“Monarchy is only the string which ties the robber’s bundle.”Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819
Phil Vellender and Steve Freeman on the coronation spectacle designed to cloak and revitalise an institution derived from robbery and anti-democratic traditions
The first thing to note about the 2023 coronation is that, as several critics have pointed out, it was purely confected for popular consumption; it was never necessary. Charles III had formally already been made King at a meeting of the Crown’s Accession Council, shortly after his mother’s demise. Therefore, it was always going to be a waste of precious resources by a government, made more absurd by the claim that it was unable to pay His Majesty’s loyal public servants a decent wage.
The left has generally ignored the significance of the pageantry of the British state, including the coronation itself. However, apart from the dazzling spectacle, the coronation serves several distinct ideological purposes. The Archbishop of Canterbury sanctifies our very violent history by intoning the ‘blessing of God Almighty’ and, despite the Crown’s contrived attempts to bring ‘diversity’ to the occasion, the event remains the province of the rich and powerful; for it is they, by virtue of their historic position of wealth and privilege, who are most invested in maintaining the monarchy, most keenly aware of the significance of all the gold, jewels and ermine, the function of the sparkling paraphernalia that reinforces the ‘mystery of the monarchy’.
Furthermore, it is these representatives of the ruling class who most fully appreciate a coronation’s function in distracting the public outside from focusing on how both their and the Windsors’ wealth and power were obtained – i.e. from the blood, sweat and tears of the slave labour held captive on the plantations and farms and in the mines of empire.
Above all else, the hereditary British monarchy mirrors in its wealth, privilege and wholly undemocratic character, our grotesquely unequal, class-based society. The monarchy reflects the manner in which wealth and power are distributed in the Britain of 2023. Many of the vast fortunes in this country are based on historic wealth and privilege, accumulated over centuries, much of it by means of piracy or trading in kidnapped human beings. Although Britain was not unique in exploiting these activities in order to create, expand and enrich its powerful elite, what set the British ruling class apart was that the accumulation of their wealth was largely achieved by not only developing a very substantial army and navy to sustain its imperial project, but also that by exploiting an extremely cruel and violent empire, it was able to feed its industrial revolution with the necessary raw materials that could be rapidly transformed into commodities by means of the vicious exploitation of an impoverished working class, one subsisting on starvation wages.
Therefore, every coronation in England essentially entails the cloaking and concealment of centuries of robbery, enslavement and exploitation. Coronations achieve this by means of pomp, pageantry and reified language. The coronation’s use of obfuscating mumbo-jumbo, its staged display of copious quantities of glittering gold and unimaginably valuable jewels and diadems (most of whose dubious provenance was recently exposed in a series of articles in the Guardian) is accompanied by solemn, portentous ritual, lovingly portrayed as being older than time itself.
Of course, this is palpable nonsense, but like all good fairy tales, the coronation ritual has attained the near-hallowed status of an ancient truth. However, again thanks to the Guardian, we have learned considerably more about how the Windsors’ enormous wealth has been amassed, not to mention its scale. Two of the takeaways of those Guardian articles have been, first, the sheer quantity of evidence laid bare about the royal family’s intimate relationship with the transatlantic slave trade, and second, frequently assisted by the Crown, the lengths the Windsors have gone to in maintaining the secrecy surrounding the various sources of their wealth.
The coronation of 2023, unlike its predecessor in 1953, has faced an ambivalent public. People are more aware of the brutal violence involved when both the monarchy and aristocracy first established their power and secured their wealth. However, an aspect of this history yet to be explored by the Guardian, as well as by the growing number of voices critical of the monarchy, is how exactly did the monarchy and the aristocracy collaborate in fashioning and exploiting a constitution that would maintain their power up to this day?
The ‘modernised’ coronation of 2023 plays the essential role of formally incorporating the public into an undemocratic, constitutional regime. If the majority can accept, or at least tolerate, Charles III as an hereditary head of state with his public display of wealth and embodiment of class and privilege, then our archaic constitution will be judged as safe for the next few decades. Indeed, the estimated £250 million the Crown has spent on the pomp, bling and the thousands of police and military to keep any protesters at bay represents excellent value for money. It is an investment aimed squarely at ensuring the people do not question the diminished status of Charles-as-monarch when compared to his mother.
However, its second role is to draw the public into the monarchy-as-sparkling-spectacle. For in that moment of coronation, something happens to those cheering outside or watching at home; a kind of subliminal pact is sealed. In exchange for a day off and a few street parties, the British people are yet again invited to passively accept their exclusion from any real power or direct influence over the decisions that affect them.
Therefore, the coronation serves to mask the fact that, in our dysfunctional system, no voting is involved, no say is allowed concerning what kind of a head of state we might want. All that is required from us is to get swept along, cheer and wave the Union flags. The limited participation afforded to the crowds at a coronation provides a perfect metaphor for their relationship to the Crown in our ‘representative,’ parliamentary democracy. The King’s subjects are just as excluded from the action taking place inside the abbey as they are from the activity of the elite that governs them, apart from occasionally getting to vote in inherently undemocratic, first-past-the-post elections. The coronation performs a vital role in rendering the privilege and inequality enshrined in our unwritten constitution more palatable by concealing just how little we really participate in our system of government.
In this country, state power is not exercised by the King in person but by the Crown-executive through its ministers and top civil servants, whose orders are carried out by millions of its employees. Of course, of equal importance to the smooth functioning of the Crown is the role of the City and the big corporations. In fact, it is a mark of the interconnectedness of the network of power that comprises the Crown, just how seamlessly politicians, City figures and bosses of the top FTSE 100 companies move between these different components of the state, all beyond the reach of any effective democratic accountability or transparency (as the BBC-Richard Sharp affair has highlighted).
One devastating consequence of the present misdistribution of political power in our limited democracy that flows directly from these present ‘constitutional arrangements’ is real enough for all of us. Our health, welfare, democratic rights and civil liberties are all severely limited by a glaring absence of popular sovereignty and democratic accountability. The political reality of a constitutional monarchy and the Crown as sovereign-in-parliament (the historic hangover that emerged from the various legislative measures enacted between 1688-1707) has left this country to be governed by the Crown in tandem with an unelected, unaccountable and near-autonomous head of state who we bankroll. How long we will continue to accept Charles III remaining at the apex of our increasingly contested, undemocratic structure is becoming a serious question as republicanism moves firmly onto the political agenda.
Above all, it has been the all-pervasive secrecy of the Crown and the hermetic nature of so many of its decision-making processes, coupled with its unlimited powers of patronage, that has enabled the Crown-executive to impose a disastrous neoliberal economic programme on the country. Since the 2007-8 banking crisis, the Tory Crown has operated by circumventing, or manipulating, a largely compliant parliament, making a mockery of any semblance of a parliamentary democracy. It has succeeded in imposing growing rates of poverty, deteriorating social conditions, poor housing, diminished educational opportunities, spiralling inflation, reduced rights at work and collapsing public services.
The recent wave of strikes has seen trade union members lead a fightback. However, this alone will not be enough. There has to be root-and-branch, democratic, political change to reverse decades of decline. Crucially, there has to be a radical break with the conservative traditions of a ruling class all embodied in the antiquated figure of an out-of-touch monarchy, one wholly unacceptable in any country claiming to be a 21st-century democracy.
Republicans should not wait for Charles Windsor to abdicate. We should already be calling on the working class movement to develop a democratic programme of its own. This should include two immediate demands. First, we need a modern, democratic parliament for England, replacing the completely unfit-for-purpose Palace of Westminster. Second, we need a written democratic constitution for this English parliament, one created with the agreement of the people.