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The real role of the UK monarchy

Part one: counter-revolutionary backstop

Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, 2021

The death of Elizabeth Windsor’s husband Philip Mountbatten earlier this year prompted an establishment-led frenzy of monarchism across Britain, with wall-to-wall sycophantic TV and radio coverage and Covid public information boards replaced with Philip’s portrait. The standard view of the British monarchy is that they are no more than symbolic figureheads lacking any real power; mere ornaments adorning the British political system. But the truth is that Philip and his family were and are crucial pillars in the maintenance of the class power of the British imperialist bourgeoisie, both domestically and globally. 

To begin with, the Sovereign still has a significant place in the British political system. The government is still known as ‘her majesty’s government,’ there to govern on her behalf. It is she who appoints the prime minister, not just in the UK, but in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and twelve other countries. And it is only by convention that she appoints the leader of the winning party following an election – as Gough Whitlam discovered in 1975 when the monarch’s representative in Australia dismissed him from office, despite his party having won the previous year’s elections, and appointed in his place the leader of the losing party, deeming the winners too radical. In the UK, she has weekly meetings with the prime minister to discuss government business, and her approval is required before any legislation passed by parliament can become law. Whilst it is true that this approval – known as Royal Assent – has been granted to all Acts of Parliament since 1707, what is more commonly withheld is the lesser known ‘Queen’s Consent.’ For bills affecting the Queen’s private interests, as well as those impinging on the royal prerogative powers (executive powers which can be used without consulting parliament), the Queen’s permission must be granted before it can be put to parliament. Such ‘Queen’s Consent’ (or ‘Prince’s Consent’ in the case of bills affecting the Prince of Wales’ private interests) was sought 146 times between 1970 and 2013 according to former government minister Norman Baker. Any bill that might affect the income from the monarch and her son’s private estates, for example (the Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster, comprising some of the most lucrative real estate in the London, the Strand, as well as Balmoral and Sandringham) is subject to veto by the Crown. And here, unlike for Royal Assent, the Queen is neither obliged by convention to give her consent, nor to act in accordance with advice from her ministers – she is free to use her discretion. All laws affecting income or land tax, for example, or employment rights, require Queen’s Consent, as did the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, because it granted inspectors the right to go onto private estates to investigate claims of animal abuse. To prevent the bill being vetoed by the Crown, the Labour government agreed that the Windsors’ private estates would be exempt from the legislation – literally putting them above the law. Queen’s Consent even had to be sought for the 2008 Child Maintenance Act as it affected payments to the Queen’s private staff. And the Queen is uniquely exempt from a 1973 Act of Parliament requiring shareholders to identify themselves, allowing her to anonymously hold shares in companies of dubious repute. This exemption may well have been a condition for giving consent to the bill in the first place – we cannot know for sure, because no record is kept of when and how Queen’s Consent is used, and the negotiations go on behind closed doors before the first draft of the bill is ever published.    

    ‘Queen’s Consent’ is not only a tool for the personal enrichment of the Windsors, however. Bills which affect the Royal Prerogative powers (powers exercised on behalf of the monarch by government ministers) also require Queen’s Consent, and in this case, unlike in the case of bills where her personal interests are involved, the Queen will simply give or withhold consent according to advice from her ministers. This allows the government to use the Queen to prevent certain private members’ bills, for example, from even being discussed in parliament. Norman Baker’s excellent book on royal powers, “And What Do You Do?”, from which much of the material for this article was garnered, notes that the Military Action Against Iraq (Parliamentary Approval) Bill in 1999 was blocked after the Queen withheld her consent, as was the 1964 Titles (Abolition) Bill and the 1969 Rhodesia Independence Bill, amongst others. 

But this use of Queen’s Consent is just one way in which the residual powers of the monarch are used by the government to avoid public or parliamentary debate and scrutiny. The Royal Prerogative powers, exercised by government ministers on behalf of the monarch, mainly pertain to foreign relations, and can be exercised without the consultation of parliament. This allows the prime minister to deploy troops and agree treaties without even informing, let alone consulting, parliament. The use of the Royal Prerogative occurs through the Privy Council, a group of current and former members of the government, senior members of the opposition, and senior members of the royal family, including the Queen. Members are sworn to secrecy, and the body has the power to secretly create legislation, known as ‘Orders of Council’. In the first half of 2000, over 250 such Orders were issued, around ten per week – including, says Baker (who was made a Privy Councillor by virtue of his position a junior minister in the Conservative-Liberal Coalition government) “an Order relating to the Saint Helena Act 1833, an amendment to a naval pension scheme, an Order relating to sanctions on Yemen – the sort of thing thing that the Commons ought to have had the chance to debate – and an amendment to the misuse of drugs act 1971, which I knew nothing about despite having been the drugs minister for a year until shortly before.” And these were just those passed in one meeting. Baker broke his oath to reveal this information, but such revelations are highly unusual, and the passage of such laws willo rarely reach the public domain. 

Yet the most important aspect of monarchical power in British politics is not the Windsors’ role in day-to-day government so much as their function as a kind of ‘counter-revolutionary backstop’. Globally, this is an ongoing and active role, as will be explored in part two of this series. In the domestic arena, however, it is more as a potential, a ‘force of last resort,’ should popular unrest ever get seriously out of hand.

Of fundamental importance here is the oath of loyalty sworn by members of the armed forces. This oath commits them to the defence, not of the constitution or the elected parliament, but of the monarch and her successors, and to do so “against all enemies,” including, therefore, domestic enemies – such as, for example, any future parliament that attempted to abolish them. It also commits them to “obey all orders of her majesty, her heirs and successors.” Were, for example, a genuinely radical parliament to be elected in Britain, the armed forces would be a priori committed to support an armed overthrow of such a parliament should the monarch command them to do so. Baker suggests that we “suppose Hitler had invaded England, and suppose Edward the Eighth, with his Nazi sympathies, were restored to the throne as a sort of puppet, a scenario that certainly existed in Hitler’s mind. If the restored Edward the Eighth had called on the armed forces to lay down their weapons and accept a sort of Vichy Britain with him at the head, they may well have done so, whatever the elected government may have thought. I know members of the armed forces who take their oath to the Queen very seriously, and for them this allegiance trumps any democratic considerations. The fact that members of the royal family occupy senior positions right across the military only reinforces this.”

Nor is it only the armed forces who are made to swear such an oath – it is also a condition of entry into the British police force, judiciary, and parliament, as well as (since 2003) British citizenship itself, for those applying for it.  This means that when (and it is indeed a matter of when, not if) the proverbial shit hits the fan in the UK, should the ruling class feel the need to impose military rule and rule by diktat, this oath ensures the army, the police and the entire criminal justice system, will be committed in advance to support such a measure, so long as the Windsors are on board. As Baker has noted, “the Queen herself on her accession took an oath to govern the country and uphold the rights of bishops. Parliamentarians take an oath to the Queen. Nobody takes an oath to uphold democracy.”

The key to understanding the role of the monarchy in a bourgeois society like Britain is to go back to its origins, which lie, not deep in antiquity, but in the tumultuous events of the seventeenth century. There has not been seamless continuity or evolution when it comes to royal power, but rather three distinct major monarchical epochs, separated by violent upheavals. First was the feudal monarchy that existed prior to 1485, in which the monarchy was the head of an aristocratic-ruled state. Second was the monarchy that was established under Henry the Seventh in 1485, at the head of an alliance between the aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie, an era that was decisively ended with the execution of Charles I and the creation of the English republic in 1649. Our current monarchy, under bourgeois domination, took shape between 1660 and 1689, and though it was ushered in with the so-called ‘Restoration’ of Stuart power, when the deposed Charles’ son, Charles II, was invited to take the throne, it was in reality an entirely new institution (as Charles’ brother James II learnt to his cost when he attempted to challenge the new dispensation and was swiftly replaced). The question is – why did this third epoch of monarchism even come about? When the bourgeoisie had so decisively defeated the aristocratic power that the monarchy represents, why did they then re-create the institution? And the answer is – the fear of popular revolution. 

Cromwell had mobilised the masses in his war against Charles I, but their demands – as exploited, land hungry, peasants, and even as small traders and artisans – went far beyond his as a merchant landowner. What Cromwell sought was not the abolition of exploitation, but the extension of the absolute right to exploit, from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, via an end to the aristocratic monopolies on foreign trade and land ownership. Radical trends within the republican movement, however – including, crucially, within Cromwell’s army itself, such as the Levellers – sought genuine social equality – equal access to land, political participation, and a toppling of the very hierarchical pyramid that Cromwell had been fighting for the right to ascend. Cromwell had their leaders executed but the fear of a resurgence remained – and in the late 1650s, when rising prices were leading to growing unrest and agitation, the bourgeoisie reasoned that, though their power seemed secure for now, the time may yet come when they would need to call on the defeated aristocracy to help suppress a renewed popular uprising. And this is what the current British monarchy is: the artificial keeping alive of feudal remnants (along with their symbolic counterpart in the human psyche) as a potential counter-revolutionary ally of an insecure bourgeoisie. 

That this is so can be seen clearly in the waxing and waning of royal privilege over the years. Here, a clear pattern emerges whereby, in periods where the bourgeoisie feel more secure, and less in need of their feudal allies, royal privileges are limited or revoked; whilst in periods of real or potential unrest, they are extended. If the army are loyal to the monarch, the ruling class need to be sure that the monarch is willing to do its bidding. And that costs money. 

In the years following the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution,’ however – when, in 1688, Parliament called on the Dutch King William of Orange to depose King James II and take the crown for himself, on the strict understanding that his position would be subordinate to Parliament – bourgeois rule seemed impregnable. The 1690s saw the formation of the Bank of England, the tearing up of the Royal trading monopolies – heralding a commercial frenzy, especially in the trafficking of kidnapped Africans – and the dispossession of Ireland. With the English merchant class triumphant, they had little need to make concessions to a monarchy that, after all, they themselves had placed into position, and was effectively their mouthpiece. Thus, in 1697, did the Crown agree to surrender even the income it gained from the Duchy of Cornwall. 

This era of untrammelled security did not last long, however. The failure of William and Mary, as well as her sister Anne, to produce any surviving offspring, had led Parliament to pass the Act of Settlement in 1701, decreeing that the Crown would pass to the (Protestant) Hanoverians. Their claim to the throne by virtue of royal bloodline was shaky to say the least – but the newly empowered merchant class were determined to prevent a Catholic restoration, with all the resultant continental political realignments and reversals that would entail. This seemingly arbitrary passing around of the Crown for political convenience was a step too far for many, however, and the Jacobite movement – which called for the continuation of the Stuart monarchy, in line with established hereditary principles – was born. Thus it was in 1721, two years after the third major Jacobite rising, at a time when the schemes of the government were under serious threat from inter-ruling class rivalry, that the mechanism of ‘King’s Consent’ – whereby the monarch gets veto power on any bill affecting his private interests – was introduced. 

Once the threat dissipated, however, the monarch’s fortunes were reversed. In 1745, the Jacobite movement was decisively defeated, and the bourgeois ascendancy seemed, once again, triumphant – and in no need of feudal backup.  Thus, in 1760, did the entirety of the Crown estates (with the supposed exception of the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster) pass into the hands of the state, finally stripping the king of his position as ‘landowner-in-chief,’ the basic tenet of monarchical power since 1066. It was not without some benefit for the monarch, as, along with the estates, he also gave up responsibility for funding the growing costs of the state, which would now be taken on by the government directly. The king also negotiated a hefty annual subsidy from the state coffers, set initially at £800,000 per year and still in operation today, known as the ‘civil list.’ Yet the ban on the monarch’s ownership of private property that accompanied the deal was, by any standards, a reduction in power. It was not to last. 

The earth shattering events of the 1790s – in France and Haiti primarily, but with planet-wide reverberations that continue to this day – struck terror once again into the hearts of the English ruling class, and over the decades that followed, various forms of emergency rule and suspension of liberties became the norm. Lacking the legitimising cloak of liberal niceties, the legitimising cloak of regal bullshit took on a new importance for government. The monarch’s value to the imperilled bureaucracy grew, and the ban on his ownership of private property was lifted. And not only that – an argument was made that the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall were already private estates of the monarch, exempt from the 1760 agreement that surrendered the rest of the Crown estates. The reasoning? They had not been explicitly mentioned in that agreement, and were therefore not covered by them. The compelling legal argument that this was so precisely because, since 1697, the Duchies were already understood to be public assets (their income streams having been handed over at that date) was trampled underfoot by the cavalry charge of the counter-revolutionary war and its need for maximum unity against the Jacobins. Two hundred years later, the income streams from this desperate act of political expediency remain exceptionally lucrative: the holdings of the Duchy of Lancaster alone amount to over half a billion pounds, with annual profits reaching £20 million in 2018, and the Duchy of Cornwall not far behind, including a particular bonanza in 2012 from the auctioning of tungsten and iridium mining rights on Duchy land.  

The pattern continued throughout the nineteenth century. As tumult grew in Ireland, Jamaica and both rural and urban Britain between 1829 and 1831 – resulting in major concessions on all three islands – the Duchy of Lancaster was, in 1830, again exempted from a bill formalising the government takeover of royal income streams. As Baker noted, “with the great reform bill on the stocks, the government did not want to alienate the king unnecessarily.” The same year, the two Duchies also secured an exemption – alone in the country – from the abolition of the feudal practice of landowners taking over the estates of anyone who dies on their land without relatives. This would prove particularly lucrative for George VI, who got a bonanza from all those killed on Duchy land during World War Two, and continues to bring in additional income for the Windsors to this day. 

The Great Reform Act was eventually passed in 1832, successfully breaking the middle class-working class alliance that had shaken the country in previous years. The wealthier middle classes had been enfranchised by the Act, and now happily supported the repression of their erstwhile proletarian comrades. Bourgeois rule was secure, and again the need to buy royal favour declined. In 1842, income tax was introduced for the first time, and the monarch was not exempt. From now on, taxes would be paid not only on royal income – including on the civil list subsidy, and on Duchy profits – but on royal land and property also. This was confirmed in the Crown Private Estates Act of 1862 (during another period when the British ruling class were feeling secure, when the country’s industrial monopoly had birthed a labour aristocracy following the defeat of the Chartists).  The Act was unambiguous: “The private estates of her majesty,her heirs or successors, shall be subject to all such rates, duties, assessments, and other impositions, parliamentary and parochial, as the same would have been subject to if the same had been the property of any subject of the realm.” 

Yet even during this period, royal privileges ebbed and flowed in line with the degree of feared unrest. In 1848, proletarian revolution broke out across the continent, and the Chartists planned a march on London. Although the demonstration was ultimately outnumbered by pro-government volunteers, the state took no chances, and shored up its favour with the King through the establishment of ‘Prince’s consent’, extending the existing veto rights over legislation affecting the King’s private interests to his eldest son. No legal justification for this anti-democratic provision was even attempted; threat of revolt demanded royal concessions, the practice was established, and that was that. Again, it is a practice that continues until today. 

In the period 1865-7, near-simultaneous risings again broke out again across Jamaica, England and Ireland. Then, In 1873, the great economic boom which had begun in the 1850s ground decisively to a halt, just when Britain had lost its industrial monopoly to Germany and the USA. The depression lasted until 1896, and a new wave of militant trade unionism amongst the lowest paid broke out. Foreseeing a time when the monarch’s collaboration in the suspension of civil government might be required, the government during this period ramped up the civil list payments, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Writes Baker, “As a result of Albert’s pleadings of poverty they [Victoria and Albert] were given more than they needed to enable Victoria to carry our her constitutional duties, but then hung onto the cash which had been obtained under false pretences and invested it in property.” In 1889, a parliamentary select committee noted that Victoria had siphoned off almost £1 million from her civil list ‘expenses,’ which had been used to purchase the private estates of Balmoral, Sandringham and Osborne (in the Isle of Wight). Philip Hall, in his book Royal Fortune, estimates that a total of £67million has been saved by the monarch from civil list payments over the last five reigns, making the MPs’ expenses scandal look like a parking violation. But the point is, this subsidy has been willingly granted by an insecure ruling class as an insurance policy against (so-called) democracy.  

In the years before the First World War, this insecurity went into overdrive – and so too did the ‘insurance payments’ to the royals. Revolutionary trade unionism was spreading like wildfire across Britain, with major strikes taking place in key industries such as minings, docking, building and transport, many of them successful. The ruling class were terrified: Conservative cabinet minister Leo Amery recorded in his diary at the time that he went to purchase a revolver to arm himself against the revolutionary threat, but found they had all sold out. The value – and so the price – of royal backup thus increased again; already by 1903, Edward VII had wrangled his way out of paying income tax on his civil list payments (despite the existence of very clear laws on the matter), and in 1910 prime minister Lloyd George agreed to exempt the monarch from paying income tax at all. In 1913, this tax exemption was extended to the Duchy of Cornwall. Says Baker, “Despite the fact that the inland revenue had gone into the matter of the Duchy’s status quite exhaustively and concluded there was no case for its exemption from taxes, the government’s law officers, in a very short ruling, and one without any explanatory arguments, disagreed, and that was that.” In 1911, another unprecedented – and legally indefensible – ruling exempted royal wills from public scrutiny. To this day, royal wills are the only wills that can be kept private, enabling the extent of royal wealth to remain forever secret. This means that the amount of wealth stolen from civil list payments can be kept hidden, as can the extent of ‘gifts’ – which must, by law, be turned over to the state when given in connection with public duties – amassed by the monarch and her family. Says Baker, “if it became publicly known how much had been bequeathed, the public might begin to question afresh the level of taxpayers’ support the royal family benefits from, or indeed begin asking how it was possible to accumulate such wealth in their lifetimes without seemingly having any external means to do so.”  The 1911 ruling thus effectively sanctioned the siphoning off of civil list payments for private gain, giving legal cover to what had already become standard practice. Thus, by the time of Elizabeth Windsor’s sister Margaret’s death in 2002, she was believed to have amassed a fortune of £20 million. “Where did Princess Margaret get £20 million from?,” asks Norman Baker, “Even the generous largesses provided by taxpayers through the civil list cannot explain that.” Elizabeth’s mother, meanwhile, is believed to have left a fortune of £70 million, well beyond what she is believed to have inherited herself. And yet her spending far exceeded the £634,000 per year she received from the civil list, her private staff wage bill alone coming to £1.5 million per year. Comments Baker, “What is certain is that the sealing of royal wills does not allow the proper checks to be made to ensure that what properly belongs to the state has not slipped across into private property [of the Windsors].”  

Popular unrest did not cease in the years after the war, and there was genuine fear of Bolshevism spreading throughout Europe following the epic events in Russia. 1919 saw a police strike in Liverpool, the growth of the militant ‘tripartite’ alliance between the dockers, railwaymen and miners’ unions, and the establishment of a workers’ Soviet in Glasgow, prompting Lloyd George to send in the tanks. The price of royal backup appreciated further. In 1921, just as the ‘Geddes Axe’ fell, decimating public services, the Prince of Wales was granted further tax concessions, enabling him to stash away £1million by the time he became King Edward VIII in 1936. In the 1930s, too, as the Great Depression took hold, King George V stopped paying tax on Duchy of Lancaster profits, with his entire tax levy dropped in 1937. Writes Baker, “Overall in the interwar period, royal taxes dropped while those for everyone else rose. This dichotomy became even more pronounced during World War Two.”

The end of the Second World War saw Soviet prestige at an all time high, a powerful workers’ movement (with military experience) across Europe, and anti-colonial insurgencies across the globe, a situation that largely pertained until well into the 1960s. In 1952, when Elizabeth Windsor took the throne, the civil list payments were extended from the monarch and her spouse to their entire extended family, today covering over 40 people. At the same time, the monarch was no longer required to pay tax on her investments. Up until George VI, monarchs had always paid such taxes, although George began the dubious practice of reclaiming it. In 2001, it was calculated that the Treasury had lost out an estimated £1 billion revenue in lost payments on the £200million stock market investment made by the Queen in 1952 alone. Also in 1952, it was agreed that the wages of workers employed on the upkeep of the palaces should be transferred from the monarch to the Ministry of Works, as well as further tax exemptions such as taxes on agricultural profits, a major windfall for the Duchies. 

The era of neoliberalism, however, saw a reversal of workers’ power, and, especially after the defeat of the miners in 1985 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, bourgeois supremacy once again seemed guaranteed. The need for a royal coup seemed far off, and the period saw a corresponding limitation of handouts to the monarchy. In 1992, following a major fire at Windsor castle, the royals were left to fork out their own cash for the repairs, and a year later, Charles and Elizabeth actually started to pay income tax, including on their investment income. The Memorandum of Understanding that initiated this spelt out that this was a purely voluntary arrangement that the could rescind whenever they chose, but nevertheless, the fact it was agreed at all suggested that the royals had become aware that their financial privileges were now at risk. In 2000, the civil list payments were frozen for a period of ten years, with some expenditure previously paid for by government departments now to come out of those payments. This amounted to a real-terms cut, the closest the list had ever come to an actual cut. 

The ‘neoliberal (domestic) peace’ did not last. The buildup to the war on Iraq would ultimately lead to the biggest ever demonstrations in British history, and the biggest backbench rebellion for 150 years. Luckily for the Blair government, the colonial left leadership of the Stop the War movement prevented this anger from being channelled into effective resistance, but such resistance had been a real possibility. Had even a fraction of the crowds that amassed in 2003 stayed for ongoing protest outside parliament, or heeded the anarchists’ calls for direct action at airbases, the situation could have quickly got out of hand. Thus in 2002, the era of containment of royal finances came to an end, and the convention banning the public from viewing royal wills was secretly – and without legal precedent or justification – made into law. Also during this period, some very dubious accounting practices – such as including the wages of 28 members of Charles’ personal staff, along with the jewellery, clothes, horses and bodyguards of his mistress Camilla, as tax deductible – were discretely ‘overlooked’ by the inland revenue. The result was that, by 2012, Charles was paying less than half a million pounds tax on £18 million of Duchy profits; the 1993 Memorandum of Understanding had now been virtually revoked in all but name. 

The 2007-8 financial crisis was the biggest financial crash since the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and triggered a global slump from which the world has still not recovered. The danger of mass unrest suddenly became very real. To add to the fears, the election of 2010 was indecisive, threatening political stability just as economic and social stability was already on a knife-edge. The coalition government that emerged took the opportunity to restore owning-class fortunes through a massive attack on public spending through their flagship policy of ‘austerity.’ Cuts led to riots in 2010 and in 2011 following the police execution of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, at the same time as uprisings across the Gulf threatened the ruling families placed in power by the British. The threat to bourgeois order was as high as it had been at any time since the miners’ strike. Emergency powers suddenly did not seem so unthinkable. 

Thus in 2011 was royal collaboration with such a path ensured by the biggest hike in royal finances since at least 1952. The Sovereign Grant Act finally overturned the 1760 deal with George III entirely, ushering in a massive and ongoing hike in taxpayer payments to the royals. For the first time since that deal, the link between royal fortunes and the Crown Estates was reestablished, with the civil list payments no longer based on an estimate (however fraudulent) of the legitimate expenses of the royals, but instead calculated as a proportion (15%, later increased to 25%) of the income from the (former) ‘Crown Estates’ that had been in effective public ownership since 1760, a massively retrograde step at a time of deepening mass poverty. In the first year – a time of severe wage cuts for the population at large – the civil list payments rose by well over 50% from just under £8million to almost £14 million. Similar rises followed year on year, taking the payment to a staggering £82.8 million by 2019, a more than tenfold increase from the pre-austerity amount. Furthermore, it was written into the Act that these payments could never be reduced, making permanent any temporary good fortune in the value of their estates, and immunising the royals against any collapse in the value of British real estate. The forthcoming auction of windfarm sites on Crown Estate land (which covers hundreds of miles of coastline) alone is likely to produce a windfall of hundreds of millions for the royals. 

    Since the bourgeois monarchy was first established in 1660, then, the pattern has been clear: when the capitalist order is under threat, the stock of the royals – as the ultimate counter-revolutionary backstop and ‘legitimising’ force for the imposition of rule by decree – increases. When the order is secure, it declines. The fact that royal handouts have increased tenfold in recent years, then, should be seen as a sign not so much of a ruling class so powerful it can plunder public funds with impunity, but of one with a desperate fear of the future, and of the masses, and with a total lack of faith in its own ability to rule by consent. Either way, the case for republicanism has never been clearer. 

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