Party notes: Royal scandals and platonic republicanism

Paul Burrell's book 'A royal duty' has unleashed yet another crisis for the beleaguered British Royal family. Jack Conrad comments

Paul Burrell’s book A royal duty has unleashed yet another crisis for the beleaguered house of Saxe-Coberg-Gotha (bowing to British nationalist sensibilities, they renamed themselves ‘Windsor’ during World War I). A loyal factotum for two decades, Burrell decided for his own mixed and contradictory reasons - genuine adherence to the Diana cult, vengeance for being dragged into an Old Bailey courtroom on theft charges, anger at the subsequent refusal of Buckingham Palace to issue an apology, the promise of huge financial rewards and the lure of minor celebrity status - to lift the lid on the Windsor’s shabby hypocrisy, paranoia, backbiting and arrogance.

According to her former butler, Diana feared that “they” were arranging a car crash to finally get rid of her - 10 months before she was killed in a Paris underpass. Prince Charles supposedly got the royal nanny, Tiggy Legge Bourke, pregnant and had to arrange an abortion. Besides Dodi Fayed, Diana had nine “gentlemen friends”, including a Hollywood film star, a legendary sportsman and a famous politician. Earl Spencer questioned his sister’s sanity; 17 months later his famous funeral peroration praised her “level-headedness and strength”. During a three-hour grilling, where Burrell was made to stand throughout, the queen threatened him with MI5 if he continued in his stubborn refusal to hand over Diana’s letters and other private possessions.

Burrell promises the gossip-hungry readers of the Daily Mirror yet more sordid details, including a sexual relationship between a senior royal and a servant and an alleged male rape, maybe in a further book. The Windsors suffered another blow when Mark Bolland - who served as Charles Windsor’s deputy private secretary - added his considered thoughts in a Guardian interview.

He condemned the botched handling of Burrell; his prosecution was a “complete fuck-up”. Princes Charles is “very weak”. Apparently he “lacks a lot of confidence” and “inner strength” (October 25).

Advised by their courtiers and spin doctors, the Windsors have hit back. Not by disputing the accuracy of Burrell’s account: instead they hide behind the royal princes, William and Harry. A tawdry statement was issued under their names which attacked Burrell’s “cold and overt betrayals” and urged him to “bring these revelations to an end”. Thankfully the former butler was not intimidated: “I am not sorry for writing this book, of which I am extremely proud ... I have told the truth and the British public should know the truth.”

Obviously there are elements within the establishment who are quietly enjoying the Windsor’s discomfort. Charles Kennedy and his Liberal Democrats envisage a slimmed down monarchy along the lines of Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. Burrell’s expose provides ammunition.

For their part The Guardian and Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun argue for a more thoroughgoing reform: a managed transition to a republic. Perhaps ending the monarchy with the death of Elizabeth Windsor.

However, such chatter worries most sections of the ruling class. Change from above can only but encourage much more far-reaching demands from those below.

Government and the official opposition front benches are, of course, both solidly monarchist. Tony Blair is though beset with his own difficulties - not least failures in Iraq, popular outrage against Bush’s state visit and the Hutton enquiry (due to report in November). As for the Tories, they are self-obsessively embroiled in a bitter civil war. Reportedly the queen has expressed her “rage” over the Burrell revelations at the weekly audience she grants the prime minister. Meanwhile it has fallen to the doyens of the conservative press to rally their readers to the side of the monarchy.

Andreas Whittam Smith lambastes the idea of “cutting away one of the deepest roots of the British state ... It is much safer to stick with the present royal family, which, despite its occasional bouts of bizarre behaviour, remains a known quantity” (The Independent October 27). The Mail on Sunday insists that the British system of parliamentary monarchy “works” and should not be thrown away at a “whim” because of the “luckless house of Windsor” (editorial, October 26). Blimp-like, The Daily Telegraph praises Elizabeth Windsor’s “self-discipline and trustworthiness” and grimly hangs onto the “eternal values” of “restraint, decency and honour” (editorial, October 27).

Undoubtedly the constitutional monarchy system faces a crisis of legitimacy. Masses of people no longer respect, let alone venerate, the monarchy. A serious problem for the ruling class - which is why fault lines have developed above.

The monarchy is meant to constitute what Walter Bagehot, in his 1867 treatise, famously called the “dignified” part of this constitution. The pomp and circumstance of monarchy was designed to befuddle and beguile those whom he derisively calls the “vacant many” (W Bagehot The English constitution London 1974, p34).

Incidentally nowadays, not least because of universal suffrage, such honest language is considered ill-advised. Paid persuaders and pundits therefore cover their justifications of the capitalist order with a veneer of democratic cant.

If the “many” are no longer “vacant” and are no longer befuddled or beguiled by the monarchy, this brings the whole constitution into question and opens up all sorts of possibilities. Not that we can afford to be complacent though. A majority of the groups and organised members who constitute the revolutionary left in Britain doggedly refuse to campaign against the constitutional monarchy system.

So, for example, though we successfully won the Socialist Alliance to commit itself to “abolish the monarchy” in the 2001 general election manifesto, this was to all intents and purposes undermined when it came to prioritising what issues we would campaign around (People before profit p15). The Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the International Socialist Group, Workers Power and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty united in their determination to highlight routine trade union and green-type demands. In other words, the SA majority (now minus SPEW and WP) adheres to platonic republicanism.

This is a classic symptom of what Marxists call economism: ie, the downplaying of democratic demands in favour of the narrow politics of trade union consciousness. Essentially the operative conclusion of economism is this: Lenin was right to prioritise the overthrow of Russian tsarism - it was nasty, brutish, backward and undemocratic. We on the other hand should not bother ourselves overmuch with the constitutional monarchy system. By implication it is comparatively benign and of third-rate significance: a feudal relic, which a modernised, bang up-to-date capitalist constitution could not conceivably miss. Sean Matgamna, AWL patriarch, has actually offered the opinion that “the British monarchy could be sloughed off tomorrow with little else of importance changing in British society”. Hence getting rid of the monarchy can safely be left to The Guardian and The Sun.

However what we communist republicans target is not Elizabeth Windsor or her hapless idiot of a son - that almost goes without saying; rather it is the way in which the rulers rule the ruled. From the point of view of Marxism - ie, consistent and extreme democracy - there can be no doubt that the United Kingdom is characterised by systemic shortcomings when it comes to democracy (by which we mean rule of the people by the people and real control from below).

The monarchy not only constitutes the “dignified” part of this constitution. Besides appearing to stand above party squabbles and the undoubted propaganda value provided by royal continuity, pageantry, local visits and nationwide broadcasts, the monarch formally retains certain powers which could serve the interests of capital well in an emergency situation. Eg, the monarch symbolically chooses the prime minister, can dissolve parliament and no bill can pass into law without royal assent.

What of the notion that the monarchy can be cast off without anything else of importance changing in British society? Frankly, this is the sort of Whiggish nonsense you would expect to read in a Guardian editorial. A transition from monarchy to republic in Britain - with its royalist official history, royalist constitution, royalist oaths, royalist societies and institutions, royalist armed bodies, royalist knighthoods, orders, gongs, etc - is hardly akin to a former colony, a Commonwealth country like India, Pakistan or Jamaica, where the geographically distant British monarch is swapped for a native and resident head of state.

We could usefully learn from history of China, Russia, Germany, Austria, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Iraq, Greece, Iran and other countries in the 20th century when they became republics. End of monarchy almost without exception coincides with a revolutionary situation. Such a scenario is exactly what we communist republicans seek to bring about by prioritising the fight to abolish the monarchy and winning a democratic republic.