The death of Queen Elizabeth has momentarily pushed aside all other issues in the national media. For the majority of the population, the pressing problems of how to pay the bills cannot be pushed aside, regardless of how they feel about the queen’s death. Nonetheless, she reigned for 70 years, so only elderly people can remember a time when she was not on the throne. Therefore her death, while obviously not a surprise at 96, has sent a certain shockwave through society, adding to the widespread feeling that we are living through turbulent times.
While there are different views in society about the queen and the monarchy as a whole, she was consistently the most popular member of the royal family. For example, a YouGov poll in May of this year showed 82% of people believing she did a fairly or very good job. She was seen by many as being ‘above’ politics and assiduously doing ‘her duty’ – even the irksome duty of meeting Boris Johnson and Liz Truss just two days before her death. During the lockdown, the contrast was widely noted between her social distancing by sitting alone at her husband’s funeral and Johnson’s endless Downing Street parties.
Britain’s ruling class, however, is not encouraging the nation to mourn just because she was a relatively popular figure, but because they are anxious to ensure that the institution of the monarchy is preserved. The two-week-long programme of official ceremonies running up to her funeral, the wall-to-wall media coverage, the procession of capitalist politicians paying tribute to her and her eldest son, now King Charles III: all this is designed to bolster the monarchy in the hope that Charles can now play the same role that she has done for 70 years.
While the monarchy is usually seen as a harmless leftover of a previous age, it is in fact still part of the capitalist state machine, ultimately in place to defend the interests of capitalism. Actually, in contrast to the popular perception that the queen was above politics, the current pomp and ceremony is revealing just how many ‘reserve’ powers the monarchy has. The queen met weekly with the prime minister and the head of the foreign office. All members of the government had to be approved by her, as did legislation. She had powers to dissolve governments, call elections and even declare martial law. It was the queen’s power of ‘prorogation’ that Johnson turned to in 2019 to suspend parliament.
One of the clearest examples of the queen’s reserve powers being used was in Australia in November 1975. The governor-general, the queen’s representative, removed the elected Labour prime minister Gough Whitlam. Whitlam had been pushed by pressure from the working class and social movements to carry out substantial reforms, including free higher education, universal health care, and equal pay for women. But as the economic crisis developed, the capitalists demanded cuts. Fearing the power of a mass movement pushing him to go further, they also demanded the removal of Whitlam. The governor-general, acting on the queen’s behalf, obliged.
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in Britain, the response of senior military figures was significant. General Sir Nicholas Houghton, then chief of the defence staff, said he would “worry” if Corbyn’s views were translated into power, while Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute think tank argued that “the armed forces don’t belong to the government, they belong to the monarch.”
Now all of the powers previously held by the queen have been passed to Charles. This was done via the entirely unelected ‘accession council’ made up of an assortment of 718 current and retired politicians, civil servants, judges, members of the clergy, and royalty.
However, ultimately, the monarchy’s ability to play its role as a reserve weapon to defend the capitalist system is dependent on social support for the royal family. The capitalist class are seriously worried that Charles will not have the same popularity as the queen retained. The monarchy has been periodically damaged, most recently by the Harry and Meghan episode and the scandal around Prince Andrew, but many people, particularly from the older generation, have exonerated the queen from responsibility for the other royals’ actions.
While public trust in other capitalist institutions – including politicians, the media, and the police – has fallen steeply, the monarchy has been less damaged. As the Financial Times put it in her obituary, at the end of her reign the monarchy was “one of the few institutions in public life still capable of commanding mass appeal.” The perception that she was above politics was carefully cultivated; her intervention urging voters in the 2014 Scottish referendum “to think very carefully” before voting was one of the few occasions she was seen to comment publicly on current political events. At the time British capitalism was desperate to avoid the breakup of the British state and as then prime minister Cameron has since revealed, she was asked to indicate her views. Her single remark undoubtedly played a role in the referendum.
The capitalist class has no confidence in Charles to be so effective in their interests in the future. It is clear the queen’s death will accelerate the process of ‘dominion’ countries removing the British monarch as their head of state, rightly seeing it as the legacy of colonial and imperialist exploitation. In June this year, 55% of Jamaicans said they wanted their country to become a republic.
But in Britain as well, the authority of the monarchy is now under threat. As the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle put it, the queen was an “extremely effective unifying force in a nation that is visibly pulling itself apart. Her passing will remove that force, which her heirs cannot assume they will be able to replicate.”
Earlier this year just 32% of people in Britain believed Charles would make a good king, while an equal number were sure that he would not. What is taking place now is a concerted campaign to build support for his reign, and create a mood of ‘national unity’ behind the new king.
Momentarily, some people will be enthusiastic about the ‘pomp and ceremony’ of the next two weeks, partly because they are a brief distraction from all the problems of the cost of living crisis. There is no chance whatsoever, however, of any prolonged mood of national unity. It is too obvious to most people that the interests of the majority, who are suffering the steepest fall in living standards since the start of the queen’s reign, are not the same as those of the tiny super-rich elite at the top. That elite includes, of course, the royal family. The succession means that King Charles is now overseeing the Crown Estate’s property portfolio worth £15.6 billion, while his eldest son, William, has inherited the £1.05 billion assets of the Duchy of Cornwall.
Desperate for whatever help she can get, however, the new prime minister Liz Truss, elected by just 81,000 Tories and with the support of less than a third of her party’s MPs, is trying to gain a little popularity by joining the new king on his tour of the country. Any positive effect will be exceedingly limited and brief, and it could even backfire if it is seen as a cynical manoeuvre. Nor is Truss’s announcement of a £2,500 energy price cap, quickly overshadowed by the queen’s death, going to give her any sustained poll bounce. One Tory grandee was reported as saying it would save her until Christmas – hardly a ringing endorsement!
The price cap constitutes state intervention on a bigger scale than any single pandemic furlough measure. It was a gigantic u-turn by Truss; a sign of how she will be buffeted by events. Of course, there will be relief that bills are not going to spiral much higher, but the current astronomical price is still going to result in 1.3 million more people being pushed below the poverty line. At the same time even 74% of Tory voters support a windfall tax on the energy companies, and yet she is refusing to take a penny of the predicted £170 billion extra profits they will make from the current high prices.
The most serious sections of the capitalist class fear that Truss’s strident defence of inequality and support for tax cuts that primarily help the richest risks dramatically further fuelling the growing strike wave. They also fear that it could worsen Britain’s deepening economic crisis, as the markets start betting against British capitalism. Last week sterling hit its lowest level in 37 years. No longer having the queen on the throne will only increase their problems.
Starmer and Labour
The capitalist class has, however, one advantage in weathering these storms. They face no political opposition in parliament. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has led the charge to national unity, using his speech in memory of the queen to declare that the whole country and all politicians must “pull together” and that the country is best when we “rise above the petty, the trivial, the day to day, when we focus on the things that unite us rather than those that divide us.”
What does that mean? There are no common interests between the Amazon workers organising sit-ins after being offered a 35p an hour wage ‘rise’ and Bezos, the Amazon CEO, the fourth wealthiest man on the planet. Nor should there be any common interests between a Labour politician, leading a party founded by the trade unions to stand up for the interests of the working class, and an ultra-right wing Tory prime minister. There is nothing petty about the urgent need of Britain’s workers for a pay rise, in order to be able to continue to carry out day-to-day‘ trivialities’ like feeding your family and heating your home.
Starmer’s call for national unity is a confirmation, if one were needed, that under his leadership Labour is not standing up for the interests of the working class but, like under Blair before him, is reliably acting for the capitalist elite.
This again poses the need for the workers’ movement to begin to build its own party, on a socialist programme. The Socialist Party argues that such a party should call for the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, in order to remove undemocratic institutions that would be used by the capitalist class to try and sabotage a socialist government.
Trade union action
The first steps towards building such a party are urgent and will increasingly be discussed, particularly among the hundreds of thousands of workers taking strike action with no support at all from the Labour leadership. The most immediate task of all, however, is to fight to ensure that the industrial struggle against the cost of living squeeze continues to be built, including with coordinated action. There must be no retreat into a false idea of national unity by the trade unions, as took place at the start of the pandemic.
When the news of the queen’s death was announced, the leadership of the RMT and CWU immediately called off the strike action planned to take place in the following days. Deciding to reschedule a day’s strike action rather than unnecessarily offend a section of union members and potentially weaken the strike is legitimate. However, as long as none of the issues that forced RMT and CWU members to strike has been resolved, it is urgent that the next dates for strike action are set and built for. The CWU in Royal Mail currently has planned action for 30 September and 1 October.
In addition, however, the leadership of the trade union movement took the decision to delay the TUC congress, which should have been a council of war, bringing together delegates from across the workers’ movement to discuss how to escalate the fightback. Pressure from below ensured that there are six motions on the agenda of the TUC congress – now postponed until October or November – calling to coordinate the strikes. Another issue that would have featured at the congress was the call to launch an appeal to build a massive strike fund to assist those unions on the frontline, such as the RMT and the CWU. There is no doubt that the right wing of the TUC leadership would be relieved if the queen’s death meant they were able to avoid ever debating how to turn those resolutions into meaningful action.
The left leaders, however, should insist that the Congress is reconvened as soon as possible, but should not wait for it, but start building coordinated action now, in a ‘coalition of the willing’. One decision that had already been taken by the TUC was to call a lobby of parliament on Wednesday 19 October. If the unions with existing live ballots coordinated, and a public call was made, that could be turned into a massive midweek workers’ march on parliament, in a powerful warning to Truss.
Such a demonstration should be organised around a programme of demands that could appeal to broad sections of workers and young people. Central would be opposition to the anti-trade union laws, but also including inflation-proofed pay rises for all, a £15 an hour minimum wage, nationalisation of the energy companies, and living pensions and benefits. Without question, such an approach would help to draw into active participation the millions who are currently looking towards the trade unions and be an important step in the working class demonstrating its strength and determination to fight back in the new ‘Carolean era’ of capitalist crisis.
This article was first published on the Socialist Party (England & Wales) site on 12 September 2022