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Socialism Today 158 - May 2012

The royal show

Queen Elizabeth II has reigned for 60 years. This year’s diamond jubilee celebrations have already begun, part of a massive campaign by the establishment of nostalgia and patriotic fervour. A rainforest of books are landing on retailers’ shelves. MANNY THAIN reviews one of the recent titles.

The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People

By Andrew Marr

Published by Macmillan, 2011, £25

IN TIMES Of austerity, the ruling class likes nothing better than to put on a show. Roman emperors had their bread and circuses. British capitalism has the royal family. Last year’s hyped-up wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton was really the warm-up act to Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee this year.

We are now only in the middle of a jubilee marathon building up to the national holiday in early June. Already the queen and her consort, Prince Philip, have been touring the country. Celebrations will culminate with a concert outside Buckingham palace, where the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Sir Tom Jones and Sir Cliff Richard will perform. There will hardly be time to catch breath before London puts on the Olympic and Paralympic games in the summer. The Con-Dem government will hope to bask in any reflected glory.

Establishment politicians are more than willing to grant a one-day holiday for a royal occasion. Yet, if the trade unions called a one-day general strike against austerity, the self-same politicians and commentators would howl with rage, denouncing the strikers for wreaking havoc on the economy and holding the country to ransom. Economists say the June holiday could hit GDP by 0.5%. (The Guardian, 6 February)

Of course, holidays to celebrate the royal family, or to mourn the death of its members, have the express purpose of building support for this relic of feudalism which has been rebranded over the decades to reinforce British capitalism. Sycophantic commentary spews out of every media orifice, regurgitating reactionary patriotic propaganda. The queen’s ‘subjects’, for that is our official position, are expected to bow our heads, or at least keep them down.

Authority and power

AUTHORS HAVE ALSO sought to cash in, rushing to print with new books. One such offering is The Diamond Queen, by the BBC television presenter, Andrew Marr. Early on, he writes: "She stands for the state – indeed, in some ways, at least in theory, she is the state. She is the living representative of the power structure that struggles to protect and sustain some 62 million people, and another 72 million in her other ‘realms’."

For Marr, the state exists for the benefit of the whole population. In reality, it is a structure by which a minority ruling class maintains its privileged position. The components of the capitalist state – the police, armed forces, judiciary, media, etc, and the monarchy – ultimately ensure that the profit-driven system continues and, with it, the exploitation of the majority of the population.

When Marr goes on to say that the queen "has great authority and no power", he hits on an important point, even though he overstates it. Obviously, the queen is the head of the monarchy – it is not all about her as an individual – and plays in important constitutional role. Although it would be true to say that she has little real power, being the centre of much constitutional activity does give her a lot of authority and, with that, a certain amount of influence.

The queen is head of the armed forces. Troops pledge allegiance to her, fight and die in her name. She heads the Commonwealth, invented in 1949 to maintain economic and political links with newly independent India and the other parts of the empire which were breaking away under the pressure of mass liberation movements. The queen appoints bishops and archbishops. She opens parliament, holds a weekly audience with the prime minister and receives cabinet minutes. Known by the security services as ‘Reader No.1’, she has access to secret Foreign Office cables, and has regular briefings from senior military and MI6 leaders.

Taking care of business

THE MONARCHY PLAYS a role on the international stage. When it comes to royal links with authoritarian regimes, Marr is very forgiving: "The UAE and Oman are monarchies themselves, and in Oman’s case an absolute monarchy. In this modern version of the ‘great game’, nations must play the cards they have; and Britain can play the queen. Few of her rivals have a long-serving, internationally famous monarch in whose company sheikhs seem comfortable, talking horseflesh and architecture".

Marr notes that the UAE and Omani military top brass train at the elite Sandhurst academy and use British weaponry. And, without a word of qualification, how these states have ‘aided’ the ‘war on terror’ and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Back in 1975, a constitutional crisis in Australia saw the use of the monarch’s reserve powers to devastating effect. The Labor government of Gough Whitlam had a majority in the lower house, but not the senate. Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal opposition used the senate to block Labor’s budget, paralysing the government. The queen’s representative in Australia, the governor general, Sir John Kerr, intervened by sacking Whitlam and appointing Fraser in his place.

Kerr was using the same powers which could allow the queen to sack a prime minister in Britain. According to Marr, this "demonstrates the dangers of the queen’s theoretically political role when others try to exploit it". The purpose of this formulation is to absolve the queen of any responsibility. It is not certain whether the queen was directly involved in the decision. But Marr spends a lot of time stressing how well-informed she is, and you cannot have it both ways. What is clear is that this episode exposes a potential danger, especially to any future socialist government.

Marr fully backs Prince Andrew’s role as a business lobbyist. The Guardian reported that, in December last year, Prince Andrew met with the king of Bahrain at the taxpayers’ expense. This was after a report detailing serious human rights violations by the regime, including the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters, arbitrary arrest and torture.

Even though he announced that he was stepping down from his business engagements, Prince Andrew continues to hold private meetings with the foreign secretary, William Hague, chancellor, George Osborne, and other cabinet members. He travelled with the trade minister, Lord Green, on an official mission to Saudi Arabia in September.

Shortly before the Arab spring, Prince Andrew invited Sakher el-Materi, a son-in-law of the now deposed Tunisian dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, to lunch at Buckingham palace. He met Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli on government business in November 2008 and gave a seminar at St James’s palace in July 2009 for Gaddafi’s £5 billion Libya Africa Investment Portfolio. (The Guardian, 31 January)

Cynical rebranding

ALTHOUGH MONARCHY IN Britain goes back centuries, the queen is only the fourth head of a dynasty reinvented during the first world war to ditch its close German connections: "Kaisers came to tea and joined parades dressed in British military uniform". Most of the pomp and ceremony we see today are modern creations.

Radicalism was sweeping across Europe, the Russian tsar falling in the 1917 February revolution. King George V already had a taste during mass strikes and upheavals in 1911-12: "In the streets, a more militant socialism was being taught, with the earliest Labour politicians often defining themselves as anti-monarchists. Labour’s much loved early leader, Keir Hardie, was a lifelong republican who was particularly hated by the palace".

George V was seen as being closer to his cousin, the Kaiser, than the people of Britain. Marr protests that "this was entirely untrue" but, in terms of his bloodline and class, it is absolutely correct. While millions of workers were put in uniform and packed off to the hell of the trenches, mustard gas and mass slaughter, George even opposed taking away the Kaiser’s honorary command of British regiments.

Eventually, George V realised that the monarchy had to change to survive. Firstly, his name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, had to go. Unable to find an English surname which could be backed up historically, one was made up by choosing the place-name of the king’s favourite palace. On 17 July 1917, the Windsor dynasty was born. The honours system was changed. The Order of the British Empire was introduced to boost voluntary work, essential in keeping services running. During the first world war, around 10,000 new voluntary organisations were set up.

Lord Stamfordham summed up succinctly the cynical strategy behind the rebranding, writing in 1917: "We must endeavour to induce the thinking working classes, socialist and others, to regard the Crown, not as a mere figurehead and an institution which, as they put it, ‘don’t count’, but as a living power for good... affecting the interests and well-being of all classes". In other words, it was developed, consciously, as an obstacle to working-class people gaining class consciousness.

It was not all plain sailing. In November 1918, George V rode to a rally of 35,000 ex-servicemen in Hyde Park. He found himself surrounded by men protesting about meagre pensions, joblessness and poor housing. He was nearly pulled off his horse as police struggled to control the crowd.

George V held his silver jubilee in 1935, receiving a congratulatory message from Adolf Hitler. His death the following year, and the abdication of Edward VIII (because he was going to marry divorcee, Wallis Simpson – then unacceptable for the head of the Church of England), saw George VI ascend the throne. He was the subject of the acclaimed film, The King’s Speech, which glossed over the monarchy’s links with Nazi Germany. When Tory prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, returned from Germany in 1938, Munich agreement in hand, George VI issued a message thanking God and Chamberlain for "a new era of friendship and prosperity".

From top to bottom

THE WEDDING OF Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip in 1947 and her coronation in 1953 played their part in establishing the Windsor dynasty. Prince Philip also had to drop his family name, Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, taking his mother’s anglicised name, the newly coined Mountbatten.

In 1947 Britain was in financial crisis, trade union militancy on the rise. Meat rations fell below wartime levels, clothes rations were cut and petrol was scarce. Some MPs reasonably argued that the king should pay for his own daughter’s wedding. As ever, the monarchy was reluctant to hand over its cash, so negotiations ensued before a compromise was reached. The deal only just passed through parliament, however, with 165 Labour MPs voting for a lower payment.

Marr offers up part of the truth: "The wedding was like a giant shop window, a million noses pressed against it, and ‘coming soon’, or ‘coming one day’ written overhead. It was an early premonition, at the darkest economic hour, of the rosy consumerist dawn... [Elizabeth] was being seen as a national symbol of youth, rebirth, and hope". That was certainly the way the ruling class wanted it to be seen.

With the second world war finally over, people were well up for a party. But the millions of returned troops and war-effort workers had been radicalised. They wanted a better world, and were prepared to struggle for it. The coronation was intended as a huge distraction from economic and political turmoil. Marr is happy to go along with the pretence – and to continue to promote it. It is the same kind of lie peddled by the Con-Dems in this time of savage cutbacks: ‘we’re all in it together’.

A massive 19 million people watched the BBC’s coverage of the coronation. Consistently, Marr equates working-class people’s participation in a day off work, at street parties, even watching a momentous occasion on television, as hard-wired support for the monarchy. This is too simplistic. He dismisses left-wing opposition, making the common error of capitalist commentators of taking the position of the leaders of workers’ organisations as that of the working class as a whole.

It is true that most of the labour and trade union movement leaders were (and are) out of touch with the conditions faced by working-class people and the rank and file of the organisations they purported to lead. This chasm was why Marxists characterised the Labour Party as a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. But there was a dynamic, living struggle between the rank and file and the leadership – at least until the advent of New Labour.

During the 1960s and 70s, sections of the ruling class considered the possibility of a military coup should a left-wing Labour government take office. So that ‘threat’ was taken seriously. The fact that such discussions involved people like Lord Mountbatten, very close to the queen, indicates another role that the monarchy could potentially play. That is, as a pole of attraction to mobilise reactionary forces against attempts to move towards a socialist transformation of society.

A high price to pay

OVER THE CENTURIES there has been an ongoing tug-of-war over control of the monarchy’s finances, and parliamentary scrutiny of the way it works. Marr puts forward a breathtaking justification for parasitism: "The payments to royals were not simply fees for public duties. They were an acknowledgment that, because of their birth, these were mostly people who could not simply go out and earn their living in the ordinary way". Now, that’s a real benefits culture!

The queen has three sources of income. The recently amended Civil List is paid by the Treasury. It dates back to 1760, when George III agreed to hand over the revenue from the Crown Estate in return for a payment from parliament. The Crown Estate comprises the lands acquired by monarchs over more than 1,000 years. They are valued at around £6.6 billion, and include 450 farms, Scottish grassland, more than half of Britain’s foreshore, all the seabed out to the 12-mile limit, chunks of Regent Street and St James’s in London, Portland stone quarries, forests and much else besides.

Marr tries to discount the queen’s priceless paintings and jewels because, although she can look at or wear them, she cannot sell them, they are passed down. There is no escaping the fact, nonetheless, that they are an integral part of a fabulously opulent lifestyle.

Apart from all this, the queen’s main source of independent income comes from the Duchy of Lancaster. Dating back to 1265, it holds farmland across the north of England, valuable properties in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Harrogate and Stoke, foreshores and moorlands, a railway station, a private airfield and more. Its asset value was £323 million in 2009 and it currently raises over £13 million a year.

Out of this, the queen funds the royals except for herself and Prince Philip (paid out of the Civil List, now calculated at 15% of Crown Estate revenues), and Prince Charles. The huge cost of staff pensions and security is still dumped on taxpayers. The Duchy of Cornwall, founded in 1337, supports Prince Charles and his family, on an income around £15 million a year. The queen also has substantial private investments, almost certainly in the hundreds of millions.

There is no justification for this concentration of wealth in the hands of so few. These buildings, art treasures, productive and recreational land should be accessible to all, their uses decided by elected, accountable bodies representing the working class and majority population.

Shattered image

THE ROYAL FAMILY provides another form of distraction as Britain’s longest-running soap opera. Although things seem to have settled down lately, it has been viewed as Britain’s No.1 dysfunctional family. The year 1992 was particularly eventful. In March, the Duke and Duchess of York separated. The following month, Princess Anne and Mark Phillips followed suit. Andrew Morton’s book, Diana, Her True Story, was serialised in the Sunday Times, exposing the collapse of Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles.

Meanwhile, Britain was gripped in recession, Tory prime minister, John Major, on the ropes. On 16 September, Black Wednesday, the pound crashed out of the European exchange rate mechanism and the Tory Party was split over the Maastricht treaty.

On 20 November, a fire at Windsor castle took 250 fire-fighters 15 hours to control, damaging 100 rooms. A shaken palace official said: "I remember going across the rose garden carrying Prince Philip’s sock drawer" – it’s a completely different world! Uproar greeted the news that the castle was not insured and taxpayers would be expected to foot the £40 million bill.

The death of Princess Diana on 31 August 1997 was another blow to the monarchy. This time, the queen was in the firing line. She had stayed in Balmoral while thousands of people massed outside St James’s palace, London. New Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, and his spin doctors were alarmed. Blair said: "The outpouring of grief was turning into a mass movement for change. It was a moment of supreme national articulation and it was menacing for the royal family". Blair was in close contact with the queen’s private secretaries and played a pivotal role in rescuing the reputation of the monarchy.

This all matters in the sense that part of the monarchy’s authority is based on its moral example: the ideal capitalist family. That has been shattered.

A class apart

AT PRESENT, A concerted attempt is underway to further rebrand the monarchy, with ‘Kate and Wills’ playing the parts of ‘ordinary people’, not so different from the rest of us – all in it together. Marr issues a warning: "The future king’s wife went to Marlborough school; so did the prime minister’s wife. None of this need mean very much at all, so long as care is taken to avoid the impression of a closed ruling class, with morning coats, identical accents and similar views". But they are different. They are part of the ruling class, the 1% exploiting the 99%.

Marr asks: "Is it a coincidence that the most fervent royal-worshippers tend to be the quieter, getting-on-with-it majority, the very people ignored by the elite?" He mentions a sign at a street party in a run-down area of east London during George V’s 1935 silver jubilee: ‘Lousy but Loyal’. And a journalist’s comments at Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee in 1977, that "the wealthier the street, the less likely it is to have a party".

His viewpoint comes from someone who does not see the need or possibility for change. For all the rebranding, the monarchy is an anachronism belonging in feudal times. Socialists stand for a genuinely democratic system. One in which working-class people and the vast majority have real control over our lives. One in which we can plan production and allocate resources so that we can all live a stimulating and productive life. If Andrew Marr had his way, we would remain subjects forever, grateful to receive occasional light relief from the royal show, the circus in breadline Britain.


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