The Irish Post’s report on the latest example of the Royal family’s toxicity featured a headline that went to the heart of the matter: “Irish political party calls for ‘racist parasite’ British monarchy to be abolished.”
That’s saying it!
I am an anti-monarchist, with a disregard for royalty that informs my anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist sentiments. I take my cues from Tom Paine, who famously observed that “we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government, than hereditary succession, in all its cases, presents.” As an American, my discussions of the British monarchy are usually limited to debates about impeachment, which the drafters of the US Constitution wisely embraced as a guard against kingly abuses of presidential power.
Of late, however, I’ve been engaged in more freewheeling discussions about the monarchy; it’s come up in radio interviews and podcast tapings, during book events, and in casual conversations. My experience is not, of course, unique. We’ve all been reflecting on the fact that, as the columnist Cynthia Tucker notes, “The British monarchy came in for well-deserved criticism in the throne-shaking interview Oprah Winfrey conducted with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle. I believe every allegation the couple made, including the bombshell accusation that one family member expressed concerns about the skin color of the couple’s progeny.”
I have joined in these discussions with relish because of the opportunity they present to consider the fundamental matters related to the monarchy—and to the fascination that so many people who do not live in the United Kingdom retain for it. This is a chance to go deeper on the issue, which is something Americans rarely do. We could do for a few more discussions of the monarchy, aristocracy, plutocracy, and oligarchy in this country—especially as we wrestle with the authoritarian legacy of Donald Trump, whose obsequious obsession with the British crown was on grotesque display when he and his cabal trooped off for tea with the Queen in 2019.
In many parts of the world, former British colonies continue to have lively debates about the lingering influence of the British royals, the fading empire they represent, and the organization of democracy as an alternative to governing with deference to entitled and empowered elites. These discussions are both theoretical and practical. Barbados is in the process of making its break with the British crown—and the commonwealth relationship that retains the UK’s monarch as head of state—just now, as the government of progressive Prime Minister Mia Mottley has declared, “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind.” In Australia, which has a robust republican movement, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull responded to the Harry and Meghan interview by announcing, “Our head of state should be an Australian citizen, should be one of us, not the Queen or King of the United Kingdom.”
My anti-monarchist worldview is informed by my long acquaintance with the late British parliamentarian Tony Benn, the former government minister and socialist campaigner. He taught me many years ago to see the monarchy as a bulwark of an often corrupt and corrupting status quo. Recalling another moment of fascination and concern with the royal exiles—during the 1936 constitutional crisis that arose when King-Emperor Edward VIII proposed to marry a commoner, American socialite Wallis Simpson-Benn once noted, “[British Prime Minister] Stanley Baldwin very soon realized that the empire would not accept Mrs Simpson as queen, and forced the king to sign the instrument of abdication as the necessary pre-condition for the continuation of the crown itself. This was seen as essential to those who make up the establishment because it performs many functions that are held—by them—to be central to the maintenance of their own power and influence.”
Even in a modern state, with constitutional guarantees, the monarchical mindset is powerful. “Above all,” as Benn explained, “the existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privilege and patronage that corrupts our society; that is why the crown is seen as being of such importance to those who run the country—or enjoy the privileges it affords.”
So I’m all in for discussions of monarchy, in the United Kingdom, where I am on the side of the republicans who want to see the royals out, and in the United States, where it is always healthy to be reminded of why the American Revolution was a good idea. That reminder is needed because, while this country may not have a king, it surely has an aristocracy. Even before the coronavirus pandemic supercharged the fortunes of the billionaire class, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was explaining, “The move toward oligarchy in our country not only impacts our politics, it impacts our economy and the standard of living of working people. Let’s be clear. The current grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in this country is not only immoral, it is causing massive suffering for the working families of our country.”
Swap the word “oligarchy” for ”monarchy” and the discussion starts getting to the point. Elites go by different names, but they are always about the work of maintaining their inherited power and purchased influence.
A knowing discourse about the monarchy—and about the commonalities between throned royals and mercenary plutocrats—is necessary, even in countries where “the Crown” is primarily empowered on streaming services.
My taste in these matters tends less toward gossip about the CEOs of the royal “Firm,” whom Paine decried as “crowned ruffians,” and more toward the political impulse to make a clean break with monarchism. So I was struck by the response of Ireland’s People Before Profit Party, which for a number 0f years now has maintained the left flank in the Dáil Éireann, the principle chamber of the republic’s legislature, while also electing representatives to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The PBP, a proudly radical party, offered a blistering reply to the most jarring revelation from Winfrey’s interview with the self-exiled royals.
“So it turns out the British Royal Family are racist parasites… who knew?! Sure, there were little hints—centuries of colonialism, slavery, and genocide—but it was finally confirmed last night by Meghan Markle in an interview with Oprah Winfrey,” began the party’s social media rejoinder, which amplified an #AbolishTheMonarchy hashtag along with observations on how
The Royal family are wealthy scroungers who live off the largesse of British taxpayers. They promote a culture of hierarchy and racism.
Their deep racism comes directly from a history of empire. Throughout the ages, the British Monarchy justified their crimes by claiming the people of India or Ireland were either half savage or childlike, awaiting the benefits of British ‘civilisation.’
There is a relatively prevalent idea that racism comes from ‘uneducated’ people. But Markle’s revelation shows that it often comes from the top and is spread throughout society to divide and rule.
Meghan Markle and her husband Harry are also privileged wealthy individuals. And even they were not inoculated against the Monarchy’s notorious racism. How much worse must it be for working class people of colour who face racism everyday of their lives.
There’s not much more to add, save Tom Paine’s observation: “In a word, whoever demands a king demands an aristocracy.”
Leaving the monarchy was a good first step on our part. But abandoning monarchical thinking is a necessary next step in the work of rejecting homegrown aristocracy—and billionaire-class oligarchy.