18 Days Remaining

Tuesday 5th
posted by Morning Star in Features

The pageantry of a royal wedding will contrast heavily with austerity, writes KEITH FLETT

THE left, being supportive of democracy and elections, has never been enthusiastic for unelected rulers, particularly, as many have done historically, when they have claimed a “divine right” to rule.

Yet in Britain, republicanism — the idea that there should be an elected head of state — has been a minority trend if one is to compare it, for example, to French republicanism which had a revolution in 1789 to remove the king permanently.

It’s true of course that on January 30 1649 King Charles I lost his head in Whitehall, and a Commonwealth was in place until 1660. At that date the monarchy was restored, although the events of 1649 have had a place in radical history and thought to this day.

In addition republicanism in Britain has not always been associated with the left. One need only look at US President Donald Trump to understand why in the present moment this might be.

Rather the majority trend on the left has been a distaste for the patronage, privilege and forelock-tugging that goes with royalty, but also a clarity that politically there are other priorities.

It is this anti-monarchism, identified by Antony Taylor, an academic who has provided perhaps the best modern template for the study of opposition to royalty, that has been the dominant trend in British republicanism. The monarchy is not liked but it is specific instances of excess and extravagance that have been the focus of protest.

It’s in this general context that the forthcoming marriage of the US actor Meghan Markle and Prince Harry should be seen.

There are complications. Harry is of course a child of the late Princess Diana, whose life and in particular her death 20 years ago, did much to highlight how out of touch with the modern world the royal family had become.

Tony Blair tried to fashion Diana as the “People’s Princess,” though it is difficult to see any lasting impact of a campaign that made a considerable mark at the time.

Prince Harry, however, has noted that Trump will not be getting an invite to the wedding as a he is a threat to human rights. This seems to go somewhat further than Theresa May has managed but it leaves us with a wider issue and one that was central to 19th-century protests at royal occasions.

These protests centred on what William Cobbett had called “old corruption.” That is a political culture of deference, patronage and forelock-tugging, where those who held ultimate power in society do so by virtue of an accident birth rather than on merit or electoral choice.

Royal occasions in the second half of the 19th century, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, such as weddings and jubilees, provoked significant protest.

There were a number of underlying motivations for such protests — and not all were progressive. There was an element of anti-German xenophobia. But a key one was the cost.

Expenditure on royal pomp and ceremony was contrasted with the large numbers in society who lived in absolute poverty. The radical Reynolds’s newspaper became the biggest-selling Sunday paper of the time, centrally based on virulently attacking the royal family and its aristocratic hangers-on.

Expenditure on things like the royal yacht and the royal train were particular targets outside of specific ceremonial occasions even at that time.

The spring 2018 wedding of Meghan and Harry will no doubt be seen by numbers in this familiar context. Austerity Britain and universal credit versus a pageant of the rich with expenditure being no object.