Much ado about nothing?

Eddie Ford surveys leftwing coverage of the death, mass outpouring and funeral of Elizabeth Windsor, and finds some more lacking than others

Following the death of Elizabeth Windsor, the establishment and its media mobilised millions - whether lining the streets to watch the funeral procession go by or filing past the ex-monarch’s coffin, as she lay in state. Many people were prepared to queue for over 24 hours to say their final goodbye. More than 28 million people in the UK watched the funeral on TV (though admittedly fewer than the 31 million who watched England’s Euro 2020 final defeat against Italy). Hundreds of heads of state arrived in Britain. No decisions have been made yet over King Charles III’s coronation, but it is likely to be in spring or summer next year. You can guarantee that very large numbers will be mobilised for that occasion as well.

Therefore, given the obvious magnitude of the event, it is more than worthwhile to examine the left’s attitude towards the royal death and the question of the monarchy in general. Sadly, the results reveal that the left as a whole consistently fails to grasp the real significance of the constitutional monarchy and the vital importance of high politics.

Firstly there is Momentum, established by Jon Lansman and other leading supporters of Jeremy Corbyn when he was first elected Labour leader. It used to be a sizeable organisation of 30,000 or so - surely its senior figures would be able to provide some sort of insight into the phenomenon we have just witnessed. Actually, there was nothing on its website - no press statements or any discussion about the death of the head of state. As if nothing had happened, Momentum seems only concerned with the Labour Party conference, starting at the end of this week.

However, on the evening of September 18, supporters of Momentum received an email stating: “Bored of the wall-to-wall TV coverage? Tired of the royal-worship? Read our op-ed” - directing you to a September 19 article in The Independent “on why we should abolish the monarchy”. This was written by Sonali Bhattacharyya, a member of the organisation’s national executive.1 The article does actually call for an end to the monarchy and emphasises that “democracy matters” - rightly complaining that parliament has been adjourned and Keir Starmer’s wretched edict that the only media-related activity that Labour MPs can perform is paying tribute to the late monarch in their local paper. But the entire argument for abolishing the monarchy is framed within the liberalistic narrative of “building a fairer society”, hence she grumbles extensively about the fact that Charles III will pay no inheritance tax, does not have to comply with legislation on workers’ rights, has just made dozens of his staff redundant, and so on. Yet Bhattacharyya, unfortunately, completely leaves out the constitutional role of the monarchy in defending the bourgeois state and the wider interests of capitalism. Momentum’s republicanism is hollowed out and ultimately safe.

The same goes for an article in Tribune online, ‘Royal pageantry can’t disguise that Britain is broken’.2 The entire piece is basically about someone’s rather boring personal journey to “where I am as someone who thinks there is no place for a monarchy in the modern world”. For the author, who is “not a monster”, the “monarchy, the pinnacle of the British establishment and class system, directly conflicts with my wish to end privatisation, concentrated land ownership, and intolerably unequal wealth distribution” - concluding that “until the British class system is truly abolished, we will never be able to tackle inequality and achieve true social justice”. Of course, there are strong elements of truth here - it would be strange to say otherwise. But our Tribune friend has no real grasp of the monarchy’s role in providing all manner of anti-democratic barriers, cohering the state apparatus, especially in times of crisis, and thus correspondingly the need to fight for republicanism and extreme democracy in the here and now.

When it comes to the near moribund Labour Representation Committee, it seems to have decided that it is too early to make a comment - there has been nothing on its Red Lines TV - the fortnightly video replacement for its print journal, Labour Briefing. One of the co-presenters of RL TV, Jackie Walker, when it was suggested that there should be a session on the monarchy at the ‘Beyond the fringe’ event running alongside the Labour conference in Liverpool, objected. Why? The monarchy is apparently an “irrelevance” and it would be a waste of time talking about it. To put it mildly, the recent outpouring disproves that silly notion. Then there are unions like Aslef, the RMT and CWU calling off strikes out of ‘respect’ for the dead monarch. Does that make the monarchy irrelevant? Obviously, not.

What about the so-called group of ‘left’ MPs, the Socialist Campaign Group? So far all we have had is a deathly silence. Individual members have issued the same sort of message as Sir Keir - we are so sorry, mourn with the nation, etc, etc. Clive Lewis was the notable exception, with his comment about the idea of monarchy as symbol of duty or sacrifice being “a lie” - three cheers for Clive. The rest of them are contemptible. But we have to ask - why is the LRC so remarkably silent on this question (could it have anything to do with not embarrassing its president, John McDonnell?)


Socialist Worker has ‘Abolish the monarchy’ plastered all over its front page, which is good. However, the coverage is primarily concerned with the complaint that the royals are filthy rich and that Charles Windsor is now a billionaire - no inheritance tax to pay. The paper is also keen to tell us that the monarchy is covered in blood. The British empire was certainly responsible for all manner of horrors like the capitalist trade in black skins. Yes, in terms of the history of this family - the Windsors, the Sax-Coburgs, the Hanoverians - it is a story of bloodshed.

But all this is to fundamentally miss the point. It ignores the contemporary political role of the monarchy, not least the fact that it can mobilise very large numbers, as we have just seen. It is nothing to do with the popularity or unpopularity of this or that individual: it is the nature of the institution itself that we communists object to. The fact that the army swears loyalty to the monarch, not elected representatives. We can go down the structure of the British state and the same will apply - the monarch can dissolve parliament or appoint a prime minister. Socialist Worker has the right spirit with its militant anti-monarchism, but it does not understand why we need to abolish the monarchy.

Therefore it was quite a pleasant surprise to read a double page in The Socialist by Hannah Sell, the general secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales (‘No basis for “national unity” - fight continues against cost-of-living squeeze’). Her article was not at all bad, because she gets the constitutional role of the monarchy - far from being “a harmless leftover of a previous age”, it is “in fact still part of the capitalist state machine, ultimately in place to defend the interests of capitalism”. She writes about the monarch’s powers to sack or appoint a prime minister, the role of the army and secret services - all spot on. But things start to fall apart when talking about a party that “should call for the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords”.

As most readers know, SPEW is committed to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - an umbrella group founded with the support of the RMT in 2010, that has involved other unions and sections of the left at various times. If you look at Tusc’s platform, it is overwhelmingly about economics (wages and conditions). Tusc steers clear of high politics, questions such as the US proxy war in Ukraine, abolishing the monarchy, counterposing the standing army to a popular militia. Instead it sticks to bread-and-butter issues.

This is totally wrongheaded, because the ruling class and its politicians do not limit themselves to bread-and-butter issues, but, on the contrary, also operate at the level of high politics - international and constitutional politics - and therefore can easily introduce the Ukraine war into any election. If we have not already won the argument over the question, then they will remorselessly attack us as being agents of Putin, dupes of the Kremlin. Similarly, if we have not won the monarchy argument, they can directly challenge us - are you loyal to this great British institution? None of these questions can be avoided and the ruling class will ensure that you definitely cannot avoid them - you need to have answers.

Finally, mention must be made of the Morning Star and its Communist Party of Britain, which has featured plenty of articles about the monarchy. Over the years, it has had quite an endearing policy of covering royal events with a quarter of an inch along the lines of - ‘Travel was disrupted in London yesterday because of a marriage between two people’. But, while such an approach had an amusing side, it was clearly inadequate when it comes to educating readers about the nature of the state and the role of monarchy.

This time round, the Star did much better. It produced a reasonable variety of articles trying to get to grips with the monarchy. Again, however - like the Hannah Sell article - the CPB falls down when it comes to practice. One of the big campaigns that the CPB has been conducting recently has been around the issue of what it calls “progressive federalism”. Basically, it advocates more powers for the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, and some sort of autonomy for Cornwall. But what it leaves out - the significant silence - is the entire question of the monarchy. This means that in reality it is campaigning for a federal monarchy, which is sort of what we have got now. In other words, the CPB is proposing a tinkering with the existing constitutional arrangement - mainly in the belief that the call for “progressive federalism” will be a weapon against the Scottish National Party and its agitation for a second referendum on independence.

The CPB wants to add a second question to the ballot paper in such a referendum - or what it describes as a “third option” between the status quo and independence.3 That is, do you want the status quo, independence or “progressive federalism”? But it is unlikely that the SNP will get its referendum and obviously the CPB will not get its question on the ballot paper. In essence, it wants to retain the unity of United Kingdom, whilst the SNP wants an independent Scotland that keeps the English monarch as its head of state.

We in the CPGB, on the other hand, are in favour of the unity of the working class in the fight for a federal republic. Why federal? Because we recognise the existence of a national question in Scotland, Wales and especially in Ireland - we stand for a united Ireland. But we are committed to overthrowing the existing constitution, not tinkering around with it.


  1. independent.co.uk/voices/king-charles-abolish-monarchy-inequality-b2169737.html.↩︎

  2. tribunemag.co.uk/2022/09/royal-family-queen-death-king-charles-cost-of-living-crisis.↩︎

  3. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/progressive-federalism-is-scotland-third-option.↩︎