From the March 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard
One of the more risible sights of capitalism is when its politicians and journalists think they must appear to be down on unfair stakes. The crisis does it, of course. Here is the Man in the Street, and they have nothing to offer him but unemployment, cuts, shortages and rising prices; and there are the Very Rich, rolling in luxury as ever. In ordinary times the vulgar opulence is the fun of the fair and Our National Heritage, but in times like these it is an inconvenience. So out come the false noses and falsetto imitations, and across the stage they go.
On this occasion it centres on royalty. The Queen has a private income which is secret but estimated (The Guardian London Letter, 28th January) to be £300,000 a year. From the Government she gets £980,000 a year, and on 12th February the Prime Minister almost brought apoplexy on some Labour MPs by announcing that she wanted another £270,000 and proposing to give it to her. A tribe of her relatives and hangers-on exist on the Civil List of government allowances. Prince Charles has £105,000 a year, Princess Anne £35,000, and the young princes Andrew and Edward £20,000 each. The Sunday Mirror on 26th January told us about the Queen’s Hereditary Champion, the Master of the Horse, the Keeper of the Swans and:
Enough Brigadiers, Admirals and Air Marshals, equerries to mount a blitzkreig; a smothering of Mistresses of the Robes, Ladies of the Bedchamber — ho! ho! — Ushers with, and without, Sword, Sergeants at Arms, Constables, clergy with powers of bell, book and candle — apothecaries with vials of goodness knows what!
There are three “official” royal residences besides Buckingham Palace: Windsor Castle, Balmoral and
Sandringham House. (The last, according to the London Evening News on 6th February, has 274 rooms.) In addition there are the racehorses and limousines and the Royal Yacht, which was attacked scathingly in The Sun on 27th January:
She sails endlessly round the world at a cost of £7,700 a week, stopping off occasionally to pick up this or that royal couple for a dream honeymoon . . . When her royal hull was noticed to be less than gleaming, 80 gallons of exclusive royal blue paint were flown from Portsmouth to New Zealand by commercial jet at a cost to the public of £2,180 . . . Her fuel bill, alone, makes nonsense of the oil crisis. While British motorists are confined to 50 mph to conserve the odd gallon. Britannia bums her way through a ton of oil every seven miles.
Veblen with his theory of “conspicuous wasteful consumption” as the apotheosis of class societies would have loved that. It sounds like the crazy pomp of a barbarian super-chieftain; and that is its genealogy.
However, the details are no more offensive than the criticisms of them now being made for public consumption. Royalty has to be surrounded by servility. In R.H.S. Crossman’s diaries published in the Sunday Times, the former Labour minister described the ritual of induction to the Privy Council:
. . . the “fantastic ritual” of rehearsals. He recalled that for over an hour “16 grown men” were taught to stand, kneel on a cushion, raise the right hand holding the Bible and advance three paces to kiss the Queen’s hand.
Of the Queen, Mr. Crossman wrote: “In our ten minutes she talked, as I am told she always does, about her corgies. Two fat corgies, roughly the same colour as the carpet, were lying at her feet. She remarked how often people fell over the dogs . . .
It may all be a printing error, of course. Perhaps it was some corgi dogs which were being trained to sit up and beg and lick their mistress’s hand, and a couple of putty-coloured Labour MPs that were lying on the carpet. But, assuming the scarcely-believable to be true, there is something Crossman’s diaries do not tell us. If it was so pathetically degrading, why was he in it?
There are also the comic sop-gestures which if they were imitated in everyday life would not deceive a child, but are intended to persuade the working class of something or other. The Evening News big headline on 6th February was: The Queen tightens her belt. What was the dour, austere step taken? A plan for improvements at Sandringham House, which was to have cost £250,000, has been postponed as “inappropriate when many face difficulties.” The Queen will keep the money in her pocket instead. Noblesse oblige.
The name which has become well known for attacking royalty is the Labour MP William Hamilton. That is a piece of good luck for the journalists and commentators. Hamilton is an earnestly nonentity; so the press can have the luxury of criticizing the extravagance and forelock-touching and the secrecy over the Queen’s wealth, and at the same time disparaging Hamilton. He is reported in various papers as saying he does not want actually to abolish royalty.
The object of my book is not to destroy the Monarchy.(News of the World)Sack the lot except the Queen, her husband and Charles. Pay them properly taxed salaries and take over the two Duchies.(Guardian)
Does it matter? Hardly at all. Hamilton gave his case away in a TV interview on 31st January. Explaining the origin of his hostility to royalty, he recalled his father’s wage as a miner between the wars — £2 a week — and went on: “And it is still the same today, there are the rich and the poor.” Yes, it is. One has to ask if he seriously thinks, then, that putting down the royals would alter it? And, if this is still the position after the voluminous Labour reforms for which he has worked, why has he not thought of working for Socialism instead?
But there is an opposite fallacy which should be mentioned too. It is the idea that a surge of resentment of the sheer plutocracy the Queen represents in an indication that the working class are up in arms against the system. Unfortunately, no. The fact is that royalty’s popularity has always had ups and downs. Indeed, it was never widely popular until the nineteen-thirties, when a number of factors turned feelings in its favour. In particular, the British monarch was practically the only European head of state whose speeches were not warlike harangues (the reason being that he had and has no powers in that direction).
The same sentiment probably remains today, despite the criticism: the alternative to monarchy could be a dictator, or a Nixon. Looked at from another point of view, this brings us to the truth. Are things any different for the working class in the countries where they have no monarchy? Manifestly they are not. The class division of which royalty is a tiny, if spectacularly absurd, part exists just the same. The great majority spend their lives struggling to make wage-labour’s ends meet, and other people with other titles lap up the fat of the land.
One other reason why many of the working class don’t mind royalty too much is that it gives them pageantry and a show. That should not be dismissed. We all need colour and variety in life: and the fact that large numbers of people get them from a royal wedding every few years and from distantly viewing other splendours is a testimony to the meanness of life under capitalism — another kind of poverty. Establishing Socialism does not mean simply getting rid of parasites; it is the opening of the doors to living.