Transform apathy into anger

The death of Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Windsor (nee Bowes-Lyon) has exposed tactical divisions within the ruling class over how to defend and promote the monarchy. In the absence of any mass sentiment of the kind that followed the accident that killed princess Diana in 1998, the establishment has been torn between those who want to pile on the sycophancy and veneration, on the one hand, and those who are more wary of alienating public sympathy by going over the top, on the other. Their disagreement is over how the queen mother's death can best be exploited to consolidate the UK constitutional monarchy. Most of the fire of the traditionalists has been aimed at BBC television, whose coverage was deemed to be insufficiently deferential. Peter Sissons, who broke the news to viewers on March 30, did not wear a black tie and referred to the queen mother as an "old woman" (an accurate enough way of describing a 101-year-old member of the female sex, you might have thought). Running out of things to say, presenters talked of Elizabeth's fondness for gin and Dubonnet, her distress at the various scandals that had rocked the royal family over the last couple of decades and even pondered on the future of the monarchy itself. Leader-writers at the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph were furious. Originally, BBC television had planned to replace all scheduled programmes with wall to wall tributes, eulogies and sombre music. But then in November 2001 Lorraine Heggessey, controller of BBC1, announced that these plans had been reviewed - instead the corporation would "take the temperature" on the day. Thus on Easter Saturday there was only a few hours' interruption to normal viewing. It seems as though Heggessey's temperature-reading advice served well. True, hundreds of people rang in to express their outrage at the 'disrespectful' and low-key coverage, but hundreds of others telephoned the BBC to complain that their favourite shows had been interrupted. This is hardly a manifestation of militant republicanism, but it is a sure sign that the ideological power of the monarchy has weakened. The Sunday Telegraph claimed that the queen mother was "one of Britain's best loved public figures" (March 31). That might be true for addled, flag-waving royalists, the soporific high church, the bowing and scraping political class and those - high and low - who inhabit the imagined commonality of official Britain. But what did she mean to the other Britain, the unofficial Britain which fervently believes in democracy and treating fellow human beings with friendly respect and equality? This Britain appreciates that the Windsor family has lost an aged and infirm member. But this Britain holds that to be a private affair and not something that should be inflicted on the whole nation. Claims that the "dear old queen mum" was "one of the country's hardest working pensioners" are an affront to this Britain. Being patron or president of more than 300 charities does not make you a tireless worker. In fact a very large part of Elizabeth's 'public duties' seemed to consist of going horse-racing. She had 10 racehorses in training at the time of her death and over the years had chalked up no fewer than 461 winners. They did not make her any money, but that was hardly a matter of concern, since she was dripping in wealth. Her collection of paintings alone is said to be worth £36 million, and she had the use of five palatial residences - she owned the Castle of Mey, while Windsor, Clarence House, the Royal Lodge and Birkhall were provided either by the state or the queen. She considered it a gross affront when the state attempted to cut back on her lifestyle during the 1980s, when a concerted effort was being made to reduce the most flagrant excesses of the royal family. Not a modest woman, she insisted she was entitled to a full state funeral, "as befitting her status as the last empress of India". Her image as the 'country's favourite grandmother' was maintained by official Britain by ensuring that we were never allowed to hear her voice (she was 99 when she made her first public speech). A dyed in the wool chauvinist, "she did not care much for any foreign nation", to quote the words of Kenneth Rose - a sympathetic conservative commentator. She mourned the end of the British empire, unable to understand why the number of her subjects had to be reduced. 'To have and to hold' was her motto. In 1936 she famously remarked that the best course of action for the unemployed was to "join the army". Like Arthur Scargill - a figure she no doubt detested - she insisted on referring dismissively to the European Union as the "Common Market" and was said to be a supporter of Ian Smith's racist UDI in what was then Rhodesia. She privately rejoiced in Margaret Thatcher's election victories. Elizabeth was a vehement opponent of German reunification - not out of any fondness for bureaucratic socialism of course, but because she thought that after two imperialist wars Germany ought to be rendered permanently impotent. However, it is not at all clear that her contempt for all things German predated 1939. After all, her brother-in-law, Edward VIII, spent an inordinate amount of time hobnobbing with the Nazis after his abdication, and Hitler was viewed as an anti-communist bulwark by large sections of the British ruling class. It is known that Elizabeth gave a copy of Mein Kampf to Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, commenting that the book showed, as well as Hitler's ignorance, his "obvious sincerity". None of this has stopped the media referring ad nauseum to her supposed courage and leadership - on a par with Winston Churchill's - during the "dark days" of World War II. She continually visited bomb sites in working class areas (although, unlike Mrs Churchill, she refused to wear the "unbecoming" uniform of the Women's Service), and was relieved when Buckingham Palace was itself slightly damaged by a stray bomb - now her subjects would know that she was just as much at risk as they were. In fact the royals spent most nights in Windsor - well away from German targets. And when they were in London they knew that Buckingham Palace was equipped with a well stocked, comfortable and impenetrable air raid shelter. That was not the case for the workers with whom she feigned sympathy. Tube stations were only opened up to the public after a series of militant occupations led by the Communist Party. Similarly with her much vaunted refusal to leave Britain for the safety of Canada. If Britain had fallen under German occupation, there can be little doubt as to how the king and queen, together with the overwhelming majority of the ruling class, would have behaved. Either they would have got out while the going was good or they would have collaborated with those for whom sympathy had previously been openly expressed by many British bourgeois and aristocrats. But the myths have a clear purpose. To shore up the existing United Kingdom state and, behind it, the system of capital itself. The monarchy plays a central role in the nationalist ideology which seeks to unite all classes under an illusory common interest. That is why the death of the queen mother is presented as a serious blow. And why schoolchildren will be forced to watch her funeral on television on April 9. But so far events have been marked by a distinct lack of interest on the part of the broad mass of the population. What a contrast to 1952, when more than 300,000 queued for hours to file past the coffin of George VI, Elizabeth's husband. No wonder the more serious minds in the bourgeois media are questioning the monarchy's health. But what of the left? Will it continue to regard the monarchy and monarchical system - an unelected head of state, an unaccountable judiciary, a standing army sworn to serve Queen Elizabeth II and all her heirs, the MI5-MI6 secret state, the draconian prime ministerial concentration of powers, the House of Lords, the established church, the absence of popular sovereignty, the inability of Scotland and Wales to exercise self-determination etc, etc - as a side issue - unimportant, compared to 'real working class' concerns such as saving jobs, stopping privatisation and defending the NHS. Vital as those questions are, of course, they do not bring into question or challenge the way we are ruled. The establishment will now attempt to regain ground as it prepares for the royal jubilee. We must seize the initiative. The Socialist Alliance has agreed to organise a series of rival republican events where our own, working class, democratic and republican culture is to be celebrated. However, so far preparations have involved only a small minority - the Socialist Workers Party actually opposed the SA taking the lead in any anti-monarchist activity. As SA local election campaigns begin to move into gear, we must ensure that our call for a republic enshrined in People before profit is given the prominence it deserves. Turn the general apathy that has greeted Elizabeth Windsor's death into republican anger. Peter Manson