The royal wedding and platonic republicanism
Eddie Ford thinks the left, and Jeremy Corbyn, should take the monarchy seriously
Some of our more attentive readers might be aware that there is a wedding taking place on May 19 in a Windsor church between a chap called Harry, who looks remarkably like his father, and a black American former actress named Meghan. No politicians have been invited - not even Donald Trump.
Anyway, enough of that. Time to move on and discuss far more important things like the latest demonstration against austerity or anti-war protest …
Actually, the left ought to say something about this - even if the latest issues of Socialist Worker and The Socialist say exactly nothing about the royal wedding, true to economistic form. Yes, there have been some grumblings here and there about the cost of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress amidst the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower’s disaster, and so on (£300,000-£400,000, if you are interested). The Morning Star, for example, has a history of treating royal occasions with lofty contempt - hence its ironic headline about the wedding of Di and Chaz: “Traffic disrupted in central London.” This journalist, for one, quite likes that tongue-in-cheek and irreverential approach to royalty.
Having said that, the left should treat the question seriously - after all, we are not just talking about two happy individuals deciding to tie the knot and produce an heir-and-spare (not that this is an issue regarding this wedding - there are heirs in abundance at the moment). The monarchy is a state institution and therefore should matter to the left - as should all questions concerning high politics and the state. The left should take a keen interest in the politics of the royal wedding due to the simple fact that an awful lot of people - whether you like it or not - are wound up with excitement about the event and everything connected to it. Communists would hardly be communists if they ignored what the masses of people think or feel, or treated it as an irrelevance. The mass hysteria over Diana Spencer’s death in 1997 certainly told us a lot about British society at that time.
For instance, it will be interesting to see how many people watch the wedding, compared to the FA Cup final between Chelsea and Manchester United on the same day - though the latter, of course, will be later in the afternoon at Wembley (4/5 odds for United, according to William Hill). Unless you are marooned alone on a disabled space station, royal occasions - especially weddings - suck people in, whether they are looking at the wedding dress in awe or bedazzled by the guest list. For one reason or another, without necessarily making them stupid, people want to buy into part of the glamour of it all - don’t they look nice …?
Indeed, in May this year, Time magazine selected Markle as one of the “100 most influential people in the world”, despite the fact that our comrades from the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales do not seem to have heard of her.1 On the day, with a prompt midday kick-off - synchronise watches now - the couple will be wed by the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at St George’s Chapel next to Windsor Castle, which holds about 800 people. This itself will be a slight break with precedent, as royal weddings have always been on a weekday. Afterwards the couple will travel through Windsor in an Ascot Landau carriage, as tradition demands, before proceeding up the Long Walk and then all the way back to St George’s Hall. Apparently, as if the deity himself was blessing the occasion, the wedding looks set to take place on the hottest day of the year, with temperatures in excess of 29˚C.
Markle’s father, Thomas, the semi-reclusive and retired TV lighting director who lives in a Mexican resort, was originally due to walk his daughter down the aisle, but now might not be turning up - something that has “blindsided” Kensington Palace.2 It is currently unclear whether that is because of heart surgery planned for May 16 and/or his recent embarrassment about colluding with a Los Angeles-based photo agency over “staged” pictures of himself in a botched attempt to recast his public image. Markle texted her father when the news broke on May 14 that he was pulling out of the wedding, saying she harboured “no ill feelings toward him” for doing the deal with the paparazzi - in return, he admitted that his behaviour had been a bit “stupid”.
Anyhow, if anybody remembers them, the now rather older Spice Girls will be attending the wedding. Indeed, for a while there were rumours that they would actually perform at the ceremony - possibly along with Elton John or Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Alas, this does not appear to be the case and instead the music will be more traditional fare - like the choir of St George’s Chapel. Mind you, there will also be trumpeters from the Band of the Household Cavalry - with the ministry of defence requesting 20 silver-plated fanfare trumpets stamped with the royal coat of arms, each costing between £3,000 and £6,000. Generously, the BBC has waived its normal fee, meaning that street parties up and down the land - well, here and there - and other special events can screen the wedding live without having to buy a special licence; in Windsor itself big screens showing live footage of the wedding will be shown on the Long Walk and in Alexandra Gardens.
Even more generously, 2,640 “commoners” from “every corner of the United Kingdom” have been invited to the grounds of Windsor Castle “to feel part of the celebrations too”. But the generosity stops short of giving them a slice of very expensive wedding cake or glass of bubbly - bring a picnic. Of the invitees, 1,200 will be nominated by nine regional lord lieutenant offices (lord lieutenants being the monarch’s personal representatives in each county of the UK) and the rest will be people from a range of charities and organisations which the royal couple support; plus Windsor Castle community members; members of the royal households and crown estate, and pupils from two schools close to the castle - the Royal and St George’s. The Royal is a Church of England school for pupils from four to nine years old that was built to educate the children of staff employed by the royal family and St George’s is an ‘independent’ preparatory school originally founded to educate the choristers of St George’s chapel - it charges up to £16,000 a year in fees (apply now to avoid disappointment).
As for the overall cost of the wedding, that is expected to be upwards of £32 million. But before you angrily pick up a pen to write to your MP or local newspaper in protest, £30 million of that will be for the security measures. Note that the ‘wedding of the century’ of Di and Charlie reportedly cost £100 million or more, and nobody seemed too bothered at the time. Of course, tradition states that the father of the bride pays for the wedding, but Thomas Markle must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when Kensington Palace confirmed the royal family would foot the bill (except for the security which, naturally, will be footed by the tax-payer).
Other costs include £50,000 on the lemon elderflower wedding cake; £110,000 on flowers; £300,000 to hire the glass marquee for the evening reception in the grounds of Frogmore House; £26,000 on sausage rolls and hot tea for the 2,640 commoners. Then there is the bride’s dress - but she will probably pay for that herself.3 However, the details on this are a bit murky, as it seems that last year Prince Charles allotted $4.8 million of his $28 million ‘earnings’ towards the personal expenses of his family, and it looks like Markle will be able to use a portion of this budget as well, once she is officially a member of the Windsor clan.
Interestingly, Markle got divorced in 2013 and attended the Immaculate Heart High School - an all-girl Catholic private school in Los Angeles. Not all that long ago, as in the case of Wallis Simpson and the Nazi-sympathising Edward VIII, these two factors would have caused big political ructions - if not a full-scale political-constitutional crisis. But the Church of England no longer denies marriage to a divorced person with a living spouse and Markle has always claimed that she never “self-identified” as a Catholic - thank heavens for that. Hence on March 6 she was baptised and confirmed into the established church by Welby at St James’s Palace, using holy water from the River Jordan.
Markle is now waiting to become a British citizen, while retaining her US citizenship during the process - the Palace has indicated that no decision has yet been made as to whether she will adopt dual nationality. One thing you can confidently predict is that she will not be deported back to her country of origin because she does not have the right paperwork. But, as pointed out by Zoe Williams in The Guardian, the red tops’ obsession with Markle’s father “is a warning of the abuse to come” (May 9). Atthe moment, she writes, Meghan might be “the princess of all hearts and can do no wrong”, but that could change down the line, when they “find out that you once shouted at a maid” or “went to a club without your husband and didn’t get home till five past 12” - you can almost see the headlines now. Nothing so fickle as the tabloid press.
Although politicians might not have been invited to the wedding, as I have pointed out, this is definitely a political event. Its purpose is to demonstrate once again the central ideological role of the monarchy - which, as we all know, stands ‘above politics’, so that it can serve the common interests of the ‘entire nation’, whatever your class position, as opposed to outsiders. No doubt this is part of the reason why Markle must become British herself.
Communists insist that the republican question cannot be ducked or avoided - quite the opposite in fact. We know that the leader of the official opposition - one Jeremy Bernard Corbyn - is on record as criticising not just the cost of royal occasions, but the fact of them. In the past he has shown his disapproval of the whole monarchical system, not just the ‘excessive cost’ of this or that event.
Or at least that certainly used to be Corbyn’s position. Back in 1995 he 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 and abolition of the House of Lords.4Almost enough to provoke an army revolt. At other times, Corbyn has merely talked about abolishing (or weakening) the queen’s royal prerogative - which he rightly described at a leadership hustings as a “very convenient way of bypassing parliament”. For the Jeremy Corbyn of just a few years ago, the royal prerogative should be “subject to parliamentary vote and veto if necessary”.
Yet nowadays we never hear even the latter sentiments coming from the lips of the Labour leader: whatever happened to the real Jeremy Corbyn? But frankly it would be good and healthy if he made it clear he would not be joining in the celebrations and has no intention of giving his own stamp of legitimacy to a thoroughly reactionary institution. Rather than shilly-shallying around, Corbyn should use the occasion to put forward a series of democratic demands, including, of course, the abolition of the monarchy.
At the TUC ‘new deal for working people’ demonstration last weekend, Corbyn talked a lot about the Labour government doing all sorts of marvellous things. But in order to get into ‘power’ - using that term in the everyday sense - Corbyn has got to win a general election on one level or another: either by being able to command a majority in parliament or at least by heading the biggest party in terms of the number of MPs. However, according to constitutional convention, it is the monarch (acting on the advice of the privy council) who invites to Buckingham Palace a person likely to be able to form a government. But there is no constitutionalrequirement that it must be the leader of the largest party represented in parliament.
Though most of the left seems to think it is an amusing eccentricity on the part of the Weekly Worker, this publication has pointed out that the chances of Jeremy Corbyn being invited to the palace are rather less than certain in the middle of a hard Brexit not to the liking of the bankers, the City, state bureaucracy, civil service, Financial Times, etc (or no deal at all). After all, he is clearly less than enthusiastic about Nato and Trident and cannot be regarded as a trustworthy ally of the US, if and when it launches its next military adventure in, say, the Middle East.
Under these circumstances, it is more than possible that, far from Lizzie asking Jez over to the palace for Earl Grey tea and cucumber sandwiches, she will invite someone else instead - say, that nice, clean-cut Sir Keir Starmer (as it happens, a former Pabloite5). Remember, no fewer than 172 Labour MPs signed a no-confidence motion against the Labour leader less than two years ago - talk about the enemy within. Following the next general election, unless there is some near miraculous transformation of the Parliamentary Labour Party, it will be MPs of the same political complexion standing behind the seemingly triumphant Jeremy Corbyn. The queen, or her heir, could well give the Nato-hating, IRA-loving, pro-Russian Corbyn a wide miss and rather give her blessing to the likes of the now impeccably mainstream Starmer - he would never let a hard Brexit happen and could well command not just majority support from Labour MPs, but potentially more besides. Perhaps he might even form a national government to rescue Britain from the hard Brexiteers. Bye, bye Jeremy.
It is more than worthwhile pointing out that in the past monarchs have chosen someone who is precisely not the leader of the biggest party or majority party - that is perfectly legitimate under the British constitutional-monarchical system, even if it is rather unusual. Anyone who says this would provoke a revolution is living in a fantasy world. Sure, it might cause a few demonstrations organised by the usual suspects - but so what?
In fact, the left urgently needs a lesson on what a revolutionary situation exactly is and what you need to make a revolution in the first place. Revolutions do not happen because a lot of people are unhappy or have gone on so many marches - there needs to be a split within the ruling class and, crucially, the army. Furthermore, logically, for there to be an actual revolution - rather than a counterrevolution or quick relapse to the status quo - there needs to be an independent working class party armed with an internationalist programme for revolution that has mass support amongst the population. If Keir Starmer, or whoever, was asked to form a government instead of Jeremy Corbyn, that would not act as a catalyst for revolution or insurrection. Indeed, given the situation and mood today, such a measure might well meet with wide approval. When asked by various polls, most people tend to agree with the sentiment that politicians should stop all this silly party-bickering and, instead, work together in the national interest.
There is also the historical example of Ramsay MacDonald, who could not get his Labour cabinet to back his austerity programme, but at the initiative of George V, formed a national government with the Tories and Liberals. He then called a general election which virtually wiped out the Labour Party in the House of Commons. Given that we are not living under normal circumstances, but the rather dysfunctional state of affairs provoked by the Brexit referendum, it would be foolish to rule out a comparable scenario. Today’s Corbyn-led Labour Party could be decimated by a cross-party coalition (even if its popular vote did not fall). Of course, for Labour MPs that went with a cross-party coalition political death would soon come. At the next general election it would be they, the Labour traitors who would be decimated. They would then have to trade in their dreams of glittering ministerial careers for a seat in the House of Lords. But in the meantime they would be praised for putting the nation above party.
We also have the valuable lesson of the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis (‘the Dismissal’), which saw the Labor prime minister of three years, Gough Whitlam, summarily sacked by governor-general Sir John Kerr - who was, of course, acting on behalf of the queen.6 On the very same day (November 11) Kerr installed the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser of the Liberal Party, as caretaker prime minister and announced a double-dissolution election for the following month. Fraser and his coalition National Country Party partners won the largest majority government to date in Australian history, while Labor suffered a 30-seat swing and the indignity of having its House of Representatives numbers cut almost in half to 36 seats. Yes, there were a few protests, but they came to nothing - and, of course, the current governor-general (Sir Peter John Cosgrove, AK, MC7) still has the same powers of dismissal.
What is vital to understand - yet seems beyond the economistic left - is that royalty is not about bowing or swearing loyalty to some weird feudal relic: it is an integral part of today’s constitutional system. In other words, it is a vital prop of the British state. Extraordinary things could happen and do happen, and Jeremy Corbyn could end up a victim of such forcess if he does not change his game.
The Labour leader ought to drop his platonic republicanism and start treating the monarchy as a serious problem.