftly to defuse the situation with concessions. Thus, from their class standpoint, the most far-sighted representatives of capitalism always come to similar conclusions to the Marxists.
It is necessary to look beyond the surface of events, to distinguish carefully between the essential and the non-essential, between what is progressive and what is reactionary, and to see the real process that is unfolding. The recent events were alarming to the strategists of Capital because they saw what we saw – that all the elements are accumulating to prepare for a social explosion in Britain. David Starkie, a constitutional expert, openly worried that “There is such a head of steam that anything can happen” (The Independent 8/9/97) and Christopher Hudsen of the Evening Standard wrote “As the emotional barometer has risen so has a disturbing sense of menace in the atmosphere.” These extraordinary comments – not isolated but typical of the “serious” commentators – accurately convey the deep concern of the ruling class. This is not just a routine happening but the heat lightening of revolution – an anticipation of what is to come. That is the real meaning of these words. We have entered an entirely new and turbulent period in Britain and on a world scale. The socialist transformation of society will once more be placed firmly on the order of the day. There will be many ups and downs, and many false turnings, but for a whole period, the pendulum will swing to the left. All that is required to ensure a successful outcome is that the Labour Movement be equipped with the ideas, programme and methods of Marxism. That is the real challenge before us.