British Republicanism after Elizabeth

Last month saw the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning British monarch and one of the defining figures of the twentieth century. George Hoare argues that though republicanism is subdued, her death puts the monarchy into question.

The funeral of Elizabeth II was a throwback moment for the British elite, as it indulged fully in obsequious fawning over its oldest institution. The entire state apparatus was mobilised to ‘put on a good show’, with the prize for peak pomposity going to the Speaker of the House of Commons who claimed, apparently with a straight face, that the funeral would be ‘the most important event the world will ever see’. In advance of the event itself, the Queen’s death saw a wave of public ’emotional correctness’ (as Alex Hochuli termed it): the need for seemingly not just every brand but everyone with any sort of public profile to deliver a straight-bat expression of generalised sadness and gravitas. The message is clear: not just Poundland, Domino’s Pizza, and Ann Summers but you, too, must express your sadness and shock, and make clear your thoughts are with the Royal Family at this trying time. 

Supporters of republicanism on the British left, though, were in a subdued mood (even if some Irish football fans were noticeably less so). In one sense, this is understandable: even (some of) the old punks have ended up bending the knee. But republicans also struggle because they have failed to grasp what Elizabeth II really represented.

The dominant understanding of the monarchy on the British left is one that takes it as a symptom of Britain’s historical underdevelopment – it is the ‘glamour of backwardness’, as John Merrick puts it in a recent Jacobin piece. The Queen’s death, on this reading, is a reminder of the lengths that Britain still has to travel to catch up with its continental, more fully bourgeois and republican neighbours. Merrick’s account draws on the work of the Scottish writer Tom Nairn, and in particular his 1977 piece (reprinted in the New Left Review in 1981), ‘The House of Windsor’. Along with Perry Anderson, Nairn developed a series of theses that looked to explain British ‘backwardness’ in the 1960s by pointing to the unfinished or incomplete character of the English Revolution. The central contention, influenced by a particular reading of Gramsci’s account of British history, is that the English bourgeoisie lost its historical nerve after beginning the world’s first bourgeois revolution in 1640, and fused with (rather than completely deposing) the remnants of the feudal aristocracy. This explains the persistence of the monarchy and the whole cast of supporting characters, including Dukes, Lords, Baronesses, Etonians, and so on.

Nairn’s ‘The House of Windsor’ gives a short overview of the history of the British monarchy. The Hanoverians were brought over from what would later become part of Germany in 1714, by a British ruling class eager to consolidate the gains of the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth century and avoid the absolutist monarchy present in the rest of Europe. The Hanoverians – rebranded as the Windsors during WWI  – worked better for this purpose than the more traditionalist Stuarts who were pushed aside. But, Nairn argues, the role of the monarchy from the eighteenth century to today was as a symbol employed by an archaic state-order to avoid modernisation. The Royal Family and their ‘pyramid of lackeys’, Nairn thinks, ‘constitute a dead-weight’ that served to contain the gains of the English Revolution and to block further development. Nairn memorably concludes that: ‘The “magic” of our monarchs is the sweet odour of decay arising from this mountainous dunghill of unfinished business.’

The political consequences of this position have tended to be a sneering dismissal – or condescending incomprehension – of working-class support of the monarchy, with leftists analysing this phenomenon as the ‘sociology of grovelling’. A perspective that sees the monarchy only as a feudal vestige needing to be removed from the body politic through a proper bourgeois revolution has tended to provide an alibi for ignoring working class demands and downplaying the history of radicalism from the English Revolution to today. The working class are rendered as baffling grovellers, subservient to their ‘natural betters’. 

But perhaps genuine feeling towards Queen Elizabeth II is better understood not as a hankering for an ancient past but as a projection of the public’s support for the network of modern institutions that gave British national life content during the period of her reign. The Elizabethan monarchy was not a block on our modernization but a representation of the material conditions that made possible a British nation. Respect  for the Queen is, in this sense, respect precisely for the institutions of social democracy that are often counterposed to the institution of the monarchy. It is not a coincidence that along with the NHS, the Queen has been one of the lasting symbols of twentieth-century Britishness. As James Heartfield noted, the Queen was a symbol of the class compromise that lasted from the aftermath of the Second World War until the 1970s, although she remained long after the collapse of the postwar order. We now face a situation where these interrelated totems of national life are now decisively past.

Charles III does not have this set of more or less social democratic institutions to call on; instead, he can only reflect back to the British people the ossified democratic vehicles and state structures that have decayed since his mother first sat on the throne in 1952. It is this material change, symbolically captured in the change of personality from the statesmanlike mother to the unpopular son, that provides the real opportunity for British republicans.

Although respect for the late queen has suppressed debate for now, in the background the question of the monarchy is a live one today. It is not that Charles will be less unifying than his mother, but that he will only be able to show back to us our own disunity. With Charles, we can no longer live symbolically in the Britain of the past that was preserved in the person of Elizabeth. There is no other option than to confront the necessity of living in the Britain of the present.

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