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A Pageant for the Ruling Class

A celebration of royalty is a celebration of unearned status, intergenerational wealth and undemocratic politics. It is, in other words, doffing the cap to the ruling class – and the society they preside over.

The royal family at Buckingham Palace, London, 1972. Left to right: Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Edward and Prince Charles. (Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

It was Tom Nairn who, writing in his book The Enchanted Glass, made the point that part of the problem of being a republican in Britain is that it’s hard to avoid being seen as a carping killjoy. This is especially the case this Platinum Jubilee weekend, with our rulers having seen fit to grant us an extra Bank Holiday; even if one additional Bank Holiday every seventy years seems like a poor return. Certainly, it would be churlish to deny people the right to a blowout after all the sacrifices, traumas, and losses of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Windsors themselves will be grateful for the much-needed PR boost, after what has been something of an annus horribilis for The Firm. Prince Andrew, fresh from having to fork out for a multi-million pound payout over long-running allegations of sexual abuse, is surely likely to be notable by his absence this weekend. Nor will the legion of media and celebrity sycophants, or the politicians falling over themselves to lavish praise on the royals, be so impudent as to draw attention to it; a song in his honour, however, is climbing the charts.

But there is definitely more than a whiff of ancien regime-style decadence—and a hint of shrill nervousness—about the Jubilee propaganda blitz and contrived jollity. Not least because millions of people across Britain are currently facing immiseration as a result of the so-called ‘cost of living crisis’; a polite euphemism for the sharpest and most serious attack on working-class living standards since the onset of the last one just over a decade ago. (A reminder: absolute child poverty is forecast to increase by 500,000 in 2022-23.)

The cost of staple foods shoots higher. With the average price of bread, rice, minced beef and crisps having risen by more than fifteen percent in the year to April, and the price of the cheapest pasta up by fifty percent, the outlook for the country’s poorest and most precarious households is bleak. Food banks report surging demand just as donations decline because so many people are feeling the pinch; meanwhile, toothless ‘watchdog’ Ofgem warns that its energy price cap is likely to rise by another £830 to £2,800 a year in October.

Some people have much more reason to celebrate than others this Platinum Jubilee. The Sunday Times Rich List revealed last month that there is now a record number of billionaires in the UK: 177 in all, six more than there were in 2021. The combined wealth of UK billionaires now stands at £653 billion; an increase of more than £55 billion, or 9.4 percent, since last year. Among those featured on the list were, of course, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and his tycoon wife Akshata Murty, with a joint fortune of £730 million.

After much criticism, Sunak finally—begrudgingly—announced a package of measures intended to at least partially offset the impact of rocketing energy bills and prices of essential everyday goods. Notably, however, he again rejected calls to reinstate the £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit, scrapped last October. Politicians are supposed to be preoccupied with optics to the detriment of all else, but the optics of this are extraordinary: a man accustomed to living in immense wealth and privilege denying those with nothing an extra £20 a week.

Nonetheless, even the measures Sunak did introduce were more than the Labour Party dated to ask for. Indeed, the pathetic, cap-doffing capitulation of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and its rapid retreat from any sort of policy that might be in any way transformative or even meaningfully inconvenient to the British oligarchy, must give the ruling class plenty of cause for cheer this Bank Holiday weekend. Surely even they can scarcely believe just how completely any lingering traces of Corbynism have been obliterated.

Never to be outdone in the forelock-tugging stakes, Keir Starmer really laid it on with a trowel in a fawning article in the Telegraph—owned by billionaire Frederick Barclay, seemingly not enough of a British patriot to pay his taxes here—exalting the Queen’s ‘commitment to duty and her passion for furthering our country on the world stage’, and hailing her ‘integrity, hard work and selflessness’ as ‘the antidote to pessimism’. Starmer was supposedly a republican himself in his younger days; just one discarded principle among many.

He wasn’t alone in his bowing and scraping. There’s no more deplorable sight in British politics that of Labour politicians—so-called representatives of the organised working class—eagerly hoovering up their trinkets and baubles from the establishment whenever there’s an honours list, and the latest one is no exception: Stephen Timms and Nia Griffith, shadow defence secretary under Jeremy Corbyn, are the latest in a long and lamentable line to collect theirs as a reward for services loyally rendered to the status quo.

Yet, in truth, and with the exception of the weaselly Duke of York, the current crop of royals are mostly too bland to truly hate on a personal level. Some republicans are hoping that Charles, with his proclivity for sticking his royal nose where it isn’t wanted, will finally discredit the monarchy and give the country the nudge it needs to choose its own head of state, rather than continuing to cocoon itself in a never-never land of kings and queens, princes and princesses. It has to be said that this scenario is much too optimistic.

Even during the Corbyn era, the question of the monarchy and the British constitution itself was rarely raised. But as socialists, we cannot overlook the ideological importance of the institution, inculcating deference, naturalising hierarchy, and obfuscating fundamental differences of class interest (as paradoxical as that might seem, given the monarchy’s gaudiness). Let us hope that whenever our chance next comes, we’re able to build a movement both willing and capable of bringing the whole rotten edifice crashing down.