The Monarchy and Progress
by Brendan Clifford
Britain is a democratic republic with a hereditary monarch as ceremonial head of state. It has been a republic implicitly since the 1688 revolution. It was an aristocratic republic in the 18th century, a bourgeois republic in the 19th century, and it is a general democratic republic in the 20th century. No political tendency of any substance has bothered its head about the monarchy for two hundred years.
The editor of the New Statesman bothered his head about it earlier this year. His heart went out to poor Princess Di, who in becoming a Princess was separated ”from her own real desires and emotions”. He admired Prince Charles as a man with “too much sensitivity and intelligence… to take for granted the huge pretence that the plutocratic monarchist carbuncle on the face of the nation should have a socially useful or even acceptable role in a modern democracy”. And he looked forward to the succession as “perhaps the best hope this country will have for the beginning of a withdrawal from the thraldom of royalty” (New Statesman, Feb 13, 1987: The Succession: The Constitutional Nettle No One Will Touch by John Lloyd and John Rentoul).
The present editor of the New Statesman has something in common with Princess Di in that he is known to be separated from his own real desires and emotions. And he has it common with the Queen, who must bend to the will of her subjects, that he has been compelled to forgo his own opinions and give way to the very different opinions of his staff in order to remain Editor.
Perhaps he wrote about the monarchy as a safe, nonsensical subject on which he could let himself go without incurring the wrath of his contributors, or maybe he really does share Willie Hamilton’s preoccupation. Anyhow, it is worth considering what effect the monarchy, as a social phenomenon, has on the politics of Britain.
The main effect of the monarchy is that it gives a large body of people a sense of participation in the state without active participation in politics.
I have heard this state of affairs deplored by people who considered themselves socialists. They saw it as a device for diverting workers from their class interest, and were of the opinion that a removal of the “diversion” of royalty would bring a great access of strength to the socialist movement.
I can see no ground for the assumption that the people who are now lulled into political inertia by royalty would in the main go towards the socialist movement if they were precipitated into political activity by the abolition of royalty. The evidence is that the soporific of royalty has benefitted progressive movements over a long period by neutralising the elements who might have given force to reaction.
There has never been a reactionary development, properly speaking. in Britain since the present state was established. By the same token there has never been a revolution. (In situations in which revolution is possible, reaction is also possible.) What there has been is fundamental social reconstruction by active political minorities, with the potential forces of reaction held in check by traditional influences.
It has happened in many European states, in this century and the last, that the whole populace has been precipitated into political activity by the abolition of traditional institutions which engender inertia. The outcome has not in a single instance been favourable to progressive democratic government.
The French Republic of 1848 was made Bonapartist in 1850 by the will of a disrupted people. The German Republic of 1918 was made fascist by the operation of forces which might have been kept apolitical by a compliant Kaiser. The Spanish Republic went down to the Franco dictatorship after it stirred the populace excessively out of traditional forms of lethargy. (That the Republic was defeated because of the intervention of German and Italian forces is, I think, a myth. It went down because it was guided by doctrinaire conceptions, and scorned traditional sources of social stability.)
The Russian Revolution is only a partial exception to this generalisation. It survived because of Lenin’s brilliant – though not necessarily admirable – manoeuvre of building a strong reactionary aspect into the Bolshevik state. Bolshevism, as Lenin put it in 1921, accomplished its own Thermidor – and a pretty brutal Thermidor it was.
Britain has been able by Parliamentary means, to enact social reforms more fundamental than those which usually accomplish political revolutions, because the potential forces of reaction have been diverted by the Crown.
The wealth of the royals is beside the point The monarchy is an institution which enables large numbers of people of all classes who are apolitical by inclination to be apolitical, and to refrain from the reactionary interventions which occur in so many other states. It is, therefore, priceless.
Even if the rag-bag of royals were a sheer cost to the society, I think they would be worth it politically. But they are not a sheer cost I imagine that they pay for themselves, and even make a profit, as a tourist attraction.
In Ireland the ceremonial head of state is a President. He costs very little compared to the Royal family. But he earns nothing. His prestige diverts nobody from politics. Nobody would cross the sea to look at him – indeed, nobody would cross the road to look at him. The Irish Presidency has become so burdensome to the country and to the President himself that elections to the office have lapsed. The present incumbent, like his predecessor, was “elected” without an election. When his first term ended last year he had become utterly bored with the job and didn’t want to do a second stint. There was panic in the Dail because nobody of any consequence in politics was willing to retire from real life and become President, and to have appointed a willing nonentity would have reduced the thing to farce. Eventually so much pressure was brought to bear on President Whatsisname that he agreed to serve another seven years.
Who would give up a Cabinet post, or any other position of power and distinction in society, to spend the rest of his life in a ceremonial office exchanging inanities with visiting heads of state whose minds are on their meeting with the Prime Minister? And who would come to England in the hope of getting a glimpse of such a person?
Britain is fortunate indeed in having a breed of distinguished people who get job satisfaction from exchanging inane remarks with all and sundry, and whom people come from all over the world to see. It would be an act of cruelty to impose that function of royalty on any normal family of citizens, but seeing that there is a family which is born to it as the fruit of a long historical evolution it would be an act of great political folly to establish a Presidency.
Tom Paine was the greatest of English Republicans. He preached republicanism in England, he made a substantial contribution to the establishment of the American republic in 1770, and he took part in the establishment of the French Republic in the 1790s. But Paine was always clear that a republic was a representative government elected by the people. Kings he could take or leave, depending on their behaviour.
In The Rights of Man he expressed complete satisfaction with the reformed monarchy in France. When the King misbehaved he agreed with the abolition of the monarchy. But he made himself unpopular by speaking against the execution of Louis on pragmatic grounds. And he almost lost his head under Robespierre because of his refusal to participate in the mystical republicanism of 1793- 4. He exerted no further influence on French affairs.
In America in the 1770s Paine’s “Common Sense” pamphlets exercised a degree of direct political and military influence without parallel. They kept the army of independence in being at a moment when it was liable to fall apart Paine is in the foundations of the American state; but he is not in the superstructure. He quickly became an embarrassment to the United States, and within a generation he was all but written out of its history.
It was in England, and only in England, that Paine exercised a profound and lasting influence. And his realistic conception of the republic could have been formed nowhere but England. He recognised that even in the 1790s there were substantial republican elements in the British state. And succeeding generations of Englishmen, who had assimilated The Rights Of Man and The Age Of Reason, enlarged those republican elements until they encompassed all the real powers of the state. And when that had been done only a fetishist would have made an issue of the monarchy.
Ernest Bevin was a Tom Paine republican – he concerned himself with the substance of things, used power to good effect in the working class interest, and endured the ceremonial side of things with good grace.
Michael Foot often wrote about Tom Paine, but he was a mere fetishist. He preferred his donkey jacket to the power of government
Foot’s bizarre pantheon of political heroes included Jonathan Swift, a failed Tory, and William Hazlitt, a lightweight litterateur, alongside Tom Paine. If we take an image from Swift, it might be said that the function of the monarchy for a couple of hundred years has been to keep the Yahoos of the petty bourgeoisie out of politics by impressing their imaginations with spectacle and pedigree.
I have such a strong sense of the political usefulness of British royalty to substantial and competent progressive forces in the society that if I somehow became Prime Minister I might almost bring myself to have dealings with the Queen. But then again it might be that at the last moment I would be unable to overcome a sheer animal revulsion against the procedure. Fortunately this disagreement between my understanding and my reflexes is something which I am under no necessity of resolving. It is quite certain that the Queen and myself will never have occasion to meet.
There is no doubt that this attitude is self-contradictory. So is my irrepressible feeling of contempt for Labour peers, because I approve of the honours system connected with royalty. But what is life without contradictions? It is fantasy.
This article appeared in October 1987, in Issue 4 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.