The British monarchy, which in theory is divine, eternal, and immutable, has changed as much as many other institutions of privileged society. Today, the royal family is a pretty bloodless lot, and no matter how much the Duke of Edinburgh may play for the headlines with cheeky, irascible turns of phrase, they know their place — and keep it.
This was not always so. The Prince Regent was active in the political battles and intrigues of his day and did his best to hasten his own ascension by aggravating his father’s illness. But a monarch actively involved had to take the consequences and the London mob was not slow to show its disapproval of the man who became George IV.
Victoria also was more than inclined to meddle. She tried to obstruct Liberal policy after the 1880 election and conspired against Gladstone’s government of 1886. She condemned the cause of female suffrage as a ‘mad, wicked folly’. But she was sustained by the propaganda which represented her as the embodiment of the growing wealth and power of the capitalist class of Victorian Britain. Workers endured their miseries, children starved, soldiers died, praying for long life for the queen. This did much to refurbish the image of the monarchy, and to re-establish it as a propaganda weapon of the ruling class.
Even so, Victoria came in for some criticism when, after her husband’s death, she withdrew from wholehearted devotion to her job. When her son, Edward VII, came to the throne the monarchy became associated with the dubious activities of high society — gambling, overeating, and of course the prodigious sexual adventures of the king himself who, despite this hectic existence, was lovingly known among the slum-dwelling proletariat as ‘Teddy’. The reign of Edward VII did little to improve the stability of the monarchy.
The ruling class were clearly determined that there was to be no more of this and when George V succeeded he did so as a ‘constitutional monarch—in other words, one who did as he was told. It is true that he was drawn into the fringes of the bitter struggle between Lloyd George and the 1914-18 generals but George V never committed himself and certainly did not try, once the politicians had won, to jeopardise their victory. As a whole his reign made the monarchy more secure; and this at a time during which, in other parts of the world, five emperors, eight kings, and eighteen minor dynasties disappeared.
George V had little talent or ability (left wingers used to call him George the Fish) and the fact that he unwaveringly trod the ‘constitutional’ path was enough for this arid man to be written into British history as a ‘good’ king. His son, Edward VIII, conformed to the same requirements and emphasised the fact that the capitalist class virtually employed the monarch as their figurehead and super salesman, when he was dismissed from the job because he wanted to choose his wife for himself.
The Abdication might have been a serious blow to the royal institution and this was the signal for the public relations boys to go to work. The unfortunate subject of their labours was George VI, who seemed to be a shy, awkward, and nervous, but likeable, fellow and who was certainly a reluctant hero. This delicate man had to work hard to plug the holes in the dyke and his employers made sure they got their money’s worth, subjecting him to extremities of working conditions which would have provoked the most moderate trade unionist into an immediate strike. When the press prostitutes wrote that the strain of being king killed George VI, they were probably, for once, telling the truth.
Elizabeth II has followed the same well trodden path as her father. Indeed, so colourless has been her devotion to the job that men like Malcolm Muggeridge and John Carigg (when he was Lord Altrincham), who cannot be described as fiery revolutionaries, were once moved to protest at the regularly inane platitudes of her speeches. But this, of course, is what she is paid for; a special Coronation issue of the Economist, published on May 30, 1953, made the point, delicately but firmly, when it said:
If, in the person of Elizabeth II, Her Majesty is more majestic than in the person of the great Victoria, it is because she seeks to rule only in the hearts of her people.
As any reader of the daily press knows, the Duke of Edinburgh has done his best to have the best of both worlds. Naturally it is perfectly permissible for him, in his capacity of chief export salesman for British capitalism, to criticise British export techniques and to tell businessmen to get their fingers out (how they laughed at that during the tea-breaks in the factories and typing pools!). It is even more acceptable for him to be rude about strikers and importunate students.
But even the Duke must not overstep the boundaries of his job and Philip has run into serious trouble over his attitude to the press. At one time he kept up a continuous campaign against newspapermen, covering the range from publicly saying that the Daily Express was a ‘bloody awful’ paper to the childish prank of turning on a lawn sprinkler at the Chelsea Flower Show and soaking some nearby reporters.
The press does not normally take this kind of treatment lying down. The Daily Mirror rounded off its efforts in the Profumo affair with its famous front page denial of the rumour that the Duke had been another of Christine Keeler’s customers — a denial which was obviously intended to add strength to the rumour. About the same time the Sunday Express published a remarkable middle-page article which attacked Philip for his statements about the press and on other issues. The article ended by telling the Duke to lay off and warning him that if he did not the Express had some nasty facts to reveal about him.
Since then the publicity about the royal family, which has sometimes plumbed the deepest depths of monotonous stupidity, has fallen off. The comparatively low cost of Prince Charles’s investiture — £200,000 — continues the trend although it is probable that, after the investiture, we are in for another increase in publicity, with almost every newspaper and magazine competing for the silliest story about the prince’s good looks, wisdom, grace, athletic ability, courage, erudition, wit, artistry, generosity, modesty . . .
Riddled with lies
One thing which is certain is that when Charles comes to the throne we shall get a lot of nonsense about Charles I and II, all of it riddled with lies about the Stuarts being a lot of dashing cavaliers whose reigns were notable as a rollicking merry time for people of England. It is astonishing, how even the more sober organs of capitalist opinion dish out this kind of tripe — that same coronation issue of the Economist, for example, came out with this drool about Elizabeth II:
Queens have been lucky for this country. and young queens especially. By name, Her. Majesty recalls the magical springtime of Elizabeth 1. But the parallel is closer— and equally happy—with Victoria, and either augury gives ample reason to salute Quern Elizabeth II with high hearts and hopes.
It does not need an elephantine memory to recall the super-crises and the disastrous (from the Economist’s point of view) decline in the fortunes of British capitalism which have marked the years since Elizabeth II became queen. And it does not need any great powers of reasoning to conclude from this, that the personality who happens to be on the throne at any one time does not influence the course of events of capitalism.
To many people, this is a clinching argument in favour of a republic. If a monarch does nothing, they argue, if he has no influence over events, wouldn’t it be better to abolish the institution and replace it with a president who would at least be an active and participating politician? There might be something to be said for this argument were it not for the fact that presidents, too, are impotent in face of capitalism’s anarchies; they also react to events with the additional unfortunate (for them) result that all too often they lose their job if they react in the wrong way or the events are too fierce.
In truth, republics are no more stable, no more prosperous, no more controlled, than monarchies. The lives of workers in republics, like France and America, are generally the same as those of workers in monarchies like Britain and the Scandinavian countries — and any differences are not caused by the differing constitutions. Republics need have no less flummery and ceremony than monarchies and their state occasions can cost as much (as if that matters) as any coronation or royal investiture.
Working class problems are not caused by the existence of an aristocracy but by the private property society which might need an aristocrat as a ceremonial figurehead. Workers should remember this, if they decide (as they should) that they have no cause to wave a flag for their kings, queens, and princes (although they might go along to boggle at the stupefying grandeur of it all). But it is important that they should abstain for the right reasons, and see clearly that the cause of their poverty and exploitation is not to be found in palaces. To put it another way, until the working class stop acting like cabbages we shall continue to have, in one form or another, our kings.