Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

A Very Modern Mythology

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Jonathon Shafi argues the appeal of the royal family is in its projection of a reformist ethos, where everything can change, but remain firmly within the bounds of the established order.

This is an abridged version of a newsletter from Independence Captured.

It is no surprise given the enforced nature of the mourning period that we have seen panicked, and often bizarre, decision making about cancellations and closures. These don’t stem from feelings of authentic sorrow, or indeed, of loss. Instead, the calculation is dispassionately made in public relations departments, whose job it is at a time like this to shield their enterprises from being seen to be out of kilter with the “national mood.”

Thus Centre Parcs, scoping out the terrain, performed a U-turn after saying its venues would shut down on the day of the funeral. This would have entailed the early removal of those already on site. After a backlash in the opposing direction, they stepped back from their decision, followed by yet more knot tying. It provides a neat example of a company casting around to align itself with the winds of the mourning period. The result might be verging on comical. The roots of this phenomenon, though, are anything but.

You can apply this logic to many settings. The Met Office cancelled a portion of their weather updates out of “respect.” Football matches were postponed, despite the cancelation of sporting events being outside of the official mourning guidance. Councils have pulled events, even ones pertaining to the cost of living emergency. There are even credible reports of operations being cancelled, and foodbanks shutting down. A whole thread of such examples can be viewed here, just to press the point home.

Dissident voices and organisations have also felt the need to step back from the fray. The RMT and the CWU, two unions spearheading a reinvigorated workers movement, cancelled their strikes. Meanwhile the smattering of protests have been dealt with in a most repressive fashion, leading to arrests and people being charged for peaceful displays of opposition. This has provoked condemnation across the political spectrum.

The Scottish dimension

Scottish nationalism, in the sense that it may be counter propositional to the monarchy, has been absent too. Here I mean something quite specific, beyond the actions of the SNP whose longstanding policy is the eternal and loyal support for British royalty even after independence.

Rather, Scotland as an entity, appeared to find a place within the Union which has been missing in recent years. Far from the political conflict over independence, Brexit, Toryism and so on, Scotland and its institutions played a seamless role in the process of the mourning operations. Deployed with great precision, this element of the ceremony has been widely praised.

For the first time in a long time, Unionists could be more confident standard bearers of a Scottish national identity set firmly within the context of the British state. They could be proud of Scotland, its armed regiments, beautiful Edinburgh and Balmoral. They could posit Holyrood as a place which can combine that which makes Scotland unique, within the framework of the UK.

Fleeting as that might be, Scotland and “Scottishness” as projected through a hegemonic SNP was to some extent disrupted. While the impact of the Queen’s death is unlikely to influence support for independence, it has provided at least a momentary bridgehead for a brand of distinctive Scottish unionism that largely predates the 2014 referendum. Polls show a minority of Scots are supportive of the monarchy, and that it is less popular than in England. The health warning is that it is a very large minority, at around 45%

This is balanced, some argue outweighed, by what could be deemed a common sense response held by a large section of society for whom the mourning period has overreached the moment, transcending into the asinine and anti-democratic.

This newsletter will be following closely how the SNP leadership transition from such a backdrop, to the impeding Supreme Court battle and presumably a motivational campaign for self-determination.

It will argue, as I have attempted to do consistently, that independence can only be won through making and winning hard arguments, rather than slipping into acquiescence at every turn.

The monarchy endures

In amongst the cycle of competitive grief, events have brought about a sense of coherence in the ruling class unseen for some time. It is unlikely this will last, given the divisions in the Tory party, the economic crisis and so on. Yet we cannot underestimate the impact, short lived as it may be, of the combined power of a unified state and media apparatus.

Events have without doubt provided temporary cover and reprieve for parts of the establishment. The new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, inherits a platform based on national unity and continuity, rather than being thrown straight into the fire, fighting the many fronts which now await her. The Labour leadership has caught a breather from any pressures felt by the rising strike movement, and now has a new weapon with which to discipline the left in the form of excluding republican sympathies. The Bank of England too is displaced from scrutiny, if only because attention is momentarily elsewhere.

It’s worth reinforcing, however, that none of the underlying problems have gone away. The cost of living emergency reflects a deep-set inflationary crisis. War in Europe and rising tension with China provides a set of geopolitical problems of historic proportions. Meanwhile there is division over how to confront the climate catastrophe. The issues facing the political and economic system are manifest. Against this backdrop, the last week has shown why the monarchy should be viewed as an important component of the ruling class as a whole, rather than an eccentric accoutrement.

Richard Seymour gives us a glimpse of the dynamics at work:

“It (the British monarch) is still the major patron of “Britishness,” the myth of a temporally continuous and organically whole national culture, which every legislator in search of an authoritarian mandate invokes. It is the sponsor of martial discourse, inviting us to believe that the British ruling class and its stately authorities, notably its armed forces, cleave to “values” other than those of egoistic calculation. Its festivals of supremacy still mediate our experience of capitalism, suggesting that beneath the daily experience of conflict and confrontation, there is a more essential, eternal unity in the British polity. They still summon deference, in an era of political secularism.”

Historian Chris Bambery, comments in a similar vein:

“The monarchy is important for the British ruling class. It heads a form of parliamentary rule which has existed for nearly two centuries, centred on an elected House of Commons, a hereditary House of Lords and monarchy. This is central to a carefully crafted British identity and the myth that this system has saved us from invasions, occupation, fascism and Bolshevism. It’s central to the way things are supposedly done empirically, relying on common sense not ideology.”

It may be a jarring thought for republicans like myself. But simply stating that the institutions you oppose are in “decline” has to be accounted for. To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, everything, in the end, is in decline. But the proximate fortunes of the British monarchy have to be understood as part of a wider ideological continuum. For when the whole establishment is behind a project, one cannot underestimate its ability to survive.

To borrow from Marx, the dominant ideas in society are, in general, the ideas of the ruling class. The following polling gives us an interesting insight into how opinions can change, and align with the presentation of top down mega-events.

Again, this could all temporary. Charles is known for his cantankerousness. The Queen is not an easy figure to replace. It is clear to even committed supporters of the monarchy that some of the antics of late have descended into a dark satire. There could be a backlash, especially as the economic hardship millions are going through is juxtaposed with the lavish ceremony taking place:

Yet there are outstanding questions. How is it that the monarchy, with all its inherited wealth and elite prestige, retain its appeal? Why, at least, has it not been subject to mass opposition? To answer some of this, we will examine the ways in which the monarchy splices with popular mythologies of the nation, its trials and travails.

Constructing a national consciousness

The pop-psychology explanation for the anguish built around the death of the Queen is to say that individuals, who have never encountered royalty, can see their own grandmother in the erstwhile head of state. In this way, they come to emotionally associate with a period of time in which loss is projected as an all encompassing national phenomenon.

This might be part of it. My own view is that the state orchestration of grief far outstrips the notion of genuine mass feeling around events. Nevertheless we can reveal far deeper roots and linkages between the permanence of the monarchy and national consciousness.

Patrick Harvie’s speech in Holyrood, in front of the new King, has been seen as the most heretical so far. In it he talks of the great social changes that have taken place during the reign of the Queen, as if these are somehow antagonistic to an outdated monarchy. Yet he has provided possibly the strongest argument as to why many millions of people can indeed relate to the ever present nature of the monarchy, because it taps into the dominant idea of how social change happens.

The liberal and reformist concept of progress arrises through a combination of two elements. It states that real change is possible, but only in a way that will guarantee, or indeed extend, the overall stability of the system at large.

In this way Harvie’s speech, quite unwittingly, tells us exactly how the Queen, as a symbol of the nation, has nurtured popular appeal. While society changed, she, and the whole edifice of archaic tradition associated with the monarchy, remained as a stabilising, reassuring force. Everything can change, yet the institutions will live eternal.

Note that this is the essence of the SNP approach to independence. It is to say that the conclusion of this historic constitutional battle, will in fact result in no change of any discernible note. The currency will remain the same, the economic approach won’t alter from that which is orthodox, and the monarchy will persist.

When it comes to the Queen, this idea has been interwoven with the experience of post-war Britain. During her remarkable 70 year reign, the great project of the welfare state and the slow advancement of minority rights would transpire. While it is true that these remain contested ideas, there is an obvious relationship between these developments and the process of national myth making of which the monarchy is a part. Here, there is a canvass for all kinds of projection.

Sometimes this can take place in very direct and personal ways. During the period of hope and rising living standards which came alongside the post-war boom, households had access to new consumer products. The television was one of the new items that became available across society.

This development played an absolutely central role in the way in which the population could relate to the Queen. Here was the opportunity to see, to hear, and to engage with the monarch like never before. At the same time, she, and the institution she represented was a part of the social and technological changes taking place. Again, this axis of change allied to continuity can be identified. Now, television provides the public with access to previously private parts of the ceremony.

Here, during the mourning period and beyond the chaos of the market, the anarchy of the world system and indeed, the ebb and flow of one’s own life, is the state sanctioned permission to take part in a collective, emotional, and historic experience. That energy has been utilised to quickly anoint King Charles III. Some might call this cynical. But even if it is, this is a well-schooled elite, who have moved with great effect to cement his position.

This is why the ornate, quasi-supernatural ceremony is of such high importance. It is the ritualistic part of the state, which brings to the fore an attempt to build a truly national consciousness. It is an attempt to universalise the interests of the dominant institutions across class divisions.

For many, the nature of the personnel of the monarchy is subordinate to this process, which they themselves value above individual Queens and Kings. The aim is to reproduce not just the hereditary linage, but the ideological and philosophical underpinings it represents. In addition, the Royal family is itself a bulwark of finance capital through use of offshore tax havens and so on.

Alternatives

All too often, alternatives to the monarchy fail to grasp why it endures in the first place. To many the mere concept of a monarchy in 2023 is infuriating and illogical. But those of us who imagine a future beyond royality have to add social context to the discussion. At the same time, we must interrogate our own strategy for a post-monarchy society.

The liberal strand of republicanism reduces the argument to replacing the monarchy with an elected head of state in a way which is divorced from questions of economic democracy and the nature of the class system. It provides no contest to the power of capital, nor to the repressive functions of the state. More than that, it can sit comfortably alongside draconian attacks on workers rights and civil rights. Monarchy is undemocratic. But the unelected European Commission, or the corporate lobbyists hidden from public view, enjoy a more direct form of power.

Any authentic alternative to the monarchy must not only take up such questions. In my view, it has to lead with them. As tempting as it may be, building an oppositional movement that isolates the monarchy as the primary instrument of class rule, is a cull-de-sac.

Rosa Luxembourg made the following reflection in 1918:

“…the monarchy was never the real enemy; it was only a facade, the frontispiece of imperialism. It was not the Hohenzollerns who unleashed the world war, set the for corners of the globe afire, and brought Germany to the brink of the abyss.”

In other words, there is a need to broaden the arguments about the nature of the system as a whole. This can’t be achieved if the monarchy is posed as the “last vestige” of unaccountable power, when it is in fact the ceremonial accompaniment and cultural mediator for the key institutions of British capitalism, themselves largely immune to democratic challenge. Nor can it be viewed as the “last bastion” of imperialism and colonialism in a world where military competition between the great powers is a pressing question this very day, and where adventurist warfare has marked the early decades of the 21st Century.

Successful movements for democracy have always sought to relate to the broader social circumstances in which they operate. The working class has its own, distinctive and independent history upon which we can stand, and through which we can propose as a progressive substitute.

The Chartists, for example, devised six democratic demands, known as the People’s Charter, in 1938. These included universal manhood suffrage, and the abolition of the property qualification required to become a member of parliament.

Today, Chartism is often sanitised and presented as a part of the historical development of British democracy, as if it existed as a compliment to the state, which in turn led to the ruling class of the day simply handing rights downwards. Nothing could be further form the truth. This was a movement based on radical forms of struggle, which fused economic and political demands together in a fight for working class representation and action.

This movement wasn’t separate from confronting social ills and the daily hardship and toil of working people. It was a product of it, and it raised the general economic concerns into a national confrontation with the state in a fight for political rights. It was the first manifestation of the English working class as a consciously understood force in its own right. Indeed, it was the first genuinely mass campaign of the working class in the world. Thus, it was resisted, in brutal fashion.

The great ingenuity of the movement was matched with its solidarity and courage. RG Gammage, a Chartist historian who participated in the events, paints an inspirational picture of the mood:

“It is almost impossible to imagine the excitement caused by these manifestations… The people did not go singly to the place of meeting, but met in a body at a starting point, from whence, at a given time, they issued in huge numbers, formed into procession, traversing the principal streets, making the heavens echo with the thunder of their cheers.”

Many of these rights are ones we have inherited today. These are the people’s festivals which have punctuated and changed the course of history, and as such they can be proposed as a counterbalance to the rituals which surround the monarchy. In the same way as the traditions which sustain elite rule serve an ideological function, so too can the history of people’s movements be remembered and reimagined.

The memory of collective and democratic struggle can come to countervail the pageantry of the establishment. Our opposition to monarchy should not, therefore, amount to a soulless and technocratic fix. But one which itself is steeped in its own heritage and tradition. Such remembrance can become a totem for informing the movements today, as well as offering centuries-old roots.

The last week has been historic, whatever your view on the monarchy. Those of us who want to see real democracy extended to all areas of social and economic life should remember that we too have our own history to draw from.

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