Down with the monarchy! Up the republic!

Submitted by martin on 4 June, 2002 - 11:03

Britain is not democratic. The labour movement has won, and retains, some important democratic rights, but that is a long way short of full democracy.

Trade unions can organise, independent of the government. Opponents of the government can publish papers like Solidarity, sell them on the streets, and organise demonstrations and meetings, mostly free from police reprisals. We can run in elections under banners such as the Socialist Alliance. We can vote.

All those are differences from a Stalinist regime or police state which are important and worth defending. But the vote in Britain remains essentially what Karl Marx described in 19th century France - a means of "deciding once in every so many years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament".

Democracy is stunted in the first place by the rule of wealth. The great majority of us have no choice but to work for wages. At work we are under the dictatorship of the boss. Trade union organisation can create some counterweight; but laws imposed by the 1979-97 Tory government and continued by Blair hobble and cripple the unions.

Rupert Murdoch has no vote but his wealth brings him control of a huge chunk of the media. James Goldsmith, a wealthy man, could "buy" himself a political party, the Referendum Party, to promote his maverick opposition to European integration. With the millions he has got from big-business sympathisers and state funds, Tony Blair has been able to create a whole new "Blairite" political machine, an army of spin-doctors, media-people, advisers, and organisers, within and on top of the shell of the old Labour Party, thus largely disenfranchising working-class Labour voters.

Socialists, without wealthy patrons, are disadvantaged by having to rely on small newspapers, street rather than newsagent sales, surreptitious flyposting, and meetings in odd pub and student union rooms, to publicise our ideas.

Even the formal mechanisms of government are far short of democratic. The Jubilee ballyhoo should focus our minds on that. That the British people allow a central, or potentially central, position in our politics to be occupied by someone with no other qualifications than being descended from Mad King George is a sign that we have not yet learned to take our democratic rights seriously enough.

In the 1640s the English people made a revolution for rule by an elected parliament rather than an unelected king or queen. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and a counterbalancing mini-revolution in 1688, the ruling class agreed a compromise. The unelected monarchy would stay, but Parliament would have priority.

It was a parliament elected only by the well-off, and with a House of Lords not elected at all. Until 1911, when a Liberal government finally curbed it, the House of Lords could veto major legislation which repeatedly won a majority in the elected Commons, such as Home Rule for Ireland (first passed through the Commons in 1893). Today, the House of Lords is still unelected. It still has powers to delay legislation. They could have great weight in a political crisis.

The monarchy gradually withdrew from day-to-day government, but only all the better to sustain its "dignity" and its reserve power to intervene in a crisis. In the late 19th century, politicians like the Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli "reinvented" the monarchy as a symbolic centre for the British Empire. The business of Jubilees started with Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887.

The working class organised and agitated, from the 1830s, for democracy - one man one vote, and later one person one vote; annual elections to Parliament. We won, or seemed to win, some of our demands. From 1867 growing sections of the working class won the vote. By 1929 we had one person one vote.

But while workers won the vote, the ruling class diminished the power of the vote. From 1867 onwards the ruling class shifted real power from Parliament to the Cabinet, and then to the Prime Minister and a swelling unelected permanent bureaucracy.

Much law is made by administrative decree. The permanent civil service decides much of public policy, and ensures its continuity whoever wins elections. The Labour left-winger Tony Benn, when a government Minister, once received a civil service brief marked, "For the new Minister, if not Mr Benn".

The Prime Minister has to be able to keep a majority in Parliament. But that requirement gives little real democratic control. The Queen, not Parliament, chooses the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister chooses the ministers and thus "buys" himself or herself a "payroll vote".

In normal, quiet conditions the Prime Minister is the leader of the biggest party, and the "payroll vote" simply strengthens his or her control over that party. If the trade unions should come to reassert some control over the Labour Party, and a left Labour majority which the ruling class saw as dangerous were elected to Parliament, the Queen could quite easily choose a Labour right-winger for Prime Minister and through the "payroll" factor enable that Prime Minister to construct a majority from sections of Labour, Lib Dems, nationalists and maybe even some Tories, thwarting the voters' choice.

In 1975, the Queen's representative in Australia, Governor-General John Kerr, sacked that country's reforming Labour government on the pretext of its difficulties in getting its Budget approved by the Upper House. Kerr installed the Tory opposition to rule instead, called a general election, rode out a big wave of protest strikes, and saw the exultant Tories win the election. The Queen could do the same in a political crisis in Britain.

In the 17th century, control over the armed forces was the decisive final gain for Parliament. But the armed forces still swear allegiance to the Crown and not to the elected government. The former Chief of the General Staff, Michael Carver, publicly admitted that in February 1974, when a Labour government was returned amidst massive industrial struggles, "fairly senior officers were ill-advised enough to make suggestions that, perhaps, if things got terribly bad, the army would have to do something about it". The top brass squashed the coup plans - that time.

Back in 1925, Leon Trotsky disputed the claim of the Labour Party leaders of that time that "the royal power does not interfere with the country's progress".

"The royal power", wrote Trotsky, "is weak because the instrument of bourgeois rule is the bourgeois parliament, and because the bourgeoisie does not need any special activities outside of Parliament. But, in case of need, the bourgeoisie will make use of the royal power as a concentration of non-parliamentary, i.e. real, forces, aimed against the working class".

In 1981 Tony Benn painted the same picture. He wrote a book summing up lessons from 11 years as a member of Labour governments in the 1960s and 70s. What would happen, he asked, to "a government elected by a clear majority on a mandate of reform?... The Lords veto, the prerogative of the Crown to dismiss and dissolve, and the loyalties of the courts and the services to adjudicate upon legitimacy and to enforce those judgments might all be used to defend the status quo against a parliamentary majority elected to transform it".

That is the serious business behind the Jubilee farce. The ruling class keeps the monarchy out of ordinary politics in order to have it in reserve for extraordinary politics.

It is a much poorer reserve than it used to be. Having decided that its old methods of self-promotion, developed in the late-Victorian British Empire, had become too outdated to continue, the monarchy tried the methods of showbiz, and was brought down by them. It looks seedy, bloated, boring. Maybe in time large sections of the ruling class will decide they could do better with an elected president than with the wretched Windsor family.

But the labour movement should have its say. Here too we can learn from Trotsky. At the time of a fascist upsurge in France, in 1934, in some ways parallel to the recent far-right advance there, he argued that French workers should not just defend parliamentary democracy but fight to radicalise it.

He demanded the abolition of the Upper House of Parliament and of the presidency. "A single assembly must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years by universal suffrage... Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker.

"This is the only measure that would lead the masses forward instead of pushing them backward. A more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers' power".

In Britain now, the labour movement has much to do to re-establish itself as a strong fighting force on the most basic questions of wages, work conditions, and social provision for health care, education and other public services. But a fight for political democracy is not counterposed to those "economic" battles.

The two fronts go hand in hand, as they did nearly two hundred years ago when an agitator for the early labour movement, the Chartists, who centred their activity on the demand for workers to have the vote, explained that Chartism was a "knife and fork question", a battle about the means for workers to win a decent livelihood. The workers' government we need in order to establish jobs for all, an adequate minimum wage, and public services, cannot come into existence without democracy and cannot sustain itself without extending democracy.

We need, first of all, freedom of action for the trade unions. We need a federal republic in which public decisions are taken by accountable, recallable representatives, subject to frequent re-election on a fair system of proportional representation. We need freedom of public information and entrenched legal rights for all citizens. We need rights of guaranteed access to the means of mass publicity for all substantial and serious bodies of opinion, not only those with wealth. We need to force the giant corporations and banks to open their banks to working-class scrutiny.

Down with the monarchy! Up the republic!

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