On 6 May, the United Kingdom will crown a new monarch and formal head of state for the first time in over 70 years. In that time, the UK lost an empire and joined the European Common Market, only to leave it together with its exit from the European Union. The country has been presided over by 17 different prime ministers during those seven decades. Yet the monarchy persists, and this Saturday will even get a new lease on life.
Andrew Dolan is a writer and activist, and formerly worked for Momentum and the Labour Party.
Of course, there are grumblings across the country, in the corner of pubs and online, and justifiably so. The cost of the coronation — estimated to be at least 100 million British pounds — is being covered by the taxpayer. The prospect of the public footing the bill for the immensely wealthy King Charles III to ceremoniously sit on a golden throne while millions of people across the UK struggle with bills, rent, and food prices is both morally obscene and, quite frankly, insulting.
Something for Everyone
This may come as a surprise to some, as the last few years have been the worst for the royal family in decades. Charles’s brother, Prince Andrew, was implicated in a sex trafficking scandal, Prince Harry fled to the US following a racist campaign against his wife orchestrated from within Buckingham Palace, and the beloved Queen Elizabeth II died. Certainly, these events have strengthened the resolve of republicans, and there is some evidence that public support for the monarchy has declined in the last four years (it definitely has in the last 30, especially among young people), but we are yet to see a seismic shift in popular opinion on the question.
The monarchy is the beating heart of a conservative British nationalism forged through the Empire, renewed in war, and shaped in the post-war TV era.
The monarchy’s popularity pales in comparison to the public hatred and distrust towards politicians that is rife across the UK. Despite the most recent banking crisis and exploding housing costs across the country, politicians are much less trusted than even bankers and landlords, and come in dead last among all “professions”.
Among the most natural constituencies for republican ideas, liberals and socialists, the primary target of their political anger has understandably been the privately educated marauders in the Conservative Party who are wrecking the country, whether by imposing austerity, mishandling COVID-19, or doing nothing to mitigate a catastrophic cost-of-living crisis. Compared to this lot, the Queen appeared to many as a paragon of virtue, standing apart from the chaos, and was quietly tolerated or even liked.
But herein lies the problem. For despite the glut of media attention on the private lives of the royal family, there is very little national discussion about the social and political role of the monarchy. Debates often descend into talk of its economic value or, at best, the fairness of the so-called “Sovereign Grant”, the annual payment made by the government to finance the royal family’s official duties that exceeded 80 million pounds in 2022 alone.
The monarchy is simultaneously everywhere but seemingly nothing much at all: a tourist attraction, a quaint throwback to a mystical feudal age, or a fixation for a media invested in British kitsch and courtly dramas.
Ties that B(l)ind
This chimeric existence, however, is by design. Powerful social and political institutions function most effectively when people do not believe they function that way at all.
The monarchy is the beating heart of a conservative British nationalism forged through the Empire, renewed in war, and shaped in the post-war TV era. It was the joint plundering of continents that bound together the nations of the UK in the project of “Great Britain”, with a shared elite invested politically and financially in this bloody and racist enterprise — and many more benefiting.
Monarchy and Empire became insolubly intertwined particularly under the tenure of “Empress Victoria”. The royal family benefited directly from imperial loot and slavery while successive monarchs performed the role of “mother” or “father” of the Empire, which the “TV Queen” Elizabeth II continued even as the Empire disintegrated around her.
Yet while the Empire may (mostly) be no more, its memory still haunts the UK. A large portion of the public and much of the political elite still see the Empire as a positive, and nostalgia for when Britain was truly “Great” is a powerful force in UK politics, even if the Empire often remains an unspoken presence. Empire and monarchy bind together the UK into a solid whole shaped by this shared history.
The coronation will be an attempt to renew that bind, with the monarchy providing a tangible link to Britain’s lost “greatness”, while further inculcating a conservative sense of national identity and order. Sitting above his “subjects”, Charles will be the celebrated exception that proves the rule that this “one nation” is not only great, but in fact equal — a sleight of hand that obscures class antagonisms and insulates capitalism from a popular political and economic radicalism.
Something more systematic is required if there is to be any chance of abolishing the monarchy and delivering meaningful solutions to the many crises that beset the UK today.
Of course, this conservative notion of the UK works so well not only because of the monarchy, but because there are many more pillars that uphold it: the media and political establishment, the education system, and so on. British politicians are a product of this environment, but their support for the monarchy runs deeper than unthinking loyalty to an ideological consensus.
The monarchy is an essential component of an anti-democratic political architecture that confers supreme executive power on central government (through the power of the “sovereign-in Parliament” and the Privy Council) and a vital legislative role to an unelected second chamber packed with elites, old and new. Such power has been coveted by all parties, including politicians who see themselves as anything but conservative. In that sense, Westminster both attracts and makes monarchists.
From Radical Independence to a Real Republic
For socialists, opposing capitalism should mean targeting the institutions that reproduce the conservative mood of the country and stifle democracy, as the monarchy and Westminster nexus does. Yet the mainstream of the socialist movement in the UK has often been uninterested in linking together political and economic reform in a systematic way, a fact that was also mostly true under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party (albeit not always).
The best exception to this trend is the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland, which in the early 2010s convincingly argued that Scottish independence offered a chance to break with the neoliberal consensus dominant in Westminster. Similar arguments are now being made in the small but dynamic radical wing of the Welsh independence movement, while a growing number of proportional representation supporters are making their case by arguing that electoral reform is a step towards tackling the climate crisis and other social ills.
Yet something more systematic is required if there is to be any chance of abolishing the monarchy and delivering meaningful solutions to the many crises that beset the UK today. While the most pressing challenge to monarchy comes from independence movements in Wales and in Scotland, their departure from the UK does not by any means guarantee a shift away from the economic inequality and social malaise that affects all corners of the country. It would also leave England and (for now) Northern Ireland as the only nations of the UK with a king, and would likely boost pro-monarchist sentiment there at least in the short term.
Thus, while the breakup of the UK may be an essential step towards abolishing the monarchy, a more expansive and radical movement is needed — one that links together demands for political reform with class-based demands for economic democracy and climate justice, locally, nationally and internationally. This is no small task — but then again, we are talking about upending the UK’s very political and economic order, after all.