Death by numbers
Instead of treating the monarchy merely as a quaint feudal relic, the left needs a much sharper critique, argues Paul Demarty
The funeral of Philip Windsor proceeded more or less as expected.
It was half a century ago that Buckingham Palace first started to rebrand its official residents as somehow relatable: for all the gold-leaf and glamour, basically an ‘ordinary family’. But never does the gulf seem so great as on such formal occasions as marriages and funerals. However, the service for the Duke of Edinburgh was a rather different case - reduced by the caution of the day to a mere 30 mourners. In other words, very much within the ball-park of an ‘ordinary’ funeral in ordinary times.
Of course, the immediate aftermath of Philip’s death last weekend generated a short-lived controversy, when some 110,000 people made time to write in to complain to the BBC about its coverage of the death. A few hundred thought it was ‘insufficiently respectful’, which may be narrowly true in the sense that overdone obsequiousness can rather start to flaunt its bad faith. A handful more objected to the very existence of the opportunity to complain - further evidence of the treachery of the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation. But overwhelmingly people were complaining about the inescapability of the grovelling tributes for something like 24 hours immediately after the death. Eventually the complaint form was taken down, to prevent further embarrassment to the Beeb’s new Tory-boy director-general, Tim Davie.
Those numbers - the mere couple of dozen allowed to attend this pandemic-hobbled funeral, and the hundreds of thousands disgusted and enraged by the BBC - led us immediately to wonder about a third figure: how many would actually tune in to watch the funeral itself? In the end, that came out at a reasonable 13.6 million across all channels. That narrowly beats the wedding of the Sussexes (13.1 million), but is rather eclipsed by the death of Philip’s one time daughter-in-law, Diana Spencer (27 million) back in 1997.
Still, not a bad showing for the old boy. The appetite clearly exists for this mourning by proxy; furthermore, the rift between various factions of the family, the standing apart of William and Harry, allows one to squint and imagine it to be a dramatic flash-forward in The crown. When ma’am herself joins her consort in the hereafter, the smart money is on Diana-scale lachrymosity.
Boris Johnson used the occasion to claim that the royal family is what holds the British together. So how good a job are they doing? That is, on the whole, rather hard to judge on the evidence of Philip’s passing. On the face of it, not a terribly good job at all. Many people watched the funeral, as noted, of whom some will be hard-core ‘queen and country’ chauvinists and a great deal more were swept up in the tsunami of news coverage. On the other hand, the 110,000 who complained before further objections were blocked are surely part of the actively riled tip of an iceberg.
The problem with statements like Johnson’s is that they appear as descriptive, but are in fact normative. As descriptions, they are plainly false. There has always been a significant minority of people opposed to the monarchy in this country, but their views are almost entirely unrepresented, thanks to the actually-existing layout of political parties, which is near-universal in its constitutional loyalism. No clearer demonstration of this exists than the brown-nosing attitude in the last two weeks of the notionally republican Jeremy Corbyn. Hence ‘the monarchy brings us together’ is secretly normative - that is, if you are not ‘brought together’ by these great moments of ‘national mourning’, then you are not one of ‘us’.
The death of Philip, and its obnoxious coverage, marks a noticeable uptick in the stridency of this attitude. It coincides with increasingly deranged culture-war politics emanating from the government and even the ‘mainstream’ rightwing press. The hysteria over toppled statues in last year’s anti-racism protests has rolled into closer ideological control of the school curriculum - the upshot is presumably to be a revisionist attitude to British history, in the form of moral equivocation about our country’s role in imperial oppression, slavery and so on. Edward Colston shall be hidden behind William Wilberforce; the massacre of the Sepoy rebellion behind the Raj’s railway-building.
It does not help, of course, that they face such weak opposition in these initiatives. The sentimental anti-racism increasingly dominant on the left, and sharply exposed by the response to the Sewell report a few weeks ago, is simply not a serious reply; the more measured responses of academic historians horrified at this turn are easily buried under the sensational ‘takes’.
As for the monarchy, the left shies away in practice, since it is not currently a major bugbear (except, that is, for short periods like the weekend of Philip’s death, when there is a limited popular backlash). The prevailing opportunist method seeks to build on ideas of ours, roughly speaking, that are popular, and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and make a shibboleth out of divisive questions. Does it really matter if Mr and Mrs Smith of 32 Jubilee Road have a soft spot for the queen, so long as they do not also have one for the government of the day, and support ‘socialist policies’ of one sort or another?
There are several objections to this method, some grander than others. The smallest one is simply a matter of elementary morality: presenting some tiny set of your true beliefs that you know (or think you know) to be popular and concealing the rest is dishonest. Such dishonesty gives Mr and Mrs Smith good reason never to trust you again; but the celebrity-drama of the monarchy is too far off to expose itself to scrutiny in this way. So, tendentially, republican opinions will come to seem shifty and ridiculous.
The second problem has also to do with how things ‘seem’ - which is to say, this is not something wholly or at this point in time even a little bit under our control. It is illusory to suppose that, merely by restricting our activity to promoting apparently popular policies, we will avoid the effective opprobrium of our enemies. Really this idea should have died with the Red Wall. It does not matter how deftly the left skips over questions of national chauvinism, because the whole of the media exists to shove us back on that terrain - where, again, we are shifty and untrustworthy.
Finally there is the most serious question: it really does matter. Our objective as revolutionaries is to overthrow the constitutional power of the capitalist class and in this country that constitutional power is exercised through the monarchy. The monarchy gives the government an executive escape-hatch from parliamentary accountability. That would be enough to demand its overthrow, but the truth is it gives the ‘deep state’ such an escape hatch too.
The deceased duke illustrates this quite nicely, in some ways. His background, in a declining and inbred aristocratic class, saw him choose to side with the British in World War II alone among his family - his sisters were all married off to senior Nazis. It was a good call on his part, but, of course, he married into a family whose history was hardly unblemished by such associations. He barely bothered to conceal his contempt for democracy, telling the dictator of Paraguay, “It’s a pleasure to be in a country that isn’t ruled by its people” on a visit in 1963.
His uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was neck-deep in plots to overthrow the Labour governments of Harold Wilson, who was suspected of being a communist fellow-traveller - but such plots were only plausible because the armed forces, after all, pledge fealty not to the government, but to the crown. The possibility of a Corbyn government more recently brought forth a lot of strategically leaked growls from the same upper-military quarters as Mountbatten represented back then, though he himself was ultimately seen off by the IRA. Steps would have to be taken if such a presumptively disloyal individual as Jeremy got close to the levers of power.
Instead of confronting the power of the crown, the left treats the monarchy as a quaint feudal relic, a sort of ‘culture war’ issue, and one on which it expects defeat (unlike anti-racism, say). However, a more robust critique of the monarchy is a necessary precondition for confronting the organised structure of power as such in this country. The particular character of Philip - the Nazi family, the casual racism, the near-total anonymity in public life - allowed us to get a few jabs in, and exposed a serious audience for anti-monarchical politics.
It will be far harder work when Elizabeth passes on, but it need not be impossible even then - provided we start making republican propaganda now.