On the 9th April 2021, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, died peacefully at home at the age of 99. The next week was filled with tributes and commemorations of his life across the media, especially the BBC, which promptly delayed the majority of the day’s planned broadcasts in order to show rolling news coverage of the world’s reaction to the prince’s death. On the 17th of April, Philip’s funeral was held at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, and a minute’s silence was held in public places and establishments all over the country at 15:00, with 41-gun salutes fired in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Gibraltar.
Within three days of the prince’s passing, over five hundred pages had been dedicated to his memory across various UK newspapers. Coverage ranged from solemnly respectful to The Sun’s fawning headline “We’re all weeping with you, Ma’am”. A front-page story in The Sunday Times stated that “Prince Philip was the longest-serving royal consort in British history – an often crotchety figure, offending people with gaffes about slitty eyes, even if secretly we rather enjoyed them.”
The message from the mainstream media was clear; ”we”, as devoted subjects, were unanimously mourning, united in our shared grief for the late royal patriarch. Not only was the duke’s well-known history of racism whitewashed—but it was part of what made him so loved!
The extent to which a near-centenarian, born into immense wealth and privilege, held racist attitudes is unlikely to change many people’s opinions on the institution of the monarchy itself. However, the insinuation that Philip’s “gaffes” were irrelevant at worst and endearing at best was both outrageous and out-of-touch at a time when mass outrage at racism is being expressed, including in mass movements on the streets.
The Royals and Public Image
Of course, the mainstream media has been known to criticise the royals on occasion. Just a few months ago, we saw Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, conduct a revealing interview with US talk show host Oprah Winfrey where they cited racial prejudice as one of the main reasons for their departure from royal duties and distancing from the Royal Family. Before this, in 2019, Prince Andrew was interviewed on the BBC’s Newsnight by presenter Emily Maitlis over allegations of sexual abuse and his connections to the late convicted sex offender and super-rich financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Although examples of royal figures being criticised by the mainstream media are not hard to find, these are almost always limited to criticisms of specific individual transgressions, and rarely, if ever, question the role that the institution of monarchy plays in these, or in society in general. The close connections between capital and monarchy are what enabled Andrew to get close to Epstein and allegedly abuse vulnerable minors, and these connections are also what enabled him to emerge relatively unscathed..
So far, the only consequence for Andrew has been his personal decision to suspend public duties in the face of so much scrutiny and controversy. Losing largely ceremonial and unearned privileges, while continuing to live a life of obscene wealth, is no example of justice being served.
Monarchy and Democracy
These highly-publicised controversies are not the only royal stories that have come to light. This February, The Guardian revealed that The Queen and/or Prince Charles had vetted over one thousand proposed laws before they reached Parliament, including (but not limited to) successfully persuading the government to grant the family an exemption from a 1973 draft law that would have required transparency on their finances (believed to be in the hundreds of millions of pounds).
Although the existence of this arcane Parliamentary procedure—known as Queen’s consent—is no secret, it was always presented as merely a formality, and that the royal family had little to no influence on the democratic process in practice. The fact that this procedure exists at all is extremely undemocratic and anachronistic, even if it were never actually used. Now that its use has been revealed, the conflict of interests between the vast majority of people and this extremely wealthy family that owns around a tenth of the land in Britain is more apparent than ever.
While investigations like The Guardian’s play a useful role in shaping public opinion, we can’t afford to leave it just to the mainstream media to hold the monarchy to account. Only a couple of months after their exposé, The Guardian invited readers to “share tributes and memories” of Philip, asking “what effect did he have on your life?” Across the media, the number of column inches dedicated to commemorating Philip exceeded those dedicated to the vetting revelations many times over, despite the latter story having far more extensive ramifications for our society and effect on our lives.
It should, in many ways, be no surprise when acts of unambiguous racism, multiple allegations of sexual abuse, and unjust interference in the democratic process in order to prevent transparency and protect wealth have been exposed as taking place. This is an institution that has presided over the most horrific colonial atrocities of the British Empire.
Growing anger at and awareness of the blood-soaked legacy of British imperialism – including as expressed by Black Lives Matter protests demanding the felling of slavers’ statues – has contributed to more and more people questioning the institution of the monarchy and its role.
Is the Monarchy as Popular as We are Told?
While surveys show that over half of voters express support for the monarchy, around a quarter of the population, when polled, supports the alternative such surveys generally pose – i.e. replacing it with an elected head of state (with the remaining percentage being unsure either way). The high level of media attention (much of it driven by alternative media and social media rather than by the big newspapers and tabloids) given to royal controversies recently, as well as the fact that support for the monarchy is steadily waning among younger generations, means that republicans look set to become an increasingly large demographic. The sycophantic approach of the mainstream media and capitalist politicians jars increasingly with the mood of workers and especially youth.
In fact, the BBC’s wall-to-wall coverage of the reactions to Philip’s death actually drew over 100,000 complaints; more than any previous event in the broadcaster’s history. A YouGov poll of almost 5,000 people showed that 57% believed that the event garnered too much media coverage in comparison to other news stories, while only 2% believed that the amount of coverage was not enough.
The State of Being “Subjects”
Socialists, including myself, have long objected to the existence of the monarchy on principle. The concept of being a “subject”, even without tangible effect on my life, has always been something I’ve rejected. The principle of anybody being considered to be “worth more” than anybody else due solely to circumstances of birth or genetics is something to be opposed in all of its forms, and the monarchy is no exception. Is it really a surprise that a family whose status as rulers is built on a belief of inherent God-given superiority has regressive views on race, for example?
Despite my distaste for the institution on principle, I grew up thinking of the Royal Family as a relatively harmless anachronism. While I would have always voted to abolish it were we given a choice, I found it easy enough to ignore most of the time, and occasionally to find humour in the ridiculous indignity of those who take pride in kneeling to an unelected aristocrat.
Since becoming an active socialist, I’ve recently come to understand and oppose not just the abstract concept of monarchy, but also the tangible role it plays in our society. The fact that members of the Royal Family are allowed to get away with numerous transgressions because of their positions highlights the way that, under capitalism, wealth and status mean more than equality and justice.
Does the Monarchy Do Any Good?
One of the most common arguments in favour of the monarchy is that the royals provide a sense of shared national pride that we can unify around as a society. But what is this national pride? Far from being about improving our society and the conditions of the majority, patriotism expressed through waving flags and singing “God Save the Queen” is instead used to divide workers along the lines of nationality and to distract them from their own, distinct class interests. After all, working-class people in Britain have far more in common in terms of shared interests with workers in France, South Africa, or Brazil than they do with members of the ruling class who benefit from their exploitation – regardless of shared nationality. Such national pride is ultimately an aesthetic—like hanging up a Union Jack to cover the cracks of a crumbling façade.
While it is difficult to find ways in which the monarchy improves the material conditions of the working classes, there is one demographic to which the royals are valuable allies—the ruling capitalist class. The royals’ interference in the democratic process is not just used to protect its own wealth. Their powers are useful for the capitalists to keep ‘in reserve’ – to be used when necessary against a left government or mass movement of working people demanding meaningful change that threatens the power and profits of super-wealthy individuals and corporations.
In times of crisis for the capitalist class, the reserve powers that the Crown holds (such as royal assent) could be used to veto bills that propose economic and social reforms, even if these are proposed by a government elected democratically by the people.
The fact that the Queen is the Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces is also important. It is not just outwardly revolutionary action that these reserve powers can be used to quash. In the 1960s and 1970s, two coups were planned by high-ranking members of MI5, the armed forces, and the royal Lord Mountbatten—not against a revolutionary movement, but the moderate social reforms of Prime Minister Harold Wilson!
What Can We Do?
The historic compromise between Britain’s capitalist class and the feudal monarchy has been used to secure and stabilise its rule. The undermining of the monarchy goes alongside the deepening crisis for all the institutions upon which the capitalist establishment has historically relied.
It is clear that it is long past time to get rid of the monarchy. Despite the growing antipathy towards the institution, the chances of a democratic referendum being introduced are slim without a mass movement to call for it. Change comes from the bottom up, not the top down, and in the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “power concedes nothing without a demand”. We can only get rid of this institution, and progress as a society, with an organised movement made up of working people. If we are to avoid simply replacing one exploitative institution with another, any abolitionist movement must be committed to socialist principles. The demand for the abolition of the monarchy, like all democratic demands, needs to be connected to the day-to-day struggles of workers for decent jobs, conditions, housing and education.
Of course, the obstacles posed are formidable. The ruling class will fight tooth and nail to defend its interests. The approach of republican politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn, whose compromise on his abolitionist position came soon after becoming Labour leader, reflected his ultimate unpreparedness to pose the question of breaking the rule of the capitalist class by mobilising working class people to take power themselves. But the power held by the monarchy and the ruling class is far from absolute and unchallengeable. Many nations have abolished their monarchies, most of these successful revolutions emerging from mass struggle against deepening inequality.
However, many of these revolutions took place before the working class was fully established as an independent factor in the situation—a class with its own organisations, armed with a socialist programme. This meant that the regimes that emerged from such revolutionary struggles ultimately gave power not to the masses, but to a new ruling class—the capitalists. Today the situation is very different. It is only a movement led by working-class people which can enact meaningful change that improves the material conditions of workers. History tends to repeat itself, and while mass movements can be temporarily quashed, each act of repression often increases public resentment and spurs further struggle. Once class consciousness is sparked and a movement begins, it is hard to put the genie back in the bottle.
Featured image: “Prince CHARLES!” by The PIX-JOCKEY (visual fantasist) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0