As we emerge from eight days of official mourning for Prince Philip, much of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Tory Party have been competing with one another to see who can deliver the most lavish encomium for the late Duke of Edinburgh. Needless to say, this has required them to delicately gloss over the less flattering aspects of Philip’s personal track record; particularly his lengthy and varied list of bigoted and offensive remarks, politely recast as ‘gaffes’ to spare him any further embarrassment.
Keir Starmer told MPs the departed royal was ‘a symbol of the nation we hope to be at our best,’ and that the monarchy was ‘the one institution for which the faith of the British people has never faltered’ – something which it would take a very selective reading of British and English history to believe. For Harriet Harman, Prince Philip was an unlikely proto-feminist, ‘profoundly countercultural’ in dutifully playing second fiddle to his wife. Surely, if he weren’t still awaiting being interred in his grave, he’d have been doing cartwheels in it.
After a particularly difficult period for the monarchy – including Prince Andrew being accused of child sexual abuse (he continues to evade the long arm of the American law), and Harry and Meghan’s bitter estrangement from the family – the passing of Prince Philip has provided an opportunity to buff up The Firm’s tarnished public image. The wall-to-wall media blitz and the mawkish, bipartisan bowing and scraping of the political class are clearly intended to do their bit to help the monarchy recapture the affections of the wider public.
So excessive was the media coverage of Prince Philip that the BBC – which for a time suspended normal programming across its TV and radio stations – was bombarded with nearly 110,000 complaints objecting to it. But however many people objected to having their favourite shows pulled from the broadcasters’ schedules, and in spite of everything else that’s gone on over the last year or so, polling suggests that support for the monarchy in Britain remains overwhelming, although there are signs of a burgeoning generation gap.
The propaganda onslaught of the last week should remind the embattled minority of British republicans just what it is they’re up against. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that there are so few republicans in Britain, but rather that there are so many, given that the leading institutions in the country are staunchly royalist. Those institutions, it appears, once more include the Labour Party; after the brief interregnum of having a republican leader in Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer has been desperate to emphasise his and his party’s loyalty to the Crown.
This is despite the fact that Starmer himself, in his younger and more radical days, flirted with republicanism. In an old video clip unearthed in February, Starmer had remarked on the irony of his becoming a Queen’s Counsel, as he ‘often used to propose the abolition of the monarchy’ as a youthful Trotskyist. He has since tried, unconvincingly, to explain this remark away as ‘a joke.’ He has little to worry about anyway, though, as there can be few serious doubts about where his true allegiances lie these days.
Whether or not Starmer believes even half the things he’s said about the monarchy this week, the performance is his way of demonstrating his fealty to the British state. Since he assumed the Labour leadership, Starmer’s primary concern has been to reassure the media and the political establishment that, if handed the reins of power, he can be trusted not to change anything fundamental. Corbyn’s republicanism was muted as Labour leader, but it remained one more indication of his unreliability as far as the ruling class was concerned.
Even so, it’s quite tragic to see a Labour leader cowering in terror for fear that anyone might think he trusts ordinary people sufficiently to elect their own head of state. This is by no means a radical position; just a basic democratic one. We can see clearly enough the usefulness of the monarchy to the ruling class, in that it inculcates deference and hierarchy as the natural way of the world. But this is precisely what makes it completely antithetical to the values on which the labour movement is supposed to be founded.
As Raymond Williams argued in The Long Revolution, the institutions of the British state tightly limit any opportunities for ‘active democracy.’ The two major parties at Westminster offer only very restricted forms of participation; any attempt to extend and deepen internal party democracy in the Labour Party guarantees a vicious establishment backlash, as we saw during the Corbyn years. Prime ministers are formally sent for and appointed by the Queen, to whom MPs pledge their loyalty when they’re sworn in – not to the people.
Some on the left have taken comfort in downplaying the importance of the monarchy, assuring themselves and others that it amounts to little more than frippery and pageantry, and that it doesn’t have any actual bearing on how power is exercised. But as Williams puts it, institutions ‘actively teach particular ways of thinking,’ and that which is taught by the monarchy is inherently, deeply anti-democratic. The monarchy is the most prominent among many institutions which are ‘continually offering non-democratic patterns of decision.’
No wonder Labour leaders take the path of least resistance, and avoid asking awkward questions about the monarchy. Otherwise, they’d risk bringing the wrath of the entire ruling-class media down on their heads, placing them beyond the boundaries of political respectability. Socialists, however, cannot hope to dodge or minimise the issue. Tempting as it is to view the monarchy as a tawdry soap opera, we mustn’t overlook the ideological role it plays in undermining the popular political self-confidence so vital to socialist aspirations.