Take inspiration from Cromwell
Enough of platonic republicanism, enough of fickle republicanism, enough of egg-throwing republicanism, says Jack Conrad . We need a militant fight for republican democracy
Generally it is agreed that the total cost for the May 6 jamboree will be a staggering £100 million (plus £150 million for police and protection squads1) - a huge increase in real terms compared with 1953, when Elizabeth Windsor was crowned. This has been the cause of much complaint by the economistic left, small-state libertarians and liberal anti-monarchists alike, not least the Republic campaign group: the coronation is branded a “pointless piece of theatre” and a “slap in the face” for people struggling with the cost of living crisis.2
Of course, for communists the question of costs is entirely secondary. What matters for us is our principled objection to monarchy and monarchism. However, for the British ruling class it is an entirely different matter. The coronation of Charles and Camilla is taxpayers’ money well spent.
Not only will the great and the good take their seats in Westminster Abbey and bask in their success and self-importance. Millions - and not only from the UK - will line the route, watch the spectacle on TV, put up bunting and attend concerts and street parties. Hardcore royalists will, surely, go along with Justin Welby’s badly judged and widely mocked innovation: after the archbishop cries “God save the King”, true subjects will be asked to reply: “God save King Charles, long live King Charles, may the King live for ever.”
Whether Charles Windsor lives forever is doubtful. He is 74 and appears to be in good health.
If he is lucky he has a couple of decades more in him. But the life expectancy of this monarch is beside the point. What Welby is really asking his god for is that the monarchy as an institution lives forever.
There are those on the left who take comfort from the notion that somehow, over time - with generational replacement - we will inevitably see a decline in the popularity of the monarchy and eventually its demise. Certainly, younger people are less likely than their parents and grandparents to say that the monarchy is ‘very important’: 14% of under-35s took this view in 2021, compared with 44% of those aged 55 and over. 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. Note, according to the National Centre of Social Research, when it comes to the monarchy the gap between the young and not so young is much as it was in 1994.3
Another similarly comforting delusion is that the death of Elizabeth Windsor would bring us to the threshold of a thoroughly modern bourgeois republic (an updated version of the Tom Nairn-Perry Anderson thesis promoted by New Left Review back in the 1970s). Hence we had Simon Basketter and Sophie Squire, writing in Socialist Worker at the time of Elizabeth Windsor’s jubilee: “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”.4 Well she’s dead now, yet we still await the crisis.
Either way, the underlying thesis is that the stiff, unpleasant, narrow-minded Elizabeth Windsor was widely popular, but because Charles Windsor is stiff, unpleasant and narrow-minded he will become widely unpopular. This is the cockeyed logic that, in effect, informed Jeremy Corbyn’s two ‘socialist’ general election manifestos in 2017 and 2019. The result is a thoroughly platonic, cowardly, put if off till tomorrow republicanism, which completely fails to appreciate the political, the constitutional, importance of the monarchy.
The argument is obviously stupid. What made Elizabeth Windsor widely popular was the press, TV, radio and the carefully choreographed round of royal receptions, military parades, tree plantings, openings, garden parties and Church of England services. That and the whole cult of deference, honours and gongs. As an individual Elizabeth Windsor was a typical product of the inter-war high aristocracy. Home educated and never having had a proper job, her only genuine interests seem to have been corgis, race horses and getting her disgraced second son out of trouble.
Despite inevitable wobbles and bumps, there is every reason to believe that The Firm will continue to play its allotted role under Charles III … because it is in the interests of the ruling class. Walter Bagehot explained long, long ago - in 1867, to be precise - that the use of the monarchy “in a dignified capacity” is of “incalculable” value for the state. He even argued that without the monarchy the government would “fail and pass away”. An obvious nonsense, brought about by ongoing fears of government “by the many people” - the spectre of Chartism still haunted official Britain.5
Bagehot warned that a “political combination of the lower classes, as such for their own objects, is an evil of the first magnitude; that a permanent combination of some of them would make them … supreme in the country”.6 That outcome could, thankfully, be avoided if the “higher classes” acted with the “greatest wisdom” and, on the one hand, made substantial concessions and, on the other hand, cultivated the arts of deception.
People, are, according to Bagehot, “ruled by their imaginations” or, more accurately, by the “weakness of their imaginations”. The intricacies of constitutional law, parliamentary language and procedure, votes on motions, amendments and bills, the jockeyings of rival ministers, the horse trading done by rival political parties, the cynical manufacturing of public opinion - all are complex matters beyond the ken of simple minds. But, with the help and encouragement of the “higher classes”, the naive and gullible “lower classes” can be persuaded to, firstly, vote for their masters, and, secondly, to identify with a single person, a figurehead, a presidential prime minister, a monarchical president or - best of all - a constitutional monarch who stands above trifling party disputes and embodies majesty, country, stability and inspires awe.
However, there is more to the monarchy than the supposed “weakness” of the popular imagination. The monarch is one of those whom Robert Lowe, the Whig MP, called, “safeguards against democracy” that were put in place during the much resisted rise of universal suffrage during the 19th century and well into the 20th century.7 That is how to understand other such constitutional inventions: prime ministerial-dominated cabinet government, the professional civil service, the centralised police force, MI5, the state-controlled education system, single-member parliamentary constituencies, the bureaucratisation of the labour movement, etc, etc.
Imagine, for a moment - though it is a tall order - that something very strange happened in December 2019 and Jeremy Corbyn led Labour to a stunning majority in the House of Commons. What would have happened next? Unless there was an almost complete cull of sitting Labour MPs, and maybe a revolutionary situation gripping the country, the Privy Council would have advised Elizabeth Windsor to call somebody else to form a government. Someone trustworthy like Sir Keir Starmer, on the basis that he could command a majority among MPs (after all in June 2016 the Parliamentary Labour Party voted by 172:40 against a confidence motion in Corbyn).
So, now imagine, just for the sake of the argument, that there were 350 Labour MPs after the December 2019 general election and that they were Corbynistas one and all. Jeremy Corbyn is then called to Buckingham Palace and asked to form a government. But what next? It will be pushback time. The Americans arrange a run on the pound, there is a flight of capital and prices rocket. Mass strikes demanding compensating pay rises follow. Rubbish piles up in the streets, there are power cuts, even the dead go unburied. Bomb explosions rip through crowded night clubs in London, Manchester and Leeds. Dozens are killed. Muslim terrorism is blamed by the media. Riots break out with the heavy involvement of the far right. There are rumours of an army-MI5-royal cabal readying to restore sanity and rescue the nation from chaos. Much to his shock and horror, Jeremy Corbyn finds himself under arrest. Elizabeth II, using the royal prerogative, proclaims a state of emergency and promises fresh elections after law and order has been restored.
Not a complete fantasy. There were whispers in 1968 of Louis Mountbatten - great uncle of Charles - being involved in a conspiracy, along with Lord Cecil King, Hugh Cudlipp and Sir Solly Zuckerman, to oust the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson. King wrote a Daily Mirror front page calling for extra-parliamentary action. In Wilson’s place there would be a government of ‘experts’, headed by Mountbatten. Similar plot stories resurfaced in 1974. The army briefly occupied Heathrow Airport - taken by Wilson as a “show of strength” or a “warning”.8 All background for Chris Mullin’s novel A very British coup (1982).
Even when Corbyn was first elected Labour leader, there were all manner of threats - not only from former heads of the intelligence services, but serving generals too. One of them told The Sunday Times that “the army just wouldn’t stand for it” - “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”. The general concluded: “… you can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security”.9
It should never be forgotten that the armed forces swear loyalty to the monarch, not the government, and they would have acted, if needed, to ‘save the country’ from an inveterate peacemonger such as Jeremy Corbyn.
Besides the threats there was, though, the attempt to tame. When he attended his first ceremonial event after being elected Labour leader, the press made a big fuss about how Corbyn remained silent during the singing of the national anthem at the Battle of Britain memorial service at St Paul’s. 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” - obvious nonsense. But the real significance of the event was the fact that Jeremy Corbyn was there at all - dutifully participating in the royal-church-state ritual.
That he ended up joining the Privy Council, swearing loyalty to Queen Elizabeth II and her “heirs and successors” and urging on the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt shows just how successful the establishment was in domesticating Corbyn. Not that this has stopped Sir Keir from casting this pathetic little figure out into the wilderness.
There are plenty of other platonic republicans in the Corbyn mould: John McDonnell, Ash Sarkar, Owen Jones, Robert Griffiths and Diane Abbott come to mind. All would loyally serve capitalism, if only asked.
Without doubt, the monarchy is constantly made and remade. In the 1983 collection of essays, The invention of tradition, David Canadine 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.10 In other words, The Firm is not something that goes back uninterruptedly to 1066 or even Georgian times. The modern monarchy was invented in the 19th century, with the fusing of the throne 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. Then reinvented with World War I, as the house of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha became the very British sounding house of Windsor. Then reinvented yet again after 1952, as the empire rapidly dissolved and was replaced by the altogether more insubstantial Commonwealth.
Charles III - in close cooperation with Justin Welby - is likewise doing a bit of reinvention in order to appeal to contemporary Britain. Hence the involvement of women bishops, the verses sung in Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Irish Gaelic, the blessings from Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Free Church of Scotland clerics and the role of Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh and Hindu “neighbours in faith”.
An essentially Victorian coronation ceremony thereby mixes modern technology and current ruling class sensibilities with cod borrowings from medieval Catholicism and ancient Judaism. Yet, significantly, though everything else will be filmed in glorious colour, the re-enacting of Solomon being anointed by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet happens behind a richly decorated screen (the man is ‘converted’ into a monarch). This secret moment lies at the very heart of the coronation and probably has its source in deep pre-history, original communism, women’s magic and how girls are ‘converted’ into women with their menarche - their first period (such was their ritual power, they were secluded from men).11
After his transmutation, Charles returns as a new man, and, along with Camilla, is draped in ermine trimmed robes. Each has a diamond, ruby, sapphire and pearl-encrusted crown placed on their head and they are handed their orb and sceptre power symbols. Camilla will not, of course, wear the Crown of Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, with at its centre the fabulous Koh-i-Noor diamond - it is too controversial nowadays (a painful reminder of foreign conquest, industrial-scale plunder and murderous colonial exploitation). Gifted to Queen Victoria by the East India Company after it annexed the Punjab in 1849, the 105.6-carat jewel has been claimed variously by Iran, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan - so it will remain safely locked away in the Tower of London.
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 government plans to send small-boat migrants to Rwanda.
Five years ago, though, in an interview for the BBC, he made clear that he would behave differently as monarch. Something reinforced in his formal address to the nation and Commonwealth on September 9 2022, when he first became 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”.12
Conceivably, however, Charles Windsor could go off-message. He is known not only for his temper tantrums and furious rages: according to Spare, the memoir authored - with help from JR Moehringer - by Harry Windsor, “Pa was deeply religious - he prayed every night.”13
This takes us to Baudouin in 1990. This king of the Belgians refused to sign into law a bill that liberalised abortion laws. A devout Catholic, at his 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 him as constitutional head of state. Funnily enough, society did not collapse.
At a push, you can just about imagine something like this happening under Charles III. For a British version of the ‘Belgian scenario’, there is the Mike Bartlett’s play King Charles III which transferred to London’s West End in September 2014. The basic concept is that the king is facing an authoritarian government, which gets a bill through parliament that would severely restrict press freedom. Our imaginary Charles III objects and will not sign it into law, therefore triggering a constitutional crisis (as a sub-plot, both Charles and Prince William have seen the ghost of Princess Diana promising each that he will become “the greatest king of all”).
However, given Charles Windsor’s family background and undoubted rightwing prejudices, it almost goes without saying that this is a rather daft inversion of reality. Far from being a defender of free speech, the real man probably would favour double and triple censorship.
If in any doubt his anti-democratic outlook, have a read of his book - co-authored with Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly - Harmony (2010). He begins boldly by declaring: “This is a call for revolution.” Against what? Well, nothing less than “the current orthodoxy and conventional way of thinking - much of it stemming from the 1960s, but with its origins going back over 200 years”.14 A barely concealed call for the counterrevolutionary restoration of feudalism.
Part of that, yes, is about capitalism’s criminal despoilisation of nature. However, Charles also objects to the Enlightenment and anything smacking of genuine democracy. He longs for some form of green feudalism, whereby everyone knows their place, and everyone is 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 is their birthright to be at the top and this is the sort of society that this obnoxious creature actually dreams about after saying his prayers.
Let us return to the Socialist Workers Party. Naturally enough its slogan of the day is ‘Stuff the coronation’. The latest Party notes urges branches to organise meetings using that title (though so far there appears to have been no takers).15 Before that it was ‘Stuff the jubilee’, ‘Stuff the wedding’, etc, etc.
Socialist Worker duly leads with an ‘Off with his head’ front page and tells us all about Charles Windsor’s tax-free £1.815 billion fortune, his Clarence House residence, his real-estate empire, income from the Duchy of Lancashire, his cars, paintings … even his stamp collection. However, Isabel Ringrose ends her two-page feature with the sterling call for Socialist Worker readers to “take inspiration from the protestors who egged their new king last year”.16 Individual terrorism for wimps.
However, we should never allow the SWP to forget about when it was at least trying to be politically serious by standing candidates in elections. Along with allies such as George Galloway, George Monbiot, Ken Loach, Alan Thornett, Salma Yaqoob, Nick Wrack and Yvonne Ridley, the SWP joined with the Muslim Association of Britain - a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood - to establish Respect.
This was a popular front of the unpopular kind, which inevitably dragged the SWP to the right. Nevertheless, we in the CPGB decided to support Respect like ‘the rope supports the hanging man’ - Alex Callinicos denouncing us as “poisonous”.17
Not unexpectedly the MAB vehemently objected to Respect’s pledge to uphold the “right to self-determination of every individual in relation to their ... sexual choices” - a formulation introduced in the aftermath of our polemical broadsides against SWP top Lindsey German. She notoriously announced at Marxism 2003, the SWP’s annual flagship event, that women’s and gay rights should not be treated as “shibboleths”.18 When we protested about her attempt to appease Islamic conservatism by dumping elementary principles, the SWP leadership set its goons on our comrades to surround, threaten and snatch leaflets.
It was the same over the monarchy. The name ‘Respect’ stood for ‘Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community and Trade Unionism’. In the spirit of ‘the rope supporting the hanged man’, we called for the founding conference in 2004 to change the first ‘R’, from ‘Respect’ to ‘Republicanism’. 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, in the same way, advocating socialism will put off anti-socialists. But, now, of course, with the SWP no longer standing in elections, with it taking inspiration from egg-throwers, we hear that “we need class war that can abolish the monarchy” - even though, back in the days of Respect, the SWP voted against republicanism. True, that was under the leadership of John Rees and Lindsey German - but no-one in the SWP rebelled or protested. They all behaved like sheep and voted as instructed.
When the young Elizabeth Windsor became queen in 1952, it was heralded as the supposed birth of the second Elizabethan era. She was just 25 and, with strong trade unions and a booming economy, official Britain was committed to the post-World War II social democratic settlement - that included Winston Churchill’s Tories. Not least in terms of rhetoric, they claimed to be fully behind the national health service, building council houses, full employment, and so on.
However, at this historic juncture, the new Carolean era looks decidedly inauspicious and dismal. The social democratic consensus has long gone. Brexit Britain is the sick man of Europe. The United Kingdom is wracked by national divisions. The NHS is grossly underfunded, plagued by chronic staff shortages and half-privatised; council housing has been replaced by generation rent and buy-to-let landlords, and full employment by precarious employment.
Our hope lies, though, not in Charles III being a bad king because of bad circumstances - a hopeless perspective. No, we need to do exactly what Walter Bagehot dreaded: combine the “lower class” around “their own objects”. In our Marxist lingo, organise the working class into a mass Communist Party on the basis of a minimum programme of republican democracy and a maximum programme of realising universal human liberation. That “evil of the first magnitude” for the bourgeoisie would indeed make the working class “supreme” … and not only in this little country.
Towards that end, when it comes to the monarchy, we prefer to take inspiration not from egg-throwers, but Oliver Cromwell, the leader of England’s bourgeois revolution. In his splendid essay, Where is Britain going? (1925), Trotsky lambasted the Keir Starmers of his day - Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Not that he spared the Jeremy Corbyns of his day - Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, etc. They too were lambasted for being craven, irresolute and vacillating. Instead Trotsky upheld the example of Cromwell. This “lion of the English revolution” was a “pioneer of the labour movement”, because of his forward thinking, revolutionary boldness and willingness to give his all to the cause.19
Cromwell responded to the royal tyranny of Charles I not by throwing eggs. No, he raised a troop of cavalry in his native Huntingdonshire that soon became a regiment - and then the famous Ironsides, who defeated prince Rupert’s aristocratic Cavaliers in one battle after another. Due to Cromwell, recruits were carefully chosen. Though they tended to come from the middling sort, what marked them out was their ideological commitment to the gospel, parliament and the promise of liberty. Discipline was strict. Swearing and drunkenness forbidden. Officers were chosen on merit, not birth. Something which represented a shocking break with the rigid hierarchies and social norms of his day.
The storm of the civil war split parliament time and again. But what decided matters at the end of the day was not its passing majorities and minorities. No, it was the New Model Army and its Ironsides. Having emerged as leader of the war party, primarily because of his remarkable abilities as a “soldier and military organiser”, Cromwell went on to preside over the tribunal which pronounced the death sentence on Charles I.20
On January 30 1649 the head of this divinely appointed monarch was separated from his shoulders before thousands of spectators gathered in front of the Banqueting Hall - an act of regicide which sent shock waves throughout Europe.
Cromwell was a great revolutionary of his time who knew how to pursue the “objects” of his class without holding anything back. We must learn this from him. The dead lion of the 17th century is of immeasurably greater value to us than all the living sheep of platonic republicanism put together.
Daily Mirror April 29 2023.↩︎
Morning Star April 19 2023.↩︎
Socialist Worker May 28 2022.↩︎
W Bagehot The English constitution London 1974, pp30-31.↩︎
R Lowe Speeches and letters on reform London 1867, p55.↩︎
The Sunday Times September 20 2015.↩︎
E Hobsbawm and T Ranger (eds) The invention of tradition Cambridge 1992, p119.↩︎
See C Knight Blood relations: menstruation and the origins of culture London 1991.↩︎
Prince Harry Spare London 2023.↩︎
HRH Charles, T Juniper and I Skelly Harmony - a new way of looking at our world London 2010.↩︎
Party Notes April 24 2023.↩︎
Socialist Worker May 3 2023.↩︎
J Conrad, ‘Respect and opportunism’ Weekly Worker January 22 2004: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/512/respect-and-opportunism.↩︎
Weekly Worker July 10 2003: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/488/marxism-2003-rees-lays-it-on-the-line.↩︎
L Trotsky Collected writings and speeches on Britain Vol 2, London 1974, p85.↩︎
C Hill God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English revolution Harmondsworth 1975, p61.↩︎