Socialist Worker

Synthetic deference

by Theresa Bennett
Issue No. 1802

SATURATION media coverage of the queen's Golden jubilee is under way. Amidst the pageantry the monarchy is presented as a part of the unbroken tradition unifying the nation.

Establishment figures queue up to promote the monarchy as Britain's oldest institution, enduring a thousand years of unchanging popularity. The reality is very different. For most of the monarchy's existence it has been deeply unpopular. The 'ancient' rituals surrounding it are little more than a century old.

So hated were past kings and queens that at times governments have feared the public reaction to the presence of a monarch. And in the 17th century Charles I was executed during the English Revolution. Subjects of King George IV in the 19th century hated him. He was notorious for affairs, extravagance and scandals.

The Times wrote upon his death, 'There was never an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king.' His exercise of political power prompted the Spectator magazine to rebuke the king's 'feebleness of purpose and littleness of mind, his ignorance and prejudice'.

There were press attacks and vicious satirical cartoons featuring Queen Victoria throughout the middle of the 19th century. Between 1871 and 1874 some 84 clubs sprang up advocating the abolition of the monarchy. Radicals demanded an investigation into the cost of the civil list-the public handouts to the royal family. The pageantry that surrounds the queen today was invented at the end of the 19th century to shore up the monarchy.

Royal ceremonies until the late 1870s were only reported in the regional newspapers with a limited readership. The press remained generally hostile to the monarchy.

Extravagant commemorative supplements in the Times and the Observer covering the coronations of William IV and Victoria didn't increase paper sales. Royal rituals were so irrelevant to people's lives that there were few attempts to commercially exploit royal events and landmarks. Then between 1874 and 1914 the public image of the monarchy was deliberately changed.

These interventions took place following the 1867 Reform Act which extended the right to vote to some sections of the population. This was a period of rapid technological change and deepening social conflict. Britain's rulers sought to elevate the monarchy as a symbol of stability-something for ordinary people to look up to and to remind them of their place. Meticulous attention began to be paid to the details of ceremonials.

Choirs began to be drilled. Cathedrals like St Paul's between 1872 and 1888 and Westminster Abbey between 1882 and 1918 were transformed and adopted new pageantry. Church rituals were introduced and revamped to make them more welcoming and attractive to a wider audience. From the 1870s on, the monarch was refashioned as a symbol of the nation.

Royal splendour was used as a measure of international importance and global standing. Victoria's 1897 Diamond Jubilee procession incorporated colonial troops, and premiers from her dominions. Rituals now included reading out letters of support from other members of royalty and the monarchs of other nations.

The Mall was widened to facilitate royal processions and Admiralty Arch was built as a suitable backdrop between 1906 and 1918. The death of Edward VII in 1910 saw for the first time the monarch's body lying in state in Westminster Abbey.

This grand pageantry paid off. An estimated quarter of a million ordinary citizens filed past the coffin. This funeral ceremony was described as 'the grandest state pageant in which Edward had taken part'. The honours system was extended as late as 1887.

New additions to the system of patronage were the Order of Merit, Companion of Honour, Knights of the Garter and Indian Orders. Where once the monarch had been held up as a father figure of empire, by 1913 the image of the constitutional monarch had evolved. The long rehabilitation of royalty had succeeded in fashioning it into a symbol of duty, devotion and a rallying point at times of conflict.

In 1932 the BBC began to transmit Christmas broadcasts by the reigning monarch. The invention of tradition had triumphed in venerating the monarchy so much that by 1936 the press had become largely uncritical of the monarchy. The rehabilitation was so complete that a biographer of George V in 1948 was instructed to omit anything that could discredit him.

Republican sentiments are presented today as something new and exceptional. There is nothing natural about the deference and traditions that the monarchy symbolises.

And our rulers are continuing to go to great lengths to bolster the monarchy. Buckingham Palace played host to hundreds of journalists recently, including those from 'republican' papers such as the Guardian.

The aim was to ensure favourable press coverage of the jubilee. It succeeded. For the past few months we have witnessed another attempt to shore up the monarchy. There was the careful use of the Queen Mother's death to present the royals as the beloved figureheads of 'the nation'.

The queen's jubilee tour has been crafted to present her as in touch with ordinary people. Popular and not so popular celebrities have been drafted in to add some showbiz glamour.

And, of course, the Whitsun bank holiday has been moved back so that the jubilee weekend just happens to coincide with England's first game in the World Cup. For our rulers today, as 100 years ago, the monarchy is an important tool in fostering an atmosphere of deference. It's a bargain for them too. After all, we pay for it.

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Sat 1 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1802
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