John Tummon of the Republican Socialist Alliance takes us through the distinction between the Crown Corporation and the Royal Family Limited, and shows how together, they perform a key role in maintaining the power of The City and the imperialist interests of the British ruling class.
THE CROWN CORPORATION AND THE ROYAL FAMILY LTD.
- The UK’s unwritten system of government, which was once for many a source of pride, has become a source of confusion and embarrassment. It is not just that the rules can be changed or even ignored by any government with a bare parliamentary majority, but that the adequacy and appropriateness of those rules – even, at times, their continued applicability – has come into question. Theresa May’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act and the Miller judgment’s interpretation of the Sewel convention (which in normal circumstances prohibits the UK Parliament from legislating on devolved matters) show the fragility and inadequacy of an unwritten constitution. Opportunistic manipulation of the Fixed-term Parliament Act only adds to the sense of a system of government in disarray.
- The unwritten British constitution, rooted in ceremony and tradition, maintains a culture of deference, not of citizenship. At the heart of any new constitution must be a commitment to citizenship and popular sovereignty: the UK’s unwritten system starts from the Crown and works begrudgingly downwards; a democratic constitution would start from the people and work up, with public institutions in the service of the people. From that basis, we can then begin to address – from first principles – questions such as how to represent the people, how to protect rights, and how to hold those in public office fully accountable.
- Today we live in a capitalist world where everything is business. So our distinction is between two enterprises – the Crown Corporation and Royal Family Ltd. The latter is called “the firm” by the Duke of Edinburgh and has its HQ at Buckingham Palace. These are separate businesses that go together like a horse and carriage. The relationship between them is more like ‘state capitalism’ than the much-vaunted ‘free enterprise’.
- The Crown Corporation – hereafter simply called ‘the crown’ – is, like any capitalist firm, a separate legal entity. It is the largest and most powerful multinational ‘corporation’ in the country. It has offices, or embassies, in nearly every country in the world. It has power not only in the UK, but the various tax havens or secret banking jurisdictions, such as the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, the Cayman Islands, etc. It also has a very extensive information-gathering network, which enables it to keep ahead of most of its rivals.
- First the crown is the state, together with its various organisations: departments of state such as the treasury and home office, revenue and customs, armed forces, security or secret services, the police, Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and her majesty’s prisons, etc. But it is much more than this. It is the people in charge who direct these millions employed by the crown across its territories.
- The power of the crown is concentrated in its board of directors, which can be called the core executive or the political class. The phrase, ‘The crown rules Britannia’, means that it is the political class that runs the place – certainly not parliament and much less the people. The crown is not a democracy. The political class includes senior civil servants, the prime minister and his key ministers and advisors, heads of the security services and the joint chiefs of staff. The prime minister is the chief executive reporting weekly to the royal chair of the board.
- The political class is mainly made up of bureaucrats who have clawed their way up from their Oxbridge education or through the military, with which “the firm” has a special affinity. The chair of the board is an hereditary position. Then there are professional politicians who are chosen by the prime minister to serve as the key ministers of the crown. They do not have to be elected because of the back-door route through the Lords. But they all have to swear allegiance to the crown.
- The crown is no more a democratic institution than Ford, McDonalds or News International. This is not to say that there is no democratic influence. This is not absolutism, but constitutional monarchy. But gone is the pretence that we elect the people who actually govern us. They are all chosen, although it helps if you have a seat in parliament (general elections do impact on the composition of the political class). However, a minister who is not trusted by the political class will always be an outsider and ‘not one of us’.
- The crown, therefore, has a kind of permanence at its core. Its strategic role in governing the country transcends the vagaries of elections. We often hear of one government defending its reactionary policies by pointing out that it all began under the previous lot. So it did. The crown and its policies in reality hardly change from one election to the next. They are merely given a face-lift and painted blue or red and pushed more quickly or slowly. Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron follow the same line of policy and serve the same financial markets.
- If we look inside the robber’s bundle we do not find the landed interests associated with aristocracy. We discover the City of London, its banks and financial markets with a long history of robbing people on a global scale. The crown has been their political instrument and the Bank of England their lever. The prime minister is the first minister of the City, whose priority is to protect and support them – for example, against a Greek default, the Tobin tax or European regulation. Today we are living through the ‘great bankster robbery’ carried on by the crown and the Bank of England, and fronted by the Tories.
- Most of the left associate the crown with the queen and think that the latter is irrelevant to our increasingly difficult daily life. The opposite is the case. Whether the crown is taking us to war in Iraq or planning how to support the US-Israeli plans for Iran, or designing a privatised NHS or school system, it is a process largely impermeable to the needs of the people. Naturally, none of this is immutable or inevitable and the economic fragility of the economy is becoming ever more evident. Our political response to the crisis of the crown should not be another government of the crown, but another system of government altogether – one built on those truly democratic principles of popular sovereignty and accountability.
- Republicanism is a theory of government that recognises that constitution, state and government is a common possession of the people, and not the hereditary right of any dynastic family or groups of families. Monarchy is a class institution that, in the modern era, embodies the class relations of contemporary capitalism. It is not, as liberals emphasise, some feudal relic leftover from the middle ages which nobody has bothered to get rid of.
- And so we turn to the evolution of Crown Powers. The monarchy continues to exist in late capitalism not because of weakness or laziness but because it serves the interests of a definite class or classes who rule the country undemocratically through Crown Powers. The ruling class defend and protect the monarchy because it is very useful and beneficial for them. Capital can prosper without monarchy, as it does in most capitalist societies. But in the UK class relations have evolved within the framework of a constitutional monarchy in which sovereignty was shared between the Crown and parliament. The monarchy itself, seemingly distinct from capital, became a symbol of national unity. It can achieve what no bank or corporation can – command of the loyalty of the middle classes and more backward sections of the working class.
- In 1649 England became a republic by abolishing the monarchy. But the overthrow of Charles Stuart, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords did not create a democracy. Cromwell’s counter-revolution put a sword between the republic and democracy. Declaring a republic, the Commonwealth, was no more than the revolution’s first and vital step towards democracy. The defeat of the Levellers in May 1649 ensured there would be no second step. The lost republic left a long dark shadow over popular democratic and radical politics.
- The fusion between the aristocracy and bourgeoisie occurred over time in Britain because each had not fully established an independent identity for themselves in late feudal, early capitalist times. But the continuance of the political institutions established around the turn of the 17th century further prohibited each from further pursuing their full historical purposes. This is especially true for the bourgeoisie in the economic sphere where they were so agog at the aristocratic lifestyles they encountered they failed to develop the ruthless determination to create the investment and re-investment cycles associated with the bourgeoisie in Britain’s principal rivals. Instead of constantly revolutionising production and administration using ever-newer technological innovations, they instead took comfort in the pursuit of titles, purchases of land, and safety in non-productive investments. This lack of a cutting edge, compensated for some time by the empire, placed them eventually at a profound long-term disadvantage to their main competitors in the US, France and Germany. This has been observed by many economic observers and has become known by various terms such as “gentlemanly capitalism” amongst others. It also explains the lack of drive that can be found in British capitalists to “grow” businesses into large multinational corporations but, instead, after a certain point has reached to sell up and live off the proceeds, as financial capitalists, something the empire facilitated. This, in turn, produces bloated property, financial and legal sectors, which continue to distort the British economy away from production for need, or indeed away from any production at all, outside of arms industries, aeronautics, some high-end technology sectors and a few small niche manufacturers. British capitalism is unrecognisable, structurally, from before Thatcher, but it is vital we fully accept the essential continuity with what emerged from the late 17th century: the very same financial capitalism, backed by imperialism abroad and at ‘home’ that we see today.
- Institutionally, the reigning monarch has only limited direct powers, but the hidden and indirect powers are probably the most important. Instead the sovereign rules through advisors. Almost all use of powers involves the indirect powers of the Prime Minister or Cabinet Ministers. According to Bagehot “the Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy … three rights –the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.” … “The fact that [Crown Powers] existed meant that they could be used as a threat, and indeed their existence was made use of by the Conservatives to cripple certain Liberal measures”. These Crown Powers are still there as a reserve weapon in times of crisis, and it is not difficult to imagine that should a socialist government, pledged to carry out real socialist measures, be elected, the ruling class would seek once again persuade the monarchy to use its powers in this respect. More importantly for negotiating any crisis, the unaccountable institutions of the Crown in Parliament would be used to enhance ruling class executive power. The historical record shows that this has indeed occurred.
- The Crown has at its disposal all the powers and resources of the civil service, the security services, armed forces, the diplomatic services, and mass media. The main political parties support the Crown. All loyalty, whether formal and expressed through oaths or informal, flows towards this real and imaginary entity.
- There are four councils to the sovereign: The House of Commons, the House of Lords, the Law Courts, and the Privy Council. All are still in existence and are the active agents of government. All owe their loyalty and their existence to the Crown, including the reigning monarch, although this is expressed as the rule of law. In no other country in the developed world and, even the undeveloped world, do the institutions of state comprise such levels of hereditary power. No UK law can come into existence without discussion in the House of Commons, scrutiny in the House of Lords, and assent from the reigning Monarch. In most modern countries the institutions of government are established as mechanisms for expressing the popular will. Hence they are structured on democratic principles. These may contain some non-democratic features but the general principles follow enlightenment values to a greater or lesser extent. However, this has never been the case in the UK. All state institutions are designated as councils to the Monarch and this serves to establish a barrier between themselves and the general population.
- Only one institution – the House of Commons – has even a highly restricted procedure to express the popular will. The instrument used to tie together all these institutions together is the Privy Council. Unlike the United States there has been little discussion on the separation of the powers of executive, legislature and judiciary, and, unlike France, church from state, because alongside the highly visible linkages, the established church and the judges are integrated as components of the House of Lords. Karl Marx expressed the limits of much political thinking when he wrote, “Here we have the old constitutional folly. The condition of ‘free government’ is not the division but the UNITY of power. The machinery of government cannot be too simple. It is always the craft of knaves to make it complicated and mysterious.” The Cabinet as far as constitutional practice is concerned is only a sub-committee of the Privy Council. Consequently, all Cabinet members must be Privy Councillors to take up their positions and be given the title Right Honourable. There are around six hundred Privy Councillors. Membership is for life and the body never meets in full, although a monthly meeting takes place. It only requires two Privy Councillors for it to be a valid meeting. All members are bound by oath to never disclose what items are discussed. Because the Cabinet is only a sub-committee, this reinforces the detached self-enclosed nature of UK government. It actively denies the ability of subjects to know what the government does and says. The Lord President of the Council usually presides over the monthly meeting.
- A striking consequence of Britain’s lack of a formal written constitution is the extent to which government ministers are dependent on traditional powers inherited from the time when Britain was an absolute monarchy. These powers are collectively called ‘the Royal Prerogative.’ Despite their antiquity, they provide the legal authority for activities that are modern enough. In the name of the Crown, ministers can appoint judges and civil servants, wage war and make peace, promote and dismiss members of the armed forces and civil service, prosecute and pardon offenders, negotiate treaties and approve European Union legislation in the Council of Ministers, issue (and deny) passports to British citizens, enjoy immunity from statutes (unless the Crown is expressed or impliedly referred to) and generally conduct those processes of government for which Parliament has not provided by specific statutory legislation.
- The role of oaths is essential to the functioning of much political life in the UK. It assists in creating an atmosphere of exclusivity and of being part of an elite. Swearing a promissory oath to loyally serve the Queen and all her lawful heirs and successors is not mere technicality, and is necessary for MPs. soldiers, police officers and many other public officials. Because these oaths are not to uphold the constitution, serve the community or perform competently in public office they are an affirmation of the class system on which the UK state stands. This is especially true for the Privy Councillors oath that is probably the most important oath of office in the UK.
- This oath was so secret, it was a criminal offence to disclose it until it was revealed in a written Parliamentary answer in 1998. Crown Powers such as Orders-of-Council, made by members of the Privy Council without the sovereign are made as uses of the Royal Prerogative. An Order-in-Council is primary legislation and does not require any statute from Parliament for its authority. They may also be secondary legislation and regulations as Statutory Instruments to existing statutes. It was through these types of orders that trade unions were banned from General Communications Head Quarters GCHQ and over two thousand inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago, or Diego Garcia were evicted to make way for a massive US military air base in the Indian Ocean. Many of these Royal Prerogatives can be exercised without any approval by Parliament.
- Many territories outside the geography of the British Isles are still controlled directly from Westminster, via Crown Powers. These are Crown Dependencies, or British Overseas Territories. Often islands or groups of islands with a strategic significance for military purposes such as Ascension Island, or St Helena or the Chagos Islands, for tax avoidance purposes, such as the Cayman Islands. They often confer territorial claims over larger areas; for example, the Falkland Islands open up claims over mineral rights in the Antarctic.
- The House of Lords remains a mainly hereditary institution, essentially an expression of the aristocracy, despite having accrued new hereditary layers and lifetime peerages. It is one of the mechanisms –along with the fee-paying schools, various boardrooms – that trace the late 19th century fusing the bourgeoisie with the aristocracy. At one point in 1999, it had 1,330 members, much more than the elected House of Commons, with 650. The House of Lords has been the main chamber supplying personnel for Cabinet and government well into the nineteenth century, and still does – Corbyn got Shami Chakrabati into his Shadow Cabinet by this device. The unfaltering succession of aristocratic Cabinets and landlord Parliaments which dominated British politics for a full century after the advent of the Industrial Revolution was … no mere cultural quirk or institutional anachronism. Over time, almost always involving direct challenges, the power of the House of Lords has been broken. Its continued existence is as a symbol against changes that have changed the world over the last two centuries. Hiding behind its second row status, it still legitimates legislation that a properly elected assembly would reject and it also provides a place – an institution of state – which coheres many hundreds of the ruling class.
- The House of Commons, although it is the dominant chamber contributing most personnel to the Cabinet, is still an expression of Crown powers. As the main repository of parliamentary sovereignty, it creates a wall around itself so that no member can be a delegate of outside concerns, or be bound by decisions outside the walls of its chambers. In this way it resists all pressures for popular sovereignty and the rights of the citizenry to have a say in government. The cry of “I spy strangers!” compels the Speaker to clear the chamber of all observers from wider society. Initially a mechanism to protect the members from the monarch’s spies, it now expresses the differences that exist between the elected sections of the ruling class and the populace. This distancing further de-legitimises politics for those left outside. The anti-political outlook that has grown during the neoliberal decades reflects this lack of accountability at the heart of Crown Powers.
- The Crown can dissolve parliament and pick the leader or leaders who can form the government. Queen Victoria was the last monarch not to choose a Prime Minister from the largest party. There is still no real acceptance of the party system so that all MPs are treated as individuals and there is only Government (with its supporters) and “her Majesty’s loyal opposition” (with its supporters). This stops the Commons ever becoming a representative chamber and constrains the role of the opposition. The consequent televised weekly knockabout farce of Prime Ministers Question Time has played a large part in bringing the system into disrepute: the ritualised baying of the massed ranks of ex-public schoolboys is elitism par excellence.
- The domination of the two main political parties, and two only, has influenced the development of the British Constitution so profoundly that it can almost be said that the two-party system is one of the unwritten conventions of the Constitution. No matter how many parties or points-of-view, Crown Powers structure the existence of only two; First Past the Post is there to reinforce this. The effects of this system are felt in a number ways. It means that votes for minor parties are often wasted and with the loss of deposits even highly representative minority opinions cannot be articulated in Parliament. It also means that the leaders of the two main parties have accepted the substantial class basis of UK capitalism. It also stops party leaders being controlled by the rank-and-file of their parties.
- It is only recently –in the last twenty years or so- that the left has looked at the electoral system. Although there is a higher awareness of the limitations of the First-Past-The-Post system, there is still a missing critique of Crown Powers.
- In reality, then, the chief function of monarchy is not simply the nation’s enslavement to an ideology of a royalist-based patriotism. It is, rather, the Great Distraction – away from where the true levers of power are located within the structure of the Crown. The Crown not only governs the country and determines so much of our lives, but, in an epoch of its growing economic crisis, increasingly threatens our hard-won rights and liberties. As Shelley put it, “the monarch ties the robber’s bundle precisely because the inherent danger to democracy of the unelected and unaccountable crown is concealed by the nation’s grandmother smiling sweetly”.
- Shelley’s was an acute observation. However, an enduring misconception concerning the crown and monarch goes some way to explain why republicanism is so weak. The left fails to distinguish between the Crown Corporation and Royal Family Ltd. This error involves painting a weak picture of republicanism, one focused almost entirely on the queen and whether she ‘costs too much’ or arguing about how much of ‘our national income’ she generates through tourism. Some so-called Republicans do argue along such reformist and narrow lines, but Socialist Republicans do not.
- Despite the existence of a parliamentary democracy centred on Westminster, with its new devolved offspring at Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont, it still has very real limitations. These lie in the state’s Crown Powers, which are wielded, crucially for understanding the Socialist Republican critique of the British state, not by the Queen, but by the Prime Minister.
- The Prime Minister has a wider circle of advisers, from the world of finance, industry and the media. They help him to adopt strategies and form policies to promote their needs and interests, without too much democratic scrutiny. We can see some of those pressures in Gordon Brown’s handling of the Northern Rock collapse, where defence of City interests has been paramount. Tony Blair created the Downing Street Policy Unit of hand-picked, unelected researchers and advisers, to take the place of senior civil servants, such is the wide discretion available to the executive, under Crown Powers.
- Business leaders have also ensured that the bidding and contract details for the government’s many lucrative PFI contracts, amounting to billions of pounds of public money, are conducted in secret under the guise of commercial confidentiality. This means that whole swathes of the UK economy, ostensibly under the control or supervision of Parliament, in reality lie way beyond any effective public accountability. New Labour was in the pockets of big business, and no amount of Union Jack waving around our Olympic heroes and heroines can disguise this.
- This unaccountable economic influence has to be supplemented by other anti-democratic political means. This is why senior civil servants, judges, and officers and ranks in the armed forces, all swear their allegiance to the Queen, not to Parliament, and certainly not to the people. The ruling class may require their services, acting, when necessary, against the interests of the people, or even Parliament. Of course, it is not the Queen herself, who wields this power, but the Prime Minister, acting on behalf of the ruling class. This is all done under the Crown Powers.
- The UK’s constitution even has provision for the suspension of Parliament in ‘extreme situations’, with resort instead to direct rule by the Privy Council. This very select band of former and existing senior government ministers is chosen for its reliability in upholding ruling class interests. Its members all enjoy close contact with the world of business, whilst some have had direct dealings with military officers, MI5 and MI6.
- The fact that SNP leader Alex Salmond is now a Privy Councillor shows that, beyond the exaggerated public disagreements, through which the other great distraction of party political competition normally takes place in the UK, the British ruling class inner circle still consider him reliable enough. Indeed, Salmond enjoys his own close links with the Scottish finance sector, which has wider British interests to defend. More importantly, Salmond’s acceptance of a Privy Councillorship indicates that he will play the political game by Westminster rules.
- In the late 1970’s, before the British ruling class came to the conclusion that ‘Devolution-all-round’ (for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) was the best strategy to defend its interests in these islands and the wider world, key sections were still bitterly opposed even to the very mild devolutionary proposals put forward by the then Labour government. In the lead-up to the 1979 Devolution Referendum, the ‘non-political’ Queen was wheeled out to make a Christmas broadcast attacking Scottish nationalism. Senior civil servants were told to ‘bury’ any documents, which could help the Scottish nationalists. Military training exercises were conducted, targeting putative armed Scottish guerrilla forces. The security forces became involved on the nationalist fringe, encouraging anti-English diatribes and actions, to discredit any notion of real Scottish self-determination.
- However, unlike Ireland or Australia, Scottish nationalists did not then have to face the full panoply of Crown Powers. It was not necessary, since the SNP opposition was so mild and constitutionalist in nature. In the ‘Six Counties’ of Northern Ireland, however, the Republicans, and the wider nationalist community, felt the force of her majesty’s regiments, including the SAS, the UDR (with its royal patronage) and the RUC, and the Loyalist death squads, all backed up by juryless Diplock Courts, manned by Unionist judges, and by detention as required, in ‘her majesty’s’ special prisons. Those sections of the state, which provide the ruling class with legal sanction to pursue its own ends, are prefixed ‘her majesty’s’ or ‘royal’. Self-styled Loyalists include those who are prepared to undertake certain illegal tasks when called upon by the security services.
- Back in 1975, Gough Whitlam fronted a mildly reforming Labour government, which wanted to keep US nuclear warships out of Australian ports. He felt the long arm of the Crown Powers when the British Governor-General removed him from his elected office, just as undemocratically as the Troika more recently sacked Italy’s elected Prime Minister. More recently the Crown Powers have been used to deny the right of the Diego Garcia islanders to return to their Indian Ocean home, when they won their case in the British High Court. Unfortunately for them, Diego Garcia is now the site of a major US military base. Current British governments are even more subservient to US imperial interests than they were in the 1970s. We should take seriously the warning from Lisa Vickers, the new US consul in Edinburgh, when she attacked the SNP’s formal anti-NATO policy. “I don’t think you just wake up one morning and say ‘we are going to pull out of NATO’. It doesn’t work like that” – a not so veiled threat!
- The Crown Powers have also been used by Prime Ministers to declare wars without parliamentary sanction, and to mobilise troops to break strikes when necessary. Therefore, it should be clear why socialists have an interest in promoting republicanism – it increases people’s democratic rights, whilst undermining the anti-democratic powers in the hands of the ruling class. Socialists living under fascist dictatorships, or in countries with major restrictions on trade union rights don’t say life would be no better under parliamentary rule, or with legally independent trade unions, because the ruling class would still run things. Socialists place themselves at the head of the struggle for greater democratic rights, but don’t stop at the more limited forms compatible with capitalist rule. Socialists need to see republicanism today as a part of the struggle for the socialist republic tomorrow.
- The City finances the Crown. The Crown protects the City and serves its interests. This is the racket at the heart of the British Establishment. Add the third pillar of the Church of England and we have the holy trinity of Crown, City and Church. The origin of these mutually beneficial arrangements goes back to the Bankers Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the subsequent constitutional settlement.
- The Church blesses and sanctifies the marriage of political power with high finance. Its role is to speak out for all the City’s victims and deflect their anger into safe channels. Religious talk is cheap and changes nothing. Priests keep up the pretence that somebody in power understands and is listening. Behind the scenes there is a different picture. The City pays well for this vital service.
- The moneylenders have a long established and significant financial interest in St Paul’s and the Churches in the City. A.N. Wilson says that the Dean of St Pauls and the Bishop of London enjoy ‘all the flummery of City dinners. City companies, presided over by fur-clad aldermen and liverymen in gold chains, most of them freemasons’. To complete the circle the Bishop is a pillar of the establishment and friend of Prince Charles. They are all in it together!
- In 2004, the New Labour government deigned to publicise some of these powers. However, they still kept others secret – so we don’t even know the full extent of what we are up against! New Labour regularly resorted to these powers, most notoriously in the war in Iraq. Tory and Labour governments have used these powers to mobilise troops to break fire fighters’ strikes in 1997 and 2002. These powers also cloak the activities of the City of London in secrecy.
- We can also look at other measures sanctioned under the Crown Powers. In 2012, Guardian journalist, Ian Cobain, published Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture. This shows how the UK state has been able to cover up its continuous use of inhuman treatment, and falsely claim it is not engaged in such practices. A few years ago, the Foreign Office mysteriously ‘lost’ the entire archives from the British colony of Kenya which could have proved beyond doubt that the British army had tortured Kenyan independence fighters in the 1950s just as the Appeal Court was hearing a case against the MOD brought by surviving Kenyan independence veterans.
- The British ruling class used those Crown Powers in the recent referendum campaign: It will take thirty years before we know what methods were resorted to, beyond the obviously partisan use of senior civil servants and the BBC. However, the Guardian exposed moves by the Ministry of Defence to have Faslane Trident base declared sovereign UK territory in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote.
- If there had been a ‘Yes’ vote on September 18th, the SNP government did not recognise this as transferring sovereignty to the people of Scotland. They accept the principle that their sovereignty comes from those powers devolved from Westminster to Holyrood. Hence, they had already decided that their negotiating team with Westminster would include MSPs from the Labour, Conservative and Lib-Dem parties, and possibly even some of their Scottish MPs.
- Being prepared to counter Crown Powers has to be central to any socialist strategy, which opens up a prospect of real democratic advance, in the struggle for Scottish, Irish and, eventually, Welsh and English self-determination.
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