The British monarchy: a “glorious” feudal class in 21st century trappings

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11 October 2022

The queen’s funeral on 19th September was the biggest death-festival the world has ever seen.  And the most costly, although the estimate, according to the website Full Fact, is anything from £8m to... £6bn (!) - since at their time of writing, apparently the police hadn’t yet handed in their overtime bill!

    There was no way to ignore it.  The whole British population was placed into an obligatory 10-day period of mourning before the burial, during which posters and billboards appeared in all public places commemorating the queen’s “reign”.

    People - they were mainly tourists, retired royalists, and off-duty and ex-military personnel - were induced to spend up to 42 hours waiting in a queue, through the night, to file past her lead-lined casket in Westminster Hall.  And the BBC devoted itself to wall-to-wall, 24-hour coverage for which travesty it has subsequently very warmly congratulated itself!  World news hardly covered; devastating floods in Pakistan got barely a mention and even unprecedented communal rioting in the city of Leicester was ignored.

    This grandiose, over-the-top and drawnout pageant involved elaborate choreography, thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen/women and even the Canadian Mounted Police, as representatives of “her” Commonwealth of 54 states.  The first official state funeral since Winston Churchill’s in 1965, it had been 60 years in the planning - and as explained by the media, it was the queen herself who had (ghoulishly!) decided on the details.  So her final “act of service” was the imposition of this maudlin extravaganza on everyone, like it or not.

Respectful union bureaucrats

For postal and railway workers, the impact of this very long-anticipated death was profound in a completely different way: their ongoing strike action was immediately suspended by union leaders.  These bureaucrats and all the other so-called “labour” figures, right across the board, revealed themselves as apologists, if not outright admirers, of the erstwhile monarch, using the excuse that this was out of respect for “the woman she was” or “her 70 years of devotion to service”!  As if she ever served anything other than the British ruling capitalist class and their counterparts around the world!  But never mind, the rest of the population - that is the “lower” classes - were to be treated like fools – and what’s more, expected to believe in the fictitious political neutrality of the head of this imperial capitalist, class state!  The official narrative being that she was “the queen of all the people”, and that the whole country was thus “united in grief”!  And not only the country, but the peoples of the “Commonwealth nations” as well.

    All that said, however, the theatrical display around the royal family during the 10 days of in-your-face media reporting could leave nobody in any doubt that theirs was and is a totally different world, which has absolutely nothing to do with the likes of “the rest of us”!  In 1844 Frederick Engels wrote of the monarch: “nowhere is a nonruling personage more revered than in England”.  Today he would not have written this.  He would have looked behind the media gloss and seen that the majority of ordinary working people felt not a shred of reverence.

Feudal trappings soaked in blood

The multiple ceremonies accompanying this death festival did allow Britain’s constitutional monarchy to be seen in all its feudal “glory”.  So that anyone who might have thought that the queen was a mere figurehead and that her role as head of state, church and army was merely symbolic, would have had an all-encompassing demonstration of her real purpose.  How the monarchy provides the state with a solid buttress, protecting the British capitalist class and its “mother of all parliaments” from social shocks - so even if its cost is exorbitant, it is worth its weight in gold… literally.

    The story which is told for popular consumption is that today’s royal family represents a kind of continuum of royalty at the top of the state, ever since the Battle of Hastings in 1066!  Even the French origins of the victors in this battle are swept under the carpet; this is known as the “Norman” conquest!

    But there is no real continuum.  The fact that Britain was a republic for 11 years from 1649 to 1660 is practically unknown, certainly not taught in most British schools and definitely uncelebrated.  Yet this republic was the very first “Commonwealth”, and the origin of this word.  Under Cromwell and his revolutionary “Leveller” New Model Army whose officers were all elected by the ranks, a united “Commonwealth of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland”…  not a united “Kingdom” (!), was established - after the head of Charles I was chopped off.

    This was the first secular bourgeois republic in the world.  It placed the wealthy mercantile capitalist class into power, abolished the House of Lords and Bishops, granted freedom of religion inviting exiled Jews, who had been hounded out of the country, to return.  It laid the basis of Britain’s conquest of the seas - and its empire, (so celebrated by today’s “Britannia Unchained” Brexiteer political bosses) - by passing the Navigation Acts.

    History classes in this country, to this day, still explain the English revolution of the 1640s, as a religious civil war.  The word “revolution” is never used.  Yet what the “bad” Roundheads in Oliver Cromwell’s democratic New Model Army achieved, was the overthrow of the monarchy and the church.

    However they left the aristocracy intact and thus free to plot a return of the monarchy, unlike the French revolution 150 years later, which guillotined the whole lot of them, ensuring they were gone for good!  Of course that’s only part of the story.  What establishment historians call the revolution was after the restoration of the monarchy - the so-called “glorious” revolution of 1688 - when the pomp and circumstance around monarchy was restored.  But thanks to the genuinely revolutionary period under Cromwell, the parliamentarians had felt their power and were not going to give it up; they ensured it remained in their hands and that the kings and queens who followed remained subservient.  Their compromise, however, placed the aristocracy and bishops back in their House of Lords and revived religious sectarianism.  After several hiccoughs, an Anglican “Protestant” state was born.

    Once the post-revolutionary reaction had settled in, the new landowners, together with a caste of merchants and lawyers with good government connections, proceeded to go on a land-grabbing spree.  As Marx described in Capital, to illustrate the ruthlessness of the process of capital accumulation, which now began in earnest, inaugurating the capitalist class: “The ‘glorious Revolution’ brought into power, along with William of Orange, the landlord and capitalist appropriators of surplus-value.  They inaugurated the new era by practising on a colossal scale thefts of state lands, thefts that had been hitherto managed more modestly.  These estates were given away, sold at a ridiculous figure, or even annexed to private estates by direct seizure.  All this happened without the slightest observation of legal etiquette.  The Crown lands thus fraudulently appropriated, together with the robbery of the Church estates, as far as these had not been lost again during the republican revolution, form the basis of the to-day princely domains of the English oligarchy.  The bourgeois capitalists favoured the operation with the view, among others, to promoting free trade in land, to extending the domain of modern agriculture on the large farm-system, and to increasing their supply of free agricultural proletarians ready to hand.  Besides, the new landed aristocracy was the natural ally of the new ‘bankocracy’, of the newly-hatched haute finance, and of the large manufacturers, then depending on protective duties”.

    This large-scale theft and the brutal enclosure of common land that went with it, gave birth to the enormous estates which made capitalist farming aimed at the national and European markets possible.  The peasantry forced off their land became dependent wage workers - the proletarian class destined to build capitalist fortunes - while the accumulation of mercantile capital to provide the basis for the industrial revolution was provided by the domination of the navy at sea.  It was in this “glorious period” that the triangular trade, the enslavement of Africans for the sake of the American and Caribbean plantation economy, the ruination of India’s domestic textile industry, the war on China… built the “Empire” and capitalist fortunes.  They were forged in African slaves’ blood, the blood of the English and Scottish peasantry not to mention that of the Indians, Chinese and all other colonial peoples.  Yes, and all presided over by a succession of kings and queens – of which Charles III - of the now “Carolean” era (!), is just the latest.

    So to hear the platitudinous nonsense being spouted by journalists over how the “imperialist empire” became the benign and voluntary “Commonwealth” under the reign of Elizabeth - even claiming it was her own creation, is actually a highly malign rewriting of history.  Especially considering the fact that she herself presided over the brutal and unspeakably bloody “post colonial wars” in Asia, the Middle East and Africa - including the murderous suppression of the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya, the Biafran war in Nigeria, and the wars over East Pakistan – with the creation of Bangladesh after the ill-fated partition of India.

A regal mafiosi

Of course, the image of a politically “neutral” queen who never expressed a political opinion; a classless queen “serving all of the people”, is an illusion - and an obvious one at that.

    Most people know that she was one of the richest individual capitalists in the world, although for some strange reason she no longer appears on the Sunday Times Rich List as she used to!  If she did, she would certainly still be in the top 10.  The Hinduja Brothers who head the current list can boast of a fortune of £28.5bn; at number 10, is Michael Platt, the hedge fund financier with £10bn…  Whereas the queen’s huge real estate portfolio, known as the “Crown Estate”, is worth £15.6bn - and this is only a part of her wealth (all of which now passes, without inheritence tax, to Charles, now “King” Charles III).

    The queen’s father George VI, referred to the family as “The Firm”.  Indeed, for all of her 70-year reign, the queen was CEO of what amounts to a huge personal business and media empire.  The “Insider” website says these acted as an “independent branch of government”…

    For the royal duties alone (excluding her own enterprises) 1,133 staff were employed to take care of the Royal Trust, the Chamberlain’s Office, the Privy Purse, the Household Department and Private Secretary’s department.

    However it seems that the “Firm” did not reciprocate the care offered by its staff.  The Guardian newspaper reported on the 13 September that 100 (at least) of those working for the former Prince of Wales, now Charles III, at his (former) London residence and business HQ, Clarence House, received their redundancy notices during the period of mourning - in fact at the same time as a “thanksgiving” service was being held.

     It also seems that the meticulous detail the queen went into when planning her own deathfest, took no account whatsoever of the fate her own personal “servants”.  Her loyal dressers who cared for her for decades, were left not knowing what would happen to them now their “Ma’am” was dead.

    It should also be said that The Royal Household is exempt from a number employment laws, including the Equality Act!  In fact up until 1968 it consciously refrained from recruiting any worker with a black skin.  But since it is not open to any scrutiny, today’s situation may or may not have improved!

    So what about all of that wealth owned by the late queen?  Was it really hers?  In fact, yes and no…  Since 1066, all of the country’s land has been the property of the “crown”.  But in 1760, George III handed these “crown lands” to the state to manage, not wanting the bother of it any more, for one reason or another.  He agreed that the surplus revenue would go to the Treasury and in return he would receive a fixed annual payment - at the time, known as the Civil List, and now as the Sovereign Grant.  Today the Crown Estate as it’s known, encompasses London’s Regent Street and St James, parts of countryside outside

    London, shopping centres and retail parks – but also all of the British seabed up to 12 miles out from the coast!  Which lately provides a lucrative income from offshore wind-farms!   Although all of this was “owned” by the queen during her lifetime, she was not able to sell any of it.  The Crown Estate is today run as a fully-fledged commercial business with a staff of 450 people, who come under the Treasury.  It made a profit of £312.7m in 2021/22, out of which the queen’s grant this year came to a cool £102m - an agreed 25%, recently increased from 15%.

But that is not all.  The monarch gets a more direct source of income from the Duchy of Lancaster (overseen by a government-appointed “chancellor” and with its own Whitehall department), which provides a so-called “Privy Purse” and which paid her £24m in 2021-22.  This Duchy is a private estate, currently valued at £653m, which has belonged to the reigning monarch since 1399. Its holdings cover 18,248 hectares including farmland across Cheshire, Lancashire, Staffordshire and Yorkshire, commercial property like the Savoy estate in London, as well as financial investments, farmhouses, homes, and mining and foreshore rights.

    Although 30 residences come under the ownership of the British monarch, she personally owned the palaces of Balmoral in Scotland (bought by Victoria and Albert in the 19th century), which sits on 50,000 acres of land, plus Sandringham in Norfolk, on 19,000 acres.  Both include stud farms where the queen bred racehorses.  In fact this self-confessed devout Christian and head of the Church of England was an enthusiastic promoter of gambling on horses, attending almost every Royal Ascot race, and running 22 winners.

The dotty successor

As for Charles, now King, his (former) private estate, the Duchy of Cornwall of 135,000 acres spread across 23 counties already made him the largest private landowner (larger then the queen) in England.  All this now passes to his oldest son, the willing William.

    The Duchy has net assets of £1.05bn and in 2022, a “surplus” (his profit!) of £23m.  Recently he agreed to pay tax on this - however not corporation tax.  He denies these are profits.  Anyway he claims his expenditure in 2021 came to £21m.., so it seems he only paid tax on £2m!

    Despite its name, this “Duchy” is mostly outside Cornwall.  It includes the Isles of Scilly, large parts of Devon including chunks of Dartmoor and even The Oval cricket ground in London!

    Forty years ago Charles personally bought Highgrove House in Gloucestershire, plus 900 acres of nearby land where he set up an organic farm, with the aim of selling its products commercially as “Duchy Originals”.  But he got into financial difficulties and was luckily rescued by Waitrose supermarket chain (part of the John Lewis Group), which went into partnership with him establishing “Duchy organics” as a leading and expensive, but highly profitable brand.

    Charles has been constantly lampooned, thanks to his whacky views, whether on architecture or when championing homeopathy and other “alternative” anti-science views which he never hesitated to express and put into practice.  Then there is his jiggery-pokery when it comes to his tax affairs - currently being questioned by Labour MPs, but perhaps not for long, now that he has become “King”!  To this day he argues that he is not and should not be liable to pay tax on the profits of his huge real estate empire nor on the profits he now (with the help of Waitrose) makes out of farming.  Whether his son will be more honest remains to be seen, but it is highly unlikely.

    It is the case that he has apparently decided to slim down the monarchy and for the time being will not be moving to Buckingham Palace as it is being renovated.  But it leaves many workers in the Royal Household and Clarence House up in the air.  Some are in fact in the civil service union, whose leader has vowed to ensure they get “treated fairly”.  Since the civil service is currently balloting for strike action over pay, perhaps Charles will find himself faced with his first strike.

“Owner” of one sixth of the world

So what about today’s Commonwealth of 55 countries?  Whose wealth is it?  In fact land in the 14 realms in which the British monarch is head of state is also “Crown Land”.  So, while the British Empire may be long gone, today King Charles “owns” only 22% less land than Queen Victoria did during the height of it!

    In strict legal terms, this includes all the land of Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, 32 other members of the Commonwealth, and Antarctica.  The Australian Property Investor Magazine published an article 4 days after the queen’s death raising this very issue: “Despite the belief held by many Australian landholders that they own their land absolutely including anything above or below it, due to the Doctrine of Tenure, the law in Australia holds that the [British] Crown has absolute ownership - not withstanding any native title claims. (...) While it may sound like largely irrelevant legalese, there are some very real ramifications arising from property rights issues in Australia right now involving Crown land.  In Australia, minerals, oil and gas are ‘reserved to the Crown’ which means Australian state governments retain the rights to these resources if they are found on freehold land (…) There is growing concern among Australian landholders, particularly in Queensland, regarding seemingly unauthorised entry and use of their land by coal seam gas companies for exploration activities, or the construction of an extraction plant or future pipelines”.

    So the ambiguous legal niceties, symbolic and ceremonial as they may be, continue to have consequences in the world of big bucks and no doubt regardless of environmental impact, whether Charles claims greenness and eats organic or not.

    The late queen’s legal title, “Her Majesty, Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”, puts in a nutshell the archaic feudal structure she represented, which did not only encompass the “UK”.

    It remains an immense establishment.  As the Irish poet, Kevin Cahill explained in an article for the New Statesman (22 August 2022) entitled, “Who owns the world?”, the British monarch actually retains legal tenure, that is de facto ownership, of 6.6 billion acres, i.e., one sixth, of the earth’s surface, the largest land empire in history.

    Cahill continues: “...if the Queen could convert her landholdings into cash, she would not only be the richest individual on earth, but also the richest person who has ever lived”.  But then he makes an even more interesting point: “Another way she could achieve that, however, is by turning upside down the 13 tax havens of which she is both ruler and owner and shaking the cash out of them”.

    No wonder those tiny islands in the Caribbean have been kept under the British crown’s “protection”! And by the way, as their populations testify after every catastrophic typhoon, their humanitarian needs are not even recognised; so it can be for no other reason!

    For readers’ information, Cahill succinctly explains what a tax haven is: “fundamentally, a bandits’ lair, (…) where the bad guys gather with their stolen loot; (…) where the international kleptocracy, often the rulers of states and their families, hide the money they steal while in office and where multinational corporations keep the cash and assets on which they have no wish to pay tax”.  He then points out ironically that “Indeed, with its own peculiar rules of domicile, the UK, the Queen’s primary realm, is itself a kind of tax haven for many”.

    Too true.  And reason to keep as many overseas tax havens as possible in the family as well, even if the queen could not personally have cashed in on any of this; not officially, anyway!  But then with her vast wealth and her every need attended to, why take the trouble?

Only constitutional power?

The fact that the queen was not merely a figurehead sitting at the top of a parliamentary democracy was something the public was vividly reminded of during the week following her death when everything, including government itself, was halted for almost 2 weeks.

    Britain’s “constitutional” monarchy is literally in a class of its own.  And that is mostly down to the unwritten nature of the British Constitution.  While the monarch is subservient to parliament, there remains an ambiguity in the fact that he/she as head of the state, holds “prerogative” powers, i.e., powers by right.  There is a very useful outline of the inbuilt contradictions – in fact deliberate ambiguity - of the monarchy in a recent document entitled “The Crown and the constitution” (Commons Library 22 February 2022), no doubt anticipating the 96-year-old queen’s imminent demise.  On the one hand it says, “The Royal Prerogative is one of the most significant elements of the UK’s constitution”, but then adds that “The precise scope of prerogative powers is difficult to determine”!!  In other words, left open?  In fact the legal niceties surrounding the role of queen or king are ambiguous enough even to make a legal “seizure of power” by the head of state - with the help of his/her majesty’s loyal armed forces - at least a theoretical possibility.

    Today’s constitutional prerogative as head of state includes “the appointment and removal of ministers, including the Prime Minister, dismissing a government, the power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament; Royal Assent to legislation, the appointment of Privy Counsellors … the power to appoint certain judges” and a number of other special powers.  But of course they are all meant to be exercised on advice of government - and personally supervised by the prime minister of the day - who meets with the monarch every week...

    “Deep reserve powers”, for instance dismissing a prime minister, were last used by proxy, not in Britain, but Australia in 1975, when the Governor - General of Australia, the queen’s appointee, dismissed Labour prime minister Gough Whitlam and appointed the Liberal Party’s Malcolm Fraser instead.  But the “reserve powers” remain in reserve!

    This Commons document is actually very funny.  Describing “Archaic prerogative powers”, belonging to the monarchy - a legacy from before laws were ever made in these areas - it says that “it is unclear whether some of these powers continue to exist”!  However given some of the items listed it should be quite clear!  For instance: Guardianship of infants and those suffering certain mental disorders; the right to sturgeon, (wild and unmarked) swans and whales; the right to wreck as casual revenue; the right to waifs and strays; the right to mint coinage; the Power of the Crown in time of war to intern, expel or otherwise control enemy aliens...

    Legal experts and the like, put much of the vagueness and ambiguity surrounding the role of the monarchy down to the fact that Britain does not have a written constitution - by which they mean a codified set of rules and statutes.  The official reason is as follows: “constitutions are typically produced following a major historic turning point, such as the grant of independence, revolution, defeat in war, or complete collapse of the previous system of government.  None of these things have happened to the UK, which is why it has never had cause to codify its constitution”.  Then in parenthesis: “(Our one revolution, in the 17th century, did briefly produce a written constitution: Cromwell’s Instrument of Government)”.  So that’s it!  “This is the reason why the UK has not felt the need to codify its constitution” - in order to remain in denial about the 1649-1660 republic?

    What this lack of codification of law into a written constitution, means in practice however, is that all points of law need to be established through precedent.  And “precedent” means that the judiciary can haul up legal argument dating all the way back to 1066 if it really wants to!  It gives unlimited possibilities for government barristers to plough through historical archives to find a way to prosecute workers on strike in the absence of direct anti-trade union legislation.  The list of cases is endless; the most well-known being the Tolpuddle Martyrs, striking agricultural labourers prosecuted in 1834 under the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797, an obscure law used against mutiny.

The elaborate last dance?

It is evident that Elizabeth II was not hanging on to her crown long after she should have retired, merely to beat her great, great grandmother, Queen Victoria (who “reigned” for only 63 years) to the post.

    QE2 hung on for 70 years because, unfortunately for the British establishment, the heir to her throne was the distracted and “dotty” by his own admission, Charles, who used to command mainly laughter, even if his more eccentric antiscience views (homeopathy) and quaint and backward-looking architectural projects (he has built a neoclassical model village called Poundbury in Dorset, Nansdelan in Cornwall and has already submitted development plans for at least 4 more…) have by now been adapted to fit in with more mainstream ideas and in particular those against climate change.

    So while the monarchy has not been buried with the bones of Elizabeth II, as might have seemed fitting in this day and age, it is likely that the ruling class and its government will find it much more difficult to get the population to rally in “unity” round the new King.  This is probably another reason he was left waiting on the sidelines until the ripe old age of 73.  And why there was even some talk of the crown skipping a generation and landing on the head of his son.

    Nevertheless, this extravaganza for the dead queen seemed very much like a last gasp.  This is what the Financial Times wrote: “Before the ceremony this week there had been debate in the media about whether Britain’s sombre and united response to the Queen’s death, along with the spectacular ceremony, was a reminder of the country’s greatness or a distraction from its many problems. ” It could have inserted “consciously orchestrated” in front of “sombre and united response”.  But yes, it was nothing if not a sentimental and nostalgic pantomime, harking back to the long-lost “glory” of empire which was extremely “gory” and inglorious.

    So in the middle of the worst cost-of-living crisis since the 1970s, and when a new prime minister had only just taken office (the queen appointed Liz Truss only 2 days before expiring, leading to some hilarious jokes) parliament was suspended for 2 weeks of mourning and assembled only to heap obsequiousness upon more obsequiousness.  Members of Parliament wore black and the most puerile “queen” anecdotes were repeated over and over as if this mediocre and cheerless monarch who epitomised backwardness and banality, was even worth quoting.

    The only republican who always refused to attend the Queen’s opening of parliament, exminer and Labour MP for Bolsover, Dennis Skinner, retired from the Commons in 2019.  But there is no guarantee that even he would have dissented and worn a red tie.  This is what “left” winger, Jeremy Corbyn felt he had to tweet: “My thoughts are with the Queen’s family as they come to terms with their personal loss, as well as those here and around the world who will mourn her death.  I enjoyed discussing our families, gardens and jam-making with her.  [!] May she rest in peace”.  As for his left-hand man, John McDonnell, this was his tweet: “I send my deepest sympathy and condolences to the Queen’s family.  The passing of one’s mother is such a sad loss and we can all appreciate what feelings of sadness and loss the family are going through now”.  Yes, as if this family was just like any other.  Who else gets to parade their “grief” in everyone’s faces, dressed up in fancy dress, with tax payers picking up the tab for £8m (at least!)?

    The abject sight of the Labour Party leadership, all dressed in black, singing “God save the king” under the Union Jack, on the first day of their annual conference (a full week after the queen’s funeral) said it all about the class politics of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

    On the occasion of a visit of King George V to Ireland in 1910, Irish Marxist and nationalist leader James Connolly wrote, that British royalty in particular “has been notorious in history for the revolting nature of its crimes.  Murder, treachery, adultery, incest, theft, perjury – every crime known to man has been committed by some one or other of the race of monarchs from whom King George is proud to trace his descent.  ‘His blood has crept through scoundrels since the flood’.  We will not blame him for the crimes of his ancestors if he relinquishes the royal rights of his ancestors; but as long as he claims their rights, by virtue of descent, then, by virtue of descent, he must shoulder the responsibility for their crimes”.

    So far there is no indication whatsoever that dotty Charles will relinquish anything nor stand down; his son William is visibly preparing himself for the role of monarch in his grandmother’s footsteps.  So the monarchy will survive going forward, until the day it topples along with the class system it feeds off.  This leaves us only to say: “Long live the revolution!”; it cannot come soon enough.

3 October 2022