When King George VI died seventy years ago, the former Labour prime minister Clement Attlee wrote about his “sense of personal loss”. “I mourn his death,” Attlee grieved, “but I believe that in Queen Elizabeth we have a successor who will follow in the fullest degree the example set by her father.”
By all accounts, Attlee’s prediction held true throughout the Queen’s seven decades as Sovereign. On her passing, Labour leader Keir Starmer expressed his own “profound grief” and praised the Queen’s “total commitment to service and duty, her deep devotion to the country, the Commonwealth and the people she loved”.
At the Accession Council of King Charles III, both living former Labour prime ministers — Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — as well as three other Labour leaders — Starmer, Ed Miliband and Neil Kinnock — joined in the anthem and prayer, “God Save the King”. It was a remarkable expression of the Labour Party’s support for constitutional monarchy.
Labour has never been a republican party
For the uninitiated in the history and traditions of the British labour movement, this monarchism might come as something of a surprise. It might seem a paradox that a democratic socialist party, committed to placing “power, wealth, and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few” would so ardently favour an institution which seems ostensibly at odds with these values. A hasty reading would be that such expressions of monarchical fealty represent an “establishment sell-out”. Such an analysis, however, is superficial and historically myopic.
The British Labour Party has never been a republican party, even if it has had republicans in it. Ninety-nine years ago, the Labour conference considered a motion “that the hereditary principle in the British Constitution be abolished”. The motion was overwhelmingly defeated. George Lansbury, who vies with Jeremy Corbyn for the title of Labour’s most left-wing leader, told conference delegates that it was the capitalist system that made people poor, not the King.
Every Labour prime minister has understood this key insight. Far from acting as a barrier to socialist transformation, the British monarchy offers a stability that can provide a reassuring bulwark to Labour governments. In 1959, Attlee wrote an essay on “The Role of the Monarchy” for The Observer. Labour’s greatest prime minister explained that whilst he had been responsible for many radical changes in British society, “there is one feature of which I have never felt any urge to abolish, and that is the monarchy”. For Attlee, the great advantage of the constitutional monarch is that he or she stands as “the general representative of the people”. Attlee wrote that Britain was lucky “in having as head of state a person who is not the choice of one section of the people but is the common possession, so to speak, of them all”.
Pragmatically, for socialists, the monarch’s presence as head of state helps legitimise reforms which sections of the capitalist elite might resist. Attlee guessed that King George VI was probably “a broadminded Conservative”. He “almost certainly disliked the idea of nationalisation” and it “cannot have been easy for him to have had a Government returned to power with a majority pledged to make sweeping changes”. Yet, throughout Attlee’s six years as prime minister, the King “accepted the position” and “understood very well the reasons for it”.
Attlee offered some comparative reflections. Whilst the British monarchy was special, it was not unique. Singling out Norway, Sweden and Denmark, Attlee observed “the greatest progress towards democratic socialism” had been made in constitutional monarchies.
The Crown is almost pre-capitalist
Under the British constitution, real power is vested in whichever party can command a simple majority in the House of Commons. This has allowed Labour governments to implement powerful social changes: the nationalisation of industry, the socialisation of the health service, the decolonisation of the Empire, the expansion of mass education, the widening of the social safety net, and the proliferation of rights for ordinary workers. In all of these battles, echoing Lansbury, Attlee reflected, “Capitalism, not monarchy, was the enemy”. So it remained the case throughout the second Elizabethan era. At no point did any of her prime ministers face the slightest resistance from Her Majesty in their projects of social and economic reform. Instead, all spoke warmly of the wise counsel and support she showed them.
In contrast, we have seen how republics, even those with ostensibly figurehead presidents, can see governments and their agendas thwarted by this additional political veto player. Recently, Italy’s supposedly largely ceremonial president has operated as an instrument of European financiers blocking governments who are perceived as threatening the status quo. The British monarch has no such authority to behave similarly.
Queen Elizabeth II stayed out of such political interventions, but she did give an indication of her broad outlook through the example she set. Out of all of the tributes to the late Queen, one of the most interesting came from the former Labor prime minister of Australia Paul Keating, who wrote,
In the 20th century, the self became privatised, whilst the public realm, the realm of the public good, was broadly neglected. Queen Elizabeth II understood this and instinctively attached herself to the public good against what she recognised as a tidal wave of private interest and private reward.
Whilst it might be a stretch to describe the monarch as an “anti-capitalist” figure, the Crown is almost pre-capitalist. It has certainly, today, become associated with community, service and devotion to the public. Its support is often most keenly found in working-class communities. Attlee wrote, “Today you will find the greatest enthusiasm for monarchy in the meanest streets.” He speculated that middle-class republicans didn’t like monarchy because they were used to feeling superior to the common people, yet the Crown showed the bourgeoisie no greater esteem than a miner or a child from the East End of London. All of the recent British monarchs have understood that their legitimacy rests both on their non-partisan character and the perception of their “doing good” for the people of this country.
It is a lesson Queen Elizabeth II learned from her father. It is one that Charles III will surely follow, too.
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