Today, Queen Elizabeth II, the longest serving monarch in British history, and the third-longest ever, will celebrate her platinum jubilee. The media and politicians from the UK’s major parties are in agreement that, as the Labour leader Keir Starmer put it, it is every Briton’s “patriotic duty” to celebrate the occasion. In moments such as these it is clear that the greatest achievement of Britain’s monarchy is that it has entrenched, at the highest level of the state, a culture of groveling fealty and deference to authority. This culture pervades British society. It is evinced in the unelected peers which make up the House of Lords; the Eton-educated minor aristocracy that fills the ranks of the Conservative Party; the plethora of Order of the British Empire awards handed out yearly by the UK’s unelected head of state; and the pledge of loyalty to the Crown, which is required of MPs before taking office. Far from being a quaint holdover, the accompaniments of monarchy represent the most reactionary elements of British culture.
For its so-called services, the Crown enjoys an “annual sovereign grant” (worth £86.3 million in 2021–22), and in March of this year, Prince Andrew was able to pay out a £12 million settlement to Virginia Giuffre, one of the many victims of the billionaire sexual predator Jeffery Epstein, who had accused the prince of sexual abuse. It remains unclear if this settlement was partly funded by the Queen’s estate or the taxpayer.
What has undoubtedly been funded by the taxpayer is a selection of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations taking place across the UK this coming weekend. The government has already spent £12 million on a “patriotic” commemorative book of the Queen’s seventy-year reign. While Conservative MPs debate whether the poorest children are entitled to free school meals, the book will be shipped to every primary school pupil in the UK.
Amid the worst year on record for living standards, councils across the UK have also been criticized for lavish expenditure while families struggle to feed themselves. For the monarchy, an institution in the grips of a number of existential crises, these celebrations are a propaganda opportunity that it can ill afford to miss.
The Queen, Backstage
In her excellent book, Running the Family Firm, Laura Clancy distinguishes between the monarchy’s appearance “frontstage” and “backstage.” Frontstage representations of the institution are essentially PR stunts that present the Queen and associated royals as public servants dedicated to a life of service. The Platinum Jubilee is a textbook frontstage event. Anyone that attempts to bring up the more unpleasant facts about the monarchy during these performances is guilty of spoiling the mood.
Backstage, however, is where the real action happens. Behind the curtains the monarchy embodies the worst excesses of a unique British fusion of feudal patronage and capitalism. Ultimately, monarchy is, as Clancy puts it, nothing more than “a façade through which mechanisms of inequality are disguised and naturalized.”
Defenders of the monarchy often describe the Queen as apolitical. This is understandable, given that within a democracy the legitimacy of an unelected head of state is based on its distance from the machinations of government. Last year, however, the Guardian reported that in the 1970s, the Queen had blocked legislation that would disclose the extent of her wealth to the public. This unspecified wealth was not enough, unfortunately, to prevent the Britain’s monarch from requesting access to a fund reserved for poor families to help heat Buckingham Palace in 2004.
Other royals are also intimately connected to the representative wings of the state. Before he was publicly associated with Jeffery Epstein, Prince Andrew worked for the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as a special representative for international trade and investment. He stepped down from this position in 2011, amid allegations that his relationships with corrupt oligarchs in Kazakhstan were personally benefitting him. In 2015, the Guardian revealed a series of “black spider memos” the future King had sent to then prime minister Tony Blair. In them, Charles sought to use his influence to interfere with government policy to protect his aristocratic privileges.
By some estimates, the Duchy of Cornwall (currently Prince Charles as the oldest son of the reigning monarch) is the largest private landowner in England. The amount of land owned by the Duchy has actually doubled since the Victorian era but remains outside of the scope of most regulation — other than corporation tax and freedom of information requests. Although the Queen voluntarily pays tax on her income from the Duchy of Lancaster, the estate, which holds millions of pounds in investments in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, was implicated in the Panama Papers scandal. Forbes estimates that the of total assets of the monarchy are in the region of £22 billion. Despite this, the Crown attempts to pay its cleaners less than the minimum wage.
And yet, despite galling inequalities and hereditary power, there is no serious movement to remove the monarchy in the UK. This is, of course, partly a function of the mainstream media. In their famous interview with Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle spoke of the “symbiotic” relationship that the UK tabloids have with the monarchy. The Crown and the fourth estate have an implicit agreement to trade access for favorable coverage.
With the prospect of a united Ireland on the horizon, and the ever-present specter of Scottish independence, the role that the Crown plays in preserving what is left of imperial Britain should not be ignored.
Prince Harry has publicly spoken of the “added benefit” of Meghan, a black princess, to the monarchy. In this remark, the Crown’s long history of entanglement with colonialism and empire moved from backstage to front. Shamelessly, he has described Meghan as “one of the greatest assets to the Commonwealth that the family could have wished for.” Meghan’s place in the family could, enthusiasts for the former actress claim, have made the image of the monarchy more palatable to a younger generation less energized by racism. Regardless of what one thinks, Harry and Meghan’s ostracization has undoubtably intensified a culture war in which the media has been able to label any criticism of the monarchy as anti-tradition, anti-British, and antiwhite.
Outside of Britain, republicanism around the rest of the Commonwealth is on the rise. The new Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has already pledged to hold a vote on becoming a republic. Six further Commonwealth countries — Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, and Saint Kitts and Nevis — are also planning to remove the Queen in the near future.
When Barbados’s prime minister, Mia Mottley, was asked about her country’s move toward republicanism, she replied, “Our determination to become a republic is not about a rejection of [the royals] personally. It is an assertion that it must be available to every Barbadian boy and girl to aspire to be the head of state of this nation. It is not just legal, it’s also symbolic as to who or what we can become globally.”
Anti-monarchist sentiment is not a rejection of the Queen as an individual, nor can it be reduced to an opposition to the wasteful excess of the institution she heads. Rather, the continued existence of the Crown, representing as it does the remnant of aristocratic elitism, is an affront to the egalitarian principles of a democracy.
Today, socialists should agree with the defenders of the monarchy on one fundamental point: jubilee celebrations are a very fitting tribute to the Queen. Like the UK’s head of state these so-called celebrations are a symbol of grotesque inequality dressed up as a national panacea.