The working class movement must fight for republican democracy, argues Eddie Ford
Execution of Charles I in January 1649: communists want to do more than get rid of kings and queens
Apparently the marriage of William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor and Catherine Elizabeth Middleton represents a “lovely fairy tale” - a “beautiful love story” of ideal romance and courtship. Or so Johnny Rotten, former fake anarchist turned monarchist propagandist, dribbled in the pages of The Sun when the royal couple’s engagement was officially announced. The same sort of things were said about Charles Windsor and Diana Spencer - who were supposedly wafting about on cloud nine, when in reality they were miserable participants in a nightmarish charade, with the then naive Diana finding herself the victim of a cruel deception.
Yet Rotten’s pretty vacant sentiments are a far from isolated example of the bedazzled stupefaction that we are meant to sink into, like a warm bubble bath after a stressful day, when presented with anything royal. Which, needless to say, is marketed, advertised, packaged and sold to us in a totally cynical manner - the working assumption being that all of us are imbeciles, unable to remember the catalogue of disasters that have been previous royal marriages: princess Anne and captain Mark Phillips, prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson ... (Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn did not go that well either.) But, of course, this time will be different: love’s dream will come true.
And now we can enjoy Kate and William - a very public story - a 60-page comic strip illustrated by Gary Erskine and Mike Collins of Marvel Comics, responsible for such characters as Spiderman, Judge Dredd, Warheads and Jack Cross. The royal couple are now transformed into virtual super-heroes in a “dramatic retelling” of their story. He, apparently, is a “chisel-featured action man” and she is “slim and beautiful”. Possibly an all-time low when it comes to mindless royalist spin, but there is still time for new abominations.
It goes without saying that the media coverage has been and will continue to be merciless. They are determined to capture your heart and mind, no matter what the cost. Therefore more than 100 international broadcasters will be camping outside Buckingham Palace and other key strategic points. The BBC alone is expected to dedicate 1,000 staff to cover the wedding, whilst the US networks are sending over their biggest guns. Around two billion people across the world are expected to watch some or all of the wedding, in what will certainly be the biggest live TV audience in history. Talk about bread and circuses.
Then there is the guest list - which just about says it all. So St James Palace, the official residence of the queen (though neither she nor any other monarch has actually lived there for almost two centuries), has released many of the names of the 1,900 guests invited to attend the nuptials. Elton John will be there obviously - no royal wedding would be complete without him. There are more than 40 members of foreign royal families (although Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain had to give his apologies due to the ongoing “unrest” in his country). Some 200 or more are members of the government, parliament and the diplomatic corps, and approximately 80 are drawn from the various worthy charities that William Windsor supports (not all of them holding senior positions). Over 20 are representatives of the Church of England and “other faiths” - such as cardinal Cormac Murphy-Connor, the chief rabbi (Lord Sacks), Imam Mohammad Raza, the most reverend Gregorios (archbishop of the Greek Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain), Malcolm Deboo (president of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe), the venerable Bogoda Seelawimala (acting head monk of the London Buddhist Vihara), etc. Last of all, there are 60 governor-generals and Commonwealth premiers - not to mention 30 members of the defence services. In other words, the entire establishment - corporal and spiritual - will be there to celebrate, and glorify, monarchist power and privilege.
What about the plebs?
David Cameron claimed on April 25, without presenting any evidence, that some 4,000 street parties are going to be held on the big day - though, even if that is true, it would still represent a significant reduction in numbers from those held for the 1981 wedding of Charles and Diana.
Though it appears that fun and frolics on April 29 are strictly confined to pro-monarchists - or at least according to Camden council. Thus the ‘Not the royal wedding’ street party organised by Republic, a group “campaigning for a democratic alternative to the monarchy”, was at first prohibited on the ostensible basis that it had failed to provide a “management plan” and “consult local residents”. Obviously Cameron’s call in The Sun for “people who want to come together to celebrate with their neighbours” to just go ahead and do so (“We’ve done our bit by ripping up red tape”, so, he warned local authorities, “Don’t make problems where there are none.”) was conditional on what people want to celebrate. If you are dealing with a republican fly in the ointment, dig up as much red tape and obscure bureaucratic by-laws as you can.
As for the Metropolitan police, they have promised that “any criminals attempting to disrupt” the royal wedding, whether in the “guise of protest or otherwise” (like waving republican placards, for instance?) will face a “robust” response. To this end 60 “troublemakers” have been banished from central London for the day. These “troublemakers”, we discover, consist of people who were arrested following the student protests outside Millbank Tower last year and also during the March 26 Trade Union Congress-organised ‘march for the alternative’ - that is, people arrested for protesting against the coalition government’s vicious cuts in public spending and education. Predictably enough, Muslims Against Crusades has had its application to hold a protest event at Westminster Abbey rejected.
Overall, some 5,000 officers will be deployed to ensure that the marriage of William and Kate is a “safe, secure and happy event”. Having said that, warned commander Christine Jones - the Met officer in charge of operations on April 29 - it “would be wrong” to dismiss the obviously appalling possibility that “spontaneous” or “static” protests could take place at nearby locations to Westminster Abbey, the ‘modest’ venue chosen by the royal couple as part of their effort to help shoulder the burden during these days of financial difficulty. Commander Jones called upon the British public to be the “eyes and ears” of the police on April 29, in order to ensure that it is a day of “celebration, joy and pageantry”. She is, of course, supposed to be a ‘non-political’ functionary of the state - above mere politics. Now, there is a real fairy tale.
Which brings us neatly to the truly whopping monarchist lie, repeated ad nauseam - which is, that the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton is a sublimely ‘non-political’ event which can unite the nation. True, not as good as a world war, but it will do for now. So for a few brief hours on this “happy and momentous occasion”, as Cameron put it, we can forget our petty ‘party political’ differences and disputes - especially in this gloomy age of austerity - and instead enjoy an innocent, bunting-filled street party or jolly knees-up in the local.
What utter rot. The whole absurd and befuddling spectacle of pomp-and-circumstance is a ‘wedding of mass distraction’ - promoting the historic virtues of the ruling class, and the establishment as a whole; precisely at the time when it is carrying out wholesale attacks on the working class, with plenty more to come. Even if David Cameron and his grandees had planned it in advance, the timing of the royal wedding could not have been much more fortuitous - anything that helps to dampen down resistance to the government’s scheme, even if only temporarily, is to be welcomed.
Drenched in politics
In that sense, as a partial antidote to all this infantile and mendacious nonsense about the ‘apolitical’ nature of the monarchy, we should be grateful to The Daily Telegraph’s Matthew d’Ancona for cutting the crap and unsentimentally telling things how they are. He reminds us that the royal wedding “will be positively drenched in politics” and that “this kind of ceremony carries a dauntingly heavy payload of messages and symbols about where we are as a nation”. He goes on to state, quite correctly from the communist perspective, that the monarchy “occupies much more than an ornamental role in our unwritten constitution” - which means not just the spawning of a “lucrative heritage industry” and acting “intermittently” as a “soap opera with global reach”.
Useful though those things are, he writes, the real importance and “essence” of the institution “concerns power” and “its distribution” - who has it and who does not have it. Even more hard-heartedly, but entirely accurately, he points out that in the UK political system “the people are not sovereign” nor in fact is parliament - rather, “that power resides” in the “queen-in-parliament”; or, as it “shall one day be in the case of her eldest grandchild, the king-in-parliament”. Therefore, he concludes, “on such a day” as April 29 politics becomes a “branch of semiotics” - a “carnival of signs, signals and encoded messages” - and one such “magnificent” signal will be to “frame and dramatise the continued prosperity of the monarchy”: a “remarkably resilient” institution which acts as a force for continuity and stability in British politics. Therefore, steady as she sails and god bless the monarchy.
Needless to say, d’Ancona’s reasons for supporting the constitutional monarchy system - and hence the status quo as a whole - are almost precisely the reasons why communists are so adamantly opposed to it: it serves as a bedrock for the British state and British capital. For ruling class ideology, the monarchy symbolises the mythological unity of the British people - a unity that supposedly rises above all divisions, not least those of class. While in times of unrest - like a growing anti-cuts movement that pits worker against employer and state - David Cameron and Ed Miliband may continue to exchange insults across the floor of the House of Commons, these expressions of different interests are of minor importance, when compared to the underlying common interest of this imagined British family. Or so we are led to believe by establishment politicians and the mainstream media.
That explains why we in the CPGB place so much emphasis on revolutionary republicanism - the fight to abolish the monarchical system, not just the actual monarch. By which we mean sweeping away the House of Lords, getting rid of the presidential prime minister and all forms of prime ministerial patronage, introducing a single-chamber parliament with proportional representation, annual elections and MPs’ salaries set at the level of a skilled worker, and so on. We also mean disestablishing the Church of England, ending the acts of union and the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by a people’s militia.
That is, republicanism forms an intrinsic part of our communist minimum programme. And it does so because such demands directly raise the question of the state itself - of how we are ruled. And by logical extension the form of working class power. After all, it is not for nothing that the overwhelming majority of the bourgeoisie see the constitutional monarchy set-up as a treasure to be defended and cynically venerated - it serves their interests admirably.
Unfortunately though, many on the left seem to regard republicanism - and the struggle for republican democracy - as a mere optional bolt-on to their worthy but abstract calls for socialism. For instance, the latest issue of Socialist Worker informs us that the “promotion of the monarchy is part of the elite reasserting its rule over the rest of us” and how the “monarchy is part of the capitalist system in this country” - only “through a revolutionary change can we see this class system, with all its absurdities, done away with”.
True enough, as far as it goes. Yet nowhere does the Socialist Workers Party agitate for or even demand a democratic republic - let alone place revolutionary republicanism at the core of its literature and propaganda. In other words, the SWP’s republicanism - like so many on the left - is purely platonic. Yes, it would be a jolly nice idea, of course, but we are not going to do or say anything about it - so let’s get down to business as usual organising the next anti-cuts meeting. A crippling economism reigns on the left.
Finally, we do not put the demand for a republic in our minimum programme because we have some sort of anachronistic ‘stagist’, Menshevik vision of revolution: ie, before we put working class rule on the agenda we must get rid of the monarch. Still less because we want to ‘complete the bourgeois democratic revolution’, as some of our more stupid critics allege. Rather, we recognise the necessity of the working class becoming the most militant and consistent advocate of democracy. Fighting for a democratic republic is part and parcel of the struggle to democratise all aspects of society - from top to bottom. We are opposed to aristocracy and elitism in all its guises, whether in the workplace, trade union, school, university, parliament - or even, for that matter, amongst the left, with its confessional sects and self-perpetuating central committees.
- The Sun November 18 2010.
- The Sun April 11.
- The Daily Telegraph April 23.
- Socialist Worker April 30.