Genuine socialists have always detested the Windsor monarchs. They appear to confront a nation sucked into helpless crown-worship, without a single ounce of decent republicanism in its make-up. While they dream of communism, the country has not advanced out of this old feudal rhapsody. The ‘serious’ bourgeois Sunday papers lead their bloodshot cousins into new levels of hysteria. Given the opportunity Labour councillors slobber over the Regal fingers and the Dynastic feet. Huge crowds and street fêtes in Jubilee year testified to the continuing popularity of monarchy.
Yet the socialist challenge to this vast bewichment is often noticeably feeble. ‘Parasites and Scroungers!’, to quote a recent anti-Jubilee leaflet handed round by one group. ‘The cost of all this frippery!’, as William Hamilton and others from the fading non-conformist traditions of the labour movement tend to say. Marxists sometimes go beyond these homilies, but it is usually to give a standard, somewhat mechanical dismissal in their own terms: monarchy is a deliberately maintained illusion, a class opiate meant to dull and divert class consciousness. Our ruling class has always been strong on ideology, far superior to coercion as a method of domination when it can be made to work; this is one of its strongest ideological arms, and certainly one which works.
This is good enough, as far as it goes. However, few really feel it is far enough. Confronted by the appalling popularity of monarchy, it is not enough to choke with despairing indignation, or console onself with tales of the one or two honest Queen-haters there were in the pub last Saturday night. Such attitudes lead either to a sort of disgust with popular unreason—the masses who let themselves be duped by a meretricious show—or to romantic notions of a people not really fooled by it all, secretly commonsensical behind the Union-Jack façade.
Both notions are dangerous to socialism. It is much more important to ask what are the historical reasons for the Great-British monarch’s specific character. These cannot be reduced to abstract considerations of ideology and class. Furthermore, it is these same characteristics which help us to grasp the causes of the institution’s popularity. The British people are not daft because they still adore a Crowned Head; but they are the victims of a political culture which is in certain definable aspects retarded and limited. These peculiar limitations descend from the experience of empire, and are rooted in the nature of the existing state. It is useless to criticize monarchy in isolation from these things. On the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the British ruling class invited the monarch of an obscure German princely state to step into her shoes. They did this to ensure the preservation of the social order established by the limited bourgeois revolutions of the previous century—1640 and 1688. It was essential that the new dynasty should be controllable, and Protestant. No other formula would guarantee the 1689 Bill of Rights, and the union with a mainly presbyterian Scotland achieved only seven years earlier.
The dynastic pretext for the change lay in the Hanoverians’ distant blood connection to the old Stuart line. However, this was a secondary (though still quite important) technical question. Their distance, their Protestantism, and their foreignness were what counted. At home the Electors of Hanover were petty absolute rulers of the kind that still dominated the European political landscape. But the British élite-calculated, correctly enough, that the culture-shock of transplantation from their small homeland to a great mercantile state would keep them quiet.
Much more was at stake here than the desire for a quiet life. The post-1688 ruling caste of landlords and merchants dreaded the return of absolute kingship—still the normal form of government almost everywhere else. To gain some idea of the universe of mummified reaction which kingship represented at that time, one need only consult Perry Anderson’s analysis of the period in his Lineages of the Absolutist State. It was still a world of benighted despots, showing few signs of following the Dutch or English path of revolution. The closer Stuart pretenders—with a far better blood-claim to the throne than George I—yearned to return the British Isles to that world of sanctified traditionalism. We should remember that the threat was not finally dispelled until thirty-two years after George was brought in, with the defeat of Charles Edward Stuart’s rebellion at Culloden in 1746.
This was the negative side of the installation of the House of Hanover (who only retitled themselves as the House of Windsor in 1917, driven by a wave of anti-German feeling). But the positive aspect of the operation was more important. As well as preventing the return of Catholic Absolutism, the new family was forced to adapt itself to the character of the post-1688 state. This was—and still remains—the crucial point. From the outset the modern UK monarchy has been one part of a distinctive state-system.