10 April 2021
The death of 99-year-old Philip Mountbatten, husband of the queen, has produced a predictable outpouring of self-abasement from the British establishment and its servile news media. The BBC was inundated with complaints after it cancelled its regular programming and aired wall-to-wall memorial coverage, sombrely delivered by newsreaders dressed in black. Similar displays of obsequiousness in countries like North Korea and Russia are usually reported with mocking condescension and finger-waving in the West, but in “democratic” Britain the news media must pay fealty to the “beloved” royal family.
Philip, widely known for his racism and other bigoted views, was an embodiment of some of the worst features of the British monarchy—an institution which has no good features. A former naval officer, he gave up his career to support his wife, or rather to participate in a “family” that sits above society. The royal family provides a symbol of stability, an ongoing soap opera and a back-up for the bourgeoisie in times of crisis. To his death retaining the titles Admiral of the Fleet and Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom, Philip represented the “special relationship” between the monarchy and the armed forces, which are the core of state power.
The instability of the monarchy as an institution has recently been exposed by two developments: the entry into the fold of Meghan Markle, a black American woman with some experience of normal life who was subject to the vitriol and racism of the press; and the revelations of Prince Andrew’s associations with known sexual abusers and his disastrous attempt to absolve himself during a Newsnight interview. But this fragility should not be exaggerated—the institution is also deeply rooted within British capitalism. Its ideological hold is based not only on the circus of weddings, babies and fashion spreads, but on its connection to established religion, which still plays a formal role in the British education system.
The royal family sit at the apex of an aristocratic hierarchy which is thought to own close to half of the land in Britain (Guardian, 17 April 2019). The House of Lords gives aristocrats and bishops unelected power over British politics, while the crown can veto legislation affecting its interests and must formally “assent” to all bills before they become law—a ceremonial power, like the ability to dissolve governments, that could be mobilised to restore the bourgeois order in times of acute crisis. There is a bourgeois-democratic argument that the existence of the monarchy is in principle a violation of good constitutional norms and should therefore be abolished. In reality, the bourgeoisie likes having this undemocratic option in reserve—the “queen” up its sleeve. An opposing liberal view that the monarchy is powerless and therefore harmless conceals, either naively or dishonestly, the Bonapartist capacity of this feudal remnant around which “modern” British society has been structured.
The anti-democratic function of the monarchy is important not only in Britain, but in 15 other countries, formerly part of the British empire, in which the queen is formal head of state. In Australia in 1975, her representative, the governor general, dismissed the leftish Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam, while in Canada in 2008, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper persuaded the governor general to “prorogue” (suspend) parliament to avoid falling in a no-confidence vote.
In calling to abolish the monarchy, Marxists do not aim to “modernise” capitalism but to advance the perspective of smashing the bourgeois state as a whole. We demand an end to the monarchy and the House of Lords, and call for the expropriation of aristocratic land holdings as a step towards abolishing all private property in the means of production. To achieve this, the working class needs a revolutionary party committed to taking power out of the hands of the ruling class, not a Labour Party from which Keir Starmer, and Jeremy Corbyn before him, offer congratulations on royal births and marriages and condolences on royal deaths.