The royal family are often dismissed as a pantomime sideshow. This is a mistake; the role of the monarchy is crucial. Prime ministers are appointed and subject to arbitrary dismissal by the monarch – as seen for instance in the peremptory dismissal of Australia’s mildly left-reformist prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1973. The British prime minister is obliged to report once a week for a one-to-one meeting with the monarch at which they discuss in detail the policies to be followed by the government. Both the late Queen and her heir the new King have routinely monitored proposed legislation and on some occasions vetoed it. Above all, not only MPs, civil servants and the judiciary, but crucially the police and armed forces are obliged to swear allegiance not to the elected government of the day but to the royal monarch, thus potentially guaranteeing legitimacy to any future coup. Let’s not forget the overt threats made by members of Her Majesty’s armed forces to a future Corbyn government, when a general promised outright mutiny, and paratroopers used a picture of Corbyn as target practice – in both cases without receiving even the most perfunctory rebuke.
At times even the allegiance of the royal family to British imperialism came under question. At the time of the First World War, George V was the first cousin both of the Russian Tsar Nicolai Romanov and also of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, all three being grandchildren of Queen Victoria. The family felt obliged to change its surname from Gotha-Saxe-Coburg to Windsor. In the run-up to the Second World War, Edward VIII’s open flirtation with Hitler is well documented, as are well-founded suspicions of his active treachery at the outset of the war in exposing vital French strategic defence secrets to the Nazis, following which he was discreetly despatched to the Bahamas. But the whole royal family at that time was similarly tainted with Nazi sympathies. Rudolf Hess parachuted to Britain for secret negotiations with British aristocrats, and the king’s brother Prince George mysteriously crashed en route to a suspected meeting with Nazi emissaries in Sweden. Questions have also been raised about the initial sympathies of George VI in the period up to the outbreak of war.
The special function of the royal family was to sanctify the plunder and exploitation of the British Empire. This was already in terminal decline by the time of George VI’s death, when the late Queen succeeded to the throne. At that moment she was personally visiting Britain’s colony Kenya – at the very time when its colonial administrators were committing unspeakably brutal atrocities on the Kikuyu people. Now the monarchy has long become an anomaly and the relic of a long-collapsed Empire.
That being so, it is hardly likely to survive the coming disintegration of Britain itself. For where once Britain ruled “an empire on which the sun never sets”, following the collapse of the British Empire has come the disintegration of the United Kingdom itself. It is just one referendum away from losing Scotland. And the current convulsions regarding its status following Brexit mean that before long Northern Ireland could easily conclude some kind of accommodation, if not a straight reunification deal, with the Irish Republic; despite the prejudices of the Unionists, a majority of both communities there opposed Brexit.
So “Great Britain” could soon no longer exist, let alone constitute a “United Kingdom”: instead just England and (perhaps) Wales could sink to the status of a part of an offshore island off the European mainland, a tourist spot for sightseers visiting such ancient monuments as the Tower of London and Shakespeare’s birthplace, perhaps also taking in the whisky stills of neighbouring Scotland in a double bill.
How then has this obsolete relic survived apparently unscathed for so long? Deference to the late Queen Elizabeth has been maintained largely due to her personal discretion, prudence and restraint in exercising her powers over the last seven decades. We can well imagine how easily that fragile tissue could have been shattered if her role over that period had been performed instead by someone lacking that sense of diplomacy? By her husband, or her sister, or her mother, or her uncle, or let’s say, her second son? To that extent the accolades bestowed on her memory are not entirely misplaced.
But the mystique of royalty is an anomaly and an anachronism. And let’s not forget that Queen Elizabeth was not always so revered, or so immune from public hostility. Remember Britain’s most influential media mogul Rupert Murdoch? The man who when the Tories won the 1992 general election had boasted “it woz the Sun wot won it!” and who had subsequently in effect won the 1997 election for Tony Blair? For several years Murdoch shamelessly deployed his immense propaganda power to utterly lambast and ridicule the monarchy and the Queen personally – sometimes descending to cheap smutty schoolboy sneers, for instance when she had described the year in which three of her children’s marriages had broken up and her favourite castle had burned down as her “annus horribilis”.
Moreover, let’s not forget how public reverence for the Queen suddenly evaporated following the death of Diana, when by her initial display of cold aloofness she exposed the institution and herself personally to accusations of indifference – and even to widespread suspicion that Diana’s death had been engineered by a royally contrived MI5 murder conspiracy.
The death of Elizabeth Windsor, a monarch who had reigned for 70 years, marks a significant turning point in British history. It has to be understood in the context of the chronic decline and death agony of British capitalism. Where once it was the “workshop of the world”, today it is losing its last remnants of productive industry, most of them by now just assembly plants owned by Japanese, Indian and other foreign companies which had only nested here because it was a springboard into the EU, and which as a result of Brexit are now on the point of leaving.
Along with Britain’s decay, a new faction has displaced the old establishment. Over the centuries since the end of the English civil war, behind a permanent royal façade political power had shifted from the aristocracy to industry to finance. The remnants of the old patrician establishment have been ruthlessly squashed. Thatcher destroyed the captains of industry and Johnson undermined the power of the City of London. The party which ruled England for 350 years has fallen into the clutches of a bunch of property speculators and hedge fund managers.
The recent scandals of the British monarchy are not irrelevant side shows or a trivial diversionary soap-opera. The disgrace of Prince Andrew, the lasting distaste for Charles and especially Camilla, and the abdication of Harry are sure precursors to the demise of the dynasty itself. Where the late sovereign was still held in some reverence, now that her reign has come to an end, the surviving members of the dynasty will hold no such charisma or appeal.
There is a carefully maintained myth that, unlike the uncouth French and Russians, the British are constitutionally averse to revolution. Let’s remember: which country was the first to chop off the head of a King, 150 years before the French?
First published in ‘On The Brink“