Given the death of Queen Elizabeth II in the United Kingdom Sept. 8, and the widespread coverage in the big-business press worldwide of the pomp and circumstance that has followed, the Militant is reprinting an excerpt from Capitalism’s World Disorder: Working-Class Politics at the Millennium by Socialist Workers Party National Secretary Jack Barnes. The excerpt discusses the function of the monarchy in the U.K., which helps explain why the spectacle unfolding today is a key part of the maintenance of capitalist rule there. Copyright © 1999. Reprinted by permission.
BY JACK BARNES
Let’s look at a final example of the contradictions between the internationalization of capital and the national borders and institutions that still divide the imperialist world — the United Kingdom. The uneven development of capitalism there, and the forms it inherits from previous periods of class society, are being thrust forward into politics in new ways by the crisis of the world imperialist system. …
The United Kingdom was established almost 200 years ago, in 1801, when, under the so-called Act of Union, the English Parliament and Crown abolished even the semblance of a separate parliament in Ireland. Wales had already been incorporated into England for hundreds of years through military conquest, and the English rulers had imposed an earlier Act of Union on Scotland in 1707. Scotland retained its own legal system and schools, as well as its own state church (Presbyterian), whose head is the Queen when she steps across the border into Scottish territory.
So there is more to Her Majesty’s realm than just pomp and symbol. The United Kingdom is the form of the bourgeois state — today, of the imperialist state power — with its seat in London. That is why the issue of “reforming” and “trimming” the monarchy and the House of Lords can and does emerge as an issue in bourgeois politics. It is not just a matter of pruning the state budget. The stakes are bigger.
In a capitalist state that takes the form of a constitutional monarchy, as economic and social crises deepen, the crowned head of state remains important. It becomes one of the few institutions that can “speak for the entire nation.” In a bourgeois republic without a monarchy, the president often assumes Bonapartist powers and authority under such conditions. But in a constitutional monarchy, remnants of feudalism preserved by the bourgeoisie with few intrinsic vested powers — the Crown, as well as an unelected House of Lords — grow rather than diminish in their importance for maintaining stability amid the increasing brutality of capitalist life and rule. …
So, if you take Westminster’s problems in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and then you add in the historic decline of the British pound and the state of world capitalism, you begin to see the strains pulling at the seams of the United Kingdom — seams that could begin to rip with a new rise in labor struggles and sustained social mobilizations, and the capitalists’ inevitable need for tightened not loosened state centralization.
The historic forced retreat of the United Kingdom from acting as an effective world power continues.