The Between The Lines Column from the January 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard
Dynasty is the name of a tacky American soap opera. Windsor is the name of a curious British dynasty. Of course, in one sense they both serve the same purpose: an escapist show with classy costumes to distract the proles from the woes of life. For socialists, the monarchy really does not matter: it is the class of parasitical loafers which it represents that gets up our noses. Monarchy: The Enchanted Glass (3 December, C4) was an intelligent attempt to get to the root of what the monarchy does. What function does it serve — and whose interests?
The presenter, Christopher Hitchens, argued that monarchy is "a strange folk culture imposed from above” by a state seeking to hypnotise the working-class majority into believing that "we're all in it together”. It was suggested that monarchy, in its present form as a circus of social cementation, is of relatively recent development. “By the time the Napoleonic wars were over the English had succeeded in inventing British nationalism, a Royal-based nationalism with the Crown at the centre." This is a rather arbitrary approach to history: one could just as well suggest that the English state was most successful at achieving this by the mid-Sixteenth century. (This was not the only historically weak offering in the programme: the suggestion that George III was completely mad is a discredited caricature — plenty of British monarchs have been totally crazy, to be sure, but George III was one of the brighter of them.) The important point being made was that Monarchy as a cultural performance was invented as a means of consolidating the British national illusion. On that point the programme was quite right. For example, the investiture of the Prince of Wales, which many readers will remember as a major TV event starring Prince Charles, was invented in 1911 by Lloyd George who thought that such a phoney ‘‘ancient ceremony" would boost national morale at a time of fierce class struggle. Most of the so-called ancient rituals of the monarchy go back to the last two decades of the last century: and are, therefore. newer than many of the customs associated with the American Presidency. They were invoked to unite the nation's population — and how better to do that than by having us all cheer together?
On Sunday 11 December (ITV) Brian Walden interviewed the Queen's daughter. He was as obsequious as Alistair Burnett on a bad day, evidently reasoning that if Sir Robin can get one then so should he. Princess Anne is a woman filled to the brim with unscientific prejudices about human nature. She spoke about how in some countries people do not want to work, but prefer to go out robbing Does she not know that were it not for such a dishonourable British tradition she would not be a Princess, her old man would not have inherited his sausage empire, and her family would have no ruling class to symbolise?
History and irony
The great thing about Dennis Potter's four-part dramatisation, Christabel, was that it was about Nazis, not people who were self-evidently monsters. Utterly sick as the entire Nazi enterprise was. the illusion should not be entertained that it was all carried out by manifestly disturbed people. The workers who supported Nazism were deluded, but not sub-human.
The story, based on the biography of an English woman who married a German and found herself caught in the nightmare of fascist life, was about characters who could play in the garden with children and also shout "Heil Hitler" and support the persecution of Jews. Christabel herself begins by not caring about politics. She is bored by it all, and the rise of the Nazis is a matter of indifference to her, much as the ruthlessness of the Thatcher mob is currently of little interest to certain workers who think they can afford to ignore such matters. Christabel is astonished to discover that her Jewish doctor was found dead in his surgery after Kristal nacht. It is not until her lawyer husband is incarcerated in a concentration camp that the full horror of totalitarianism becomes clear to her. By then it is much too late. Too late for her: too late for all of the jolly ordinary, rather decent little Nazi supporters whose homes were being bombed. Potter showed both the sickness of Nazism and the irony of workers, not very different from those who supported Churchill, falling for it.
Potter's sense of irony was supplemented on the night of the final episode of Christabel (Saturday 10 December) by a remarkably sensitive film, made by a Palestinian director, called Wedding in Galilee. It was about a Palestinian family living in the Israeli-occupied territory: the father planned a wedding for his daughter, but the local, unelected Israeli military governor would only allow the ceremony to take place at night (after the curfew) if he was invited as guest of honour. The father concedes and this leads to family and village conflict, with some attacking him as a collaborator with the Israeli occupiers. It was not an aggressive or typically nationalistic film: the Palestinian director showed considerable sensitivity towards the arrogant Israeli militarists, trying to portray them as real people. Just like the Nazis in Christabel. Israelis. Just like the Nazis. Guns. Military uniforms. Ghettos for the Arab underclass. Curfews. Israelis just like the Nazis. This is what nationalism does to decent people.