England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Privilege and prestige: What is the role of the monarchy?

By Matt Kilsby

In May, as the cost of living crisis deepens and inflation remains at a 40-year high, the coronation of King Charles will take place at Westminster Palace. Despite allegedly wanting a scaled-down event, compared to his mother’s coronation in 1953, it is estimated that it will cost in excess of £100m. Facing worries of not being able to pay their mortgages, rent, energy bills and having enough left over to put food on the table, millions of people will rightly be questioning the eye-watering cost of royal pageantry. But we also need to look at the role the monarchy plays as part of the British state. 

We are taught that the monarchy is simply a symbolic and ceremonial state decoration. The fact that the monarch dissolves parliament, appoints and dismisses Prime Ministers, signs legislation, declares wars and appoints judges, is entirely natural and ultimately meaningless, we’re told. Indeed, the royal family’s website is keen to inform us that: 

“Monarchy is the oldest form of government in the United Kingdom. In a monarchy, a king or queen is Head of State. The British Monarchy is known as a constitutional monarchy. This means that, while The Sovereign is Head of State, the ability to make and pass legislation resides with an elected Parliament. As Head of State, The Monarch undertakes constitutional and representational duties which have developed over one thousand years of history.” 

The reality, however, is very different. The monarchy epitomises conservative values and the maintenance of the status quo. It is fundamentally opposed to change and is the living embodiment of class society, reinforcing the notion that people should know their place and accept it. 

The British state 

Contrary to the idea that our constitutional monarchy has evolved benignly over thousands of years, the development of the modern British state and the present-day monarchy are intrinsically linked. The starting point for both was the English revolution of the 17th Century, which saw the overthrow and execution of King Charles I. 

This happened because the monarchy was seen increasingly as a fetter on the development of the emerging British capitalist class, and led in January 1649 to parliament abolishing the House of Lords, and confiscating crown, church and royalist land. They set up a new state, in place of the old feudal state, that would serve their own capitalist class interests. 

“Contrary to the idea that our constitutional monarchy has evolved benignly over thousands of years, the development of the modern British state and the present-day monarchy are intrinsically linked. The starting point for both was the English revolution of the 17th Century, which saw the overthrow and execution of King Charles I.”

Like all revolutions, the English revolution wasn’t carried out by a small number of people alone, but with the support of a mass movement of anti-monarchists and egalitarian early socialists, such as the Diggers and Levellers. However, fearing that the masses would go further and set their sights higher by turning their attention to the new ruling class, the emerging British bourgeoisie did a deal with the aristocracy and agreed to the return of the monarchy under Charles II, on the proviso that he would do as he was told. 

Since then, the monarchy has played a pivotal role in the British state and in upholding British capitalism’s imperialist interests, although there has been plenty of upheaval and scandal, and periods when it was anything but popular. It was only towards the beginning of the 20th Century, at the end of Queen Victoria’s (monarch from 1837-1901) reign, that the ruling class took active steps to build-up the monarchy, lavishing huge sums of money on the pageantry we see today. For example, the opening of parliament was reinvented by Edward VII (monarch from 1901-10), who introduced the theatrics of Black Rod knocking on doors, etc. 

The intrinsic role of the monarchy in British imperialism was exposed recently when the Guardian newspaper published evidence of the monarchy’s central involvement in the expansion of the slave trade, and the importance of royal funding of slave ships to Africa. Even though he was king when slavery was abolished, William IV (monarch from 1830-37) had always opposed abolition and boasted about his friendships with plantation owners in the Caribbean. He also devoted speeches in the House of Lords to defending slavery, arguing that it was vital to prosperity, and he argued that enslaved people were “comparatively in a state of humble happiness”. Clarence House, the lavish home of King Charles and Camilla, was built for William IV and was likely funded by the slave trade. 

“Clarence House, the lavish home of King Charles and Camilla, was built for William IV and was likely funded by the slave trade.”

The role of the state 

As Marxists, we understand that, just like the present- day monarchy, the state has not always existed. For thousands of years, people lived in egalitarian societies where everyone relied on each other and co-operation was the guiding principle. Marx and Engels referred to this as ‘primitive communism’. But as labour became more productive, society began to produce a surplus beyond its immediate needs, thereby creating the conditions for class society. 

There arose a minority who firstly started to administer this surplus, and then to own it. But in order to maintain their power and control, both over the surplus and the rest of society, they needed to create a state to protect themselves and to ensure that their will was done. 

In his brilliant pamphlet ‘State and Revolution’, Lenin explains how the state arose from society being divided into different classes with opposing interests, and how state power is used by the dominant class: 

“…the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’, which legalises and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes.” 

The monarchy today 

Whilst the British government is, in practice, elected, it is ‘His/Her Majesty’s government’. The opposition, meanwhile, is ‘His/Her Majesty’s loyal opposition’. All army officers, government ministers, senior civil servants and judges swear allegiance to the crown, not to parliament or the people. We’re told that the role of the monarchy is merely ceremonial and, after all, it brings in the tourists. 

On the contrary, the monarchy is kept in place as a reserve weapon of the ruling class. Whenever the monarchy is debated amongst sections of the capitalist press, their powers to overthrow elected governments, for example, are often dismissed as only existing ‘in theory’. The modern British monarchy would never act in such a way, we’re told. 

But we don’t need to look too far to see that this portrayal is a myth. In the Australian 1972 general election, the Labour Party came to power led by Gough Whitlam. The Labour government set about withdrawing Australian troops from Vietnam, ending military subscription, setting up universal health care and free university education, and granted Aboriginal Australian people limited civil rights for the first time. 

However, on the back of mass strike action and fearful that Whitlam’s government would go much further, the monarchy’s representative Governor-General Sir John Kerr used the institution’s powers as head of the commonwealth to intervene. Kerr kicked out Whitlam and installed the Liberal Party opposition leader as Prime Minister. The powers used in Australia by the then- Queen could still be used today in the ‘Commonwealth’ countries, but also here in Britain. 

In 2015, shortly after Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party, an army general spoke openly about the potential for a military coup in the event that Corbyn subsequently won a general election: 

“The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security. There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.” 

This shows the lengths that the ruling class would go to in order to prevent even a mild, reformist Corbyn government coming to power. And in the event of an effective military coup, the monarchy’s ‘reserve powers’ would be an important tool for the ruling class in consolidating and legitimising their anti-democratic manoeuvres. They may not use these powers often but will not hesitate to use any methods available at a time of crisis for them and their system. 

For a socialist republic! 

Today, capitalism is in crisis across the globe, and nowhere more so than in Britain where the impact on living standards and wages is shocking. Taken together, 2022 and 2023 look likely to be the worst two years for living standards since the 1930s. This is having a disproportionate impact on young people, who have never experienced capitalism working for them, in the form of wage rises or better living standards. 

Most worryingly for the capitalist class is the fact that it is those same young people who have lost many of their illusions in the monarchy. In May last year, before the ‘boost’ provided to their poll ratings by the Queen’s death, only 33% of 18-24 year olds said that Britain should continue to have a monarchy. Meanwhile, only 20% of young people had a positive view of the then- Prince Charles. 

That will not stop the ruling class using Charles’ coronation to bolster support for the monarchy to sow illusions of ‘national unity’ in an attempt to help defend their profit driven system, which is run for the benefit of the tiny majority of our society. Whilst the Tories say that there’s not enough money for pay rises for junior doctors, nurses, railway workers and teachers, plenty of money has been promised for the pomp and ceremony of the coronation. Cabinet Officer minister, Oliver Dowden, said as much recently: 

“These are moments in the life of our nation. They bring joy to millions of people. They also mark us out as a nation around the world. It is a marvellous moment in our history and people would not want a dour scrimping and scraping. They would want an appropriate ceremony. That is what we will have.” 

But as the capitalist crisis deepens, more and more working-class people will come to the conclusion that the monarchy is an instrument of the bosses’ system and should be abolished. But the monarchy is deeply connected to the rest of the British state and its ruling class. The monarchy cannot be abolished without confronting the capitalist system as a whole. As Lenin points out in State and Revolution: 

“Revolution consists not in the new class commanding, governing with the aid of the old state machine, but in this class smashing this machine and commanding, governing with the aid of a new machine.” 

Of course, the ruling class will not give up power without a fight and, as revolutionary socialists, we do not believe that there is such a thing as a parliamentary ‘road to socialism’. Instead, abolishing the monarchy and capitalism, and achieving a planned and truly democratic socialist economy, would require a mass movement of workers, youth and oppressed people. 

“As socialists, we also call for the nationalisation of lands and commercial properties owned by the Royal Family, along with those owned by the other big landowners – a step necessary for tackling the environmental crisis in particular.”

The eye-watering expense and horrific pomp and ceremony of the coronation will take place in stark contrast to the millions of people that are suffering at the sharp end of the crisis. The continuing strike wave in Britain, and the reawakening of the working class, gives us a glimpse of the power we have when we move into action. 

The monarchy’s obscene wealth should be used to meet the needs of working class people. We call for an end to the Sovereign Grant and all tax exemptions for the monarchy. Even a limited measure such as a 50% levy on all royal wealth could go some way to helping fund a pay rise for striking public sector workers. 

This is why Socialist Alternative calls to not only abolish the monarchy, but to replace it with a socialist republic, beginning with expropriating the wealth they sit on top of. We call for the nationalisation of lands and commercial properties owned by the Royal Family, along with those owned by the other big landowners – a step necessary for tackling the environmental crisis in particular. Undemocratic institutions such as the House of Lords should be immediately abolished and an independent investigation should be launched into the alleged crimes of members of the royal family. 

Crucially, we say winning these democratic demands cannot be separated from the fight for real social change. Only socialism – based on public ownership of the major monopolies and a truly democratic plan for production – can achieve true freedom for the working class and all oppressed people. 


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