The Uses of Monarchy

Quite a thing has been going on recently concerning a picture of the Princess Margaret. This is virtually a repetition of what went on over the same painter’s portraits of the Queen and her husband, and there is no need here to add comments or repeat arguments. What is of greater interest is the trend of which this tiny storm is part: that is, that the Royal Family to-day is as constant a news-feature as football or film-star gossip and is, in fact, more popular than royalty has been since the nation-state began. When you consider that fewer than ninety years ago the reigning monarch was tipped as the last, and a vigorous republican movement was being led by prominent politicians and writers, it is obvious that the British monarchy has somehow had a boost in recent times.


Kings and Queens, traditionally, are romantic figures, the subjects of an inculcated mythology from everybody’s childhood. Every fairy tale revolves round them: once upon a time there was a Beautiful Princess or a Handsome Prince or a King who was Also a Magician. Elementary-school history devolves upon them: Merry Monarch, Good Queen, Peacemaker, Bluff King (never hooligan or wife-beater). For all that, the fact is that only for the last twenty years—if as long—has the Crown been really popular in Britain, and for a large part of the time it was very unpopular. Some idea of the change in the climate of opinion was given last year by the frenzy against critics of the Royal bearing and diction: the young Queen Victoria was ridiculed by cartoonists, and George V openly disparaged in the Press on his accession.


The idea of the monarch as head of the nation is a modern one, belonging to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and depending on the Crown’s holding no political power. Mediaeval kingship was a different thing. The king was supreme overlord, apex of the pyramid of feudal owning interests; his power was actual, deriving from and integral to the feudal system. This kind of monarchy declined as feudalism declined; as rival interests grew, the king became merely head of one of the contending factions. Edward IV, Richard II, Henrys Four, Five and Six were dependent on their factions, and their successors reasserted monarchy and appeared strong kings for a time only because the factions had exhausted themselves fighting.


The struggle against the monarchy was a vital part of the struggle of the rising commercial class. For half a century it held back for the struggles against the Papacy and Spain, but the storm was gathering before Elizabeth I’s reign ended. The bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class, needing control of the powers of government: the execution of Charles I was, in fact, the decapitation of an epoch.


After the swan-sang of the Restoration and James II’s short, pitiful reign, the Whigs had one political aim above all others: to keep the Stuarts, with their feudal traditions and their Papal associations, off the throne. Even William III, brought and maintained by the Whigs as mere figurehead, was never pushed too far by them for fear he should name a Stuart as his successor.


Thus, the Hanover family was imported to be the new Crown dynasty, with nothing to commend them and the populace not prepared, as the 1715 and 1745 Rebellions showed, to lift a finger to support them. Drunken, stupid George I, of whom Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote “Our customs and laws were all mysteries to him, which he neither tried to understand, nor was capable of understanding if he endeavoured it.” and Lord Chesterfield said: “The King loved pleasure, and was not delicate in his choice of it. No woman came amiss to him, if they were very willing and very fat”; George II, full of senseless cruelty; George III, shaking hands with the trees in Windsor Park. Of the whole bunch, indeed, Sir Charles Petrie wrote in his Monarchy in the Twentieth Century: “There had clearly been a streak of abnormality . . . from the beginning.” A nineteenth-century poet, Landor, expressed it more feelingly:


“When George the Fourth from earth descended.
Thank God the line of Georges ended.”


However, it was with the Georges on the throne that the modern concept of monarchy developed. Bolingbroke’s Idea of a Patriot King, published in 1749, proposed (although Bolingbroke had the Stuarts in mind) the monarchy as the embodiment of national ideals, and after the final collapse of Jacobite opposition, this became accepted as the real function of monarchy. In fact, there were no interests now that the monarch could represent other than the “national” ones—that is, those of the propertied classes as a whole. No longer an overlord, removed from control of armed forces, set up in maintenance of bourgeois interests against those of the old order, the king had become King Capital’s torch-bearer.


Whatever remained of royal power and prestige sank to rock-bottom in Victoria’s early years. Her predecessors had shown as much interest as they were permitted in government; Victoria’s acquiescence established the convention that the Crown did not take part any more. The working class had little reason for enthusiasm, and the ruling class no longer had to support this dynasty in case something worse came along. When Victoria withdrew from public life after her husband’s death, a strong movement headed by Thackeray, J. R. Green. Morley. Joseph Chamberlain, Bradlaugh and several more asked if the monarchy were necessary at all. The movement faded, principally because the Empire-builders found the Crown too useful a figurehead, but the Crown had learned that it ought to show itself in public.


For that reason, the last years of Victoria’s reign had royal display in plenty, and Edward VII gained still greater benefit from pageantry. It is doubtful if the monarchy became much more popular in Edward’s time, except among the beer-swilling and odds-laying sections, but he did open an important new field for the ruling class by carrying regal display—and with it, British interests— abroad. His visit to Paris, starting with compliments to actresses and ending with cheering crowds in the streets, in 1903 prepared the ground for the Franco-British Entente. Lansdowne and Grey conducted the negotiations, but the French President spoke of the “happy impetus” given to them by Edward’s window-show. Subsequent monarchs and their families have done as much and more.


There has been one other important influence in the twentieth century in securing the position of the British monarchy: the rise of rival nations with other kinds of figureheads. First the Kaiser, then Mussolini. Hitler and Stalin caused the thought that, if this kind of thing were the modem alternative, there was something to be said for the British monarchy after all. George V was never greatly popular, but in the nineteen-thirties he was almost the only national figurehead in Europe whose public utterances were not inflammatory harangues on war and encirclement.


The real reason why the King never did so. apart from whatever personal inclination he may have had, was simply that it was not his place to speak as a leader or to state foreign policy. The monarchy in modem times is devoid of political power or autonomy. The last time a British monarch expressed himself independently on a political matter was when Edward VIII showed concern over the slums of Glasgow and South Wales; few people believed that the King’s wish to marry Mrs. Simpson was the only issue in the constitutional crisis of 1936. However, many people must have been given food for thought by the fact that potentially the most popular of all British monarchs was dismissed, as summarily as a worker from a factory, when he refused to toe the line laid down by the Cabinet on behalf of the ruling class.


If there was doubt among pro-capitalist politicians in the nineteenth century of the usefulness of monarchy, there is none today. The Conservative Party has never wavered in supporting monarchy, of course; and, since the first Ministers in the first Labour Government made their low obeisances, nor has the Labour Party. Indeed, in the Abdication crisis the Labour Party was solidly behind the Conservative Cabinet, and the Daily Herald’s commentary was undistinguishable from that of the Mail or the Express. And since the war there has been ample opportunity—a royal wedding, an accession, a coronation, and a great deal of subsidiary display—to see the cap-touching and sycophancy which make plain the allegiance of a party which initially gained support by big talk about the abolition of privilege.


The only Labour criticism of royalty in fairly recent times was made from the viewpoint of what was good for Capitalism. Shortly after the coronation of George VI, Mr. Attlee spoke of the need for the Crown to come down to the man in the street a bit more—and found Conservatives agreeing heartily (“For them he must be no mere king in a gilt State coach.” wrote Wilson Harris in The Spectator). That policy was pursued with a vengeance, less with George VI himself than in the preparation of his daughter for the throne. No monarch ever started off so well for popularity: a popularity favoured by youth, romance and motherhood and skilfully fostered by every newspaper in the land (most of all, incidentally, by the pro-Labour Mirror and Pictorial).


The present Royal Family comes as close as any capitalist politician could desire to the modern monarchical ideal. No interference in politics, but a worthy interest in science; admirably suited to gather prestige abroad; most of all, a continual and absorbing attraction to the working class. There have been hints recently that the publicity has been overdone, that there have been too many chambermaids’ reminiscences and news items like the Sunday Pictorial’s announcement that the Queen’s bust-line had improved to maintain the essential dignity of royalty. Nevertheless, the Crown today as never before embodies the national ideals—the ideals, that is, of the national ruling class.
But does monarchy serve any interest for ordinary people, beyond giving a holiday and a pageant now and then? It may be said that if it does them no good, it does them no harm either. If it were true that to fill people’s heads with nonsense did no harm, that might be so; and most of it is nonsense. There is no reason for thinking that the Queen and her husband are not pleasant decent people. If things were otherwise, however, the truth is that they would still be presented as paragons. Some monarchs have been cruel, irresponsible and contemptibly low, but their subjects have still been asked for reverence. Within a week of Edward VIII’s abdication his shortcomings were common knowledge, and Sir Charles Petrie (in the book already quoted) hinted at a strain of abnormality in Edward from the Hanover ancestry; would those things have been said if Edward had remained the King?


It is not the monarch that is at fault in all this, but the social system which needs a shining symbol; where there is no monarchy, something else has to be held up to dazzle the dispossessed. The man with the flag and the girl admiring the pictures in her magazine have the light full in their eyes just now—but they need only look away for a moment to see who holds it up, and why.


Robert Barltrop