King and queen of America
The royal family’s falling out illustrates the inherent authoritarianism of all bourgeois politics - monarchical or liberal, argues Paul Demarty
The day Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle tied the knot, everything seemed so cheery.
Red-blooded patriots had naturally enjoyed the previous iteration of the Great British royal wedding, but Wills and Kate in 2011 was an awfully vanilla matter - though the bride was technically a commoner, she was posh by our standards, conforming to stereotype to the last detail (she had even captained the hockey team at her boarding school). Her groom, meanwhile, was possibly the most boring man to grace the direct royal succession for centuries - a true cipher, a man who spoke only in clichés. The whole thing, for everyone apart from the most snobbish society columnists, was a very old-fashioned royal affair.
By comparison, the wedding of Harry and Meghan seven years later had a little more spice. Harry had been the (relatively) hard-partying tearaway of the brothers. He was notoriously papped in Afrika-Korps uniform at a fancy dress party in 2005. As for Ms Markle, where to begin? An American, a graduate of a Catholic high school, an actress, and - of course - a person of mixed ethnic heritage, almost passing for white in America, but certainly ‘black’ by the historic standards of the monarchy. A grand speech by Michael Curry, the primate of the Episcopal church, rammed the point home: Curry is himself black, and under his leadership the Epicopalians have gotten into trouble with the rest of the Anglican communion for their open and enthusiastic support for gay marriage (god only knows what the Duke of Edinburgh made of that …). The event thus got a slightly unusual audience. I remember people of all sorts watching it on their phones on London trains; I remember being handed a complimentary glass of prosecco at a midprice chain restaurant in honour of the happy couple - a temptation to which my republican principles were, alas, not equal.
The overall picture was of an institution, however ancient, undergoing a discreet wave of modernisation. The changes were minor: the usual cast of characters, drawn from high society and high church, played their part, but with just a little seasoning of modern corporate-liberal ideology. The fiasco that followed the recording and broadcast of the Sussexes’ recent interview with Oprah Winfrey must first of all be understood as the decisive failure of that initiative. In having so failed, it does us the service of exposing first of all the contradictions between pomp-and-circumstance ceremonial monarchy and the liberal-capitalist state, but secondly (and more interestingly) between the ideology and reality of the liberal-capitalist state itself - the negation of the negation of arbitrary rule.
After the revolution of 1688 replaced the Stuarts with the Orange family, the British crown was decisively stripped of much of its older power, which had peaked with the absolutist Tudor and Stuart dynasties. Power shifted to parliament - still dominated by the traditional landowning class, but in an increasingly bourgeoisified form. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Dutch wars were resolved ultimately to Britain’s advantage, as was the war of the Spanish succession, which sucked in almost all European powers. The upshot of both was a wave of imperial extension. The refrain of Rule, Britannia! - “Britannia, rule the waves!” - was in the imperative case; naval supremacy was essential to ensure that “Britons never shall be slaves”.
The modern British monarchy, therefore, was from the off an imperialist institution. Vast fortunes were made in plunder, slave-trading and all the rest - all under the beneficent gaze of the Hanoverian kings. Openly imperialist ideology reached its zenith later under the reign of Victoria. When passably well-educated Britons scoff at today’s Palace PR flacks and their assurances that there is no truth whatever to accusations of racism against the royal family, they probably have in mind Philip and his endless gaffes about “slitty-eyed” Chinese people and what-have-you.
But it is the imperial background that is decisive. When Elizabeth II took the throne, remember, decolonisation was by no means over. Imperial racism is hardwired into this institution, and poor old Meghan Markle has discovered that it takes more than one woke fairytale wedding to change that.
When decolonisation was more or less complete, however, the old imperial racism lost a great deal - though by no means all - of its utility to those parts of the state apparatus which must actively govern. The problem was exacerbated by the presence in the UK of large numbers of non-white immigrants, primarily from those old imperial holdings (small African and Asian communities had, of course, existed for hundreds of years). Successive governments - both Labour and Tory - pioneered what has become known as multiculturalism, whereby targeted support for ‘responsible’ community leaders defused some of the tensions between these immigrant and ethnic-minority communities and the state, and offered a modest stake in the status quo to act as a counterweight to leftwing political influence.
At the same moment, in the late 1960s, as the very first elements of this were brought into being, the Palace made a shift in its PR strategy. Greater emphasis was now placed on the royal family as a collective, rather than simply the monarch him- or herself and, at most, the presumptive heir. This, it was thought, would make the institution more relatable to the broad masses. The stipends, sinecures and security details that are so much at issue between the Sussexes and the Palace are partly a function of this shift.
It worked - sort of. The result was the fusion of the monarchy and modern celebrity culture - the paradigmatic contemporary form for such parasocial relationships. Initially gradual, this shift accelerated considerably after the marriage of Harry’s parents, and again when that marriage collapsed in full view of a public hungry for gory details and paparazzi photos.
There is a contradiction here: after all, the point of a constitutional monarchy is to glide serenely through history, lubricated by innate nobility. Celebrity culture, on the other hand, is fundamentally about stories; and stories - as any screenwriting coach will tell you - need conflict, failure and a second-act crisis, where the protagonist hits rock bottom. A celebified House of Windsor cannot brush Andrew’s dealings with the repellent sex-trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein, under the table, nor can it hide Philip’s vulgar racism, Charles’s cringey sex-talk or Harry’s Nazi outfit.
The contradiction is managed by the maintenance of a cordon around Elizabeth herself - a monarch so taciturn and perfectly absorbed into her ceremonial role that she makes Wills look like Robin Williams. It is the others who are forced to be celebs - the tabloids, for the most part, keep a discreet distance from ma’am herself. She is not much younger than her near-dead husband, however, and her eldest son is a political incompetent who cannot be expected to master his mother’s virtues at his own advancing age. He and his people must find an alternative model - and soon.
That should not be interpreted as a prediction, common among more liberal republican types, that Charles’s reign will be so cringe-worthy as to do away with the monarchy for good. The monarchy serves a crucial role, despite its formal political impotence. The constitutional powers remaining in the hands of the queen form a crucial backstop to prevent serious challenges to the system. She can appoint a government of her choosing, so long as it can survive votes of confidence. Most importantly, the armed forces swear loyalty not to the government, but the crown. That difference has not been important for a while, though we have long known of contingency plans to deal with the threat of a Harold Wilson government (never mind a Jeremy Corbyn one …). It remains there, however, and uppermost in the minds of senior officers. It is not for nothing that male members of the royal clan - including Harry - get packed off to Sandhurst and showered with ceremonial roles in military divisions.
We said that these are crucial roles to emphasise that, even where there does not exist a formal monarchy, they must nevertheless be carried out. A worthwhile comparison, given the heritage of Meghan Markle, is the United States, which threw off the crown at the start of its independent existence, but needs nonetheless to protect its ruling class. The ‘liberal’ separation of powers serves, here, as the prophylactic against truly radical change - not least the appointed oligarchy of the Supreme Court, whose members reign for life, and the presidency and Senate, each elected in monstrously unrepresentative ways.
The presidency itself offers some formal equivalent to the succession of kings and queens, and indeed the greatest and worst of those men are iconic. Yet the military swear allegiance to the constitution, rather than the president, and indeed the US constitution is its own ‘dignified part’: it provides legitimacy for the frustration of the popular will and the poisoning of the political well. (The hyper-militarism of US culture does some work here too - the willingness of senior officers to reject their own commander-in-chief’s threats at points last year, as well as the persistent rightwing fear of deep-state conspiracies against Donald Trump, testify to this.)
This pattern must be fulfilled, at the end of the day, because ours is a capitalist world, and capitalism is flatly incompatible with unrestricted democracy. Capital must be protected from subordination to the control of the masses (and therefore, ultimately, expropriation); political machinery and, in the last instance, physical force exist to that end.
Yet these institutions cannot merely exist in full transparency, since that would be plainly unjust; there must also be a legitimating ideology. If it takes the form - as it usually does - of a heroic national mythos, that mythos requires people to bear its significance. It is wholly appropriate that the British monarchy cannot seem to sever its ties to the imperial past; after all, the monarchy, and by extension the monarch, is the sign under which British greatness can be expressed in an attractive soft focus - an unbroken story from Bede to Brexit, which delicately brushes over the hundred-years war, the triangle trade and the endless outrages of colonial rule.
Similarly, the cult of the constitution gives the USA its own national mythos, which covers over its crimes - that of freedom and opportunity. The myth may be projected onto its presidents, and its soldiers, who campaigned and fought in the name of such ideals. It is also, however, projected onto its celebrities: people, perhaps, whose ancestors were slaves, but who today - thanks to the greatness of the nation - could enjoy a moderately successful career as a TV actor and then marry a prince of England …
It is in this light that we must view the taking of sides in the present royal rumble. The rightwing press has sided with the Firm, as have bloviating idiots of the Piers Morgan sort; meanwhile, liberals are on Team Sussex, since their favoured idols are beautiful, successful women of colour; the prominence of racism in the dispute, meanwhile, tends to pull the left along behind the liberals.
It would do us good to be more cautious. The Sussexes’ statements fall well short of rejecting the monarchy as an institution, or even of accusing it of systematic racism. A lot of the ‘debate’ has focused on that question, of whether the royal family is racist, and - for the record - it certainly is. But this is not what the Sussexes claim, exactly. They claim that there are some bad eggs, and that their son has suffered for it by not getting the title of ‘prince’, and the perks that go with it. They exclude the queen from their complaints, and even the prince consort, who is notorious for his racism.
Now that they are cast into the outer darkness, what is their lot? The hard-scrabble life of a prince and a TV star, as they try to make ends meet out of their nine-figure fortune. In a sense, their wedding is inverted; it is no longer a matter of an American commoner marrying into the monarchy, but of the younger son of a shamed dynasty marrying into - he hopes - the upper reaches of Hollywood celebrity. If Markle’s dutiful service over seven seasons of Suits did not quite propel her to superstardom, her lovable trophy husband may, perhaps, kick-start a small media empire after the fashion of - why not? - the rather larger one of Oprah Winfrey, peddling liberal pablum and self-help trivialities.
In that case, it is, at the ideological level, not by Harry’s noble breeding, but by Meghan’s character and talent, that the pair will thrive (or otherwise). At a certain historical moment, this was all the difference in the world: the dawning of the bourgeois epoch did humanity a service by replacing the fixed relations of subservience of feudalism by the ideology of openness to all the talents. With the stabilisation of capitalist class rule, the meritocratic ideal became merely apologetic.
To side with the Sussexes against the Firm is to side with the secret monarchism of ‘republican’ capitalism and with the open monarchism of Tory capitalism. Beneath the phenomena of apology, both do the same work: they mystify the domination inherent in our society, and pre-emptively justify its defence to the death.