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Abolish the Monarchy

The royal family are under fire from many quarters over their marital mishaps and financial indiscretions. But the problem with the royals goes far deeper than that. Mick Hume sees the existence of the monarchy as a symbol of much that is wrong with British society and its political system today

The monarchy is central to the British way of life. We are expected to stand and sing every time we hear the dread strains of 'God Save the Queen'. We are supposed to be outraged when a foreign politician places a hand on the royal hip, to walk out of cricket dinners when a comedian cracks a joke about HM the Queen, to become apoplectic when a London art club displays a rubbishy painting of Di and Fergie's bare bottoms. In short, being British means showing deep respect for the royals at all times.

But what exactly is it about the royal family that we are supposed to respect? How have they contributed to improving the human condition?

Perhaps we are supposed to respect the literary achievements of the Duchess of York, author of Budgie the Helicopter, or of Princess Michael of Kent, twice nominated as plagiarist of the year. Maybe we are meant to respect the artistic achievements of the theatrical teaboy, Prince Edward. Is it Prince Charles' breakthrough in the science of conversing with wormkind which makes him a man to be respected? Or has Princess Diana won our respect through her services to shopping?

The Queen herself is said to be 'universally' respected. That is little wonder, considering her achievements. She has managed to sit on the throne for 40 years without once going to the toilet during a public engagement. And, with the help of only several hundred nannies, cooks and servants, and the support of a mere fortune in tax-free handouts, she has raised four children to be deadbeats in their own right.

Finally, of course, there is 'the Queen Mum', the nation's favourite great-grandmother. Surely nobody could fail to respect a lovely old lady who, even in her nineties, is prepared to turn out to support good causes - most recently by unveiling a memorial to one of her favourite war criminals, Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, whose planes decimated the civilian populations of Dresden, Hamburg and Cologne. How sweet.

There is nothing about the royals themselves that could be considered worthy of the public respect which they demand. The fact is that we are expected to bow and scrape to them simply because they were born with the name of Windsor (or obtained it through marriage). It is part of the culture of deference that is one of the most objectionable features of life in modern Britain.

For all John Major's talk of classlessness and citizenship, Britain remains a class society run by a capitalist establishment. Those of us excluded from the ruling elite are expected to know our place, to respect our 'betters', and to doff the cap to those in authority - even if their only qualification for power is to have been in the right womb at the right time.

The culture of deference centred on the monarchy is a relic of the past that distorts the present. The worship of tradition and servility helps to keep British society in a state of decay, and holds back the human potential to change things for the better.

Attitudes to the monarchy demonstrate how deeply the habit of ring-kissing is ingrained in our 'democratic' political system. Of course the Tories are true-blue royalists. The striking thing, however, is how willing all of the opposition parties are to kowtow to the Queen.

Even the Scottish National Party, that rebellious enemy of the United Kingdom, has always been careful only to demand independence 'under the Crown'. The consensus of support for the Crown during the general election campaign was best summed up by the Natural Law Party, which spoke for them all in declaring the monarchy to be part of the 'natural order' of things.

You might say that what parties think about the monarchy is irrelevant, and that what matters is their stance on the big issues of the day. Fair enough; but attitudes to the Crown have a symbolic importance that speaks volumes about a party's politics. Their willingness to bend the knee to royalty is a stark illustration of their subservience to the wider establishment and the hierarchical social order. Perhaps the best example of the extent of this problem is the Labour Party.

Even before the Second World War, when Labour liked to portray itself as a radical party representing the working classes, its leaders were royal toadies of the worst order. The minority Labour governments elected in 1924 and 1929 were supposed to be dangerously left-wing. Yet both gave the game away by sticking to the conventions of swearing loyalty to the Crown and giving the royals huge handouts. As an old Russian revolutionary pointed out at the time, the Labour Party's pretensions to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor could mean nothing if it was not even prepared to deny the Prince of Wales his pocket money.

Today's Labour Party is a creature of the centre ground that has abandoned many of its old traditions and policies, but its belief in fawning before the Crown remains as strong as ever. Throughout the long and intricate election debate about who ought to pay how much income tax, the one issue which no Labour spokesman ever dreamed of raising was the fact that the Queen pays no tax at all on her fortune.

Never mind revolutionary Marxism, anybody who believes in basic democracy should be in favour of abolishing the British monarchy, along with all of its hereditary privileges and powers. The monarchy is the leftover rubbish of the Middle Ages. But it is more than just an expensive anachronism. It still plays an important part in Britain's undemocratic system of government today.

The case against the monarchy is most often couched in economic terms. Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn recently made a 10-minute programme calling for abolition. The BBC banned it. The newspaper asked its readers to express their views. Most of those who wrote in supporting Littlejohn's anti-monarchy opinions did so on the basis that the royals are 'spongers' and 'parasites' who do not deserve a penny of public money.

Royal parasites

The royal family are indeed a fine example of the parasitism at the heart of the capitalist system. Their position demonstrates that, in so far as there is a 'dependency culture' funded by a 'nanny state' in Britain today, it operates in support of the establishment, not the poor.

The royals try to cultivate an image of middle class thrift. So we are told of how the Queen saves bits of string and goes around turning lights off at the palace, or how Diana, Andrew and Edward bought Telecom shares in order to get the £18 rental rebate. Public displays of greed and extravagance, like the Duchess of York's recent island-hopping jaunt or her pocketing of the profits from her 'charity' book Budgie, are frowned upon as unroyal. But behind this PR image of frugality and fair play, the Queen and her brood have a lot of ill-gotten loot to hide.

It is impossible accurately to calculate the Queen's fortune. Estimates vary from a modest £50m plus to a fabulous £15 billion, depending upon the method of calculation used. What is certain is that the royals have not earned a penny of it.

Inherited wealth and the 'tributes' lavished on the family by foreign rulers fill the royal residences so full that the Queen is said to employ two men to wind her clocks at Buck House. The huge overflow of jewellery, art, antiques and other baubles is locked up in a disused aircraft hangar behind a maze of 14-inch steel doors.

On top of these riches, the Queen has three main sources of income. There is her secret profit from multi-million pound investments in stocks and shares (an effortless method of making more money simply by being rich, beloved of every member of the British establishment). There is the £3m a year or so that she accrues in rent and other payments from owning the many properties of the Duchy of Lancaster. And there is the Civil List, through which the royal lifestyle is directly financed by the government.

Family handouts

According to the figures which the government announced in parliament two years ago, during the 1990s the Civil List will give the Queen an average of £7.9m every year. On top of this the Queen Mother gets £640 000, Prince Phillip £360 000, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne a quarter of a million each, etc (Hansard, 24 July 1990). Besides the Civil List, Whitehall also shells out a fortune every year to keep the monarch in the manner born, including more than £25m on 'palace maintenance', £9.3m on the royal yacht, £6.7m on the Queen's flight, £2.2m on the royal train and an unknown amount on round-the-clock security (Economist, 25 January 1992).

The fulsome financial support given to the royals is a good reflection of the values of a welfare system which begrudges many impoverished families the price of a second-hand cooker. The class bias built into the system is further highlighted by the Queen's own views on the dangers of providing people with welfare services, as quoted on the recent TV programme, Elizabeth R: 'But you see, all the democracies are bankrupt now, because, you know, because of the way that the services have been planned for people to grab.' It seems safe to assume that the grasping people she has in mind do not include the beneficiaries of the Civil List, that social security system for royal spongers.

Sovereign monarch

However, it would be wrong to confine criticism of the royals to economic matters. Too often the arguments about the monarchy get bogged down in an accountants' debate about whether or not it costs the treasury more than it makes for the tourist trade. Such a discussion misses the point about the political role which the royal family still plays in Britain. And it is that role which provides the best reasons for abolishing the monarchy altogether.

The schoolbook guide to the constitution has it that Britain is a democracy in which the sovereignty of the people is represented by parliament, and the monarchy just provides the window-dressing. In fact, the British constitution does not recognise popular sovereignty. The foundation of the British constitution is that the monarch is still sovereign. This power has simply been transferred so that it is exercised through parliament.

The monarch still has the right to dissolve parliament, and to appoint any parliamentarian to form a cabinet, regardless of election results or public opinion. Of course, the Queen is not about to usurp the authority of the Commons on a personal whim. But it is not too hard to imagine an emergency situation in which the sovereign powers of the monarch might be used to override parliament on behalf of the ruling class. Those who do find it too hard to imagine might recall the events in Australia in 1975, when the Queen's representative, the governor general, used the monarch's powers to depose an elected Labour government.

Royal prerogative

In any case, it is hardly necessary to construct hypothetical scenarios about what might happen in the future. The sovereign powers of the monarchy are already being used to run Britain on decidedly undemocratic lines, through what is known as the royal prerogative. This constitutional device gives the government the right to do all kinds of things in the Crown's name, without the need to consult parliament or to obey the law.

For example, the powers of patronage granted under the royal prerogative give the government a pretty free hand to appoint members of the House of Lords, civil service mandarins, military commanders, judges and other top state officials who run the country without ever submitting themselves to 'the will of the people'. The royal prerogative also allows the government to conduct foreign relations more or less as it pleases, including the right to launch invasions like the Gulf War without asking for the approval of parliament, never mind of the public.

Historical tradition

The use of the royal prerogative helps to mask the authoritarian powers of the British state behind the royal robes and ceremonial mumbo-jumbo of a constitutional monarchy. By mobilising the medieval institution of the monarchy to safeguard a modern 'democratic' state, the capitalists of today also seek to endow their rule with the legitimacy of historical tradition.

The monarchy stands for historical continuity, the notion that nothing important ever changes in Britain - an idea which those who own and control the country today have every reason to instil in the owned and the controlled. This is the beauty of maintaining the monarchy from the point of view of the establishment, as the Daily Telegraph spelled out in its defence of the Queen against recent criticism:

'The Queen's head on coins and stamps, and the crown on government briefcases, and the coat of arms on government buildings, the invocation of her name in parliament and the courts, the prayers for her in church, the oaths sworn to her by the armed forces, all remind the British people that they are under an authority which, although it does not wield political power, provides a permanence that party politics alone cannot furnish.' (7 February 1992)

The conclusion which the British people are encouraged to draw from the continuity of the monarchy is obvious: since we live under a God-given authority defined by its 'permanence', there is really no point in trying to alter very much about the way in which the country is run. By the same token, it is incumbent upon those who want to put change back on to the political agenda to call for getting rid of the royals.

Who rules?

Of course, it is important to keep the question of royalty in perspective. The monarchy is symbolic of much that is wrong with British society, but it is not the cause of the problems. Abolishing the monarchy will in itself solve nothing. Even without the Queen to front it, the authoritarian state would still be there and the system of government would still be undemocratic.

But calling for the abolition of the monarchy and all of its trappings could help to sweep away some of the mystifications about how Britain is run - and for whose benefit. Strip away the royal regalia and the illusion of historical legitimacy which goes with it, and the state machine would be better exposed as the servant of the modern capitalist elite. Removing the royal symbol of 'national unity' could help to clarify how our society is divided along class lines.

Culture of deference

The continued existence of the monarchy atop the British constitution, and the willingness of all parties to keep it there, has played an important part in maintaining the stultifying conservatism for which Britain is famous. Bringing the ancient order down can only be good for breathing some new life into British society.

Popularising the demand to abolish the monarchy might also undermine the obnoxious culture of deference that infects every aspect of life in Britain today. At the very least, it would be a step forward for those who want to drag politics in this country out of the seventeenth century on the eve of the twenty-first.

Worshipping the past

The defenders of the status quo insist that we should support the monarchy as the embodiment of Britain's great traditions. That is typical of the way in which the authorities now try to get us to worship the past, to distract from the fact that their slump system can offer us no future. There are, however, some popular British traditions which they are not so keen to revive: like the mid-seventeenth-century tradition of removing the king's head from his shoulders as well as from the currency, or the early nineteenth-century tradition of booing the Queen through the streets of London (which was why Victoria fled to Balmoral).

Somehow the Sun's editorial attacks on Fergie seem tame by comparison. It is high time somebody put the public back into republicanism.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992

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