Learn from Oliver Cromwell

With Charles III, no fundamental change to the monarchy will be delivered from above, writes Eddie Ford. The institution serves capitalism wonderfully as part of its system of checks and balances against democracy

Painfully, the official mourning for the late Queen Elizabeth II drones on with grief being more or less compulsory - never forget your black tie, BBC presenters. You are meant to feel loss at the sight of Prince William and Prince Harry walking together behind Elizabeth’s coffin in a procession to Westminster Hall.

Anyone who dares step out of line is subject to a sort of moral terrorism. Trevor Sinclair, the sports pundit, the novelist Will Self, a few masked republicans holding aloft blank placards, Jeremy Corbyn, have all been the subject of a hate campaign conducted by the Mail and Telegraph - the latter for “snubbing” the Privy Council ceremony proclaiming Charles III.

But, as you wipe the tears from your eye, just ask the question - will it make any difference if Charles Windsor is the monarch instead of Elizabeth Windsor? The fairly obvious reply is no. We are not going to see any fundamental changes whatsoever in the way we are ruled over - merely superficial differences. Yes, we will start to see a new look to our banknotes, coins and stamps. The words of the national anthem will now read, ‘God save the king’ - should not be too difficult to learn. Of course, the names of various regiments will be altered. But will there be anything more than that?

Alas, anyone who has any such expectation will be very disappointed - or delighted, depending on their political outlook. The death of Elizabeth Windsor will not bring us to the threshold of a republic, or even close to it, or see society making a radical shift to the left. We in the CPGB never bought into this idea, which had been circulating for a while in some circles, based on the monarchical cult of the individual rather than a sober analysis. Instead, as Marxists, we need to separate the concept of the monarch as an individual named - Elizabeth Windsor who died at her beloved Balmoral aged 96, or Charles Windsor who got two A-levels before going to Cambridge and serving in the armed forces from 1971 to 1976 - from the monarchy as an institution. While monarchs have a certain amount of political power, in reality it is trivial nowadays - somebody else makes the big decisions and it has been that way for a long time.

For example, let us flag up a theoretical possibility. In 1990, king Baudouin of Belgium refused to sign into law a bill that liberalised the abortion laws, as he was a devout Catholic. At Baudouin’s own request, the government suspended him as head of state for a day, enabling prime minister Wilfried Martens to sign off the legislation and then ask parliament to restore the 59-year-old monarch as constitutional head of state. Funnily enough though, society did not collapse.

At a push, you can just about imagine something like this happening under our new King Charles III. For a highly exaggerated version of the ‘Belgian scenario’, in 2014 there was a play in blank verse at the West End called King Charles III by Mike Bartlett. The basic concept of the play is that the king is facing an authoritarian government that wants to pass a bill severely restricting press freedom. Our imaginary King Charles III objects and will not sign the act into law, therefore triggering a crisis (as a sub-plot, both Charles and Prince William have seen the ghost of Princess Diana promising each man that he will become “the greatest king of all”). Given the man’s family background and prejudices, it almost goes without saying that this is a daft inversion of reality. Rather than being a stalwart defender of free speech, the real King Charles III is a thorough-going reactionary.

If in any doubts about his anti-democratic outlook, read his co-authored 2010 book, Harmony: a new way of looking at our world. He actually begins the book by calling for a revolution, as “the Earth is under threat”, because “it is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen”. Our new king wants a revolution against everything that has been accepted for the last 200 years, which sounds pretty radical. Part of that, yes, is about the ecological crisis. But what Charles really rejects is any notion of the enlightenment and democracy. He stands for some form of feudalism, where everyone supposedly knew their place, and everyone was in their place. Naturally, it is the job of those at the top of society to look after the less well-off - noblesse oblige demands nothing less. But it was their birthright to be at the top of society, no question. That is the sort of society that this particular individual dreams of.

Emphasising the point again, we need to distinguish between the individual who could potentially refuse to sign some piece of legislation and the living reality that the monarchy exists as an integral part of the constitutional system. Hence we need to think about the monarchy not - as so many on the left do - as an antiquated feudal relic that can be easily discarded.


What we are dealing with, when it comes to the British monarchy, and most of the other monarchies in Europe, is a constantly reinvented monarchy that is fit for capitalism - not mere pomp and circumstance. The role of the monarchy is not simply to provide a glittering façade, a focus for national loyalty - even though that is an obvious function - it exists at a more fundamental level as part of the capitalist state’s many checks and balances against democracy. In other words, it is not a question of the tastes and prejudices of a particular individual, but rather the ability of the establishment as a whole to use the monarchy - like the monarch having the role of calling someone from parliament to form a government. For example, though it does have a science-fictional element, we kept hammering home the truth that if something very strange had happened in December 2019 and we had ended up with Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour to a commanding majority in the House of Commons - then what do you think would have happened? Unless there was revolutionary turmoil in society, the Privy Council would have urged Elizabeth Windsor to call somebody else to form that government. Someone like Keir Starmer, on the basis that he could command a majority among MPs (the Labour right had already voted their no-confidence in Corbyn).

But it goes further than that, as we have consistently argued. Imagine if for one reason or another, Jeremy Corbyn had actually been called to Buckingham Palace and formed a government - stretching credibility, I know, but stay with it. When he was elected opposition leader, we were in the midst of all sorts of swirling rumours - not only from former heads of the intelligence services, but serving generals - that they would not obey orders from him. One of these serving generals told The Sunday Times that “the army just wouldn’t stand for it”, because “they would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul, to prevent that”. He was particularly “disgusted” by the comments of Corbyn and John McDonnell about the IRA. After all, the general concludes, “you can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security”. It is worth remembering that the armed forces swear loyalty to the monarch, not the constitution or parliament. In short, what we have here is yet another check and balance against democracy that is embodied in the institution of the crown - that vigilantly guards the system when faced with any disturbance or danger - even the inveterate peacenik, Jeremy Corbyn.

As the Prince of Wales, Charles Windsor was known for promoting his often esoteric causes with ministers and allowing his opinions to become known - whether over architecture and planning, agriculture, education, the arts, and most recently his distaste for the government’s plan to send illegal immigrants to Rwanda. Four years ago, in an interview for the BBC, he made clear that he would behave differently as monarch. Something he reinforced in a formal address to the nation on September 9, speaking for the first time as the king: “My life will, of course, change, as I take up my new responsibilities. It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.” From now on, his first and foremost obligation would be to “uphold the constitutional principles at the heart of our nation”. The monarchy would carry on as before, with the establishment and its tame media working overtime to make that the case.

When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, it was seen as the supposed birth of the second Elizabethan age. Of course, that was when Britain was committed to a social democratic settlement - by 1953 the Tories led by Winston Churchill were just as committed as Labour, at least in their rhetoric, to the national health service, building council houses, full employment, and so on. All of that was the political consensus of the times. At this juncture, however, the media will not be proclaiming a new glorious Carolean age - King Charles III is 73 and a malfunctioning Britain is not going to be reinvented in his image. The very idea is absurd.

Our hope lies not in Charles III being a bad king. A hopeless perspective. No, we need to single-mindedly build the organisational and political strength of the working class at the highest level: when all is said and done that means a mass Communist Party and a programmatic commitment to a federal republic and extreme democracy.

Towards that end, to take our cue from Trotsky, we can learn incomparably more from Oliver Cromwell, the leader of England’s bourgeois revolution, than from Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Mick Lynch, Caroline Lucas, Owen Jones, Ash Sarkar and other such platonic republicans. Cromwell smashed the resistance of the royalist Cavaliers and oversaw the tribunal which pronounced Charles I a tyrant and had his head severed from his shoulders before thousands of spectators in front of the Banqueting Hall of his own palace.

Cromwell was a great revolutionary of his time who knew how to uphold the interests of his class without holding anything back. This must be learnt from him. The dead lion of the 17th century is, in this sense, immeasurably greater than many living dogs.