The Firm reinvents itself
The royal wedding was used to present the monarchy and the entire establishment as modern, progressive ... and anti-racist, writes Eddie Ford
On just about every level, whether you like it or not, last week’s royal wedding was a success for the establishment.
Almost 18 million in Britain watched Meghan Markle and prince Harry exchange vows in the “stunning” ceremony, with the BBC attracting a peak audience of 13.1 million - though it should be noted that the wedding of prince William and Catherine Middleton seven years earlier attracted 28.4 million in the UK. In the United States about 29.2 million watched - up from the 23 million who viewed the marriage of William and Kate, no doubt because of the involvement of a fellow American. Staggeringly, 1.9 billion watched the wedding worldwide - perhaps exceeding even the most optimistic establishment forecast. And apparently over six million tweets were sent during the ceremony.
And in the UK the media had a field day. The BBC radio ‘news’ headlines contained lengthy extracts from the couple’s marriage vows, while there was saturation coverage in the newspapers. For example, the first 23 pages of the following day’s Sunday Telegraph were devoted to the wedding.
But the most important aspect was the ideological success of the wedding. Here was a golden opportunity for the British establishment, as refracted through the monarchy, to present itself as modern, liberal, progressive and - most notably - anti-racist. From that perspective, Harry and Meghan did them proud.
Hence the interesting article in The Guardian by a former legal affairs and west Africa correspondent, Afua Hirsch, entitled “Meghan Markle’s wedding was a rousing celebration of blackness” (May 20). Now, just like this journalist, your instinctive reaction might be to snort in derision, but there was certainly an element of truth to it. Hirsch jokily remarks that, when Oprah Winfrey entered the chapel at Windsor Castle, “for some people it was the moment the real queen arrived” - referring to Winfrey and Markle, she remarked that “perhaps the two most famous women in the world today are of African heritage”.
Hirsch went on to mention that other members of “black royalty” were also present at the wedding such as Serena Williams, Idris Elba and Gina Torres - Markle’s fellow actor in the popular legal drama TV series, Suits - before going on to discuss the real stars of the show, the black cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed Ave Maria, and bishop Michael Curry, the black primate of the US Episcopal Church.
Kanneh-Mason, aged 18, was “framed by flowers as he revealed the depth of talent” that made him the first black musician to win the BBC Young Musician award since its launch 38 years earlier. Meanwhile, Curry, with an iPad on the lectern in front of him, was liberally quoting from Martin Luther King junior, and, Hirsch writes, “casting Jesus as a revolutionary”. For Curry, Jesus’s life symbolised the “most revolutionary movement in all of human history” - not because he headed a mass revolt against occupiers and oppressors, but because it was a “movement grounded in the unconditional love of god for the world” and a “movement mandating people to live that love”.1
Hirsch points out that “if there had been any doubts about what cultural experience” Curry would bring to the service, “they were swiftly and decisively answered” - even more so when you had the Kingdom gospel choir singing the soul classic, ‘Stand by me’, a love song that became a big hit in the midst of the civil rights movement and acted as a “soundtrack to protest and unity in the face of racial injustice”. The Guardian journalist wonders, “as the cameras took in the facial expressions of guests in the chapel”, how many of the British royal family and aristocracy in attendance “had ever had an experience like this before” - one in which they were “showered generously” in the “rousing, rumbling rhetoric of a powerful black pastor”.
Hirsch noted that Windsor, where the ceremony took place, is only 20 miles away from London, yet “in its lack of visible diversity can feel culturally thousands of kilometres away”. But, thanks to the wedding, it was suddenly full of black people. Hirsch noticed several African American women - some wearing tiaras, others wearing Meghan Markle masks - and remarked that there are “certainly black women in America who feel one of their own has entered British royalty”. In the same spirit, Canadian journalist Elamin Abdelmahmoud tweeted that “a black reverend preaching to British royalty about the resilience of faith during slavery” was “10,000,000% not what I thought I was waking up for”.2
Without question, the whole coverage amounted to astoundingly successful PR - not just when it came to modernity and anti-racism, but also about the marvels of the United Kingdom. That was much needed, as far as the establishment is concerned, after the Windrush scandal, the Grenfell Tower disaster and the continuing national anxieties about the direction of Brexit. As the Torygraph approvingly noted, Harry and Meghan - now to be officially called the duke and duchess of Sussex - “purposefully put black and minority ethnic people centre stage at every key moment of their wedding” - sending a message to the watching world that the royal family “has once again been reinvented” (May 19). Here is the face of Britain that the establishment wants to put forward to the world - the old Britain that priggishly tut-tutted over American divorcee Wallis Simpson and caused Edward VIII to abdicate in 1936 is dead. Long live the new Britain that lauds American divorcee Meghan Markle.
But where was the opposition to this worship of the constitutional monarchy? Where was the exposure of the establishment’s pretence that the monarchy speaks for everyone - worker and capitalist, rich and poor, and now most certainly black and white - because it is ‘above politics’?
The liberal campaign group, Republic, launched a petition demanding that no taxpayers’ money be spent on the wedding - this attracted a grand total of 32,000 signatures from an adult population of more than 50 million. At least across the Irish Sea there was more opposition. John Brady, a Sinn Féin TD for Wicklow, complained: “As an Irish republican living in a so-called ‘republic’, I totally oppose [state broadcasting company] RTÉ using my TV licence money to broadcast the wedding of a privileged English monarch.”
But in Britain, republicanism is not on the rise - if anything, it seems to be declining as a political force. Not a murmur of opposition from any trade union leaders or - it now goes without saying - from the Labour Party or its republican leader.
And for the most part the left has remained disgracefully silent. Neither the Morning Star nor Socialist Worker deigned to say nothing about the wedding, obviously having far more important things to write about. The most we got from the Star was a tangential and boring article on how wedding ceremonies, including those of the royal family, “reflect backward and patriarchal power dynamics that should be consigned to history” - yawn.3
The Socialist Workers Party has a history of covering royal weddings, sometimes effectively. For the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 it brought out a special full-colour edition of Socialist Worker, which by all accounts sold well. Not a peep about the wedding of Harry and Meghan, however.
Then again, this might be a slightly delicate issue for our SWP comrades, given their insistence that campaigning against racism is the key priority. They hope that their front, Stand Up To Racism, will revive their fortunes after the ‘comrade Delta’ scandal. Irrationally, they still insist that the British state is institutionally racist, when to any sane person the royal wedding suggests the opposite. Due to the appalling weakness of the working class movement, the establishment has appropriated anti-racism from the left and turned it into a safe ideology that serves the wider interests of the bourgeoisie.
When Barack Obama was first elected, SWP comrades found it hard to criticise him, as he was popular with the black community. SWP members strongly objected to an edition of the Weekly Worker because our front page carried a picture of Barack Obama with the headline, “World’s No1 terrorist”. The comrades attacked it as alienating the black community, and all manner of other opportunist nonsense. Maybe they do not want to be associated with criticism of Meghan Markle for the same reason. Best instead to play it safe and just go on about austerity and demonstrations, demonstrations, demonstrations.
As for the deadly dull The Socialist, it featured just one short article about the royal wedding, moaning about its costly “extravagance”. The most it could say was that it presented a “window into the lives of the super-rich who have not suffered the decade of austerity we have” (May 16).
The failure of the left in this regard is criminal. How will it be possible to make a revolution, when the majority of the population accept, and even identify with, a profoundly anti-democratic institution that in the last resort will be used for specifically counterrevolutionary purposes? It is, after all, the monarch who has the constitutional right to recall a government, dissolve parliament and grant emergency powers.