Jubilee versus democracy

Much of the left fails to take the monarchy seriously. But Eddie Ford reminds the SWP of the shameful moment when it voted against republicanism in Respect so as not to alienate royalists

Over the last week we have had wall-to-wall monarchy, forcing staunch republicans to rush to the ‘off’ button on the TV or radio far too often than is good for their mental health. The four-day Platinum Jubilee bank holiday was to mark the 70th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, with fifteen and a half hours of live coverage from the impeccably royalist BBC - punctuated by documentaries and ‘specials’ about stuff we have seen countless times before.

There was, of course, the Platinum Party at the Palace concert that had a peak viewing figure of 13.3 million. In addition, there were very many local events such as church services, street parties, and so on - though it did depend on where you lived. There was very little trace of the jubilee in Liverpool, for instance.

Nonetheless, it would be foolish indeed to dismiss the popularity of the monarchy and its strong hold over the popular imagination. For those who remember the 1977 Silver Jubilee, there was some sort of republican sentiment and protest back then - the whole nonsense did not go completely unchallenged. But fast-forward to 2022 and there was no discernible republican activity - everybody appeared to be happily sipping the royalist Kool-Aid. In its internal bulletin, Party Notes, the Socialist Workers Party says that the best thing republicans can do is go off with your friends and family to the park and have a picnic - not exactly a militant stand against the dominant narrative.

We have long argued against the profoundly wrong notion quite common on the left that somehow over time - with a new younger generation or whatever - we will inevitably see a decline in the popularity of the monarchy and eventually its demise. Delusional thinking. No doubt true that if you talk to younger people they will tend on average to be either indifferent or hostile to the monarchy. Nonetheless, the thing about young people is that they do have an unfortunate habit of getting older and the tendency is for them to get drawn into the dominant ethos.

Another widespread, but mistaken, idea on the left is that, once Elizabeth II does her inevitable thing and dies, then Charles III will be far less popular, if not actively unpopular. Then we will have our chance and the monarchy will itself be facing its demise too. Hence we read Simon Basketter in Socialist Worker: “That we have been inundated with royalist propaganda is not a sign of the strength of the monarchy, but of its weakness. It’s an ailing industry … there will be a crisis when she dies”. This argument is completely unconvincing. What makes Elizabeth Windsor popular is not her wit and charm, her charismatic personality. No, she is stiff, sour and dull. Here only genuine interests seem to be corgis, race horses and getting her disgraced second son out of trouble. What endears her to the population is the press, TV, radio and the whole carefully crafted panoply of military parades, gold encrusted church services, deference, honours and medals. There is every reason to think that this will continue under Charles III, albeit in a suitably modified form (eg, expect the monarchy to be slimmed down).

Yes, it is quite right to say we have a constantly made and remade cult of monarchy. In the 1983 collection of essays, The invention of tradition, David Cannadine usefully points out that, if you go back before Victorian times, what we take for granted now in terms of the “great and splendid monarchy”, largely did not exist.1 In other words, this cult is not something that goes back uninterruptedly to 1066 or even Georgian times. And the modern monarchy that was invented in the 19th century, with the fusing of the crown with the British empire, the crowning of Victoria Empress of India, the ever extended royal family, the great occasions attended by prime ministers from the Dominions and resplendent ranks of colonial troops, was reinvented with World War I - as the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha became the very British sounding House of Windsor - and was reinvented yet again after 1952 as the empire rapidly dissolved and was replaced by the altogether more insubstantial Commonwealth.

Left and Labour

It is worthwhile touching upon what the SWP has to say. Its central slogan is ‘Stuff the jubilee’, and Socialist Worker talks happily about “platinum parasites” and suchlike. Communists would, of course, go along with these sentiments. However, we should never allow the comrades to forget what happened when they - along with George Galloway and Alan Thornett’s Socialist Resistance - were leading the organisation called Respect, which also included the Muslim Association of Britain (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood).

The name ‘Respect’ was derived from the initials of Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community and Trade Unionism. We, in the CPGB, wanted to replace ‘Respect’ in Respect with ‘Republicanism’, but to their eternal shame the SWP-led majority voted down the proposal.

Why? The SWP’s chosen speakers objected - on the grounds that republicanism would put off royalists! As we pointed out at the time: yes, in the same way that advocating socialism will put off anti-socialists. Now we hear that “socialists oppose the monarchy”, so presumably the SWP does stand for its abolition after all. But in those days the SWP voted against republicanism. True, that was under the leadership of John Rees - but no-one in the SWP ranks rebelled or protested. They all did as they were told and raised their hands.

There is also the story in Socialist Worker about the monarchy being very expensive. Then again, amongst the vast crowds that recently gathered outside Buckingham Palace, there were no doubt a large number of tourists bringing lots of money into Britain. I do not know whether on balance the monarchy is a money-loser or money-winner, but my guess would be that it is the latter. However, as Rosa Luxemburg insisted, we stand against the monarchy not on the basis of cost, but as a matter of principle and, even more fundamentally, on the basis of democracy. We are not just talking about the fact that when Elizabeth Windsor dies, Charles will automatically become head of state. Something never elaborated in Socialist Worker is that the monarchy in Britain possesses substantial reserve powers.

As we have explained on countless occasions, the idea that Jeremy Corbyn was ever going to be allowed to lead a Labour government in 2017 or 2019 was pure fantasy. Not least because it is the monarch that decides, albeit after taking advice from the Privy Council, about who to call to the palace to form a government - that is, the person who can command a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. By definition, that ruled out Corbyn. But just imagine for a moment if JC had actually been in a position where the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party actually supported him as prime minister - which admittedly stretches credibility to breaking point: we would still be in a situation where the army swears loyalty to the monarch, not to the government or constitution. To all intents and purposes a legal coup can be carried out through that institution. It needs to be understood that we have a parliamentary democracy based on the crown in parliament.

Indeed, it is worth remembering that, when the platonic republican, Jeremy Corbyn, attended his first ceremonial event in 2015 after being elected Labour leader, the press made a big fuss about how he remained silent during the national anthem at the Battle of Britain memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral.2 Typically Sir Nicholas Soames complained that Corbyn was being “very rude and very disrespectful’’ and “needs to make his mind up whether he is a grown-up or not”. Nigel Farage chipped in by describing Corbyn as a “hardcore republican to his fingertips” - yet more fantasy. But for communists the real significance of the event was the fact that he was there at all - dutifully participating in the ceremony. The last Labour manifesto his team produced was not republican, but royalist - merely saying that Labour would look into the question. How pathetic.

And look at who replaced Corbyn - yes, Sir Keir Starmer. Under his leadership, we have had a series of fawning statements over the last week emphasising that Labour is a patriotic and royalist party that defends precious British institutions - if not the “true party” of patriotism and British values. Sir Keir himself wrote an article in The Daily Telegraph, the main ‘serious’ Tory paper in Britain, saying that it was people’s duty to support the jubilee celebrations, as Britain “is a better country thanks to the queen”.

When a few people in the crowd outside St Paul’s cathedral booed Boris Johnson as he went up the steps with his wife, this gave Labour an opportunity to parade its pro-establishment credentials. Writing in The Observer, Lucy Powell, the shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, said the incident shows that people no longer see the prime minister as having the “standards necessary to lead the country” - no wonder he is so unpopular.

Straight from the Blue Labour crib sheet.


  1. EJ Hobsbawm and T Ranger (eds) The invention of tradition Cambridge 2012, p119.↩︎

  2. theguardian.com/politics/2015/sep/15/jeremy-corbyn-silent-during-national-anthem-battle-of-britain-service.↩︎