Politics

Labour has long been a party at ease with the monarchy


When Keir Starmer followed Liz Truss in paying tribute to Her Majesty, last week, one naturally assumed he had the tougher gig. Nominally, we Conservatives are the party of Church and King – the stout-hearted defenders of our constitutional traditions against those sandal-wearing Labour hooligans. Socialists do not normally like institutions based on privilege, hierarchy, and vast wealth. For us Tories, defending inequality is our golf.

Yet Starmer has hardly put a foot wrong these last few days. His claim that the Queen “did not simply reign over us, she lived alongside us” struck more of a chord than Truss’s claims about her being the rock on which modern Britain was built. Since then, this former head of the Crown Prosecution Service – who has said the day he was knighted was the happiest day of his parents’ lives – has fulfilled the role of a loyal leader of His Majesty’s Opposition. The idea of Labour being anything other than monarchist seems ludicrous.

This wasn’t inevitable. In 1923, at the party’s annual conference, two motions were proposed which together declared that the Royal Family was “no longer a necessary part of the British constitution” and that the “hereditary principle” should “be abolished”. But they were opposed by George Lansbury – a republican and future leader – who argued that removing the monarchy was a distraction. As Clement Attlee would later put it, “capitalism, not monarchy, was the enemy.” Since then, despite Tony Benn’s best efforts, republicanism has been off Labour’s agenda.

The first King to face a Labour government was George V. He got along perfectly well with the working-class socialists of his ministry. As Andrew Gimson detailed in his excellent book on Kings and Queens, the Queen’s grandfather said Ramsey McDonald’s party had “different ideas to ours as they are socialists, but they ought to be given a chance and…be treated fairly.” It was George V’s good working relationship with McDonald that enabled him to convince our first Labour Prime Minister to lead a National Government, splitting his party in the process.

Of course, the Labour governments of the inter-war years lacked a majority and were unable to be particularly radical. Attlee’s landslide majority confronted George VI with a very different beast.

Yet despite being, in Attlee’s words, “a broadminded Conservative”, Her late Majesty’s father never stood in the way of his minsters enacting their sweeping programs of nationalisation and central planning. Indeed, the monarch and his Prime Minister got along well. That’s perhaps less surprising when one remembers Attlee was a product of Haileybury and Oxford, fought at Gallipoli, and took himself sufficiently seriously to once order jelly at the Savoy.

But Attlee understood that the monarchy was essential to his government’s success. It provided a sheen of the familiar to the changes he sought to enact. As he pointed out in an essay for The Observer, the greatest movement towards “democratic socialism” had been made in monarchies like Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Royalty is an asset, not an obstacle, on the parliamentary road to socialism.

The British left has always had a republican minority. Harold Wilson scotched Benn’s efforts to get the Queen’s head off our stamps. James Maxton proposed abolishing the monarchy in 1936 during the Abdication Crisis but was defeated by 403 votes to 5. Jeremy Corbyn had to deny scrapping the monarchy was part of his agenda – and reportedly got along with Her Majesty personally.

In doing so, Corbyn reflected what all wise socialists know: working-class voters have a natural love for the monarchy as an institution. Hence why our most ardent monarchist Prime Ministers since the war have both been working-class Labour men: Wilson and Jim Callaghan, with whom Her Majesty reportedly had very good relationships. By contrast, it was Tony Blair, the public schoolboy, who would upstage her (intentionally or not) and offer heavy-handed advice about media management.

We shouldn’t scoff though, since we are the party of patronising public-school boys (or those who wish they were). Hence why it is Tory Prime Ministers who tended to get the Queen into trouble much more than her Labour ones. It was Macmillan who unconstitutionally pressured her into picking Douglas-Home as his successor, Cameron who leaked their private conversations, and Johnson who brought her into politics over the prorogation of Parliament. Heath – genuinely working-class, but Balliol, the Union, and a bit of sailing went a long way – struggled not to talk down to her.

We must also acknowledge that, as the nature of Conservatism has changed, our relationship with the monarchy has changed too. It was natural for the Prime Minister to be as fervent a republican as she was a classical liberal in her teenaged years. The beliefs go hand in hand, predicated, as they are, on freedom of choice, rationality, and creative destruction. Attacking the post-war social democratic order – which has been part of the Tory mission since 1979 – has meant we are a party of change. Labour, in defending that order, are the conservative ones.

Monarchy and free-markets are not natural allies. The institution is a pre-capitalist feudal hangover. Hence why Mrs Thatcher clashed with the Queen over a Commonwealth she felt was pointless, and over an economic agenda that the monarch supposedly found divisive. Hence why it was Labour Prime Minister who kept the Queen’s head on stamps, and a Conservative Prime Minister who privatised them. Reportedly, Theresa May, our most free-market sceptical Tory Prime Minister in recent years, was the one who Her Majesty admired most.

So it’s no surprise that Starmer has handled recent events well. Labour has long been at ease with the monarchy – and could teach us Tories a thing or two about royalty.



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