Despite all the discussions of the royal family's problems, says Penny
Robson, nobody has suggested the one sensible solution
Off with their head of state
The British monarchy appears to be in serious trouble. Barely a week passes
without another 'insider' book or tabloid 'exclusive' making fresh revelations
about Charles, Diana and Camilla, Andrew, Fergie and her financial
advisor, or some other character in the sub-Eldorado soap opera of
The fortieth anniversary of the Queen's coronation in May presented a stark
contrast with previous royal occasions. This time around, the commemoration
mugs and street parties were replaced by heavyweight TV debates and newspaper
editorial soul-searching about the proper role of the monarchy in modern
The current arguments about the standing of the monarchy are unprecedented
in modern times. Things are now being criticised which would previously
have been considered beyond question, and a lot of heat and noise has been
But is this great debate really a debate at all? When it comes down to it,
every prominent participant seems to be on the same side. They are all in
favour of preserving the Queen as the head of state. Not one public voice
has spoken out in favour of the single sensible solution to the issue - the
immediate and unconditional abolition of the British monarchy.
So far, the discussion about the monarchy has taken place within terms laid
down by the establishment itself. This point is often missed in media comment
on the royal crisis. The most common explanations of how the current situation
came about assume that the royals have buckled under the pressure of public
opinion. In fact there has been no great public outcry against the monarchy.
No republican movement has marched through the streets, no high emotions
have been stirred in society at large. People are generally cynical about
the royals. Many are sick of their self-indulgence and amused by their present
embarrassments. But most are unexcited about the whole affair.
The present problems of the monarchy are less a result of external political
pressure than a consequence of the internal turmoil afflicting the
British establishment itself. The British ruling elite, along with its counterparts
elsewhere in the Western world, is experiencing a crisis of self-confidence.
The capitalist slump has undermined everything in which these people believe.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the end of the Cold War era has removed the
vital cement of anti-communism from their political system. These developments
have had a seriously disorienting effect on the British establishment. Its
once-reliable parties and institutions no longer seem able to function in
the old way, and it is thrashing about in search of a way out. The faction
fights in the Tory Party, and the trend for British grandees to desert
the Church of England for Rome, are two examples of this process. The ruction
surrounding the royals is another.
In a way, the manner in which the royal scandals have developed is evidence
of the lack of serious opposition. In the past, when faced with a
challenge from its opponents, the establishment would close ranks and present
a united front to the world. Today, by contrast, the demise of opposition
politics has temporarily removed that political pressure. As things spin
out of control, members of the ruling class are now more likely to break
ranks and conduct their squabbles in public.
The private affairs of the royal family are always full of enough scandal
to keep Andrew Morton busy for a lifetime. But these things never before
became public property.
At the time of the abdication crisis in 1936, when Edward VIII deserted
the throne in order to marry an American divorcee, the government, the newspapers
and every other pillar of the establishment rallied around the monarchy,
conspiring to cover up the truth and to minimise the damage to the institution.
In the fifties and sixties, foreign newspapers often reported stories
of the Queen's marital problems. Such tales never saw the light of day in
Britain. Today the old restraints are off, and Fergie's toe-job or Di's
squidgy phone-calls make headline news.
Because the debate about the monarchy has so far been an internal establishment
affair, there has been no question of anybody involved proposing abolition.
The authorities all understand the important role which the monarchy has
played in helping to stabilise society under their control.
As head of state, standing above party politics, the monarch acts as a symbol
of historical continuity, endorsing the impression that, while governments
might come and go, the British system will always carry on as it is now.
And while the monarchy may be a figurehead, it is one which helps to
shield the exercise of real power in Britain from public scrutiny. Through
the constitutional device of the royal prerogative, the government is able
to do all manner of things in the Crown's name - including going to war - without
asking the permission of parliament, never mind the public (see 'Abolish
the monarchy', Living Marxism, June 1992).
The continued importance of the monarchy to the establishment was spelled
out in one of the recent debates by Lord Rees-Mogg, who declared that abolition
would only come about through war or revolution. There is little danger
of the current opposition getting involved in any such unpleasantness.
The mainstream opposition in Britain today is so conservative and so steeped
in the habits of toadying that it has been left behind by the new wave of
criticism directed at the royals. It has been running to catch up with the
Murdoch press as a voice for change. For example, Charter 88, the constitutional
reform group, was very pleased with itself for co-sponsoring a major conference
about the monarchy in May. Yet Charter 88's established list of demands
for constitutional change has never mentioned the position of the monarchy,
let alone dared to whisper the dread word 'abolition'. It was the fact that
the May conference was co-sponsored by the Times, the old voice of
the establishment itself, which finally gave Charter 88 the nerve to
mention the small constitutional matter of sovereign power resting in hereditary
The Labour Party, too, has been exposed as a spineless and conservative
flunkey. Through all the furore about who should pay how much income
tax during last year's election campaign, Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition
never made so much as a passing reference to the fact that the Queen paid
no tax on her vast wealth. It was only after the Queen herself conceded
that she might hand a little over to the Inland Revenue that Labour felt
able to say 'hear hear'.
The great royal non-debate is really a one-sided discussion about how to
ensure that the monarchy survives intact atop the British state. It is about
how to reform and regenerate the royal image without destabilising the system
which rules us. Such a modernising trick has been pulled off in the past.
Queen Victoria, for example, was turned from an unpopular old woman into
the embodiment of Britannia, after she was made Empress of India and linked
with the success of British empire-building. Walter Bagehot, the leading
expert on the British constitution, was shocked by how effectively the royal
family - 'unemployed youth and a bitter old widow' - was transformed into
a popular institution. During the Second World War, after the embarrassment
of the abdication crisis, George VI and Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother)
restored some credibility by fostering a 'family at war' image. By staying
in London during the Blitz and visiting the bombed-out East End, they sought
to create the illusion that they were 'just like us' (except that their
bomb shelter was Buckingham Palace rather than the platform at Mile End
Today's discussion is about how best to regenerate the royals once more
in a modern context. Some liberals suggest that they should become more
like their Continental cousins, shop in supermarkets and ride bikes about
London. That is unlikely to give the governmental system the mystique which
the authorities want. Some conservatives with a better idea of what the
monarchy is for have suggested dumping the younger royals and just hanging
on to the Queen, as a wooden symbol who could be kept away from the media
and only wheeled out for formal state occasions.
Whichever way this debate progresses, there is nothing in it for those who
want to change society. The only decent thing to be done with the monarchy
is to abolish it at once, and for all time. That in itself would achieve
little. But it would at least clear the decks of some of the rubbish of
history, and help to bring British politics into the present.
The current criticisms of the royals are petty quibbles. Those who are unwilling
to get rid of such a rotten symbol of establishment power and privilege
as the British monarchy will have no chance of achieving more far-reaching
change for the better. Oliver Cromwell understood that well. He warned his
men that if any of them were not prepared to countenance killing the king,
they should not ride with the Roundhead army. More than 300 years on, Charter
88 and the Labour Party remain in the Cavaliers' camp.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993