The death of Elizabeth II on September 8, 2022, officially “Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories” and “head of the Commonwealth, defender of the faith”, triggered ten days of “national mourning” before her state funeral on 19 September. It led to a wholesale suspension of normal politics and much else as Britain’s establishment and media rallied those paying attention to a daily diet of “tradition” and ceremony orchestrated under the codename Operation London Bridge. An institution that appears an anachronism and irrelevance most of the time, other than to curious tourists and the celebrity-obsessed media, suddenly took centre stage. Clearly, this phenomenon needs to be explained.1
Consult Merriam-Webster’s dictionary about the word “epitome”, defined as “an ideal example”, and you find the following example sentence: “The British monarchy is the epitome of tradition”.2 In fact, the Crown is the epitome of deception.
From Charles I to Charles III
The deception begins with the word “monarch”. Under feudalism, the term’s Latin meaning, “one ruler”, had a semblance of truth, although the balance of power between the monarch and wider aristocracy was frequently contested. Many of the well-known episodes in medieval English history reflected the struggle within the feudal ruling class. For example, the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 codified the relationship and rights of barons and the monarch following a series of wars, and the Wars of the Roses raged between competing “royal houses” over control of the throne for much of the 15th century.
Yet, the idea of the monarch “ruling” in a capitalist Britain has long been a nonsense. When precisely this transition from feudal ruler to figurehead occurred remains obscure to many people because establishment historians tend to draw a veil over the process. Nevertheless, the moment of transition is, in fact, quite clear.
In January 1649, Charles I was put on trial by parliament in Westminster Hall. He was then convicted and executed. This was the height of what Marxists refer to as the English Revolution, although it is more commonly known as the English Civil Wars. Through the period up to the revolution, the monarch possessed an authority that was absolute in theory, if not always in practice. Monarchs could be summarily deposed, but the monarchy continued, justified as existing “by the grace of God”. Yet, after the revolution, monarchy in the literal sense of “ruling” no longer existed in England.
The English Revolution was of a piece with a Europe-wide set of confrontations such as the Thirty Years War, which raged between 1618 and 1648 in Central Europe. This conflict set feudal, Catholic reaction against the rising power of the propertied, merchant and urban bourgeois class that embraced Protestantism as a challenge to the status quo. Similarly, the Westminster parliament, increasingly representing these propertied and merchant classes in England and Wales, triggered the First English Civil War in 1642 by refusing the tax demands of Charles I. This first war ended in a victory for the parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army, a new form of disciplined, paid, ideologically committed military force. Parliament and King reached a deal that stripped the monarch of important powers but retained the Crown. When Charles I reneged on the deal and attempted to resume the war, he was seized and tried for “tyrannical power” and “traitorously levying war against parliament and people”. On 30 January 1649, he was beheaded on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Parliament declared a republic, abolishing the monarchy, the House of Lords and feudal tenures.3
Cromwell’s forces defeated Charles’s son, who fled to France, before they overwhelmed a Scottish army and savagely repressed Ireland. The revolution posed the question of who should rule in the monarch’s place—and in whose interests. The army became the centre of a debate, which nevertheless extended far beyond its ranks, about how society should be run, and the propertied classes represented in parliament became increasingly alarmed. For a time, the issues were resolved by parliament declaring Cromwell to be Lord Protector. However, when Cromwell died in 1658, the question returned. The ensuing instability was ended in 1660 when a reactionary landowner whom Cromwell had made commander in Scotland, General George Monck, marched on London with an army of Scots. At the same time, a majority of members of parliament invited Charles I’s son to return from France as Charles II, in what is termed the Restoration.
The Restoration was possible because, although the English Revolution had abolished the monarchy, lords, bishops and feudal tenure, it had not abolished the ranks of nobility and gentry. Crucially, it failed to expropriate the big landowners who sought an end to the challenge to their property. The period between 1649 and 1660 was subsequently referred to as the Interregnum—an interruption of royal rule—by those wishing to underscore the continuity of English (and then British) history. However, this “interruption” marked a decisive break rather than a temporary blip. Feudal tenures and the King’s former powers over the propertied classes were never restored. In essence, Charles II was forced to accept the settlement forced on Charles I in 1648, which enshrined the reduction of the monarch’s power and which his father had sought to overthrow. Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of the English Revolution, noted that power resided not with the monarch but with “a parliament representative of the propertied classes”.4 Hill quoted a French ambassador to London in 1665 who reported that England “has a monarchical appearance”: “There is a king, but…it is very far from being a monarchy”.5 In 1660, the diarist Samuel Pepys recorded, “The King’s letter was read in the House, wherein he submits himself and all things to them”.6 As Hill explained, “The Restoration reasserted the authority of…the gentry and merchant oligarchies, both against any restoration of monarchical absolutism…and against a radical republic based on a democratic army”.7
This break with the past was confirmed by the final act of the revolutionary drama in 1688, afterwards known as the Glorious Revolution. This saw the throne pass to a Dutch prince, William of Orange, who became William III of England after the crisis that followed the death of Charles II in 1685. Ascending the throne, James II, Charles’s younger brother, sought a reassertion of royal power and a return to Catholicism. The crisis ended when parliament invited William, a Protestant and the husband of James’s daughter Mary, to become joint monarch with his wife. William landed with a huge force, and James fled to France, ensuring a Protestant succession and consolidating the overthrow of absolute monarchy.
In the space of four decades, parliament had executed one king, driven a second into exile before allowing his return, deposed a third and selected a fourth. Its victories represented the triumph of the rising bourgeois class, which allowed a sovereign to return as titular head of the new order: a “constitutional” monarch, a figurehead of bourgeois rule.
Nonetheless, the Crown retained certain powers despite its subjection to parliament, and a series of monarchs sought to assert these “prerogatives”. Yet, the rapid accumulation of wealth by the propertied classes—through the plunder of overseas colonies and the trade in slaves and the commodities these slaves produced—left the monarchy increasingly subordinate. As a symbol of this subordination, the Crown’s lands were taken over by parliament in 1760, with the monarch left dependent on the government for income.
The function of royalty
As the political importance of the monarchy declined, so did its personal status. The era of George I, George II, George III and George IV, who sat on the throne between 1714 and 1830, is viewed even by conservative historians as the low point of the monarchy. The attitude of the time is captured by an anonymous lampoon of Prince Frederick of Wales, eldest son of George II and father of George III, following his death:
Here lies Fred,
Who was alive and is dead.
Had it been his father,
I had much rather…
But since it is Fred who was alive and is dead,
Why there’s no more to be said.8
In 1830, George IV died, and The Times, an establishment newspaper, wrote, “Never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures.” Reflecting on the King’s funeral, the paper continued, “We never saw so motley, so rude, so ill-mannered a body of persons”.9
The decline in respect for the monarchy came amid the political, social and economic upheavals that gave birth to the modern era: the American Revolution between 1775 and 1783, the Great French Revolution, which began in 1789, and the revolutionary wave that ensued from these events; industrialisation and the rise of Chartism, the first mass working-class movement in Britain; and the revolutions of 1848 across Europe. The entire social order was in question.
When Queen Victoria took the throne in 1830, the monarchy appeared to be close to extinction. Victoria did little to alter that perception. In 1861, following the death of her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, she went into seclusion at Windsor Castle for two decades. Her absenteeism led to the addition of a popular verse to the national anthem:
Grandchildren not a few,
With great-grandchildren too
She blessed has been.
We’ve been their sureties,
Paid them gratuities, pensions, annuities,
God save the Queen.10
What saved the monarchy in Britain was the development of a colonial empire and a realisation by some members of the capitalist ruling class—most notably prime ministers William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli in the second half of the 19th century—that the Crown might play a new role in the modern capitalist state. After Victoria was persuaded to re-enter public life, British imperialism gave her a fresh function as the figurehead of empire. After the crushing of the uprising against British rule in India of 1857-8, known in Britain as the Indian Mutiny, Disraeli had Victoria declared “Empress of India”. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, styled the “Festival of the British Empire” by government minister Joseph Chamberlain, represented the zenith of Britain’s global domination.
The high point of Chartism and the revolutionary threat it posed to bourgeois rule had passed by the middle of the century. Yet, the rapid transformation of society appeared to presage fresh upheavals. Britain’s population grew from about 10.7 million in 1801 to 37 million by the end of the century, with the ratio of urban to rural inhabitants going from 20:80 to 80:20.11 Britain became an industrialised capitalist state with an industrial working class.
Gladstone, who enjoyed four terms as prime minister between 1868 and 1894, stressed the “vast importance” of the “social and visible functions of the monarchy” and the “stability of the throne” for “the social wellbeing of the country”.12 Similarly, Victorian legal writer Walter Bagehot noted in his work on constitutional law, The English Constitution, “If a king is a useful public functionary who may be changed and in whose place you may make another, you cannot regard him with mystic awe and wonder”.13 The irreplaceability of the monarch became symbolically important amid the slow process of democratisation in Britain and the advent of mass electoral politics following the passing of the Second Reform Act in 1867. Henceforth, a vital part of the sovereign’s role was to appear above politics and the conflicts in society in order to represent everyone in “the nation” regardless of class. Royal family members were to embody the bourgeois ideals of nation, family, religion and duty, with princes performing military service and princesses “working” for charity. The monarch would act as “the steady centre amid constant flux”, as Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland recently put it.14
The royal “traditions” that supposedly stretch back deep into history—the rituals associated with coronations, royal weddings, state openings of parliament and state funerals—date largely from these decades leading up to the First World War. A very similar process was underway in other European monarchies of the day, where ruling families often retained real power until defeat in the First World War swept away many of them including the German and Austro-Hungarian Kaisers and the Russian Tsar.
In a broadcast address following her coronation in 1953, Elizabeth II claimed, “The ceremonies you have seen today are ancient; some of their origins are veiled in the mists of the past”.15 This was nonsense. Few dated beyond the late 19th century. Yet, as the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole explained following Elizabeth’s death, “Monarchy seeks, above all, to put on a show of timelessness, in which the ruler floats above contingency and change”.16
The Queen’s funeral encapsulated these elements. The antique uniforms, the parades by the armed forces and the body being borne through the streets on a gun carriage frame the British state and its brutal imperial history as something to cherish. The objective is partly to obscure the horrors of colonialism and the realities of class-riven society. The period of mourning and the pomp of the state funeral also aimed to obscure the wholesale decline of the British capitalist class’s power during Elizabeth II’s reign. This theatre and its deceit are peddled to all, but the key target is the working class. The monarchy provides what Hill called “the keystone of the arch of social inequality”.17 So, why do so many people accept it?
The modern monarchy bears some similarities to religion, a point noted by Friedrich Engels:
This loathsome cult of the King…the veneration of an empty idea…is the culmination of monarchy, just as the veneration of the mere word “God” is the culmination of religion.18
The teachings of religions about the origins of the world, the nature of reality and so on have been exposed over centuries, yet religion survives, even if only in the enfeebled condition of institutions such as the Anglican church (now headed by Charles III). The youthful Karl Marx was involved in a three-cornered debate on the persistence of religious ideas. On one side was the great idealist philosopher G W F Hegel, who venerated the Absolute Idea, a version of God. Against him stood the Young Hegelians, who argued that “man makes religion, religion does not make man”.19 They believed this insight alone produces “the complete and absolute dissolution of theology”.20 Marx rejected both. Instead, he attributed the staying power of religion to alienation: the fact that, although human beings create the world around them through their labour, they do not consciously control the labour process and what it produces under capitalism.
Indeed, the British monarchy is only possible because workers built and maintain the palaces and provide the income that finances the royals. Yet, because workers depend on the ruling class for employment, they feel powerless. The harsher the exploitation and the greater the sense of powerlessness, the more wonderful the monarchy appears. Royalty functions, like religion, as a soothing outlet for people’s suffering, giving vent, as Marx put it, to “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions”. As Marx explained, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions”.21
Chris Harman, a former editor of this journal, wrote following the death of Princess Diana:
The magical aura which, for so many people, surrounds the royals is an inverted reflection of the cramped nature of their own existence. Unable to live their own lives to the full, they try to live them vicariously through identification with the most “glamourous” of those who live off their backs. This is of great consolation to the ruling class as a whole, even if an object of adulation sometimes does things that annoys them. Religion, Marx concluded, was “the opium of the people”. So too is the monarchy. And nothing gives media magnates, big businessmen and mainstream politicians more pleasure than to dish it out in large quantities.22
The royals exist also as a rarefied form of celebrity, offering a “magical” escape from the world of alienated labour. Marx described this alienation: “The worker… only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working and, when he is working, he does not feel at home”.23 Colin Sparks explained how this phenomenon relates to celebrity in this journal in 2007:
The realm of celebrity is the realm of legitimised personality. One of the key characteristics is that their private lives and doings are taken to be interesting and treated as public property. This is often denounced as intolerable intrusion, but in fact it is the highest reward that can be bestowed under capitalism. Unlike the mass of the population, the celebrity is someone whose individuality is taken seriously.24
The Windsors, who were called Saxe-Coburg and Gotha until war with Germany forced a name change in 1917, have only a tenuous claim to being the current royal family. The royal website admits there were 52 candidates with a better claim to the throne than Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, when he became George I in 1714.25 Still, almost everything about the monarchy is based on a facade.
Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky noted: “The great, moving forces of history…are super-personal in character…but all these forces operate through people. Monarchy is by its very principle bound up with the personal”.26 The personalities of the royal family are revealing. A book by the US biographer Kitty Kelley, which was banned from sale in Britain, starts with Princess Margaret, Elizabeth II’s sister, walking out of the film Schindler’s List and complaining of “tiresome movies about the Holocaust”:
What she resented was the lingering stench of the wartime German connection that continued to hang over her family. Their secrets of alcoholism, drug addiction, epilepsy, homosexuality, bisexuality, adultery, infidelity and illegitimacy paled alongside their relationship with the Third Reich. Few remember King Edward VIII (her uncle) embraced Nazi Germany as Europe’s saviour.27
This connection is evidenced by photographs of the future Queen giving the Hitler salute as a child in 1933, coached by her Nazi-supporting uncle Edward VIII, who was subsequently forced to abdicate. Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip of Greece, had his own Nazi links. His sisters married German noblemen, one of whom, Prince Christoph of Hesse, was an SS colonel on Heinrich Himmler’s personal staff. They named their son Karl Adolf in honour of the Führer.
In the early days of the Second World War, the King and Queen were booed by Londoners made homeless by the blitz. A communique was soon issued stressing their self-sacrifice, accompanied by a photo captioned: “Their majesties outside Buckingham Palace…subject to identical trials”.28 However, while the population endured food rationing, the royals ate roast beef and drank champagne.
Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding in 1947 took place amid post-war austerity and rationing. The Archbishop of Canterbury described the ceremony as “exactly the same as it would be for any cottager”, but the reality was different:
There were 12 wedding cakes at the royal reception, including one 9 feet in height. Each slice contained a week’s sugar rations for the average family. There were 2,666 wedding presents, including a thoroughbred horse, a mink coat, a 22-carat gold coffee service, a 54-carat pink diamond, said to be the only one of its kind in the world, and a plantation and hunting lodge in Kenya.29
When Elizabeth acceded to the throne on the death of her father George VI in February 1952, she was on holiday in Kenya, then a British colony. Between her accession and her coronation in June 1953, Kenya underwent an uprising against British rule. Its brutal suppression saw mass arrests, the torture of prisoners and summary executions. British forces imprisoned 160,000 Kenyans without trial, hanged 1,100 people, shot dead more than 430 prisoners, and displaced and held behind barbed wire more than one million. Around 50,000 Kenyans were killed, with just 12 British soldiers and 32 colonial settlers dying. Ian Henderson, the colonial police official who oversaw this savage repression, was subsequently rewarded with the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen.30 It is cause for celebration that the Queen’s 70-year reign saw so emphatic a demise of Britain as a world power. Nevertheless, it was marked by a virtually uninterrupted series of military engagements in the name of “Queen and country”, from Malaya (1948-57), Korea (1950-53) and Egypt (1956) through Northern Ireland (1968-98) and the Falklands War (1982) to Iraq (1990-91 and 2003-11) and Afghanistan (2001- 21).
A changing monarchy?
For a lengthy period, as head of the Anglican church, the monarch was expected to uphold the sanctity of marriage. Edward VIII was ostensibly forced to abdicate in 1936, not due to his open Nazi sympathies, but because of his liaison with a divorcee. Only in 1978, for the first time since 1533, was there a royal divorce, when Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret, dissolved her marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones. The floodgates opened. In 1992, the Queen’s “annus horribilis”, Charles and Diana announced their separation, Charles’s brother Andrew separated from his wife, Sarah Ferguson, and Charles’s sister, Anne, divorced her husband. When a fire broke out in Windsor Castle in the same year, destroying 115 rooms, it was discovered there was no insurance and thus the public would have to foot the bill. The ensuing outcry resulted in the Queen agreeing to pay tax for the first time—although we are not allowed to know how much. In 1994, she gave up the royal yacht, Britannia.31 During his period as prime minister, Boris Johnson planned to waste £250 million on a replacement yacht.32
Another recent divergence from the past has taken place in the media’s approach to the royal family. Scottish political theorist Tom Nairn points out, “In the world of absolute monarchy, mistresses and bastards aroused little real censure and were not the business of the lower orders”.33 However, by the 1970s, rapid social change and the loss of imperial prestige meant this was no longer tenable. The image of royalty required updating. People needed to be able to relate to the royals to an extent, and the monarchy required the media to sell this illusion.
This led to a first The Royal Family television documentary in 1969, and the first royal walkabout took place in 1970. However, the increased exposure brought increased risk. Of course, journalists and paparazzi have a vested interest in promoting the royal myth. Nonetheless, commercial competition drives media outlets to vie to outdo rivals in gossip, so they promote the royal family while simultaneously dishing dirt on its members. The interview of Princess Diana by BBC journalist Martin Bashir in 1995 is the most famous example of this. This televised discussion with the most popular member of the family exposed the strange reality of family life among the royals, and Bashir himself achieved celebrity status before the methods used to secure the interview brought him disgrace.
The media exposure proved damaging and, in the process, the circle of acceptable family members narrowed from an army of “lesser royals” down to the Queen, Charles and his “consort” Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles’s eldest son William and his wife Kate Middleton, plus (now outside the family but always present in the media) the younger son, Harry, and his wife, actress Meghan Markle. This is a fraction of the former extended royal family.
Despite this downsizing, the royals continue to represent social inequality on the grandest of scales. The Queen is “one of the world’s wealthiest individuals” according to the Financial Times, owning property worth £15.6 billion as well as the £1.7 billion held in the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster.34 Brand Finance, a brand valuation consultancy, puts the Windsors’ total wealth at £44 billion.35 The government tops up these sums through the “sovereign grant”, which stood at about £86.3 million in 2021. This is calculated as 25 percent of the income from the so-called Crown Estate, a collection of lands and holdings formally owned by the Crown and managed by commissioners appointed by the government.36 This is one of the largest property empires in Europe, including London’s Regent Street, Ascot Racecourse, Windsor Great Park, and various castles, agricultural lands, forests, retail parks and shopping centres. It also owns half of Britain’s seashore, meaning it benefits from the auctioning of rights for offshore wind farms.37 However, security for the family is paid for separately out of the Metropolitan Police’s budget, and this is estimated to be considerably greater than the sovereign grant. Harry and his wife stepped outside this bubble of inherited wealth, but their royal celebrity secured them a $100-million deal with Netflix plus similar deals with Apple TV and Spotify, which is used to cover the upkeep of their mansion in Santa Barbara, California.38 By way of contrast, the Office for National Statistics reported median household disposable income in Britain as £31,400 in 2021, meaning half of households lived on an income below this. Median income for the poorest fifth of the population was £14,600.39 Those using food banks in Britain rose steeply by some 81 percent in the last five years of Elizabeth II’s reign.40 One in four children, about 3.6 million, lived in poverty in 2022.41
We are not allowed to know the real extent of the monarch’s wealth—it is a state secret. We do, however, know the Queen lobbied against its revelation by the Conservative Party government of the early 1970s when it proposed legislation compelling the disclosure of private fortunes. The government fell in 1974, before it could enact the legislation. The Labour Party government that replaced it did approve the new law, but only after exempting “heads of state” from the measures.42
The racism of the Crown’s history continues to ooze out of the royal family. A recent example is the abject racism displayed towards black charity executive Ngozi Fulani by Lady Susan Hussey, a godmother of Prince William and a lady in waiting to the Queen, at a Buckingham Palace reception. Fulani was repeatedly asked where she was “from” despite explaining that she was born and grew up in London.43 After Prince Harry married Markle, daughter of an African-American mother, their son Archie, who is thus the great-grandchild of the Queen, was reportedly refused the title of prince. Talking to US television celebrity Oprah Winfrey, Harry said, “There was an opportunity—many opportunities—for my family to show opposition to the colonial undertones of articles and headlines written about Meghan. Yet, no one from my family ever said anything”.44 In 1969, a BBC documentary team was allowed into Buckingham Palace to “humanise Queen Elizabeth II and her family”.45 The crew filmed this exchange:
The Queen laughs as she asks her family, “How do you keep a regally straight face when a footman tells you, ‘Your Majesty, your next audience is with a gorilla?’ It was an official visitor, but he looked just like a gorilla…” “Pretend to blow your nose,” advised Prince Charles, “and keep the handkerchief up to your face”.46
Sexism also runs deep in the monarchy. One need not go back to Henry VIII and the execution of two of his six wives in order to discover royal family values. The multi-million pound payout by Prince Andrew to Virginia Giuffre, a victim of the notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, in March 2022 gave the lie to his televised denials of having never met her.47
Indeed, Charles’s treatment of Princess Diana shocked the public more than his reported acceptance of bags stuffed with £2.6 million in cash from a former prime minister of Qatar.48 According to Kelley, Diana was the perfect match because “she was an aristocrat with five lines of descent from Charles II, and her virginity validated her as the most worthy candidate to become Queen”.49 The “wedding of the century” took place in July 1981, watched by 750 million people, but the bulimia the princess suffered, and her repeated suicide attempts, are now well known. The popular identification with her, despite her impossibly privileged position, and the resentment at the failure of the royal family’s members to behave more decently towards her were significant in diminishing respect for the monarchy.
The annual British Social Attitudes survey has noted the impact of the crises that have beset the monarchy since the early 1990s. In 2013, it reported:
In 1983, as many as 65 percent said it was “very important” for Britain to continue to have a monarchy… Ten years later, that figure had slumped to 32 percent. By 2006, it was just 27 percent. Numerous items of bad news for the royal family…seemed to have taken their toll.
By 2013, however, the proportion who considered the monarchy “very important” had returned to 45 percent, with only 5 percent saying the monarchy should be abolished.50
A royal spell?
Operation London Bridge, the period of official mourning and the funeral for Elizabeth II, saw a mind-numbing media barrage. An estimated 250,000 people queued to see the Queen’s coffin.51 The handfuls of protestors who demonstrated opposition to the monarchy were seized by the police, in one case for muttering “Who elected Charles?”52 The Queen died amid serious political turmoil, days after accepting the resignation of Boris Johnson and his replacement as prime minister by Liz Truss on 6 September. Nevertheless, a royal spell was now temporarily cast over the economic and political crises in Britain.
The Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party declared a political “truce”. A wave of strikes by rail and postal workers was briefly suspended, subordinated to the celebration of the monarch, state and nation. The Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, decreed the national anthem would be sung at the opening of the party’s national conference in Liverpool, and he praised the Queen as “this great country’s greatest monarch…who created a special, personal relationship with all of us…based on service and devotion to our country”.53
This proved a temporary reprieve for the Conservative government, which was promptly plunged back into crisis as soon as mourning officially ended, resulting in the collapse of the Truss government. However, the effect of the “royal spell” on the leadership of the Labour Party, founded by trade union leaders in the early 20th century to represent their interests in parliament, has been profound. Although individual Labour politicians have criticised the monarchy, the party has never come close to challenging the institution. Labour leaders have simply accepted the arrangements. Clement Atlee’s 1945 Labour government, elected amid a widespread desire for radical change, introduced significant reforms: establishing the National Health Service and nationalising key sectors of industry including electricity, gas, coal, iron, steel and rail. Yet, these reforms were limited to moving sectors from private to state ownership within an unchanged overall system, and Labour’s respect for the monarchy went hand-in-hand with this approach of not challenging the prevailing social relations in a more fundamental way.
Subsequent Labour governments behaved no differently, with Labour prime ministers often enjoying their weekly meetings with the Queen. Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister between 1964 and 1970, and for a second time between 1974 and 1976, reportedly went on to become one of the Queen’s favourites. His successor, James Callaghan, enjoyed his relationship with the monarch, which became “so relaxed that she broke with protocol during a walk around Buckingham Palace and placed a flower in his buttonhole”. The Queen was reportedly less relaxed with Tony Blair, prime minster between 1997 and 2007, who noted, “I got a sense of my relative seniority, or lack of it.” Nonetheless, it was Blair who called Diana the “people’s princess” when she died and insisted on a large-scale funeral. In the case of Gordon Brown, the Queen allowed the prime minister’s wife and children to attend his final audience with her, “something that had never happened before”.54 This was a sharp contrast to the Queen’s more difficult relationship with some Conservative leaders, notably Margaret Thatcher, who once said of the royals, “No wonder they stand on ceremony! What else have they got?”55
Precisely because the monarchy does not transcend society, the realities of capitalism and class division affect its standing. In Scotland, long-term economic decline and Labour’s failure to deal with it has encouraged the idea of independence from the British state and its figurehead. Despite the Scottish National Party’s policy of retaining the sovereign, support for the monarchy has fallen. A poll in October 2022 suggested that, although 50 percent of Scots supported Britain having a royal family, the population is split down the middle on the question of whether an independent Scotland should have a royal as head of state, with 41 percent in favour and 40 percent against. The division by age was sharp, with 63 percent of those aged 16-24 wanting an elected head against 62 percent aged 65 and over preferring a monarch.56
In Britain as a whole, polling suggests 67 percent thought the monarchy should continue in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s funeral, up five percentage points since the Queen’s platinum jubilee in May the same year.57 However, there was a notable disparity by age, with only 47 percent of those aged 18-24 believing the monarchy should continue compared with 86 percent of those aged 65 and above. The state mourning clearly had an impact, with the proportion of 18-24 year olds favouring a continuation of the Crown up from 33 percent in May. Similarly, there was a six point increase to 62 percent among the proportion of the population believing “the monarchy is good for Britain”. Just 12 percent rated the monarchy as “bad” for the country. Yet, responses were less positive when respondents were asked whether there would be a monarch in 100 years. Some 52 percent thought royalty would survive, but some 30 percent did not, a marked change from, respectively, the 39 percent and 41 percent at the time of the jubilee. Those reporting a positive view of Charles, now King, rose from 54 percent in May to 70 percent in September, while his heir, Prince William, was the most popular royal on 84 percent, which suggests the pomp had achieved some of its aim.
The Guardian had confidently asserted the Queen’s funeral would “top the ranks of the most watched broadcasts”.58 In fact, the television audience stood at 29 million, ranking below that for Diana’s funeral in 1997 (32 million) and the European Football Championship final in 2021 (30 million). Similar hype attended the lying in state, when one million people were expected to attend. Instead, the 250,000 people who filed past the coffin in London were equivalent to “the average attendance of the top ten teams in the second tier of English football every week. The top ten in the first tier bring in twice as many”.59
Abolition of the monarchy
In 2021, Barbados declared itself a republic, pushing Prince Charles to acknowledge the “appalling atrocity of slavery” suffered by the ancestors of the present-day Barbadian population during the time of the British Empire.60 Barbados’s action pointed a clear way forward, indicating that the royal spell is diminishing among the people of the Commonwealth, which Charles III now heads.
At her accession, Elizabeth II reigned over 70 countries and territories. She presided over the almost total loss of empire but, at her death, she remained head of state in 14 countries beyond Britain. It is uncertain how much longer these states will retain Charles III as their figurehead. Six Caribbean countries have indicated they plan to go the same way as Barbados—Belize, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, and St Kitts and Nevis. In March 2020, Prince William visited Jamaica, Belize and the Bahamas, with the trip widely seen as an attempt to persuade these states not to follow Barbados. Instead, protestors demanded an apology for the family’s role in slavery.61 The chair of Jamaica’s National Commission on Reparations, Verene Shepherd, argued, “It’s time for former colonised nations to claim self-determination and not be under a monarchical system”.62 Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, promised a referendum on republican status “to complete the circle of independence”. Meanwhile Jamaica’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, informed the prince that Jamaica would be “moving on” from the monarchy.
In Australia, hundreds joined anti-monarchy protests on a day of mourning for the Queen, with demonstrators holding signs with slogans such as “Abolish the monarchy!” as well as Black Lives Matter placards.63 A poll suggested 43 percent of Australians support a republic, with half of young adults in favour.64 The Australian rules football league refused to mandate a minute’s silence, and Aboriginal senator Lidia Thorpe declared, “The Queen and her family represent the colonial system, which created havoc against First Nations people”.65 The Washington Post recalled that, when Elizabeth II first visited Australia in 1954, “One local authority erected hessian screens to shield the monarch’s motorcade from viewing Aboriginal camps along the route”.66
Clearly, the monarchy should be abolished. The question is, “How?” The obvious answer is republicanism. At the time of the English and French Revolutions, republicanism was a radical ideology of the rising bourgeoisie, and it challenged the existing order. However, republicanism has a different meaning today, and not just because it’s the name of Donald Trump’s party in the United States. A focus on the monarchy in isolation from the capitalist system, for which it is window dressing, is a reformist dead end.
Tony Benn, the most notable and influential left-wing Labour politician since the Second World War, stood out against the sorry history of Labour’s craven relationship with the Queen. He correctly noted, “The existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privilege and patronage that corrupts society. That is why the Crown is seen as being of such importance to those who run the country”.67 In 2004, he was also perceptive enough to notice that “Prince William is now being carefully promoted in case it is thought necessary to skip a generation and allow him to succeed the Queen, thus keeping this absurd and undemocratic constitution safe for the next generation”.68 Yet, he was mistaken in arguing that Britain was “gravely” held back by its “medieval system of government”.69 Such a position implies that the state is subordinate to its window-dressing. In truth, though, it is the accumulation of capital that hobbles democracy. A number of Labour governments have been broken on capital’s wheel, including Harold Wilson’s when he forced to devalue the pound in November 1967 and James Callaghan’s during the financial crisis of 1976. In 2022, the financial markets trashed one of their own, felling the Truss administration. All this serves as a reminder that we are subjects of capital rather than the Crown.
A more sophisticated version of Benn’s line of thinking appears in the work of Tom Nairn and former New Left Review editor Perry Anderson. Their approach downplays the significance of the English Revolution, arguing it amounted to an incomplete bourgeois revolution. This supposedly explains the underlying weakness of British capitalism by identifying the British ruling class as an “archaic…stratum, whose personnel and traditions stretched back to an agrarian past”.70 Nairn’s book, The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy, argues, “The Crown is at the heart of administrative darkness”.71 It criticises the view that monarchs are “an ornamental headpiece to sober political reality”: “‘British democracy’ is in a real and not token sense the servant of the Crown”.72 The result is a “stages” theory of historical change, with the first step being to remove the monarchy in order to make real change possible.
Such an approach contrasts sharply with the type of analysis laid out in this journal, which is based on the understanding of bourgeois revolutions developed by Marx and Engels. As Alex Callinicos notes, this understanding contrasted “the long, drawn out economic transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production” with “the more dramatic and concentrated political transformations that created the modern state system”.73 Marx “contemptuously contrasted” the timid Prussian bourgeoisie of his day with its more revolutionary predecessors:
The March 1848 revolution in Prussia should not be confused either with the English Revolution of 1648 or with the French one of 1789. In 1648, the bourgeoisie was allied with the modern aristocracy against the monarchy, the feudal aristocracy and the established church. The revolution of 1789 (at least in Europe) had as its prototype only the revolution of 1648, and for the revolution of 1648, only the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain… The revolutions of 1648 and 1789 were not English and French revolutions; they were revolutions of a European type… They proclaimed the political order of the new European society…the victory of bourgeois ownership over feudal ownership, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of division of the land over primogeniture, of the rule of the landowner over the domination of the owner by the land…of bourgeois law over medieval privileges.74
When The Enchanted Glass first appeared in 1989, its thesis was that the monarchy was all-powerful. After the Queen’s annus horribilis in 1992, the foreword to the 1994 edition noted, “Events since have…made it absurd”.75 Perplexed by his own re-evaluation, Nairn asks, “Why did it happen so quickly? Why did so few see it coming?”76 Yet, as long ago as 1844, Engels explained the relationship between the ideological function of royalty and the reality of social relations under capitalism:
Everyone knows the real significance of the sovereign King of England, whether male or female. The power of the Crown is reduced in practice to nil, and if this situation, notorious the world over, needed any further proof, the fact that the whole struggle against the Crown ceased over 100 years ago, and that even the radical democratic Chartists know their time is better spent on other things than this struggle, should be sufficient proof… The veneration for the Crown has grown in proportion as the power of the Crown diminished.77
Fintan O’Toole describes Queen Elizabeth’s role as “a feudal ghost in the machine of a democratic state”.78 It would be more accurate to see the monarch as a feudal ghost in the capitalist state. However, O’Toole correctly observes, “The great achievement of Elizabeth II was that, merely by reigning for 70 years, she created and sustained the necessary illusion of permanence. While her United Kingdom was transformed from a global imperial power…she was always there.” The monarchy survived, he suggests, by becoming “at once royal and familiar… What was lost in holiness was gained in…celebrity”. This sense of continuity made the Queen appear “ever more queenly” in contrast to a Conservative Party, which has recently produced a “succession of four prime ministers in six years and the collapse, under Boris Johnson, of all notions of decorum and public dignity”.
Historian David Cannadine rightly dismissed the pomp and ceremony as “not so much the theatre of power as the cavalcade of impotence”, describing the royal family as “the visible embodiment of stultifying tradition, obscurantist snobbery, unearned riches, hereditary privilege and vested interests”.79 His view of the royals is not new; amid the upheavals of the early 19th century, revolutionary poet Percy Bysshe Shelley noted, “Monarchy is only the string that ties the robber’s bundle”.80
Although it is important to expose the monarchy for the fraud it is, changing the constitution or winning the Labour Party to a republican position (were that even possible) would not abolish the conditions that generate the demand for illusion. The right to a dignified existence for all instead requires the overthrow of capitalism, which would dispel the desire for fantasy.
Queen Elizabeth’s death highlighted a crucial contradiction in the monarchy. It was common among mourners to suggest the Queen was “like everyone’s granny”, and yet too much “ordinariness” would weaken the sense of awe required to justify a monarchy in the first place. The monarchy is torn between its instincts for lavish spending and for self-preservation and maintaining its status as an embodiment of national pride. This tension runs through the institution’s history during the 20th century. Edward VII and Edward VIII represented the former instinct, George V and George VI the latter.81 It was lucky for the British establishment that, along with her longevity, the Queen embraced both “duty” and “mystique”. This, and post-war capitalism’s long economic boom, explains why the monarchy has appeared so firmly established. It is debatable whether it can remain so lucky. Would the Queen ever have been pelted with eggs as King Charles was on a walkabout in York in November 2022?82 The role Elizabeth performed may have died with her.
Donny Gluckstein is a trade union activist in the EIS. He is one of the authors of The Labour Party: A Marxist History (Bookmarks, 2019).
Ian Taylor is a journalist and a member of the International Socialism editorial board.
1 Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Richard Donnelly and Gareth Jenkins for their helpful comments on the draft of this article. We primarily examine the role of the monarchy in Britain and thus avoid a detailed examination of its relationship to the British Empire and Commonwealth. We also pass over the many acts of resistance to the Crown, including contemporary movements to remove King Charles III as head of state in a number of Britain’s former colonies. These issues could usefully be the subject of a separate article.
3 See Marxist historian Christopher Hill’s body of work, including The English Revolution: 1640 (Lawrence and Wishart, 1940), for a full account of the revolutionary process in England.
4 Hill, 1990, p33.
5 Hill, 1990, p36.
6 Pepys, 2001, p24.
7 Hill, 1980, p3.
8 Ridley, 1982.
9 Cannadine, 1983, p109.
10 Ridley, 1982.
11 Saville, 1994.
12 Cannadine, 1983, p119.
13 Quoted in O’Toole, 2022.
14 Freedland, 2022.
15 O’Toole, 2022.
16 O’Toole, 2022.
17 Hill, 1980, p28.
18 Quoted in Nairn, 2011, pp203-204.
19 Marx, 1843.
20 His emphasis. Feuerbach, 1973.
21 Marx, 1843.
22 Harman, 2017.
23 Marx, 1974.
24 Sparks, 2007.
26 Trotsky, 1930, chapter 4.
27 Kelley, 1997, pp2-3. It is, of course, revealing of the nature of the institution that disability, mental health conditions and divergent sexual orientations are a source of shame and secrecy. There is, for instance, only one openly LGBT+ member of the extended royal family, Ivar Mountbatten, the second cousin of Charles III. A similar culture of secrecy is represented by the institutionalisation and marginalisation of Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, the disabled first cousins of Elizabeth II who were classified as “imbeciles” and placed in Royal Earlswood Hospital for life.
28 Gluckstein, 2012, pp97-98.
29 Kelley, 1997, p73.
30 The Telegraph, 2013.
31 BBC News, 1992.
32 Heffer, 2021.
33 Nairn, 2011, pp169-170.
34 Hill, 2022.
35 Newsinger, 2022.
38 Shapiro and Çam, 2021.
39 Office for National Statistics, 2022.
41 Stone, 2022.
42 Pegg and Evans, 2021.
43 Coughlan, 2022a. Prince William’s response that “racism has no place in our society” was less equivocal than the apology from Buckingham Palace for Hussey’s “deeply regrettable” remarks.
44 The Sun, 2021.
45 Mearles, 2019.
46 Kelley, 1997, p211.
47 Coughlan, 2022b.
48 Connett, 2022.
49 Kelley, 1997, p262.
50 Full document available at www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media/38723/bsa30_full_report_final.pdf
51 Ward and Parekh, 2022.
53 Labour Party, 2022.
54 Sky News, 2022.
55 Cannadine, 1997.
56 Morris, 2022.
57 Smith, 2022.
58 Sweney, 2022.
59 Socialist Worker, 2022.
60 BBC News, 2021.
61 Hall, 2022.
62 Yang, 2022.
63 Euronews, 2022.
64 Staszewska, 2022.
65 Pannett and Miller, 2022.
66 Pannett and Miller, 2022.
67 Benn, 2003.
68 Benn, 2004.
69 Benn, 2004.
70 Callinicos, 1988.
71 Nairn, 2011, p368.
72 Nairn, 2011, p369.
73 Callinicos, 2013.
74 Marx, 1977, pp160-161.
75 Nairn, 2011, pxx.
76 Nairn, 2011, pxxiv.
77 Engels, 1844.
78 O’Toole, 2022.
79 Cannadine, 1983.
80 Shelley, 1920.
81 Thanks to Gareth Jenkins for this insight.
82 Press Association, 2022.