As jubilee fever grips Britain’s media, and union-jack bunting decks the window of every high-street chain, you would be forgiven for thinking that the British monarchy had never been more popular.
Whether it’s a trailer for Britain’s Got Talent featuring the programme’s loathsome panel of judges attending an audience with ‘Her Maj’, or presenters of BBC Breakfast falling over themselves to gush about how simply wonderful ‘Kate’ looks, or newsreaders coyly stifling a giggle at Charles’ considered buffoonery and Philip’s casual racism, it seems we are surrounded by increasingly brazen and increasingly crass royalist propaganda.
The non-stop fawning coverage of Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations is only the latest example of all this. In a cringingly obsequious newspaper article written shortly after last year’s royal wedding, journalist Dominic Sandbrook breathlessly noted that “the … striking thing [about the wedding was] … the almost total absence of anti-monarchical sentiment”.
This was in the supposedly ‘left-liberal’ Guardian. But as one astute online commenter put it: “How would we know? The only sentiment allowed to be expressed in the media was pro-monarchical.”
And not only in the media. On the streets, too, every expression of republican or anti-army sentiment was firmly suppressed.
The reality of just how far basic liberties have been eroded since the British ruling class put the country onto a perpetual war footing was brought home shortly before the royal wedding, when scores of people in and around London (including one 68-year-old retired anthropology professor engaging in a piece of anti-royalist street theatre) were ‘pre-emptively arrested’ on suspicion of ‘conspiracy to cause a breach of the peace’. That is, they were arrested merely for planning to use the occasion of the wedding to peacefully protest against the monarchy.
In the words of Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens: “We won’t let anybody disrupt this exciting day for the royal family and the country.” So planning to get in the way of a rich person’s ‘exciting day’ is now an arrestable offence.
Not quite so beloved
Despite the impression given by the media, however, love and respect for the ‘dear old Queen’ and her family is not quite so universal as our rulers would have us believe.
Opinion polls repeatedly show that a substantial minority – around 20 percent – of the British public would favour the abolition of the monarchy. And, given that poor people generally do not get to take part in opinion polls, this is bound to be a gross underestimate – which might explain the government’s refusal to comply with a UN suggestion in 2008 that it put the issue to a referendum.
Those whose opinion is never asked include the many young working-class men and women who are daily stopped and searched by Her Majesty’s constabulary, and it will not have escaped their attention just whose coat-of-arms Plod wears on his helmet, and just whose coat of arms bedecks the oak-panelled wall behind the sadistic judge or magistrate who callously sends them down.
Indeed, a deep vein of antipathy towards the royals is occasionally, if unintentionally, revealed, as when two working-class girls told a clearly dismayed John Prescott that they “hate the Queen” during BBC Three’s Class, or when milling bystanders were heard telling Prince Harry to “Get back to yer big ‘ouse!” when he made an ‘impromptu’ visit to inner-city Salford soon after last August’s youth uprisings.
At a time of savage cuts in services and benefits, with rising unemployment and increasing levels of overcrowded and slum housing, the sight of the Windsor mob cavorting around on our TV screens bedecked in clothes and jewellery costing millions and paid for by the taxpayer is not calculated to endear them to those who are branded scroungers by the media while living hand-to-mouth and suffering the brunt of the economic crisis.
Add to that the royals’ status as super-landowners and financiers and you have a recipe for simmering resentment amongst a growing section of Britain’s poorest.
Tellingly, the Land Registry will still not publish records of just how much land the royal family owns or where, presumably because of fears over the scale of any potential public outcry if its true holdings were to be revealed.
Moreover, while most of us are forced to pay extortionate rates of council tax for occupying postage-stamp-sized plots of land, the royals not only don’t pay tax on their land, but, like other big landowners, actually attract massive agricultural subsidies.
Even amongst better-off workers, the prevailing attitude towards the monarchy is often a profound indifference, tinged with irritation at the half-rate intellects of a ‘representative’ family who can’t scrape a decent degree between them, despite having had access to the best education money and privilege can buy. So much for our much-touted ‘meritocracy’!
Look closely at television pictures of the ‘well-wishers’ who are supposed to have enthusiastically gathered wherever the royals go, and you will see that the crowds these days consist of senior managers of whatever NHS Trust or charity the royals happen to be visiting, local primary-school children bussed in for the occasion, and perhaps a sprinkling of young women frantically waving Union Jacks supplied by Hello! magazine and squealing as they would for any other similarly-endorsed celebrity. But when was the last time any of us saw a bona fide adult male member of the public in one of these scenes?
Who are they and what do they do?
While the royals are not nearly as popular as the media would have us believe, their exact status and function is still widely misunderstood.
Since the days of the English revolution, when Oliver Cromwell executed the last of Britain’s absolute monarchs (Charles I) on behalf of a triumphant bourgeoisie, no king or queen has exercised direct power in Britain.
The ‘restoration’ of the dead king’s son (Charles II) was not, as is often portrayed, a reversal of that hard-fought revolution (during which a massive 12 percent of the English population died to bring the feudal system in Britain to an end), but rather the acceptance by the nobility that if it wanted to survive at all, it would have to do so on the capitalists’ terms.
And indeed, those aristocratic families that did make it through the next 200 years of capitalist industrialisation did so by merging themselves into the new class of bourgeois rulers, letting go of their old snobbish attitudes towards ‘trade’ and investing profits from their land holdings into thriving capitalist enterprises.
Today, so far from the old aristocratic ideas about what was appropriate to their station have the royals moved that Prince Charles has no compunction about using the ‘brand recognition’ of his name to sell biscuits.
So, despite the odd archaic privilege and arcane ritual that have been preserved for the look of the thing, the modern-day royal family has very little in common with the monarchs of feudal Britain. But while they may not be the venerated overlords of bygone days, neither are the royal family a mere tourist attraction, a bunch of highly-paid charity workers, or merely a complete irrelevance, as some assert.
In fact, with the carefully nurtured mystique of its ‘ancient rituals’ and extensively documented family tree, the monarchy under capitalism is a valuable institution for our rulers. We are taught to see the history of the nation as being synonymous with the history of the royal family; to feel that their history is ours – that kings and queens, rather than class forces, have been the motive force in British history.
Everything is done to persuade us to invest a level of sombre dignity into the office of the bourgeois head of state, and to become imbued with a sense of superstitious reverence for the hereditary holders of that office.
How often are we told that ‘our’ Queen has so much more ‘dignity’, ‘grace’ etc than any mere elected head of state could ever have? All our lives, we have been learning carefully-selected ‘facts’ about her and her relations. We would recognise many of them from their baby pictures, and we are encouraged to think about and discuss the details of their lives as if they were members of our own families.
And so the hope is that, no matter how angry we might become with other representatives of bourgeois rule – governments, police, judiciary etc – we will continue to believe that the state as represented by the Queen and the armed forces is still essentially benevolent; that it is above politics and there to ‘serve all the people’. Hence the non-stop guff about the Queen’s ‘unifying’ presence in our lives.
Indeed, the strong and visible connection between the royals and the forces is one very important aspect of what the monarchy in Britain does today. Although largely ceremonial, the pomp and ceremony of the various military parades the Queen attends, along with the high-profile military careers of her sons and grandsons, serve to gloss over the real, aggressive nature of the armed wing of British imperialism and help to promote the myth of Britain’s army as a ‘defensive’, ‘patriotic’ force.
In fact, the Queen’s role as commander-in-chief of the forces and professional prettifyer of imperialist brigandage makes her as much a war criminal as Tony Blair or David Cameron.
Moreover, while she may not exercise power over governments or armies for herself, the Queen does have a real role to play on behalf of her class. It is not merely symbolic that a new prime minister has to ask the Queen for permission to form a government – that is the ruling class’s veto in case of an unacceptable election result.
As is the Queen’s power to call a state of emergency and mobilise the armed forces. While she may not do either of these things on her own whim, these powers are retained by the class she serves in case of emergency, and she would have no compunction in using them on their behalf if they deemed it necessary.
So much for the dreams of the cretins who imagine that we could achieve socialism in Britain by simply winning a majority in a parliamentary election!
Meanwhile, the Queen’s weekly private meeting with the prime minister and daily inspection of briefing papers ensures that, as the executive officer of the ruling class, she is fully apprised of what is going on in Whitehall and Westminster, while the whole process simultaneously serves to remind those in government just whose interests it is that they are really being paid to look after.
And the oath of fealty sworn by every serving officer is to the Queen alone – just so there’s no confusion in case a conflict between the ruling class and parliament should arise!
A ‘unifying force’
The advantage of having a long-serving head of state is felt by the ruling class most particularly in times of crisis, as now. As society is becoming more and more fractured, it is crucial for the maintenance of capitalist rule that ways should be found to paper over the divisions.
Hence the relentless media propaganda aimed at lining us up behind the twin symbols of the British imperialist state: the monarchy and the armed forces. And hence the tabloid press respectfully agreeing in recent years to no longer ‘interfere with’ the private lives of the royal family – though everyone else’s private life apparently remains fair game.
To even question the idea of the monarchy, or the ‘basic benevolence’ of British foreign policy, has now become unthinkable within the mainstream. Instead, we are asked to forget about exploiters and exploited and buy into the myth of ‘one Britain’.
When the Queen and her various scions ‘go amongst the people’, they, like Cameron and Osborne, are asking us to believe that we are ‘all in it together’.
And, of course, there is the good old distraction trick of ‘bread and circuses’ for the rowdy masses. The jubilee, like the royal wedding, is in essence a jolly big show, whose saturation coverage is, like talent shows, soap operas and celebrity-gossip magazines, aimed at keeping us inoculated and pacified while our rulers get on with turning the screws and tightening the rack.
The diamond jubilee has become the latest excuse for reinforcing anachronistic habits of deference towards a clique whose family tree happens to have been written down, bringing with it a host of brainwashing and bribery, from jubilee gifts and coronation pageants for schoolchildren to neighbourhood street parties and souvenir mementoes – all served up with red, white and blue bunting, coronation chicken sandwiches, Victoria sponges and Anzac cakes.
Meanwhile, shop windows present us with floor-to-ceiling displays of ‘patriotic’, flag-themed merchandise, but not all the plethora of new and attractive ways that the marketeers have found to repackage the union jack can whitewash its dirty history.
The Irish were a thousand times right when they dubbed that imperial symbol the ‘butcher’s apron’ – as will be attested to by all those who, from India to Kenya to Iraq, have seen their countries looted and their people starved and massacred in order to provide superprofits to British businesses.
Times have not changed since the days of the imperialist-engineered genocides of the 19th century in India and Ireland. Iraq and Libya (to name just two recent examples) stand as a chilling testament to the fact that British imperialism is as ruthless and violent as it ever was.
No amount of rebranding or kitsch design can alter the fact that the flag of our rulers is a symbol of war crimes and ruthless exploitation with which we should have nothing to do.
Capitalism must go
It is clear that, for all the insidious role that they play in helping to maintain capitalist rule, it is not the monarchy per se that is the problem, but the monopoly-capitalist system that the modern monarchy represents.
After all, they may live off our backs in a more direct and conspicuous way than most, but discussion about the Queen’s tax status and land holdings should never lead us to forget that all large-scale capitalist enterprises are leeching off the blood and sweat of others, and that all the super-rich of Britain vie with each other in creating tax avoidance scams.
She may be a particularly blatant example, but the monarch is really just one of the many capitalist parasites whose obscene wealth needs to be seized and used for the common good if we are to escape from the downward spiral of imperialist war and economic crisis and start to build a truly civilised life for ourselves.
As communists, we wish to see the end of the monarchy not because we have some burning desire to replace it with an elected man in a suit while the whole rotten system of bloodthirsty warmongering and ruthless exploitation remains intact, but because we are opposed to anything that perpetuates ordinary people’s faith in the status quo or helps to whitewash the crimes of the ruling class.
Moreover, we hold to the simple belief that for one person or family to own wealth running into the billions of pounds while millions starve and millions more go without homes, jobs, basic healthcare, education, and security in old age – is nothing short of a moral outrage.
And that doesn’t just go for the Queen, but for the whole class of privileged multibillionaires whom she serves and helps to keep in place.
The Queen is not ‘ours’, but theirs. She is of and for that tiny handful of ruthless exploiters who keep the world’s people in poverty and servitude, and we must not be fooled by sentimental hogwash into imagining that she has any interest in seeing our children taken care of.
If we want a fitting future for them, it is going to have to be one without kings, queens or privileged exploiters of any kind.
We call on all British workers who have had enough of the human, environmental and material carnage that imperialism creates on a daily basis to forget the jubilee and instead put their energies into building a world in which dignity and cooperation will replace exploitation and greed.
It is time to leave behind the blood-stained red, white and blue of our decadent, parasitic, imperial rulers and join the rising workers of the world under the red banner of the people’s hammer and sickle!