The monarchy needs deaths and weddings for its cyclical renewal. But they called last orders on the United Kingdom some time ago.
London—Charles is a name that most English monarchs have avoided since the 17th century. Let’s therefore start where we really should. A century and a half before the French Revolution, the English fought a civil war and made a bourgeois revolution, funded by merchants. They executed the king (Charles I) on January 30, 1649, abolished the House of Lords and declared a republican state: The Commonwealth that ruled over England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales may not have lasted very long, but it left an enduring mark. The restoration of 1660 was a compromise. The absolutist state could not be resuscitated. The “divine right of kings” was never allowed back. But the reconstituted monarchy proved to be remarkably resilient. From his perch at Princeton, Arno Mayer explained this development in his classic 1981 account, The Persistence of the Old Regime:
The [post 1660] monarchy and landed elite tamed the industrialization of England without succumbing to it…. England never became a “bourgeois order” run by a “conquering” bourgeoisie.… There was no movement to remove the crown, the royal court, the House of Lords, and the ascriptive public service nobility. Despite the decline of agriculture and despite insular security, which vitiated the need for a strong military caste, the landed classes managed to perpetuate the “archaic” political order and culture.
This archaic order has been modified over the centuries. A major reform was the neutering of the House of Lords when it rejected David Lloyd George’s “Peoples Budget” in 1911, provoking a constitutional crisis that was resolved in favor of the House of Commons. The second chamber could delay, but not veto, a bill that had been approved by the House of Commons. Nothing else happened.
In 1991, left-wing Labor parliamentarians Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn proposed and tabled the “Commonwealth of Britain Bill” that called for the radical democratization of the country with the following demands that, if ever implemented, would have completed the bourgeois revolution that began in the 17th century. They envisioned the abolition of the monarchy and an end to the constitutional status of the Crown and the disestablishment of the Church of England. The head of state would be a president, elected by a joint sitting of both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament; all the functions of the royal prerogative would be transferred to Parliament; the Privy Council would be abolished, and replaced by a Council of State. The House of Lords would be replaced by an elected House of the People and both Houses would have equal representation of men and women. England, Scotland, and Wales would have their own National Parliaments with responsibility for devolved matters as agreed; County Court judges and magistrates would be elected; and British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland would end.
Dream on!, some might say, especially now, when the country is busy groveling in public. All three UK parties, every single newspaper and TV station are staunch monarchists. So where the hell is Britain going?
Charles I did not inherit his father’s brains; it was his own arrogance and stupidity that led to his trial and execution. The leaders of the revolution were divided on the issue. Mrs. Cromwell was opposed as well. She had enjoyed tea with the queen. It was Oliver Cromwell who finally put his foot firmly on the royal neck. Charles I had broken one promise too many.
Charles III is unlikely to follow the same path. At the most, he might be reduced to the status of a bicycling, low-key king like his Scandinavian equivalents. In the past, when hardcore Welsh nationalists threatened to bomb his investiture as prince of Wales and announced that a sniper was ready and waiting to cause sensational havoc, Charles Windsor presented himself as a jokey individual, not too bothered by threats, confessing to a BBC interviewer:
As long as I don’t get covered too much in egg and tomato, I’ll be all right. I don’t blame people demonstrating like that. They’ve never seen me before. They don’t know what I’m like. I’ve hardly been to Wales, and you can’t expect people to be over-zealous about the fact of having a so-called English prince come amongst them.
Not bad. But earlier this century, when his car was unexpectedly surrounded just off Trafalgar Square—a short walk from the Banqueting House in Whitehall, where his namesake was executed—by student demonstrators protesting the new Tory government and rocked with chants of “Tory scum,” “parasites,” and “off with their heads!,” the photograph that captured the moment revealed him and his wife, Camilla, in a state of bewilderment and fear. Had his namesake’s fate momentarily flashed through his head?
On September 9, 2022, Charles III became king after a long reign by his mother. He had been waiting impatiently for some time, hoping his aging parent would follow Juliana’s example in Holland and retire, but it was not to be. Charles’s reign can’t be too long, but the current state of Britain and the monarchy invite some questions. The most important of these is whether the monarchy can survive if the United Kingdom breaks up and Scotland decides to leave the UK and join the EU. For the first time, opinion polls in Scotland are revealing that 49 percent of Scots favor independence. Another few years of Conservative rule and this could easily become 50-plus percent. A majority vote to exit if there were a new referendum would force a rethink in England and perhaps even compel its rulers and politicians to move in the direction of a written constitution.
Why did the country that first established the tradition of successful revolutions and executing their hereditary rulers cling for so long to the monarchy, adapting and using it at different times to satisfy the same basic needs: maintaining a stabilization of the ruling class and an organic embrace for all its institutions, including the Labour Party and the trade unions? As if to acknowledge this, the otherwise radical leaders of the railway workers union and the postal workers, currently in the middle of a series of effective strikes, delayed them this week as a mark of respect to the late queen. This was obviously a tactical move—but the fact that it was considered necessary indicates the continuing grip of the institution on the popular imagination in England. The durability of the 1660 compromise created a uniquely successful environment for British rulers.
Scottish historian Tom Nairn has argued for almost half a century that the monarchy was needed to act as a balancing wheel at home, both to keep a rising working class under control (George V’s behind-the-scenes interventions in the general strike of 1926 were brutal) and to try to incorporate it organically, so that its loyalty to the political system in place was never in doubt. Grateful for Labour’s moderation, the king said, “What a wonderful people we are.”
Abroad, the British Empire needed a monarch to strengthen its hold on colonies where kings were seen as normal. In both Asia and Africa, monarchs were used as pacifiers of the natives. The queen who had just died was in Kenya in 1952 while the British were crushing the Mau Mau nationalists via torture and concentration camps, “British gulags” as Caroline Elkins has described them, putting English historians to shame. It was in Kenya that the queen was informed that her father had died. George had only become king because his older brother, Edward, had married an American divorcée (reputedly ensorcelled by her proficiency at fellatio) and so was forced to abdicate. Some were nervous because of Edward’s openly expressed fondness for Hitler. Had the Germans taken Britain during the Second World War, Edward Windsor would have been put on the throne, an English Pétain.
The monarchy is willingly used to defend the needs of the British state as defined by its politicians, secret services, etc. The decision to topple Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam as punishment for bringing his country’s troops home from Vietnam was taken with the approval of Elizabeth Windsor by the British governor-general. Australia, pathetically, is still not a republic.
The closest I have been to Buckingham Palace was in 1973, when a bunch of us were arrested for opposing the presence of Portuguese dictator Marcelo Caetano at the queen’s dinner table. As I predicted to the policeman arresting me, Caetano was toppled by a popular revolution the following year. Romania’s murderous Nikolae Ceausescu was knighted by Elizabeth and slept and breakfasted at the palace. The family has a long record of hobnobbing with dictators, and Charles has often traveled with begging bowl to the Gulf states pleading for money for his foundations. “The Firm”—as the royals reputedly refer to themselves—is a wretched business that should be closed down.
The only serious question raised by the death of a 96-year-old, extremely wealthy titled lady in her palazzo is how long can this farce last? The mainstream press of Europe currently wasting so much paper on the Windsors would do well to remember that the late queen was (in private) a staunch supporter of Brexit, as revealed by Murdoch’s rag The Sun! The last few decades have revealed the monarchy (and in some ways Britain itself) to be in a state of advanced decay. The brutal treatment of Diana is now the subject of a mediocre movie. Prince Andrew’s debauchery has alienated quite a few royalists. All this has been the subject of a multi-episode soap opera on Netflix. That is where the Crown belongs—and where it should be kept. With Scottish leaders demanding a new referendum and Welsh nationalists insisting that there should be no new prince of Wales (the title given to the successor of the monarch ever since the Welsh were crushed) and threatening to disrupt the investiture in Caernafon, what the hell is the point of going on? Why should England be left to bear the burden of a continuing monarchy? The country doesn’t need it.
In 1714, when Queen Anne died without an heir, the reptilian ruling class ignored closer relations in Scotland (they were Catholics) and bought an off-the-shelf Protestant outfit in Hanover. Thus it was that the Hanoverian royals became British monarchs. The first two spoke only German; the third George lost both the American colonies and his marbles. The Prince Regent, another well-known debauchee, was the subject of vicious public ridicule and anger, and there was much talk of a popular revolution against the Hanoverians. Victoria stabilized the monarchy. She did so in conjunction with the British Empire. It was imperial domination that provided the Crown with its brightest jewel in both the figurative and literal senses of the word. India provided the material basis for enveloping the working class in bourgeois mythology. It also provided the Koh-i-noor, the largest uncut jewel in the world, which to this day is mounted in the ceremonial crown. And the popularity of the empire became linked with the monarchy in the consciousness of the masses.
The empire has long gone, but the monarchy reminds people of those “great times” when they did rule large tracts of the world. As Nairn argues in The Enchanted Glass, the British state’s victory against the French Revolution was another reason to make sure it remained a monarchy. In his words: “The advances of its industrial revolution delivered continents into its paws, in a way that no subsequent state would ever be able to emulate. The rich life-blood of a world’s wealth rushed to its head, lending a new magnificence and meaning to its mediocre dynasty.” The name of the Hanoverian dynasty had to be changed as the First World War approached. It became the House of Windsor.
In recent years a few mainstream commentators have argued that the queen who just died had remained popular because she was linked to memories of the Second World War. Much of the generation that lived through the war is now dead. Their children and grandchildren would have little truck with the sentiments expressed by General de Gaulle to the queen in a letter dispatched in 1961: “In the palace where God has put you, be who you are Madam. Be the person in relation to whom, by virtue of your legitimacy, all things in your Kingdom are ordered; the person in whom your people perceive their own nationhood; the person by whose presence and dignity, the national unity is sustained.”
The monarch is redundant today. The real king of Britain sits in the White House. The House of Windsor’s only function today is to help preserve the antiquarian structure of the British state, but structural reforms are needed on every level—as is a written constitution. Perhaps we will have to wait for the Scots to kick-start the process. After all, they produced in James Stuart (the father of Charles I) the only monarch of Scotland and England who was a gifted intellectual.
I noticed no signs of sadness or quiet on the streets of London last week. Most young people are indifferent to the monarchy. Thatcher and some of her gang had promised modernization, but that turned out to be regressive. She got trapped as well—and ended up falling for the whole show. In the late 1980s, I described Britain as an island where “two Queens sat on a single throne.”
The monarchy needs deaths and weddings for its cyclical renewal. Television cameras help create the charisma. Weddings are invariably shown as joyous—and by the time the marriage collapses, memories have also faded. State funerals reduce Britain to the level of North Korea, as in the mindless and orchestrated adulation that we are witnessing today. This funeral is being used to stress the unity of the United Kingdom. Too late, I think. The Scottish filly has bolted.
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