Woke Windsors

Richard Power Sayeed

Before she was a royal-in-waiting, Meghan Markle said on a television talk show that she might move to Canada rather than live in a country governed by a misogynist like Donald Trump. Prince Harry recently interviewed Barack Obama on the Today programme, giving the former president several opportunities to cast shade on his successor. The Sun quoted a senior UK government source saying that the royal couple want the Obamas at their wedding.

It is tempting for people on the left to see Markle and Harry as potential allies, in the belief that political divisions in recent years have been redrawn on cultural rather than economic lines. Around the world, fascists and their sympathisers have gained visibility and in many countries entered government. The stakes have risen, and politics has polarised. Maybe some of the royals aren't so bad, after all, whatever they once wore to a fancy dress party, and even if the leader of Windsor Council hoped to use the wedding as an excuse for Thames Valley Police to force homeless people off his town’s streets.

For the sake of minimising the violent and racist impact of the rise of the right, those on the left must decide who they will co-operate with, and how much they are willing to compromise. Some people also believe they have to ask whose interests could be sacrificed.

A woman of colour entering the highest levels of the British establishment and using her platform to lambast Trump would enlarge the voices of other women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds, and might advance their interests too. But it would also give legitimacy to the political self-expression of every other member of the royal family, and strengthen the undemocratic elements of the British constitution.

Meanwhile, some leftist Remainers and soft-Brexiters, including those who want to protect freedom of movement, are co-operating with liberal Thatcherites, such as George Osborne, who attacked migrants’ rights when they were in power but now say they want to defend an ‘open society’.

Such co-operation may make tactical sense, but the idea that a grand coalition between the left and pro-market liberals could be a solution to the rise of authoritarian nationalism ignores the roots of right-wing populism. Supporters of Trump and Brexit are not, as much commentary implies, uniformly working class. Far from it. But the current upheaval has been energised by an awareness that political and economic life are weighted strongly in the favour of some, and against the interests of others. The right has exploited this discontent. If the left is to provide a long-term solution, it cannot delay acting on either class inequality or racism.

Leftist social movements have allied themselves with centrist establishment elements before, with mixed results. The 'third way' project of New Labour and the Clintonite Democrats absorbed sections of the anti-racist, environmentalist, feminist and gay rights movements into the neoliberal project. That was possible because some of those campaigners had become less focused on reducing state violence and class inequality. Networked into the state, they were able to make substantive but limited advances.

This co-option of marginal ideas and people may enable painfully slow progress, but it is also easily exploited by reactionaries. Since 2007, crisis and austerity have encouraged resentment of political and economic elites, and much of the anger has been directed at those elites’ liberal factions and their uneasy – or in many cases unwilling – allies: oppressed groups and the social movements that represent them. Ukip and the EDL see no contradiction in attacking both neoliberal politicians and working-class migrants. For them, the qualified achievements of radicals who allied with centrist liberals – the amendment of the Race Relations Act, gay marriage – are direct attacks on their ‘way of life’ because they slightly undermine the structures of privilege.

The less powerful partner in a coalition rarely does well out of the relationship, however contingent or even imaginary it is. They are frequently blamed for failures and perceived as collaborators, and there is no reason to think this pattern will change. Elites are once more seeking to ally themselves to liberatory social movements and those they represent, and once again the price to be paid for this alliance is ignoring the way those elites exploit both their 'allies' and those who are left behind.


  • 8 January 2018 at 5:25pm
    Simon Wood says:
    2018 may, indeed, see the clichés and stereotypes of the political mess 2017 and celebrity deaths graveyard 2016 begin to swirl, blend and dissolve. We may find the left-behinds are not all left behind, for instance. Some of them have got on their bikes, even if they haven't left.

    I'm beginning to feel fond of my conservative side.

    I'm beginning to loathe the word "left".

  • 9 January 2018 at 6:46am
    Joe Morison says:
    “This co-option of marginal ideas and people may enable painfully slow progress […]” The older I get, the more convinced I become that painfully slow progress is the best we can hope for, the best we have ever got. That even when sudden jumps forward appear to have happened, it is only because of the largely invisible painfully slow progress that went before.

    I’m a leftist and royalist not because they make sense but because anything that replaced them would be worse. Even in good times, we’d get some ghastly superannuated politician; but today, we’d have someone hated by at least half the population. There’s no necessary conflict between cultural and economic lines on the left, one can cheer the marriage while deploring the wealth that it is into. And I do cheer the marriage, the last one produced a blast of a party in Soho but this one has symbolic value.

    My younger (mixed race) daughter works in a business that is largely male white and public school. From the day of the announcement she felt a change in the attitude toward her, it has certainly made her more confident. It’s been empowering, which since the referendum is something people of her colour badly need. I can’t see any realistic alternative to the royals achieving the same.

    • 9 January 2018 at 2:50pm
      JamesBaldwin says: @ Joe Morison
      I'm not convinced by your counterfactual argument for the royals. For one thing, we are likely to have a head of state hated by half the population if we continue with royalty. The Queen is exceptional: for various reasons, including her own political nous and her association with a past for which there is considerable nostalgia, she is widely popular even among people who are not royalists. Charles will be unpopular, even among royalists.

      Your claim that an elected head of state would likely be hated by half the population, meanwhile, rests on the assumption that the presidency would be bound up with normal electoral cycle. But a well-designed constitution would have separate electoral processes for the different branches of government, precisely to prevent this. If the president were elected for a term of, for example, 7 or 8 years or even 10 years, with elections to be held in years other than parliamentary elections, then this would mean he or she did not necessarily reflect whichever party was currently in power. If the presidential election were conducted by single transferable vote, then this would encourage a consensus candidate.

      Your worry about getting a "superannuated politician" is harder to avoid. But given that in our system the president's powers would be very limited, I don't think it's a particularly serious problem. Hopefully, having different electoral cycles would help prevent this, especially if sitting MPs were ineligible to run for president, and MPs were not allowed to stand down mid-term in order to run. This would mean that, for example, Blair would not have been able to run for president until a couple of years after he stood down as PM, by which time he was already very unpopular. Given that, as the cliche goes, political careers always end in failure, hopefully this pattern would repeat.

      On the contrary, there are many serious issues with the royalty: not only the way it legitimizes status hierarchy, but mostly the extraordinary cost. This cost is routinely covered up by the media, by focusing only on the cash transfers given through the civil list. A true accounting of the cost must include the revenues of the Crown Estate, the Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster. These huge portfolios of landed property and other assets which are not the private property of the royal family: they belong to the state. But the revenue they generate is used to sustain not only the current monarch but also the heir to the throne in lavish lifestyles. There is no need for a future head of state to be supported by public revenues for his entire adult life and no presidential system anywhere in the world does anything remotely similar.

    • 10 January 2018 at 6:43am
      Joe Morison says: @ JamesBaldwin
      The hatred an elected president would incur is nothing to do with the electoral cycle, rather it’s a reflection of our now living in a country split with a viscousness I doubt we’ve known since the civil war; I can’t imagine a candidate who could bridge that divide. And, I don’t think half the population will even remotely hate Charles when he becomes king: people will ridicule him, others will disdain, but there won’t be much real loathing; and even then there will be the sunny prospect of William and Kate to keep people’s support - doubtless they will have an ever larger role, as will Harry and Megan.

      The most absurd and repellent thing about the royal family is the way it legitimizes hierarchy and the class system, but even here they are making painfully slow progress. That Diana was non-royal was a big thing, and now William has married a commoner and Harry is about to marry a mixed race woman - I mean, come on, surely we all enjoyed the Mail and the Telegraph’s squirming? As for the cost, I don’t think that one will ever be solved. How much tourism do they attract? To what degree do they burnish our image abroad in a way that boosts trade? Unanswerable questions. But even if we went republican, they’d still be one of the world’s richest families. It’s a moot point who owns what; the people everything, obviously, but the world is as it is.
      I’m all for redistributing income, but it seems a bit unfair to take all their land but leave, say, the Duke of Westminster his - and the crown properties were voluntarily given up by them to be used as they are.

      But finally, there is just the general jollity they add to the nation. We saw it yesterday in Brixton when Harry and Megan visited; and it was there in the celebrations around the royal wedding, it was a buzz to have the whole world looking at us and it was an excuse for a fantastic national party (Soho was magnificent) - it had an innocent joyousness that sporting victories with their triumphalism never manage. I remember taking my children to see Mandela plant a tree in St. James’s Park in 1996. It was 7.30 in the morning, and he walked up from Buckingham Palace where he’d stayed the night and been given the number 1 guest treatment (he was one of the very few non-family members to call her Elizabeth). I remember thinking how happy he looked, how he could not have come farther from that prison bed to the bed he’d had last night. A president could not have given that.

      The royals are absurd, but they seem to work. As for the future, in this respect it can take care of itself.

    • 12 January 2018 at 8:53pm
      Eamonn Shanahan says: @ Joe Morison
      Joe Morison is eloquent and persuasive. Of Irish extraction myself, I have little stomach for royalty, aristocracy etc. But presidents are dark technocrats like the rest of them. Royals inhabit a more ambiguous sphere, like the Bible, allegorical, even poetic, like Mandela planting a tree in St James's Park, and the look of his eye.

    • 24 January 2018 at 9:26am
      JamesBaldwin says: @ Joe Morison
      Sorry to come back to this much later, I have just seen your post.

      "Taking their land" has nothing to do with it. The distinction between crown property and private property dates back to the Glorious Revolution, before Elizabeth's dynasty was installed. Her family gained control over these estates under terms similar to the current arrangements - it has never been their private property.

      I would happily see the Duke of Westminster lose his land as well, but this is an entirely different question to the crown estate and the duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster.

      I agree that an elected president may not attract broad support from the population. Where we disagree is on your claim that the royal family does. At things like the royal wedding, the people you see celebrating on the streets are the royalists: the people who think the whole thing is distasteful and absurd aren't there. The royal family doesn't provide national unity.

      I also think that the question of tourism is a red herring. Sure, tourists visit Buckingham Palace. But tourists also visit the White House, the Palace of Westminster and, for that matter, Versailles. This dimension of British tourism is based on the country's history and heritage, not its current political arrangements. As a republic, the UK would be just as attractive a tourist destination.

      But anyway, thank you for the conversation.

    • 24 January 2018 at 9:46am
      JamesBaldwin says: @ JamesBaldwin
      I have a couple of further points (sorry!)

      First, just to reiterate that you'd never be able to convince me that the royal family are a focus for national unity, because this supposed unity doesn't include me!

      You're right that an elected president may not command broad support, but the elected *presidency* could. People who didn't like the current president would know that they had a chance in the future to select a president they did like, so they could still retain faith in the system. (Note that this doesn't apply in countries where the president has strong executive powers, because then the position is inevitably politicized. But in the UK a president would not head the government and so could, if the system was devised well, stand above politics).

      By contrast, people who don't support the monarchy (which is around 30% of the population, so not insignificant) can never be reconciled to the head of state, no matter who it is. It is the system, not the current inhabitant, that they object to.

      It might be that if we shifted to an elected presidency, that some royalists would not be able to reconcile with this on principle. But I think the number would be vanishingly small. There are very few people today who really believe in the hereditary principle. People like the monarchy because it's familiar and traditional (and I think, because they personally like Queen Elizabeth). Once it were gone, I think few people would support the principle that the head of state should be a hereditary position. And members of the House of Windsor could always run for president! (They'd also be able to vote and become MPs, so arguably it would increase their constitutional rights, given that very few ever become monarch).

  • 9 January 2018 at 7:22am
    Graucho says:
    The great catch 22 of politics is that the things that people have to do to attain power makes them unfit to hold it. Illogical as the heredity principle is, the one big thing to be said for it is that the queen is beholden to nobody for her job.

  • 9 January 2018 at 5:15pm
    rrhallmark says:
    Why not think of other possibilities, Trump is not necessarily the only model. Macron in France, Merkl in Germany, and Ireland has had an interesting range of Presidents who were by no means all superannuated politicians. No system is perfect, but the notion of inherited status for the head of state, for the special position of royalty is damaging to notions of democracy and accountability.

    • 12 January 2018 at 9:28pm
      Eamonn Shanahan says: @ rrhallmark
      See Joe Morison above. And my comment thereto. Any president will be a 'suit', playing by the same rules. We need alternatives to the stale mechanisms of power in place. And 'notions of democracy and accountability' is a phrase common in preambles to constitutions of authoritarian regimes. Neither 'democracy' nor 'accountability' bear much scrutiny in the West. Both are degraded. A constitutional monarchy, its assumptions and influence, are not nearly as offensive as Washington's big money lobbying culture, or the Brexit campaign's deft lies.

  • 13 January 2018 at 6:37pm
    ksh93 says:
    Elites are once more seeking to ally themselves to liberatory social movements and those they represent...

    Reminds me of something Thomas Frank wrote nearly 2 years ago at the high-noon (or perhaps afternoon) of neoliberal virtue signaling:

    What I concluded from observing all this is that there is a global commerce in compassion, an international virtue circuit featuring people of unquestionable moral achievement: Archbishop Tutu, Bono, Sting, Yunus, Angelina Jolie...But...[w]hat drives this market are the buyers. Like Walmart and Goldman Sachs locking arms with the State Department, what these virtue-consumers are doing is purchasing liberalism offsets, an ideological version of the carbon offsets that polluters sometimes buy in order to compensate for the smog they churn out.

    Nancy Fraser, in an homage to Karl Polanyi, also "worr[ies] that...our critique of sexism is now supplying the justification for new forms of inequality and exploitation.”

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