Royal agony continues

George W Bush’s time in Britain was a state visit. This meant he was the guest of the queen and stayed at Buckingham Palace. It was to be part of the post-Iraq victory celebrations and the beginning of his election campaign.

George W Bush’s time in Britain was a state visit. This meant he was the guest of the queen and stayed at Buckingham Palace. It was to be part of the post-Iraq victory celebrations and the beginning of his election campaign. Pictures of Bush with the queen would add a certain gravitas to the Texas cowboy and play well with voters back home. Fortunately over 200,000 demonstrators turned up to spoil the party.

A state visit is no ordinary event. It is 84 years since the last US president came to Britain for such an occasion, when Woodrow Wilson met George V. At the end of World War I, Britain was still the world’s major imperial power. But the US had entered the war and through the sacrifice and slaughter of its soldiers had forced its way to the imperialist top table. The state visit was recognition by the British ruling class of the new economic and political realities.

A state visit implies a deeper and more strategic relationship between the ruling classes of Britain and America. It is a relationship which changed significantly during World War II and the subsequent cold war. The queen more adequately ‘represents the nation’ in that alliance, not least because her reign corresponds to the post-war period. Blair is here today and gone tomorrow, but the alliance is regarded as much more than any superficial bond between Bush and Blair.

To say that the queen represents the nation does not get to the essence of the issue. Any Marxist worth their salt will know that ‘nation’ and ‘national interests’ are code words for ‘class’ and ‘class interests’. The queen represents the British ruling class, both symbolically and practically. She is perfectly fitted for this task. She is a billionaire capitalist and landowner, with historic roots in the evolution of the ruling class from feudalism to 21st century capitalism. She has been one of the ruling class’s best informed and most experienced politicians, an ‘insider’ in state affairs for over 50 years.

Many people think that the monarchy is ‘above politics’ or outside the terrain of class struggle. This is about as naive as thinking the ruling class does not interfere in politics, preferring to leave it to elected politicians like Blair. The British ruling class is represented by the state, or the ‘crown’, through the security services (MI5 and MI6), the Whitehall ‘mandarins’, heads of the armed forces, ambassadors and diplomats, and connected to the major financial, industrial and commercial interests which control our economic destiny.

The queen is the one person who commands the loyalty of those in charge of the state apparatus. She represents the ruling class as if she were their senior shop steward with a unique ability to call them all out ‘on strike’ if that were ever necessary. Had Blair been trying taking us to war without the support of the ruling class, this would have been revealed via a conflict with the monarchy and other parts of the state.

Of course Blair was completely in tune with the interests of the ruling class. But focusing entirely on Blair leads to the reformist conclusion that the answer is to get rid of Blair rather than change the regime. Our point is to emphasise that the ruling class supported the war and made war possible, because they saw it as serving their interests. The monarchy is ‘merely’ the symbolic representative of that class.

The queen cannot simply be the ‘Godfather’ of the ruling class. In the UK the institution of the monarchy is the means by which all other social classes express their support for and subordination to the ruling class. The queen can only successfully represent the ruling class in so far as she seems, in a certain sense, to represent the nation as a whole. This means the queen cannot publicly take sides on class issues, except in special circumstances.

The monarchy does not therefore exist in isolation, but as an integral part of the ruling class. Consequently popular alienation from the monarchy is a problem for the whole ruling class. And alienation and hostility to the ruling class would be reflected in negative attitudes to the monarchy. Whilst the interests of monarchy and ruling class appear as one, of course the latter would sacrifice the monarchy if it believed that was the only means of self-preservation. In 1918 the German ruling class abandoned the kaiser for that very reason.

There can be little doubt that there is a profound crisis affecting the monarchy. We are not speaking of an odd scandal or one-off event, but rather a whole period or epoch in which stability is suddenly interrupted and interspersed by yet another drama. It is an epoch drawn out by the inability of the various social classes to resolve the situation.

The crisis has a number of interrelated aspects. The first of these is connected to underlying changes in capitalism. Shifts in the tectonic plates of class society are shaking the foundations of monarchy. This is reflected in a struggle within the royal family and the ruling class between the so-called modernisers and traditionalists.

The fact that something has changed was signalled at the time of the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992. It was a shock for royalists to realise that public opinion had shifted. Sycophantic Tory ministers came on the TV assuring us that taxpayer would spare no expense to compensate the royal family. But public opinion was having none of it. After years of Thatcher propaganda about parasites living off the state, why wouldn’t people expect the monarchy to ‘stand on its own two feet’ and pay for its own fire insurance?

In the past the monarchy has survived by reinventing itself. Now it is urgently in need of another makeover. In the 1870s it was reinvented as an ‘imperial monarchy’ and continued for the next 70 years. In 1867 the franchise had been extended to the working class. Disraeli, busy reshaping the Tory Party into one-nation Conservatives, refocused them on support for the crown, empire and welfare of the people. He rebranded the unpopular Victoria as the Empress of India.

In his writings Disraeli considered the conservatism of the working class as a prop for the monarchy. He explained: “There are people who may be, or at least affect to be, working men, and who, no doubt, have a certain influence with a certain portion of metropolitan working classes, who talk Jacobinism [republicanism] … There has always been a certain portion of the working class in London, who have sympathised - perverse as we may deem the taste - with the Jacobin feelings of Paris. I say with confidence that the great body of the working class of England utterly repudiate such sentiments. They have no sympathy with them. They are English to the core. They repudiate cosmopolitan principles. They are for maintaining the greatness of the kingdom and the empire, and they are proud of being subjects of our sovereign and members of such an empire” (F O’Gorman British Conservatism New York 1986, p147).

In the 1940s the British ruling class faced a life-and-death struggle against the threat posed by the Nazis. It produced a shift in relations between the ruling class and the people, reflected in the mixed economy, welfare state and the new relationship with US imperialism. The ‘social monarchy’ produced by the war and the 1945-50 Labour government represented a new social contract. We have called this the ‘Elizabethan welfare state’ in recognition of the fact that the current monarch, crowned in 1952, came to symbolise this post-war rearticulation of traditional British conservatism and state capitalist ‘socialism’.

The ruling class was not strong enough to take back these reforms until the defeat of the miners in 1984-85. The Thatcher government began the process of dismantling the social monarchy. Mass unemployment, privatisation, attacks on the welfare state and the destruction of trade union power produced its own shifts in the politics of Labour. Thatcherism reached its zenith in the poll tax, which showed up the failure of parliament to represent the people.

The unintended consequences of Thatcherism were the questioning of democratic institutions, the growth of nationalism and the demands for constitutional change. The programme of New Labour has brought constitutional change with continued and extended privatisation. In this sense Blair is ‘completing’ the process of dismantling the social monarchy, as begun by Thatcher.

Whilst the monarchy remains the representative of the ruling class, free market economics left it disconnected from the people and unable to define its role or provide a coherent justification for itself. The various ‘think tanks’ and royal working parties are trying to work it out. In the last 10 years the question of why we need a monarchy has become part of the national debate in ways that were absent in the 50s and 60s.

The second element of the crisis is the question of the royal succession. Is Charles Windsor fit to be king? This has been raised on a number of occasions and at each stage his position deteriorates, despite all strenuous efforts to improve it. The revelations about his marriage to Diana and his relationship with Parker Bowles were very damaging. But, just as he seemed to be moving on, it has all gone horribly wrong again.

As socialists it matters to us not a jot whether Charles is heterosexual, bisexual or gay. But the accusations of sexual activity with a servant is very damaging with wider public opinion. Press headlines such as “Royals in turmoil as humiliating allegations spread around the world” are unhelpful (The Independent on Sunday November 9) The allegations by former royal servant George Smith that he had been raped were covered up by Charles until the queen intervened to halt the Burrell trial.

It was Smith who claimed to have seen a sexual act apparently involving Charles and his loyal aid, Michael Fawcett. Charles became very dependent on Fawcett, whose influence grew out of all proportion to his job title. It was Fawcett who would squeeze toothpaste onto Charlie’s toothbrush and hold his specimen jar while Charles gave a urine sample in hospital. Fawcett had a lucrative sideline in selling gifts from foreign dignitaries and pocketing the cash. He was so important to the heir to the throne that he was made a ‘Member of the Royal Victorian Order’ in the 2000 new year’s honours list.

Writer Beatrix Campbell, commenting on the revelations, says: “Today Charles, a pointless prince, who has loitered for so long on the threshold of absolute personal power, must surely know he cannot be king” (ibid). The same concern is expressed by Charles’s supporters, who have their own conspiracy theory. The Sunday Times reported that “William fears a plot to ruin his father” in order to “block the Prince of Wales’s succession to the throne” (November 9). The same plot was uncovered by Trevor Phillips, a friend of Charles, called upon to ‘bat’ for him. “It is transparent,” says Phillips, that the aim is to make him “an object of controversy and then bag the greatest coup of all - to try to hound him out of taking up the position as king.”

The third element in the crisis arises out of the ramifications of the life and death of Diana Spencer. In the meeting between the queen and the butler, Paul Burrell, she warned him that because of his closeness to Diana, he was in danger from people who wished to harm him. She told him: “There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge.” As Burrell says, “She looked at me over her half rimmed spectacles as if she expected me to know the rest. She fixed me with her eye and made sure I knew she was being deadly serious.”

Was Diana assassinated by these same “powers”, as some, including Burrell himself, are implying? Certainly the fact that Diana Spencer was more dangerous to the monarchy than the socialist and working class movement tells us much about our present predicament. So the timely death of Ms Spencer seemed to offer a way back for the Windsors. Recent opinion polls suggest that a majority think there was something suspicious about her death.

Certainly there was motive. She was popular in a way that put Charles in the shade. As we now know, she had been gathering royal secrets as an insurance policy. Tapes and letters, referred to as the “crown jewels” and including the recent allegations about Charles, were kept in her mahogany box. The contents have now gone missing. We also know that the police had recorded her on their surveillance tapes visiting George Smith.

Diana became increasingly worried about her security in the two years before her death. She confided in Burrell that there were consistent attempts to undermine her. She wrote that “this particular phase of my life is most dangerous”. She claimed that “they [she named somebody] are planning ‘an accident’ in my car, so Charles can marry again ... I will suffer brake failure and serious head injuries” (Daily Mirror October 20).

Diana died in a car driven by paid MI6 informer Henri Paul, who was apparently out of his head on drugs and drink. Suspicions have grown about the mysterious white Fiat Uno which grazed Diana’s Mercedes in the tunnel. There have been question marks over Henri Paul’s blood samples and why it took hours to get her to hospital from the centre of Paris. Recently it was revealed that her body was embalmed, which would hide evidence from a coroner. And of course there has still been no inquest. The parents of Henri Paul are convinced that this was “a crime disguised as an accident with the complicity of very highly placed people in France and England” (ibid).

Thirty years ago the monarchy enjoyed a good press and seemed in tune with the post-war period of full employment and the welfare state. What image does it now present? “A dysfunctional royal family is attended on by an oddball collection of servants, many of whom are only too ready to sell their accounts of life with the Windsors” (editorial The Sunday Times November 9). A prince not fit to be king and “dark forces” whose ‘defence of the realm’ is beyond democratic control or accountability?

Republicanism should not be reduced simply to anti-monarchism. It must represent a more general democratic case against the powers wielded by Blair’s elected dictatorship and the failure of parliament to represent the people. It is not so much the powers of the queen, but the powers concentrated in the hands of her first minister. We saw Thatcher use these powers against the miners and Blair deploy them against the firefighters and to drag the country into an imperialist war.

In the 1996 Revolutionary Democratic Group programme we argued that “the crisis of the social monarchy creates the objective basis for a new republican movement. But without republican parties this potential will remain latent. At present neither the middle class nor the working class have moved decisively to reject the constitutional monarchy. The middle class retains its illusions in the monarchy and its fear of republicanism. The working class is still dominated by Labourism. Nevertheless republicanism is now on the political agenda.”

Unfortunately not much has changed in that assessment. This brings us back to the question of the future of the Socialist Alliance and its failure to make any progress towards building a republican socialist workers’ party.