Today, Thursday 21st April, marks 90th birthday of the Queen, bringing with it the media’s outpouring of praise for the ‘People’s Queen’. But why does the Queen mean so much to the Establishment? What purpose does the Monarchy serve for the ruling class? And how successful has it been?
In contrast to the benign and benevolent image usually presented by the press, in reality the Monarchy carries with it thoroughly undemocratic powers, inherited from feudalism, which could - and will - be used against any mass movement of the working class that threatens the Establishment and the system they defend.
Corbyn and the Queen
The ruling class can frequently be seen using our supposedly loved and cherished monarchy to attack the Left, as most aptly and recently demonstrated in relation to their treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader. Corbyn is a well-known republican, yet is criticised for his beliefs by hypocritical newspapers and political figures that normally proclaim the sanctity of free speech.
For example, Blairite Labour MP Simon Danczuk - amongst many other representatives of the Establishment - criticised Corbyn for not singing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain memorial service last year, suggesting that there was a conflict of interest in having a republican leader of ‘Her Majesty’s Opposition’.
On the other hand, Corbyn was himself labelled a hypocrite when he did decide to join the Queen’s Privy Council, with the Sun’s ‘Court Jezter’ story even containing false information designed to negatively misrepresent the Labour leader.
Most of the time, however, explicit criticism has been avoided, in favour of presenting Corbyn’s republicanism as a significant, newsworthy issue of public interest, subtly carrying the implication that it is a controversial or abnormal position; the press speculation surrounding whether or not Corbyn would kiss the Queen’s ring serves as one such example.
But aside from the way the ruling class and their faithful representatives use the Monarchy, the institution of the Monarchy itself carries extremely undemocratic, prerogative powers passed down from Britain’s feudal past. The Monarch’s ability to withhold royal assent to a parliamentary bill for anything that ‘affects the interests of the Crown’ – effectively a royal veto – could in theory (and possibly in practice) be used as a last desperate line of defence against the implementation of a socialist programme - especially given that such a programme would likely include the abolition of the Monarchy itself!
In fact, all sorts of laws that would not appear to affect the interests of the Crown have had to be passed with royal assent: the 1996 Housing Act, the 2004 Civil Partnership Act, and the 2004 Higher Education Act to name a few. And although it was previously thought that the last time a veto was used was by Queen Anne in 1708, the Guardian reported in 2013 that the Queen used her prerogative to veto a bill in 1999 that would have handed authority over attacking Iraq from the monarch to parliament, but this was kept secret from the public.
Another feudal royal prerogative is the dissolution of parliament itself. Officially, it is the sole right of the Monarch to bring parliament in and out of session. Normally this is also a mere formality, with the leader of the biggest party from a general election going to the palace to receive permission to form a new government. However, serious questions would arise if, in the event of a hung parliament, this leader could not form a coalition. In such an instance, the initiative would be with the Monarch to create a parliament, completely outside the sphere of democratic processes.
Indeed, in the past this prerogative has been used in a reactionary way: in 1931 the Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, failed to get his programme of austerity implemented through his own party, so he went to the King to ask for parliament to be dissolved, planning to resign himself; however at a secret meeting at the palace, he was invited to stay on as Prime Minister to head a new National Government with the Tories, in order to carry out the programme of cuts - on offer that he duly took up.
The Queen’s Army
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Monarch possesses control over the military. Officially, the armed forces swear allegiance and are answerable to the Queen rather than parliament. This is extremely significant in providing the constitutional basis for a coup.
In other words, should a party be democratically elected that is considered a mortal threat to private property and the interests of the ruling class, it would not have control over the state’s “armed bodies of men”, and the ruling class could use this royal prerogative to “legally” overthrow such an elected government. We have already seen one prominent military official suggest that such a coup would happen should Corbyn become Prime Minister; as long as the military is answerable to a non-elected head of state this remains constitutionally possible.
Such an example demonstrates Lenin’s assertion in the State and Revolution that, in the final analysis, the state consists of “armed bodies of men in defence of private property”. A socialist government, therefore, cannot rely on the institutions of the bourgeois state, which defend fundamentally antagonistic interests to those of the working class, but must replace these bodies with those of a workers’ state, in defence of nationalised, collective ownership of the main levers of the economy.
The 1%’s Queen
In addition to such powers, there is the issue of the Queen’s personal wealth. Although official figures are hard to come by, as the Queen’s income is not disclosed, her current fortune is estimated at £340 million in the 2015 Sunday Times Rich List. According to the BBC, she “earns” £50m a year from government grants (that is, from taxpayers), whilst also “earning” £13m a year from the Duchy of Lancaster, which is a portfolio of land, property and assets exempted from government corporation tax because it is a crown body. She also has an investment portfolio consisting largely of shares in blue-chip British companies, which is valued at £110m.
Meanwhile, The Queen owns personal property including Sandringham House in Norfolk, Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire and other smaller houses, in addition to valuable personal items like the royal stamp collection, art, jewels, cars, horses and the Queen Mother's legacy. Finally, there is the Royal Collection, which includes the Crown Jewels and works of art and is worth £10bn; although it is not included in the Queen's wealth, as it is held in trust for her successors and the country, it is still effectively privately owned.
Overall, then, we can see that the ‘People’s Queen’ in reality is the People’s Parasite; in order to really achieve the former title, she would have to nationalise her fortune and put it under public ownership - which, of course, she would never do.
Given all these factors, then, why is the Monarchy so popular with the general public? A YouGov poll taken in September 2015 revealed that 68% of the public believe the Monarchy is an institution for the good of the country, with only 9% saying it was bad; only 18% said we should have an elected head of state instead. Even among people aged 18-24, the figure was 61% saying it was a good thing and only 5% saying it is not. Such figures require an explanation.
One of the main factors for the Monarchy’s popularity is that they seem to sit above society and politics. For the most part, people see the Monarchy as a harmless national institution, trotted out for ceremonies, but hidden from view in general; part of the country’s history, and useful for bringing in the tourists. Such a benign image, of course, would be shattered the minute the Monarchy intervened in politics to overrule a democratically elected government.
Part of the power of the Monarchy, as has been long acknowledged, is that it appears as a politically neutral arbiter. Like the Law and the State, it is considered an unquestionable and sacrosanct eternal truth, raised above class society, acting in the interests of “the people”. As the 19th century bourgeois writer Bagehot wrote in his book ‘The English Constitution’, the Monarch,
“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.”
Indeed, this image has been intentionally fostered as a means of preserving the Monarchy as a last line of defence. After all, the Monarchy only survives so long as it serves the interests of the ruling class. As evident in many bourgeois revolutions - like in the United States, France and, of course, England - the bourgeoisie have overthrown the monarchy when they have seen it to hinder and stand in the way of their class interests.
On the other hand, we have seen the bourgeoisie using the Monarchy when they are at their most desperate, for example when the royal prerogative was used in Italy to appoint Mussolini and implement fascism. In Britain, the Monarchy became the ultimate safeguard of private property, especially through creating the illusion of where power lay. As Bagehot said: “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.”
This apparent neutrality has allowed the Monarchy to seem independent from big business and Westminster. The Queen is not seen as responsible for implementing austerity, for bailing out the banks, for causing the crisis; she appears to sit apart from such “day-to-day” politics. As anti-establishment feeling has grown, it has not necessarily affected the popularity of the Queen, but is directed mainly at the bankers and bourgeois politicians, If anything, the Queen’s popularity may even have been enhanced, and thus the bourgeoisie’s last line of defence has been emboldened.
Bread and circuses
Finally, another reason for the Monarchy’s popularity is because of its supposed benevolence. For some 150 years, the Monarchy has undergone a PR strategy to improve its image, starting under Queen Victoria with the Great Exhibition of 1851. Since then various kings and queens of the country have acted as patrons and funded countless cultural and sporting events, as if offering gifts to the people.
In reality, these are crumbs off the table, like the circuses organised by the emperors of Rome. Nevertheless, they reinforce the effect of the ‘People’s Queen’ - perhaps best symbolised when the band Madness performed ‘Our House’ on top of Buckingham Palace at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. In fact, Tony Blair offered the services of his PR team to advise the Queen at the time of Princess Diana’s death. And, of course, the mainstream media play their part in perpetuating the image of the nation’s loveable gran, as is so clear in this week’s coverage of her 90th birthday.
Overall, then, how should Marxists approach the question of the Monarchy? Firstly, we should be unambiguously clear that we are against the Monarchy - a feudal relic with undemocratic, prerogative powers that will be used against any revolutionary movement of the masses. The most radicalised people already see this and do not have any illusions in the Monarchy, especially when the Monarchy is being used - along with every other pillar of the Establishment - to attack Corbyn.
For the wider public, it is clear that the Monarchy is not the primary issue of their concern, as they correctly direct their anger against those in Westminster and, most importantly, in the City of London, who really run and control society under capitalism.
Nevertheless, consciousness can change quickly, especially if the royal prerogatives are used to block the democratic decisions of workers and youth. In such a situation, people will correctly ask why, in the 21st century, we still have an unelected head of state with an immense fortune, and powers inherited from the era of feudalism.
- No to the Monarchy!
- No to feudal powers! No to parasitic wealth!
- Defend Corbyn and fight for socialism!