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Why do the royals still reign?

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As scandals and splits tear chunks out of the royal family, Simon Basketter looks at what keeps them in place—and why the people who actually rule us still want them
Issue 2688
Harrys off. The Queens annoyed. Prince Andrew the abusers friend
Harry’s off. The Queen’s annoyed. Prince Andrew the abuser’s friend

From Meghan and Harry spending more time with their money to the child abuser’s mate prince Andrew ­eating pizza in Woking, the monarchy is in crisis.

It is presented as a soap opera. But since Netflix has The Crown, the idea of royalty as heritage TV drama doesn’t explain their ­continued existence.

Real gold horse drawn carriages, jewelled crowns and tiaras come encrusted with the real blood of empire.

In 1609 King James I told parliament, “Kings are justly called gods, because they exercise a manner of resemblance to divine power on earth and to make of their subjects like men at chess.”

Even an ardent royalist would accept something has changed. That an accident of birth can make us subjects seems absurd—yet the royals cling on.

The queen opens parliament and appoints a prime minister. Royals often at least try to interfere in politics.

The most significant ­setback for the monarchy so far came with the question of who ruled England in the 17th century. A rising class rubbed up against the old aristocrats and the royals.

Things came to a head so to speak with a revolution that saw Charles I executed in 1649. This followed the English Civil War between forces loyal to monarchy and those ­supporting parliament.

Despite this, the monarchy still reigns over Britain—unlike countries such as France, Germany and Russia where it was overthrown. This is partly to do with the restoration of the British monarchy after Oliver Cromwell’s rule.

The increasingly powerful ­merchant class made its peace with the monarchy in order to regain stability.

So Charles II came to the throne in 1660, though he and his successors have had nothing like the power his father wielded.

When that compromise fractured, the origins of the modern monarchy emerged from a military coup in 1688. Rather sweetly called the Glorious Revolution, it was neither.

As the Russian ­revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it, “The English bourgeoisie has erased even the memory of the revolution of the 17th century, and recast its entire past in the form of gradual changes.”

Traditions were created to help the royals recover. So George IV took over with a splendid wedding.

Unable to stay with his wife—she was Catholic—he found another who he met three days before the ceremony. He pronounced, “One German Frau is a good as another,” and got drunk.

Rituals have often been ­created to order. The “age old” pomp of the State Opening of Parliament dates from 1852. The honours OBE, CBE and MBE were introduced even later in 1917.

Queen Victoria’s reign in the second half of the 19th century was central to creating a role for the monarchy.


Capitalism brought immense changes to Britain, and its ruling class was consolidating its power in an empire that stretched round the globe.

There was a concerted effort to increase the popularity of the royal family to help legitimise Britain’s class structure.

Victoria provided a bulwark of reaction against radical change while enabling imperialist expansion and capitalist robbery.

The national anthem was popularised, though it hadn’t even been sung at Victoria’s coronation. The empire became a central feature of royal ceremonials.

Victoria was given the title “Empress of India”. Representatives from the colonies were shipped in to demonstrate the global power of the British state.

A more modern version was the invention of coronation chicken to celebrate all the food of the colonies for queen Elizabeth’s coronation.

The royal family became a symbol of the nation—the essence of “Britishness”.

From the end of Victoria’s reign every royal event was seized on for its ability to become a popular spectacle—funerals, births and marriages especially.

The Tories in particular built a voting base playing on support for queen and the Empire. It was linked to a racist project to get British workers to believe they were superior to colonial subjects of empire.

How much does the super rich royal family own?
How much does the super rich royal family own?
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Flexibility to the needs of British capital was helpful. The royal surname, Hanover Saxe-Coburg Gotha, was changed when First World War broke out. They plumped for one of their castles, Windsor, as a name since Germans were out of favour.

And during the abdication crisis, when Edward married Nazis sympathiser Wallis Simpson against the bosses’ interests, he was quickly dumped.

They were early adopters of state propaganda. The first Christmas message was ­broadcast on the radio in 1932. A coronation in 1953 showed how television offered new opportunities to popularise the royal family.

The queen’s third pregnancy in 1959, which produced the no-sweating Andrew, was ­generally believed to have been timed to assist a Tory election victory.

The use of royals on trade missions and as tourist attractions help maintain the image of Britain’s “natural” class system. Many an arms sale has been greased with a HRH handshake.

If Victoria was the queen of Empire, Elizabeth II is the queen of its decline.

Her position as head of the commonwealth shows that decline is more than symbolic.

Elizabeth’s distinctive feature is to present the royals as being just like ordinary people—only rich. Some of this developed after the 1930s abdication crisis.

During the war attempts to not seem detached were usually met with contempt and, on at least one occasion, stone ­throwing. But the basis of a new style of homely royals was created.


This always ran the risk of making them too ordinary and so pointless, or too hypocritical. The risk grew as time went on.

In the 1980s details of the royals’ state-funded luxury ­lifestyles were laid bare.

This fed into anger at a time of recession and Tory attacks on working people. Then in the 1990s, supposedly fairy tale royal marriages fell apart.

Public opinion towards the monarchy hit a low, so the royals adapted. The queen agreed to pay tax on some of the money we give to her.

After princess Diana’s death, tensions between being ordinary and being royal came to a head. The perceived feeling that the royals had it in for her because she wasn’t posh enough hit the monarchy.

So today stories of getting away from racist relatives builds both sympathy for some royals and contempt for others. An emphasis is put on “hard working” royals.

Charity work is pushed a lot. It is summed up in the Invictus Games—a celebration of the achievements of those made ­disabled fighting for imperialism.

Despite the spin, the House of Windsor is in parasitic and opulent decline.

The latest car crash will see another attempt to regroup and rebrand.

The circular game of relying on and denouncing, and being denounced, by the media is part of this. But because they are more than a soap opera they will not simply disappear.

At a time of barbarism stability can be attractive, not just to bosses but to workers too. The idea that the royal family is above politics can be used to unify people, whatever their class, around the interests of our rulers.

The more people revere their supposed betters the less likely they are to take action against the unfair and unequal society they live in.

Power in Britain today does not lie with the queen.

But neither does it lie with elected representatives. It lies with the capitalist class—those who get rich off the backs of the rest of us.

The royals are symbols of this class. They help maintain the image of Britain’s “natural” class system. That is why ­loyalty to the British state above loyalty to class interests has hung over the Labour Party for over century.

Belief in a national interest means making sure due deference is paid to the institutions of the British state. In the US—without a monarchy—loyalty to the flag is pushed. Here it is of pomp and tradition.

Bending the knee to either is poison for socialists.

We should reject the idea that aspects of the state are neutral—such as the police and judges. The state is there to carry out the interests of the ruling class.

Taking on that state means ridding ourselves of its offensive absurdities and making sure this crown doesn’t get picked up for another season.

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