Britain: Is the new-found Royalist optimism justified?

The Queen has started her Golden Jubilee tour of Britain, and particularly with the events (and non-events) following the death over Easter of the Queen Mother, the media are trying to create a revivial of the monarchy's public standing. Steve Jones looks at this, and at the real role of the British monarchy.

The events following the death over Easter of the Queen Mother has aroused considerable passion amongst the nation's press for a so-called revival of the monarchy's public standing. The editorial in The Mirror on the day after the funeral was not untypical of what the papers have been saying:

"...It was a turning point. A day after which the future of the Monarchy is assured...Long may they reign over us. After almost 50 years on the throne, the Queen has never had such authority." (April 10, 2002)

The Mirror then continued for paragraph after fawning paragraph to attempt to push the clock back to an era when all us common folk stood for the national anthem in cinemas, had pictures of royalty on the shelf and would as one shout "Gord Bless 'er" and touch our forelocks at the merest mention of the monarch's name. Except we didn't do that then and it won't be happening now. The Mirror may think that recent events have "...reignited the British people's faith in, and love for, the Monarchy." But in the real world things are actually very different.

Let's consider the process of events following the Queen Mother's death in detail. The news broke late Easter Saturday afternoon. All the media immediately moved into auto-pilot using much-rehearsed plans which had been reworked and polished for, in some cases, decades. Much would be made later, especially by the Tory press, of the BBC's Peter Sissons' failure to immediately wear a jet black tie. However whereas 15 complained to the BBC about this, over a 1000 complained about the moving and cancellation of scheduled programmes for that weekend. This was an early sign that the nation was not exactly paralysed with grief. Commentators rushed with TV crews to Buckingham Palace and Windsor to attempt to describe scenes of silent sobbing people wandering around in a state of shock, except that what they were actually getting was shots of some bemused tourists and other TV crews. Something was clearly not happening. By the beginning of the week books of condolence had been opened and signs set up for the expected queues of loyal subjects. Queues which never formed. By Wednesday The Mirror could stand it no more. In a front page leader, headed by a picture of a non-queue outside St James's Palace, the paper laid in to all us disrespectful lot: "To many people, the Queen Mother meant very little. To others, she was a symbol of a past best forgotten. But the truth is, we should all stop and think again." (April 3, 2002) Really?

In a funny way The Mirror had noticed something which had become all too evident, that people had just not connected with this death, certainly not in the hysterical way which followed Diana's departure five years earlier. The endless tributes which had hogged the TV schedules over the weekend had presented us with a usually hidden world full of strangely named relics from a bygone age, all with a tendency to say "orff" rather than "off", living in a Gosford Park dreamland where proper work would never get any further than the servants.

To repeatedly describe the Queen Mother as a commoner, "one of us" , was clearly being seen as nothing short of laughable. She was born into privilege and moved upwards into a world of extreme privilege. This was someone who, at her death, bore the following titles: "...the late Most High, Most Mighty and most Excellent Princess Elizabeth, Queen Dowager and Queen Mother, Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Lady of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Lady of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, Grand Master and Grand Dame Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, etc, etc." One of us? Hardly.

How could anyone really relate to this? The Mirror clearly agreed and decided that action was needed. A drive was required, they felt, to get us all literally back in line. The leader article of April 3, after a long rant about how hard working, etc, the Queen Mother had been, concluded:

"The Mirror realises there is a big and important debate to be had on the future of the Monarchy. What relevance has it to 21st Century Britain? How much longer should we continue with an unelected dynasty as our heads of state? But there is time yet for that...So, over the next seven days, we should make the effort to think again about the Queen pay her a fitting tribute."

This was the cue to start the campaign. The Royal Procession was in effect turned into something to be sold, not as a solemn event of mourning but rather as a great pageant, a spectacle not to be seen again, and all free - during the Easter school holidays as well! Come along and bring the kids! By the day itself TV reporters were excitedly out on the streets describing the best points to assemble to get a good view. Given all this and the good weather it was not surprising that people came out to see the show. This was followed up by the lying-in-state show and then the big funeral itself. Again the mood of those attending, whilst mixed up with assorted royalist sentiments, was more akin to that of people queuing up for the rides at Disneyland. In truth it was only through this selling of the whole event as a great historical funfair that the claimed numbers were achieved.

But what was the mood away from Westminster, in the country at large? The two-minute silence on the day of the funeral itself was largely observed by virtue of all the main shops being shut from 10.30 am to 1.00 pm. This was not so that people could sit weeping and watch the event on TV but rather so that behind the scenes stock-taking or tidying-up could take place, with staff being additionally forced to take early lunch hours, according to angry e-mails from disgruntled staff to Breakfast TV. The fact that April 9 was never made a public holiday laid down the line; nothing should disrupt the flow of profit to big business. Factories and businesses merely carried on working, in many cases without a break in production.

Away from the workplaces, there was little sign, even after The Mirror's call to arms, of people responding in the "required" way. Even walking around the East End of London, there was little sign of public grief and a desire to mark the event. No posters in windows, no flags, no nothing in fact. By and large, apart from official flags at half-mast on public buildings, there was little visual evidence to indicate that anything had happened at all. The massed ranks of the Royal Family industry, who have all been scratching around for a living since the glory days of Diana and Fergie, are now convinced that the good times are back again. They look towards the coming Royal Jubilee in June with an optimism which seemed impossible just a few weeks ago. But they should be careful. Whatever mood was whipped up, limited though it in reality was, has quickly dissipated.

So are we at the point where the future of the Royals can now be debated? Since it is still apparently illegal to call for the abolition of the Monarchy in print, one assumes not. In a world where public expenditure is something to be cut, cut, cut, the Royal Family can still have countless millions of our money to spend as they see fit. You could get an inkling of the reason why from the Queen Mother's funeral itself. There you could see all the pillars of the state; government, civil service, the armed forces, the church and all the Lords and Ladies, the great and the good, intertwined like serpents around each other. It was a show of strength and power demanding obedience and deference from the people at large.

For many decades now the Royal Family had been trying to present itself as a "modern" force in society, opening public buildings, doing "good works" and involving itself in important "moral" issues of the day. During the 1980s and 1990s it moved into something akin to a soap opera for the nation, complete with marriages, births and divorces - all on TV in full colour. This culminated in the ultimate soap opera event, the death of a leading character, when Diana, Queen of the Tabloids and Hello! magazine, went for one fast car ride too many. What came next profoundly shocked the pillars of the establishment.

In the wild days which followed her death in Paris, Diana came to be seen somewhat bizarrely as the "People's Princess" whereas the rest of the Royals were felt to be out of touch and insensitive to the feelings of the masses. In a state of panic they hurriedly had to upgrade their plans for the funereal in order to deflect mounting criticism. When Diana's brother, speaking at the funereal itself, raised all too clear criticisms of the royal family's arrogant attitude, the resultant applause from the people outside struck a blow at the heart of the monarchy itself. To the massed ranks of privilege sitting in Westminster Abbey it must have seemed as though the age of deference itself was being buried alongside Diana.

But why should any of this matter to them? After all, the monarchy surely represents an outdated expensive feudal relic which does nothing but consume huge amounts of state money. The reason is clear. The monarchy exists to act as a reserve weapon of reaction, ready to be used if needed. The Queen, not the elected government, is head of the armed forces, police and civil service. Indeed, the royal family has spent considerable time and energy in cultivating very real links with the military. They also have close business links with the City of London to go alongside their obvious class connections. If called upon, for example, to stop a Labour government (although clearly not a Blair-led one) from carrying out left-wing measures, the institution of the monarchy could be used to act against such a government, giving such actions an air of legality under conditions of crisis. The bosses are normally quite happy to keep us all believing that we decide our own fates through the so-called democratic institutions. Happy, that is, so long as real power is kept in their hands. But should these bodies become "unreliable" then they will seek to act and in that they will hope to make maximum use of "our" royal family. But this eroding of their position of respect and authority within society at large, so clear to see at Diana's funereal, could prove fatal to such an option. So, much time and effort has recently been spent on looking at how this process can be reversed.

The big plan has been to use this year's Jubilee celebrations (complete with an additional public holiday in June) to whip up a revival of support for the Monarchy. But with a just a few months to go it is becoming clear that the public enthusiasm for this event is distinctly cool. There seems little sign of mass street parties being booked up in any great number at all. After the recent events will this change? Certainly the media, who had been deriding the event, will now attempt to build it up and put a positive spin on it. However the hard reality for the Royals is that most people will still just treat the Jubilee as another extended holiday and hope that the weather holds up.

Dreams that in some magical way the Royal family can be made relevant to a modern 21st Century Britain will remain just that. The overwhelming majority of ordinary people face a daily life of struggle to achieve some sort of standard of living. The monarchy do not live in this world but rather reflect the worst attributes of the other world of the bosses and their class - that belief that they have a "God given" right to exploit and live off the fat of the land. Ours is a world of rent reminders, credit card bills and wage slips, theirs is a world of tiaras, state dinners and hand waving. There is no common ground here. The Queen Mother was well known for having a hatred of the labour movement and anything which sought to overturn the established social order. Does anyone really believe that this is not also the case with the rest of the Royal clique? They may be figures of fun to many but in the future could - if allowed - become a very real focus of opposition to the aims of the working class and the struggle for socialism. We should be very clear in demanding the abolition of the whole royal family, their privileges and powers. After all, given the chance would they not hesitate to do the same to us?