Official Britain on parade

Now that the pomp of the royal funeral is finally behind us, we can start to ask what the events of recent days have to tell us about the state of the monarchy and its prospects. One way to begin is to compare the obsequies surrounding the death of Diana Spencer in 1997 with those of her majesty queen Elizabeth the queen mother. Back then, the sense of shock was, of course, palpable. Neither the monarchy nor the media were prepared for such an event. In the first hours and days, the media went absurdly into overdrive, both fuelling and feeding upon a growing hysteria; the court remained silent and impassive - clueless as to quite how they should proceed, they took refuge in the observance of strict protocol, believing, wrongly as it turned out, that this would somehow get them through. Though the death of Diana undoubtedly caused the royal family some personal grief, on one level, even if only subconsciously, it must have been felt as a deliverance. From being merely a gross embarrassment, this self-obsessed, manipulative, dysfunctional and alienated young woman, entirely unsuited for the job of wife to the heir apparent, had begun to be perceived as a real threat to the house of Windsor. Her masterfully orchestrated Panorama interview with Martin Bashir of the BBC, with its accusations and confessions of adultery, marked a nadir in the Windsors' fortunes, but her death was to cause even more trouble. As the divorced wife of the prince of Wales, though remaining - entirely for the sake of her sons - a princess, she had lost the title of 'her royal highness'. In terms of protocol, therefore, she had no right to a royal ceremonial funeral, nor any mark of official mourning. Sensing that the death of Diana, however irrationally, could herald a real crisis for the monarchy-state system, Tony Blair took control of events and on behalf of the ruling class became the official mouthpiece for the nation's grief. Meanwhile, the queen, doubtless accepting the advice of her senior courtiers, decided to continue her traditional late summer holiday at Balmoral. Since the royal standard is only flown to demonstrate the presence of the monarch at one of her residencies and, besides, is never flown at half-mast, the flagpole at Buckingham palace remained bare. Both the queen's absence from London and the seemingly trivial matter of the flag overnight became matters of the utmost importance. By mid-week, the tabloids, again reflecting a surge of emotion from below - from ordinary people - were demanding that the queen should come to the capital and that the flag should be flown at half-mast as a mark of respect. Eventually, she came and, with the duke of Edinburgh, took a photo-call sombrely examining the mountains of bouquets, teddy-bears and other tributes to Diana. The union flag appeared at half-mast over the palace and, in another breach of protocol, her majesty broadcast a brief eulogy to the dead princess. All of this was a direct result of unprecedented and uncontainable pressure from below. Posthumously, Diana had satisfied her thirst for vengeance to the full. But it would surely have been a mistake then, as now, to see the throngs who came out to mourn her in a show of grief, unprecedented since the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817, as in any meaningful sense 'anti-royalist', let alone republican. Nonetheless, for the queen, it must have been a novel and profoundly humiliating experience. Even when the hysteria finally died down, the Windsors were still deeply unpopular, none more so than the prince of Wales, as if the whole thing had become a soap opera - which, in many senses it had - a sort of East Enders with crowns and coronets, in which the viewers eagerly take sides in family arguments. Throughout the period since Diana's death, the court in general and the prince of Wales in particular have been trying desperately to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of the public - their 'subjects'. Yet, as recently as a year ago, opinion polls indicated that more than 30% of the population were in favour of abolishing the monarchy altogether. Then came March 30 2002. At first, as we wrote last week, the death of queen Elizabeth seemed to open up tactical divisions among the ruling class over how to defend and promote the monarchy. Given the public's understandably lukewarm response to the death of princess Margaret in February and many indications that the queen's own golden jubilee looked likely to be a decidedly damp squib, the initial approach was very cautious, a question of 'taking the temperature', as the BBC's top bosses put it. Merely for not wearing a black tie on the day of queen Elizabeth's demise, the hapless BBC newscaster, Peter Sissons, was condemned by the spittle-flecked lips of the Daily Mail as little short of a traitor, but far more viewers phoned in to complain about the length of royal coverage than its brevity. The initial lack of public response, evidenced by the absence of long queues to sign the book of condolence at St James's Palace, led The Mirror to give its April 3 edition the front page headline of "Sorry, Ma'am", with a comment column berating the British people for their abysmal lack of 'respect' and woeful apathy. On the following day, The Sun pitched in with its own take on the story, influenced obviously by Murdoch's top-down republican agenda, declaiming that parliament should not have been recalled and that the "establishment en masse" was "out of kilter with ordinary people". As always, wanting to have its jingoistic cake while eating its republican cake at the same time, the paper stressed that queen Elizabeth's "devotion" to the country should not distract us from the fact that we have reached the end of an era and that it is now "time to reflect on our future", a future in which "Britain should be moving forwards - towards a more democratic nation with a smaller monarchy in the medium term and, if the people will it, no monarchy at all longer term. We should not be going backwards - to an age when we tugged forelocks and dared not question the ruling elite." Hurrah for The Sun, one might say, but for the fact that Murdoch's republican Britain is merely a scheme to ensure the continuation of bourgeois rule by other means than that of a constitutional monarchy - means that offer a pretence of accountability, but ensure that power is kept well out of reach of the people themselves; a far cry indeed from the democracy from below in which the 'unofficial Britain' of the vast masses of the people actually controls its own destiny. Within 24 hours of The Sun's editorial, a reported 400,000 people were on the streets of the capital - not, sadly, to call for a republic, but to witness the pomp and pageantry of queen Elizabeth's move from St James's to Westminster Hall for the lying in state, during which, over the next few days, around 200,000 queued for as long as 12 hours to file past her coffin. On the day of the funeral itself, around a million people lined the route from Westminster Abbey to Windsor castle. The numbers were slightly less than those for Diana or for king George VI in 1952, but there is no point pretending that they lacked significance. Official Britain in the form of the ruling class had got what it wanted, and the rightwing media were cock-a-hoop. Who were the people who formed this mass of humanity? We were told that they represented all ages, backgrounds and races. The media must have interviewed many of them, but all that we saw was a succession of devoted, respectful, 'ordinary' people; nobody was broadcast saying that they were there just for the unique historical spectacle or because they were tourists who had luckily decided to visit the UK at a special time. One suspects that some of them will be back in London soon, having exchanged their funeral garb for the tweeds and stout shoes of the Countryside Alliance, but it is evident that royalism can still mobilise formidable numbers of people. Even before the queen mother was laid to rest, it became clear that the palace had learned some important lessons when it comes to repairing its tarnished image: we had the prince of Wales's obviously sincere tribute in a TV interview; the young princes obliged with a press interview in which they lauded the queen mother's interest in all things new - the old dear was even a fan of Ali G, just like thousands of other Britons; finally, a short broadcast from the queen herself, to thank us all for being so nice. The contrast with 1997 is obvious. More importantly, the palace has signalled that the death of the queen mother now makes it possible to introduce some reforms concerning the nature of the monarchy and the way it is run. Leaks planted in last weekend's papers include the following: amendment of the Act of Settlement and the Royal Marriages Act to abolish male primogeniture and allow all royals, including the monarch to be/marry Roman catholics; a 'scaling-down' of the royal family, including the departure of minor royal parasites, such as the likes of prince and princess Michael of Kent, from Kensington Palace, which would become some kind of national heritage museum; enhancement of the role of the prince of Wales to become 'king-in-waiting'; the effective corporatisation of the royal 'firm', with the lord chamberlain, currently Sir Richard Luce, presenting annual reports, with a stress on the prudence, economy and self-sufficiency of the royal household in terms of finance. Two things we can forget, as anyone who knows the queen could tell you: first, abdication is absolutely out of the question; secondly, the idea of 'bypassing' the prince of Wales and making prince William of Wales the heir apparent is also out of the question. Tampering with the established line of succession in response to public opinion is unthinkable and would seriously weaken the legitimacy of the monarchy. Needless to say, such measures of reform as have been indicated, while effecting some cosmetic, PR-friendly changes, would leave the essential apparatus of 'our' state-monarchy system absolutely unaltered, merely shoring it up in 'modernised' form as the continuing basis of the United Kingdom state and intrinsically the bulwark for the continuation of the system of capital itself. Such changes, no doubt trumpeted by Blair or his successor as evidence of the royal family's willingness to adapt itself to current social conditions, would probably meet the demands and desires of all but those among the ruling class who are outright republicans. But of course the main purpose is to appease discontent with the existing order among the majority of the populace. The real extent of republican sentiment in the country has obviously been a matter of much interest in recent days. In the wake of the funeral, and of a week that, leaving aside their personal and evidently genuine sorrow, has ultimately been a surprisingly pleasant and successful one for the royal family, all the mass circulation papers have suddenly rediscovered what a wonderful thing it is to be British and to be the subjects of the queen. Not just in the predictable view of the Daily Mail, but in that of The Mirror and even of The Sun (for the time being, at least), we cynical republicans have been confounded. Britain supposedly has a new sense of its history and identity. As The Sun puts it, the queen mother "transformed the fortunes of a wobbly monarchy, which looked as if it might be on the way out" (April 10). The Mirror, in a full page comment column of nauseating jingoism, informs us that, "It will be the queen mother's greatest legacy. That in her death she re-ignited the British people's faith in, and love for, the monarchy. Long to reign over us" (April 10). To what extent these sentimental, emetic effusions from a tabloid press that over the years has (in the interests of circulation) done more than anybody to undermine the stability of the house of Windsor actually reflect reality is more questionable. Polling evidence, though it proves nothing, can give some demonstrative indications. In an NOP poll reported in The Independent on April 9, some 54% were in favour of leaving the monarchy unchanged, while 30% wanted radical reform; a mere 12% argued for outright abolition. Surprisingly, perhaps, there was majority support for the monarchy among the 15 to 24 age group; and, showing how far the left has to go, the stoutest adherents of the monarchy were to be found among the working class itself. Account must obviously be taken of the effects of a 10-day-long period of total immersion in that nationalist ideology in which the monarchy in general and the queen mother in particular played such a pivotal role, supposedly uniting all classes under an illusory commonality of interest. She was 'our' queen mum after all. We must wait to see what happens once the patina of these extraordinary days has worn off the public consciousness. But that waiting must not be passive. Whether the republican segment of 'unofficial Britain' constitutes 30% or 'only' 12%, the task of communists and revolutionary socialists remains unchanged. At present those who reject the monarchy have no collective voice, no party to which they can attach themselves and their convictions; they are perhaps unaware that a rational, coherent alternative to the United Kingdom monarchy state is even feasible. Many comrades on the left, including influential members of the Socialist Alliance, still seem to regard constitutional politics, including republican, anti-monarchist policy and activity, as being peripheral to the "bread and butter issues". That is a serious mistake. Maurice Bernal