SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Monarchy in the UK

This year marks Queen Elizabeth II's golden jubilee. During those 50 years the royal family has tried desperately to maintain its credibility amid scandal and seismic social changes. MANNY THAIN looks at how Britain's monarchy has developed and at its place in the modern world.

BRITAIN IS RULED, at least nominally, by a monarch - Queen Elizabeth II. The royal family is viewed as a purely symbolic state decoration by some, as being completely irrelevant by others, or as a mildly entertaining soap opera centred on a deeply dysfunctional family. It also plays a constitutional role which is generally hidden behind a carefully constructed fa¨ade of political neutrality. As the recent funeral of the Queen Mother showed, it is capable of arousing deep feelings of loyalty and support.

The monarchy was actually overthrown during the English revolution. On 4 January 1649, parliament passed a resolution which abolished the House of Lords, confiscated crown, church and royalist land, and set up a commission to try the king, Charles I, who was later executed. In 1660, however, the monarchy was restored with Charles II and has retained an important constitutional role ever since.

The monarchy epitomises conservative values and the status quo. It is a bastion against change. It is the living embodiment of a hierarchical society, reinforcing the notion that there is an established order: people should know their place and accept it.

The monarch dissolves parliament, appoints and dismisses prime ministers, assents to legislation, signs treaties, declares war and appoints judges. These powers are generally exercised by the prime minister under royal prerogative. Using this prerogative, a British prime minister can declare war without a debate in parliament. Margaret Thatcher banned trade unions at the Ministry of Defence 'spy centre' at GCHQ on that basis. Whole areas of secondary legislation are handled by the Privy Council - the members of which are appointed for life - and the 'orders in council', and never come before parliament. MPs swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen not to the people they represent. The monarch meets the prime minister once a week. Britain's peoples are not citizens but subjects.

Public image

THE IMAGE PRESENTED is that the monarchy follows age-old tradition. In reality, 'The Firm' (as its members refer to it) is a very modern construct, dating back to Queen Victoria who ruled from 1837-1901. The death of the Queen Mother on 30 March, aged 101, marked the end of the physical connection between the present House of Windsor (which is itself a fabricated brand name) and Victorian Britain and empire.

Under Hanoverian rule (1714-1836) royalty became increasingly discredited with American independence, the madness of George III and the depravity of George IV. In the face of a strengthening republican mood, Victoria and Albert set about making the institution popular. This was not a straightforward task and it provoked some familiar criticism: "George Bernard Shaw, writing anonymously in the Pall Mall Gazette, complained just before Victoria's half-century celebration: 'Were a gust of wind to blow off our sovereign's head-gear tomorrow, the Queen's bonnet would crowd Bulgaria out of the papers'. And when Victoria visited the East End, the celebration was marred by what Lord Salisbury called 'a horrid noise'. [The] booing was attributed to 'socialists and the worst Irish'." (The Observer, 10 February 2002)

The opening of parliament was reinvented by Edward VII (r1901-10). He introduced the theatrics of Black Rod knocking on doors and the practice of courtiers walking backwards. Queen Elizabeth II, for her part, curtailed last summer's state opening ceremony so she could enjoy a day at the races.

In the past, royalty claimed the divine right to rule. Although that idea had been undermined by the English revolution, it endured far longer than many might have thought possible. Even in 1964 a poll claimed that 30% of the public believed that the monarch was chosen by God! The mystery surrounding the monarchy has been an important component in its history. In 1923 the BBC considered broadcasting the marriage of Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon (later, the Queen Mother) to the Duke of York (the future George VI). Courtiers refused on the grounds that the service might be heard 'by men in public houses' with their caps still on. That would never do.

George's elder brother, Edward VIII, was heir to the throne but abdicated in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorcˇe. That undermined the example the head of the Church of England was expected to uphold. An Independent Labour Party MP moved a motion to replace the monarchy with a republic. It fell by 403 to 5. On 12 May 1937, George VI was crowned. The abdication was a major crisis for the royal family and, even now, official documents on the affair remain under lock and key at the Public Records Office.

Edward VIII was a fascist sympathiser, a friend of Adolf Hitler. That was common among the British ruling class whose biggest threat came from the socialist movement, with the example of the Russian revolution still fresh in the memory. Several of the current Prince Philip's sisters married German aristocrats who backed the Nazis. Philip was a minor Greek royal from a German line but was transformed under the tutelage of the influential Lord Louis Mountbatten, Queen Victoria's great-grandson. He renounced his Greek titles. Out went the Greek Orthodox religion. In came the Church of England. He learned to ride a horse.

Mother of invention

THE OUTBREAK OF the second world war saw George VI and his Consort get their hands dirty, very dirty. They were closely associated with the policy of appeasement with Hitler. The prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, was invited onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace to celebrate his capitulation, in what was described by the court historian, John Grigg, as "the most unconstitutional act by a British sovereign in the present century". (The Guardian, 1 April) In 1939 the foreign secretary's office telegraphed the British ambassador in Berlin to encourage the fascist regime "to check the unauthorised emigration of Jews". The relevant papers to these ignominious episodes also remain secret.

Once Britain was at war with Germany, the myth-making machine went into overdrive. The Queen Consort's visits to the bomb-devastated East End of London became the stuff of legend. Yet her initial visits - in high heels, jewels and expensive clothes - gave people the impression that the royal family was untouched by the war's tragedies. The propaganda took a while to work. Echoing Queen Victoria's experience, Elizabeth was pelted with rubbish and jeered by angry crowds. When Buckingham Palace was bombed in 1940, the Queen Consort, with more than a hint of relief, remarked that she could now look the East End in the face.

Throughout the war the standard flew at Buckingham Palace, denoting the presence of royalty. At night, however, George VI and Elizabeth would travel to the safety of Windsor Castle. The palace implied that they were living off similar rations to everyone else but, of course, they wanted for nothing. The Queen Consort played the long-suffering patriot. When it was suggested that the family should go to Canada, she famously said, "The children could not leave without me, I could not leave without the king, and the king will never leave".

George VI died on 6 February 1952, opening the way for Elizabeth II to take the throne. The title of 'Queen Mother' was created. More familial strife followed as the Queen refused to give consent to the late Princess Margaret marrying divorcˇ Group Captain Peter Townsend. Even then, the issue was mainly one of example rather than constitution. Margaret and any future offspring had very little chance of succeeding to the throne (the Queen already had two children). A Daily Mirror poll showed 95% of people in favour of the marriage. The monarchy showed itself to be hopelessly out of touch.

The end of deference

IN ATTEMPTING TO modernise the monarchy, the royal family opened up to the outside world, at least to a limited extent. "The royals have become a media commodity in a circulation and ratings-driven age". (Financial Times, 7 February) Its decadent, bankrupt and reactionary nature was exposed.

The watershed year was 1992, described in the Queen's inimitable way as her 'annus horribilis'. Few people had any idea what she was talking about. Her use of arcane language reinforced how far removed she is from the real world. Tabloid newspapers had a field day. But it had been a bad year. A fire at Windsor Castle provoked widespread anger when it was revealed that the property was not insured and that The Firm was about to present a repair bill for £40 million to Britain's taxpayers. There was a series of domestic faux pas: photos of a topless Duchess of York with businessman, John Bryan; Princess Anne divorcing and remarrying within six months; and the marriage between heir to the throne, Prince Charles, and Princess Diana was collapsing amid bitter mutual recriminations.

In search of rehabilitation, royals visited pubs and Glaswegian council houses. The royal yacht was decommissioned and the palace travel budget cut from £17.3 million in 1997 to £5.4 million in 2000. A fraction of the Queen's accounts was reluctantly declared and a very small amount of tax was paid, voluntarily.

Social attitudes had shifted significantly and the monarchy was struggling to keep up: "When she left her safari hotel after being told she was queen 50 years ago, journalists respectfully lined the road, but not one took a picture. In 1957 when the journalist John Grigg ventured to suggest her speaking style was a 'pain in the neck' he was assaulted in the street. Now deference is dead. Fergie is the Duchess of Pork, Edward is Prince Plonker and Andrew is pictured with topless models on holiday". (The Guardian, 2 February)

The media attention courted by the royals was undermining the institution's credibility. The low point was the death of the Princess of Wales in 1997 and the royal family's unfeeling reaction. Paradoxically, Princess Diana's death became the focus of anger against the monarchy. The question of its viability was posed starkly. Only the direct intervention of Tony Blair saved the day. His leading spin doctors were deployed to help rebuild the monarchy's crumbling reputation.

The Queen Mother's death exposed generational divisions in Britain. It was a non-event for the vast majority of young people, many of whom have rejected the corrupt establishment politics and institutions. More 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the Pop Idol television poll than in the general election and a Mori poll found that eight out of ten young people have no idea how parliament works. There is no common ground between the right-wing, all-white, privileged House of Windsor and a capital city which is now home to more than 300 language groups (Financial Times, 6 April). Of the 2,500 calls to the BBC on its coverage of the Queen Mother, those who wanted more or who were supportive were outnumbered ten to one.

On the other hand, the Queen Mother's televised 100th birthday celebration in London on 19 July 2000 was seen by seven million people in Britain - nearly half of all viewers that night. An estimated quarter of a million people filed passed her coffin in Westminster Hall and the funeral was watched by 300 million people worldwide. Simon Schama, a historian with the BBC, put forward the thoroughly reactionary view that the ceremony demonstrated the "entirely instinctive emotional bond" between crown and country. Schama is saying that the monarchy, and the class system it upholds, is the 'natural order'. But there is nothing instinctive about the relationship between the royal family and its subjects. It has been systematically cultivated and conditioned, the product of centuries of physical oppression and exploitation by the ruling class.

Plans for the Queen Mother's funeral were drawn up decades ago. Apparently, the original plan was for the biggest state funeral since Winston Churchill's to give the monarchy a shot in the arm. Princess Diana's death five years ago, and the incredible outpourings of emotion at the time, led to the plans being shelved. The monarchy feared organising a massive show with no one turning up. It would never live down being upstaged by the upstart Diana.

Nonetheless, in the ten days between the Queen Mother's death and her burial, a carefully orchestrated campaign was set in motion. For the first time ever, parliament was recalled to commemorate the death of a member of the royal family. It was not recalled during the miners' strike of 1984-85; or when 2,000 British troops were sent to Bosnia in 1992; when the RAF bombed Iraq in February 2001; or during the present crisis in the Middle East. This was despite calls from MPs to debate all these issues. The Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly were also convened. Clearly, a proportion of that audience was drawn by curiosity and tourists helped boost the crowds.

Dwindling support

SUPPORT FOR THE royal family is steadily declining, although it still commands respect from significant, though ageing, sections of the population. In 1990, 75% thought Britain would be worse off without a monarch. In 2000 it was 44%. And an ICM poll in April 2001 showed that 34% believed Britain would be better off without a monarchy. A Mori poll for the royal household found that only one in four people believed the family was hard-working. One in ten considered them good value for money.

Sympathy for the Queen Mother may feed into the Queen's golden jubilee celebrations, bolstering the lacklustre preparations to date and giving the impression of a new-found popularity. Any such effect is likely to be short-lived. The monarchy is an anachronism, totally out of step with life in the 21st century. The Queen Mother's death could, in fact, precipitate further crises as the Queen finds herself directly in the firing line, so to speak.

Anthony Holden, an author on constitutional and royal affairs, commented: "Not since the 1870s has there been such a whiff of republicanism in the air, and the passing of the Queen Mother will do nothing to dispel it. Quite the reverse. For half a century, since the early death of her husband, she has served as a cordon sanitaire around her increasingly dysfunctional family, disarming constitutional criticism as her adoring fans made the age-old mistake of confusing the institution of the monarchy with the transient mortals who happen to be its temporary custodians.

"This handy smokescreen used to be one of the Windsors' hidden strengths; now it may prove their fatal weakness. For most of the Queen Mother's lifetime, the constitutional arguments of abolitionists have all too easily been swatted aside as tasteless criticism of a harmless old lady and her dutiful daughter and grandson". (The Observer, 31 March)

The Queen's golden jubilee celebrations include tours to Jamaica, New Zealand and Australia, with a three-month tour of Britain. There will be classical and 'pop concerts' at Buckingham Palace, thanksgiving at St Paul's cathedral, a carnival in the Mall, beacons across the country and street parties. But The Firm is apprehensive about what these events might reveal about support for the monarchy.

As with the death of Princess Diana, Blair is doing all he can to prop up the royal edifice. His sycophantic speeches hide behind a mask of 'neutral, universal values' and evoke nationalism. Blair said that the Queen Mother "was part of the fabric of our nation and we were immensely proud of her. But respect for her went far beyond Britain. Throughout the Commonwealth and the world, she was greeted with instant affection and acclaim". (The Observer, 31 March) Blair's talk of 'the nation', in this context, is really code for the ruling class and capitalist system. In fact, the Queen Mother, the last Empress of India, was a bigoted reactionary, opposed to the break up of the British empire and an admirer of PW Botha, leader of South Africa's brutal apartheid regime. She implacably defended the interests of the rich against the working class but astutely never voiced her political opinions in public. Her only interview was conducted in 1923.

Royalists have every reason to be concerned. The constitutional crisis in prospect if Prince Charles marries Camilla Parker Bowles has set off alarm bells. The heir to the throne and head of the Church of England is a self-confessed adulterer living unmarried with another man's ex-wife. It might not sound such a big deal but this is what royal crises are made of. If the Queen and her advisers try to block the marriage, the House of Windsor could yet again demonstrate how out of step it is with the rest of society.

It is tempting, and relatively easy, to ridicule the pompous attitudes of the British monarchy. Its members betray a peculiar, other-worldly arrogance which suggests they really do believe that they are superior beings: "On one occasion when they [the Earl and Countess of Wessex] walked across St James's Park for lunch, they declared upon arrival that they had travelled by foot to 'give pleasure to the people'." (The Observer, 3 March)

Time for change

MANY PEOPLE WANT royalty scaled down: "Mori polls suggest that 70% of the British people prefer a monarchy to a republic although nearly the same proportion wants it modernised". (Financial Times, 7 February 2002) The 'continental model' is put forward, where the royal family would have a much reduced income and property, and a purely ceremonial role. This does not solve the problem. The House of Windsor is unique in the West for its constitutional role and vast wealth. One of its greatest assets to the capitalist system lies in its potential for rallying reaction. It is a weapon the ruling class keeps in reserve. But even the less extravagant royal families could become a focus for reaction to varying degrees.

With respect for establishment politicians and parties at an all-time low, and with massive social, economic and political upheaval on the horizon internationally, the capitalist ruling class will use any means at its disposal to maintain its power and privileges. Philip Stephens commented: "But at the start of her jubilee year, the Queen knows that the monarchy is weaker, measurably so, than it has been for a long time. The deference and the reverence have gone... the logical absurdity of choosing a head of state by accident of birth also becomes ever more apparent. But, for now at least, contempt for politicians outweighs the misgivings about the Windsors and the obvious flaws of a hereditary system". (Financial Times, 11 January)

The Windsors are a throwback to a far distant time and system. Many states making the transition from feudalism to capitalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries drastically curtailed the privileges and power of their royalty. In Britain the monarchy reinvented itself and retained an unusually important position.

Reform of the British state is long overdue. The monarchy must be abolished, along with that other feudal bastion of privilege, the House of Lords. If, faced with an overwhelming tide of opposition to the monarchy and its trappings, the ruling class judged that this would help ensure the survival of capitalism, they could be reformed out of existence. The monarchy's potential for mobilising support for the system, however, makes it a useful weapon in future battles with a socialist movement and one it would prefer to retain in its arsenal.

Alternatively, the task of removing the monarchy will fall on the shoulders of the socialist revolution. Society would be able to look forward to a future based on human solidarity. The vast majority of working-class people would be involved in planning and running the economy. And there would be no room for this privileged and parasitical elite.

The cost of royalty

DETAILED FIGURES ARE unavailable, but the royal household cost Britain's taxpayers around £35 million in 2001, including £6.5 million for the Queen's expenses. The royal estate comprises 285 houses and apartments. The following information only provides the merest glimpse of the phenomenal wealth in the hands of The Firm. On top of the payments these spongers receive from the government - through us - they are all wealthy landowners raking in profits from agriculture (120,000 hectares), land and property rents, marine assets and all manner of scams. The crown estates made a profit of £147.7 million after tax in 2001.

Queen Elizabeth II has personal wealth estimated at £1.15 billion. The Duchy of Lancaster brings in millions more. Her stamp and medal collections are worth £102 million, her jewels £72 million. She has £7.1 million-worth of cars, and racehorses valued at £3.6 million. Her official residences of Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Holyroodhouse are supplemented by private properties at Balmoral, Sandringham and Frogmore. Buckingham Palace has 600 staff, Windsor Castle 1,000 rooms.

Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, gets £379,000 from the civil list.

Charles, the Prince of Wales, has personal wealth estimated at £346 million. He resides at St James's Palace and Highgrove, although he will move into the Queen Mother's old London residence at Clarence House. Workers in Britain will pick up the bill for refurbishment, estimated at £5 million. Clarence House costs £500,000 a year in upkeep. Charles is also the Duke of Cornwall and his land there earned him £7 million in 2000. He paid £1.5 million in tax.

Andrew, the Duke of York, has personal wealth estimated at £3.5 million. He gets £249,000 from the civil list and a Royal Navy pension of £16,500. His residences are at Sunnyhill Park, the Royal Lodge at Windsor and Buckingham Palace.

Edward, the Earl of Wessex, has a personal fortune estimated at £9 million. He lives in a £10 million, 56-room mansion, Bagshot Park, set in 88 acres of woodland. When he and the countess moved in the Ministry of Defence funded £1.8 million repairs. Bagshot costs around £250,000 a year to run. Edward gets £249,000 from the civil list and was given £250,000 when the couple agreed to stop pursuing their business careers.

Anne, the Princess Royal, gets £228,000 from the civil list. Her residences are at Gatcombe Park and St James's Palace.

Prince and Princess Michael of Kent have no royal duties. They lived rent-free for the first 18 years they spent in Kensington Palace, where they have the use of nine reception rooms, seven bedrooms and the palace staff. They have just started paying for this accommodation - £67 a week!

The Queen Mother's personal fortune was estimated at £60 million. Her civil list allowance was £643,000. She put £14 million in a trust fund for her great-grandchildren and left a £4 million overdraft with Coutts bank. If she had to pay inheritance tax the overdraft would have been discounted. As it is, however, no tax is due - part of the agreement reached with John Major's government in 1992/93. The one property she had owned herself, the Castle of Mey, was handed over to a trust in 1996. Her paintings and jewels are estimated to be worth £16.5 million.


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