Phil Vellender & Steve Freeman reflect on the death of the Queen and the current shortcomings of republican campaigning. This article first appeared here https://www.chartist.org.uk/70-years-of-failure/
Steve Freeman will speak with Kevin Bean and Mike Mcnair in our session ‘Up the Republic’ on Monday morning 9.30am
The Queen’s death has been marked by an outpouring of public grieving on a scale not seen since Princess Diana was killed in a car crash a quarter of a century ago. What has led hundreds of thousands of people to wait for hours, some fainting, others hungry, to file past a coffin or leave millions of flowers and partake in what The Secret Tory described as a “festival of mawkishness“, an exercise in the national sport of “competitive mourning” in “Poppyland”?
Part of the answer lies in the nostalgia felt by many of the ‘boomers’ queueing. They grew up with her; she was just ‘always there’. For them, in many respects, her reign was a success. To them, unlike the politicians that have populated her governing class, she represented decency. They remember fondly when a black-and-white, Pathé-newsreel, bankrupt Britain, despite being ravaged by war and straitened by rationing, was possessed of the optimism, ingenuity and energy to build a welfare state freighted with the necessary practical potential to purge her subjects’ memories of the 1930s’ ten lean years. Crucially – notwithstanding the ambitious housing, health and education programmes, and provision for the old and unemployed – many of the political structures, entitled class distinctions and much of the privilege that co-existed with the privations of the prewar decade were left largely intact. In reality, what Attlee created politically post-1945 was a ‘social monarchy’, as distinct from a fully-fledged social democracy.
After her coronation, the new Queen was to become increasingly identified with a postwar welfare monarchy. Whatever structural problems remained as her reign progressed, for many of the queueing boomers, her first two decades would always be their golden years. Britain began to feel more socially progressive in the 1960s. Many boomers accessed higher education and the labour market with relative ease, while Harold Wilson’s Labour identified itself with a “white hot technological revolution” and basked in the reflected glory of Britain’s hugely successful pop culture.
The oil crisis, followed by waves of strikes in the 1970s, saw Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s deregulate the economy as the Tories laid the blame for national decline on generous state ‘handouts’ and stymied enterprise. From now on, ‘private good and state bad’ was to be the order of the day. Any hopes that our long-term economic fortunes could only get better under Blair perished with the 2008 crash. The process of decline accelerated with Cameron’s austerity and the triumph of the right-wing nationalists’ Brexit.
The Queen can definitely claim success for her longevity: she broke Victoria’s record and left the monarchy looking more popular and established than ever. However, when viewed over its entirety, her 70 years can only be described as a failure. We have witnessed people weeping as they each internalise their personal versions of ‘her’ – but also out of fear for what the future holds. Surely, if the past couple of weeks have proved anything, the enduring legacy for both the monarchy and the Crown will be the massive, all-embracing public relations exercise (code named Operation London Bridge) launched on her death that has managed to convey the British people to the world as pro-monarchist, steeped in tradition and indebted to the Queen for all they still hold dear.
The most significant failure has been the decline and hollowing out of the Elizabethan social monarchy, a process begun by Thatcher, continued by Blair right up until the financial destruction of 2008 and accelerated by Cameron’s policy of austerity. She leaves us in 2022 facing near economic and social collapse as her last prime minister, Thatcher reborn, attempts to ride out a devastating cost-of-living crisis, maybe without the postwar style rationing this time, but with a neoliberal twist – food and warm banks.
A second failure is the decline in support for the union on the part of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, exacerbated by the 2016 referendum and growing crises of the constitution, which have cruelly exposed the paucity of parliamentary accountability. From any point of view, the union, once the foundation of her legitimacy, is more at risk of Brexit-related rupture than ever before. The gap between rich and poor has continued to widen as the system of benefits, once designed to alleviate poverty, has been stripped to the bone. Her own fortune and those of her wealthiest subjects has increased dramatically with every passing year, while the percentage of those in real poverty has risen exponentially.
Running in parallel with the sharpening decline in the country’s economy has been the abject failure of republicanism to build popular support and mobilise the labour movement for a democratic and social republic. As Clive Lewis wrote recently, “[i]f we as a country are to move away from the constant democratic gaslighting of this political class, we must make constitutional, democratic reform a political priority. It isn’t a sideshow to be relegated behind the NHS, the energy crisis or climate issues. Discussion of the monarchy, our politics, our constitution, is something to be vigorously aired, not shut down or even temporarily suppressed.”
It is the socialist movement that must take most of the blame for the persistent failure to make a case for constitutional reform in general and democratic republicanism in particular. Lewis is correct: socialists in Britain have simply not been prepared to prioritise the fight for a social republic. More concerning, a striking ignorance of democratic republican ideas and history on the part of the left finds socialists merely reacting as the increasingly dangerous crises in democracy facing our society and others across the world continue to multiply. It is, frankly, a measure of the left’s failure, given our own rich history, that no republican party exists in this country, that no socialist organisation has yet attempted to prioritise the struggle for republican democratic principles within the labour movement; but that it has, instead, settled for a loyalist, unionist Labour party, one steadfastly wedded to Westminster’s creaking, undemocratic, 300-year-old system based on the ‘sovereign Crown-in-Parliament’.
This lack of socialist leadership for democratic republicanism stems from two historical tendencies. First, there is a hankering to ‘restore the 1945 social monarchy’, as recently promoted in Corbyn Labour’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos. The other is the ‘instant revolution and sort it all out afterwards’ approach represented by the Socialist Workers Party et al. What socialists cannot continue to do is only periodically rediscover their opposition to our antiquated constitutional monarchy and institutional failings (when that monarchy is in crisis owing to scandals various, divorce or death) and then lament living in a country that remains stubbornly 66% monarchist.
We will have to work consistently in the labour movement, in campaigns and in every local and national election over a long period to achieve a democratic and social republic, one based on genuine and extensive democracy. Chartist badges itself as “for democratic socialism”, but for this to be meaningful and possess real force, it has to argue openly and fearlessly for a republican democracy. Because without it, as Clive Lewis rightly points out, democratic socialist goals can never be realised.