Not a private matter
Instead of ducking the question, writes Eddie Ford, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell should be fighting for republican democracy
Most of our readers were no doubt delighted to hear that Buckingham Palace is getting a £369 million refit courtesy of the taxpayer. Due to begin next April, it will take 10 years to replace the 100 miles of electrical cabling, some of it 60 years old - not to mention the 20 miles of lead and cast-iron pipework, lifting the 30,000 square metres of floorboards, and so on. Alas, though she will remain in residence during the work, it is unlikely that Elizabeth Windsor will live long enough to enjoy her palace in its final glory, complete with solar panels.
Not that the building is the biggest palace in the world, of course. But it is still a huge building with no fewer than 775 rooms, including its own post office, cinema, swimming pool, doctor’s surgery and jeweller’s workshop. Interestingly, directly underneath the state apartments is a suite of slightly less grand rooms known as the semi-state apartments, some of which are named after particular visitors - so you have the 1844 Room, decorated in that year for the state visit of tsar Nicholas I and the 1855 Room in honour of Napoleon III.
Buckingham Palace has served as the official London residence of the British sovereign since 1837, with Windsor spending a third of the year there hosting various events - welcoming more than 50,000 people as guests to state banquets, dinners, receptions, investitures and garden parties.
The royal trustees, who include the prime minister and chancellor, have recommended that the works be funded by a temporary increase in the sovereign grant - which was introduced in 2012, being the biggest reform to the finances of the British royal family since the inception of the civil list in 1760.1 In a nutshell, profits from the ‘independent’ property business, Crown Estates,2 go to the treasury - which in turn gives 15% of the sum to the monarch in the form of the sovereign grant, this year totalling nearly £43 million. The trustees think the grant should rise to 25% for the years the work is taking place in order to cover the repairs. All this, naturally enough, would require MPs’ approval, but this is expected to be rubber-stamped by parliament.
Maybe rubbing salt into the wound, the Buckingham announcement comes at a time when MPs are considering a £4 billion plan for renovations at the Palace of Westminster. So much for austerity then. Meanwhile, government funding for social housing is being further cut and the country suffers in general from a chronic housing crisis. But, according to palace officials, the refit will appeal to people’s “sense of nationhood”, provide a unifying spirit, and is therefore worth every penny.
The loudest grumblings come from the bourgeois liberal pressure group, Republic, declaring that the refurbishment plan was an “indictment” of Elizabeth Windsor’s “scandalous mismanagement” of royal finances over six decades. The group’s campaign manager, Graham Smith, further complained: “The obvious question is why have the royals let it get into this state? Why haven’t they raised revenue through opening up all year round? If the royals can’t look after the buildings and raise their own revenue to fund maintenance, it’s time to give them up.” Republic, of course, calls for a referendum - god help us - on the monarchy after the present queen has died on the pusillanimous basis that the period of time between Elizabeth Windsor’s funeral and the coronation of Charles, or whoever, will provide an “opportune moment” (The Independent April 21 2016) - which seems quite delusional. There will be non-stop, mind-numbing, North Korean-style, pro-monarchist propaganda by every section of the media during this period - not that the establishment would allow a referendum on this matter, it needs hardly be said, unless it was guaranteed to win it. Some things are just too important.
We, however, were disappointed - though we cannot pretend to be entirely surprised - by the response to the refit from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, supposedly lifelong republicans. After all, back in 1995 Corbyn seconded the Commonwealth of Britain Bill brought forward by Tony Benn, which called for the transformation of the UK into a “democratic, federal and secular Commonwealth of Britain”, with an elected president, devolution, abolition of the House of Lords and an equal representation of men and women in parliament.3
But in an interview with Matt Frei for LBC Radio on November 19, McDonnell backed the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace on the grounds that it is a “national monument”, which is part of our “national heritage” - therefore it should be treated in the “same way” as the House of Commons - after all, old buildings “have to be looked after”.4 When asked if the monarch should pay for the work herself, he replied that “she may well consider that” - he then proceeded to completely duck the question by going on to say: “I am a republican, but, when it comes to decisions like that, I think they are left to her.” Obviously for McDonnell republicanism is a private matter, not an immediate democratic demand to be fought for. McDonnell was also questioned about whether he went down on bended knee before the queen at the privy council. He replied that he was “not sure what the rules are”, but “you can say I did the usual protocol” that was “not far distant from the one you’re suggesting” - a shifty, cowardly answer if ever there was one.
The subsequent newspaper headlines just about say it all, ‘Republican John McDonnell put on spot by Matt Frei’, ‘Republican John McDonnell backs £370 million restoration of Buckingham Palace’, etc. Not really helping, the next day on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show he repeated his wish that Elizabeth Windsor should “consider” contributing to the renovation costs - meaning he “wouldn’t send a cheque back” if she decided to chip in (leading to almost inevitable Sun headline: ‘Get your purse out, ma’am’, November 20). But, at the end of the day, he shrugged again, “that’s for them to consider”, even if “we would welcome it” - although it would be a “nice touch” if the palace was frequently open to the taxpayer free of charge. A truly wretched position for someone who claims to be a republican. Can we have the real John McDonnell back, please?
If the CPGB had a bloc of MPs we certainly would not back or vote for the refurbishment plan - why does anyone need 240 bedrooms? Yes, obviously, Buckingham Palace is not the living space of one person or family. Nevertheless it is designed for the monarchy and the £369 million will be there to improve the living conditions of the monarchy and all its hangers-on and servants (sorry, staff). Hence the talk of more visitors, bigger garden parties, grander spectacles, and so on. Do we approve of refurbishing Bucking Palace for that purpose? - as democrats, certainly not.
However, communists do not want to see Buckingham Palace - or any other major historic building, for that matter - go to wrack and ruin, any more than we agree with William Morris’s obviously tongue-in-cheek proposal in News from Nowhere that parliament should be turned into a store for “dung”.5 After all, the Palace of Westminster - in its own idiosyncratic and frustrating way - is a beautiful building. The same generally applies to Buckingham Palace, even if it may be a bit too gaudy for some. Communists therefore object to the £369 million funding, but think the accompanying controversy or scandal, insofar as there is one, should be used as an opportunity to make republican propaganda. Yes, preserve the building at this or that cost, but preserve it for the people - whether that means turning it into a museum or converting it into living spaces for ordinary people, given the chronic housing shortage (especially in London and the south-east, where increasing numbers are being priced out). In that sense, turn Buckingham Palace into a people’s palace.
McDonnell’s LBC comments are important because of the symbolism they represent, just like Corbyn’s embarrassing mumbling of the national anthem or recent speech to the Confederation of British Industry. It shows that they have been tamed by the establishment - afraid to be bold or too radical in case it earns the ridicule of the press and Parliamentary Labour Party. Which it always will, of course, making it a totally self-defeating approach. Such moments, which are becoming distressingly common, are also indicative of what to expect from a Corbyn government (if by some miracle we ever had one) - vacillation, backsliding and endless compromises.
Corbyn has stated that his “priority” is “social justice”, but the struggle for a republic is “not a battle that I am fighting” - an utterly contradictory and unprincipled statement.6 It remains a mystery as to how you can have “social justice”, let alone anything approaching socialism, when a particular family descended from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha can inherit political power and obscene privilege. Or does comrade Corbyn think that we can somehow have socialism shorn of democracy?
All this underlines once more the task of the left inside the Labour Party - not to blindly support the leadership whatever they do or say, but to critically defend them against the right in pursuance of our own programme. Five years ago you could not imagine John McDonnell shrugging his shoulders about Buckingham Palace - he would have made some sort of republican case. Now we are in the pathetic situation where an insipid bourgeois group like Republic, not the Labour Party, is left to make the case for republicanism.
Our task is to win the Labour Party to fight for radical, republican democracy - as opposed to bourgeois republicanism. We do not need a president (or elected monarch), and elected leaders can always live in a nice flat rather than a palace or mansion. The working class must become the most consistent fighter for extreme democracy in every sphere of society.
Now tell that to LBC Radio.
2. Holdings include Windsor Great Park and Ascot racecourse, but most of the portfolio is made up of residential property, commercial offices, shops, businesses and retail parks.