Francis Ambrose Ridley 1982

The Future of the British Monarchy


Source: Undated pamphlet published by the Leicester Secular Society, 75 Humberstone Gate, Leicester. Internal evidence suggests that it was published in 1982. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Dedicated to the memory of Charles Bradlaugh, author of The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick.

Sovereign and subject are clean different. – Charles I on the scaffold at Whitehall


Introduction

FA Ridley, secularist, socialist and dialectical historian, was born in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, 1897. Now 85 years old, he still annually entertains and instructs the Leicester Secular Society with one of his fascinating talks, usually on the historic significance for Secularism of some current event such as the Pope’s visit to Britain. Mr Ridley’s fundamental assumptions recall those of August Bebel, the great German Social-Democrat – religiously agnostic, economically socialist and politically republican. The present pamphlet has been inspired by the last of these.

Some people might therefore suppose it to be a propaganda tract. They would be quite wrong. If Mr Ridley were able to perceive the likelihood of a dazzling and meaningful future for our monarchy, then none would be more capable than he of depicting such a prospect in colourful language. That his conclusions are otherwise is the outcome, not of his personal hopes or fears, but of a cool and forcefully reasoned historical analysis. He would think it a betrayal of his own position were he not objective in regard to that of others.

Largeness and generosity of mind are qualities which he has in common with Charles Bradlaugh, the Victorian secularist whose portrait adorns Leicester’s Secular Hall and whose voice and pen set forth the case for a British republic 110 years ago, just before the last hectic orgy of Victorian imperialism drowned out even the faintest echo of any such proposal and elevated Queen Victoria herself to the status of a quasi-divinity.

Perhaps Bradlaugh had not sufficiently allowed for the unexpected and the irrational in human affairs. Disraeli, the Conservative imperialist who was soon to confer the title ‘Empress of India’ on his queen, cynically remarked that: ‘The unexpected always happens.’ And Edmund Burke, the great defender of our traditional constitution, tended to look upon the prejudices or irrationality of the people as one of the nation’s safeguards. In upholding what had been handed down to us by our forefathers, he believed we were showing an inherited and inexplicable wisdom which it would be dangerous to tamper with.

Such may indeed be the case with our monarchy, even today. However strongly or frequently its apparent irrelevance be reasonably demonstrated, all the more may the British people revere and defend it.

For we are a deeply conservative people, much attached to ancient habits of thought. Not surprisingly therefore, some foreign observers see in us an archaism of society which they link to our exceedingly feeble postwar economic performance. The greater part of the world, they imply, is passing through vast social and economic upsets more rapid and fierce in their impact than all the accumulated shocks of the preceding 2000 years. Psychologically we in Britain are not believed to be geared to the attainment of the best possible social and economic achievements of the late twentieth century.

In that context Bradlaugh’s opinions take on a new relevance and Mr Ridley’s pamphlet expresses it.

John J O'Higgins, Former Vice-President, Leicester Secular Society


I: The Monarchical Tradition

The recent royal wedding of the present heir to the throne, Charles Prince of Wales, and the then Lady Diana Spencer, has focused attention both here and abroad upon an ancient but nowadays senile and apparently crumbling institution, the English or British monarchy.

An institution that, with only one brief period excepted (1649 – 60), has existed uninterruptedly since the Norman Conquest of 1066, and even earlier in Anglo-Saxon times.

What today are the current and future prospects of this institution? In the ensuing pages the author makes a critical examination of this problem.

Like all other terrestrial organisations including, and perhaps very specially, those institutions that belong to the political domain, the English monarchy has undergone an evolutionary process in both space and time.

In the first of these dimensions, it has evolved by methods in which aggression was characteristic and violence predominant, a spectacular expansion from the relatively insignificant status of the monarchy of a mere off-shore Atlantic island to the elevated rank of ruler of the most powerful empire in the world; perhaps even altogether in recorded human annals. The British Empire of the past two centuries, ‘over which the Sun never set’.

Whilst equally in the related domain of the time-process, the English monarchy, first English then British, has evolved through several successive stages; stages characterised by distinctive social and political features.

Consequently, before surveying the present and future prospects of this monarchy throughout the present century and if necessary beyond, it will be convenient, indeed necessary, to glance briefly at the historically successive stages through which the English monarchy has passed since its effective inception at the Norman Conquest of 1066.

It will not, or so the author suggests, be necessary to extend this survey so as to trace the origins of the preceding Anglo-Saxon monarchy right back through the Dark Ages to the end of Roman rule in Britain (AD 410).

The present English monarchy, rather paradoxically, is actually only ‘English’ in name and location. By an ironic historic paradox the throne of England has never been occupied by an English man or woman! Successively Norman (1066 – 1154), French (Plantagenet, 1154 – 1485), Welsh (Tudor, 1485 – 1603), Scottish (Stuart, 1603 – 1714) and most recently German (Guelf-Wettin, 1714 – 1981 et seq), have successfully occupied the English throne. Even the brief English Republic (1649 – 60) was directed by Oliver Cromwell, himself of Welsh descent (whose family name was Williams).

Individual kings may come and go, as the Vicar of Bray, that shrewd analyst of his contemporary monarchy, duly noted; but the underlying causes that give permanence and stability to their dynasties are of a more permanent character. No social institution, and, least of all perhaps, no political institution, can maintain itself securely, or even exist initially, without some adequate cause.

To this permanent law of historical existence, there can be few exceptions, and certainly the monarchy of Great Britain is not one of them. For its sequential evolution can be definitely ascribed to its also successive underlying causes; causes that gave it its reason for existence and effective functioning; and by so doing, emphasised and prolonged its existence.

Throughout the near-millennium during which this monarchy has existed, since the Norman Conquest of 1066, the careful observer can clearly trace and discern three immediately successive phases in the evolution of the British monarchy.

These three sequential phases were, chronologically:

a) The absolute monarchy (1066 – 1649): William I to Charles I.

b) The constitutional (bourgeois) monarchy (1660 – 1837): Charles II to William IV.

c) The imperialist monarchy (1837 to present day): Victoria to Elizabeth II.

The effective evolution of the British monarchy is comprised within these three successive stages between 1066 and this present year, 1981 – 82.

As has been aptly noted, nothing is intrinsically good or bad under any and all circumstances, for they are only consequences of previous actions! In which connection, an institution, any institution, and very particularly one that has lasted a long time, must have some basic function in order to act effectively, for ‘nature abhors a vacuum’.

This fundamental truth inevitably applies to an historical institution like the present British monarchy. For without an appropriate function to perform and represent, it will inevitably become senile and eventually decay.

As the author will seek to demonstrate in the following pages, the British monarchy now appears to be approaching this state of things as the present century draws towards its close.

As we shall presently note, the British monarchy throughout these three successive stages that we have noted above, both possessed and performed such basic functions.

For the absolute monarchy that began with William I and ended with Charles I, governed England uninterruptedly, even if with varied fortunes.

Whilst the succeeding bourgeois monarchy installed by a Stuart restoration of 1660 after the English Revolution, also fulfilled, even if without conspicuous success, its basic function as a symbolic figurehead of the rising bourgeois society.

Similarly, the upheaval represented by the industrial revolution brought the Hanoverian dynasty, then represented by the ‘Four Georges’ (1714 – 1830), to the verge of dissolution.

At this critical stage, the arrival of the imperialist era, pre-eminently represented by Queen Victoria, who gave her name to an entire historic epoch (1837 – 1901), supplied the monarchy with a new function, that of an effective symbol for the epoch of England’s world empire. This transformation of an Atlantic off-shore island into a worldwide empire gave the monarchy an unprecedented revival as the unifying symbol of the English world domination.

This era reached its zenith in the glittering pageantry of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, 20 June 1897.

For as long as ‘the empire on which the Sun never sets’ remained in existence, the primary symbolic function of the monarchy as the centre and unique symbol of Britain’s worldwide empire continued to assure its existence for another century.

With one brief exception – the enforced abdication of Edward VIII (1936) – the successive British monarchs of the twentieth century, from Victoria to the present Queen (Elizabeth II), have continued to enact the not too exacting roles of titular head and official rubber stamp of an imperialist society, with at least moderate competence. [1]

However, and least of all in the twentieth century of ‘perpetual motion’, society does not remain static. This process also leads to an abrupt shortening of duration of empires.

This truth of universal application has displayed itself in a particularly spectacular manner in the decline and fall of the old Victorian British Empire. Whereas the decline of previous empires, such as the Roman or Spanish Empires, represented a long, drawn-out decline measured in centuries – ‘an era of slow and inglorious decay’, as Karl Marx described the decline of the Spanish Empire – the succeeding decline of the English Empire, far from taking a century, was compressed within the period of a generation. Between the end of the second Anglo – German war (1939 – 45) and this present year (1982), the ‘decline and fall of the British Empire’ has proceeded at a dizzy tempo and is today effectively completed. The ominous warning of a Victorian prophet of doom – Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1935) – that his then contemporary British Empire would be ‘one with Nineveh and Tyre’ has now been totally fulfilled. The Victorian Empire is now only an august memory.

In this twentieth century Great Britain has abandoned her former colonies with the same speed with which she formerly annexed them. The period of aggrandizement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been followed by ignominious collapse in the twentieth.

This imperialist ‘retreat from Moscow’ was carried out actually under a fašade of a democracy which resulted in the substitution of a ‘British Commonwealth’ for the former Victorian Empire. However, words are no substitute for things!

How will this political reincarnation affect its titular figurehead, the British monarchy, now reduced to its rather nebulous role of ‘Head of the Commonwealth'? Surely a sorry come-down for the former British Empire?

The empire is now gone but the monarchy remains! No longer Emperor of India, etc, etc, but still King of Great Britain, but for how long? What is now the future of the British monarchy, or – perhaps to put it more accurately – has the British monarchy got any future?

Chronologically, and with regard to individuals and also institutions, the Future arises out of the Present; just as the Present arises out of the Past! We can apply this law of universal application to the present British monarchy. ‘To be or not to be?’ To obtain an accurate perspective on this problematic future, we may direct a preliminary glance at the historic evolution that has led up to this present ambiguous situation.

II: The Evolution of the British Monarchy

Up to this present time, the historic evolution of the British monarchy can be accurately divided into three epochs defined by basically different characteristics.

In its early aboriginal phase, the monarchy established with William the Conqueror in 1066, after his decisive victory of Senlac (Hastings), and subsequently consolidated by the Doomsday Book (1087), did not differ, except perhaps in the direction of a somewhat greater degree of efficiency, from either that of its Anglo-Saxon predecessors or contemporary monarchs upon the European continent.

Successive English kings from 1066 when the English monarchy (not yet Welsh or Scottish) was established in the form that it still externally retained up to the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century, which resulted in the deposition and execution of Charles I (30 January 1649), the king had reigned theoretically and simultaneously actively governed. Throughout this period, the monarchy possessed an authority that was always absolute in theory and often in practice. Throughout the medieval and early modern epoch (1066 – 1649), the monarchy was virtually absolute even if some weak or negligent rulers eventually proved unequal to the harsh requirements of the age of iron.

In the monarchical annals of this country, as in other departments of human development, the basic principle of the ‘survival of the fittest’ held good. Kings who could not effectively cope with the often ruthless requirements of their age were summarily deposed and more often than not subsequently murdered by legal process or by assassination.

However, despite individual misfortunes, the monarchy itself continued uninterruptedly from 1066 to 1649, from William the Conqueror to Charles the Conquered! During this fairly long period there was always a reigning monarch in England. The monarchy was part of the social scene and no one seems to have thought of abolishing it. [2]

However, despite individual misfortunes, the monarchy continued uninterruptedly throughout this period. There was always a reigning monarch who ruled more or less efficiently. He or she was king or queen ‘by the grace of God’ or by divine right, not popular election.

Appropriately enough, it was the last of the kings by divine right, Charles I, who tersely summarised the character of the English monarch, and no doubt the personal opinions of his predecessors since 1066, when he told the assembled crowd in Whitehall immediately before his execution that ‘sovereign and subject are clean different’.

It was perhaps appropriate that this affirmation of the English absolute monarchy should also be its epitaph! An epitaph uttered upon the scaffold by the last absolute king of England by divine right, only a few minutes before the axe of the executioner extinguished the life of the king, along with the absolute monarchy itself (30 January 1649).

Previous absolute monarchs had perished at the hands of unruly barons as a result of aristocratic intrigues. For example, the ‘War of the Roses’ (1450 – 85), which decimated the English feudal nobility during the second half of the fifteenth century, was responsible for the deaths of three monarchs during this originally dynastic dispute. Despite its picturesque name, the War of the Roses appear to have more in common with homicide than horticulture! But it took the rise of a new class to destroy the traditionally absolute English monarchy.

For unlike previous dynastic or merely baronial conflicts, the English Revolution of the seventeenth century which brought Charles I to the scaffold and subsequently (1689) exiled his descendants of the House of Stuart, represented in Marxist terminology the victorious conclusion of a class war, one that eventuated in the victory of the then revolutionary bourgeois class over the absolute monarchy and over the feudal nobility of medieval society that it represented.

This old social order ended in 1649 with the execution of Charles Stuart and the establishment of the bourgeois-dominated ‘Commonwealth’, the English Republic that followed the end of the English Civil War (1649 – 60).

That the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century represented a major watershed in English history has often been commented upon by subsequent historians. But in relation to our special subject matter, the English monarchy, this historic watershed took a peculiarly zigzag course.

For unlike all earlier English revolts, the bourgeois revolution not only killed the individual king, Charles I (there was nothing new in such a procedure!), but it went on to abolish the institutional monarchy itself, the traditional monarchy gave way to a republic or ‘commonwealth’.

A detached observer upon 30 January 1649 (the date of Charles’s execution) would probably have concluded that the English monarchy was definitely a thing of the past and that England, like such contemporary bourgeois states as Holland and Venice, would henceforth figure as a republic or ‘commonwealth’.

However, history came to a different conclusion! For the contemporary circumstances came to the rescue of the English monarchy, which was restored in 1660 by the Restoration of Charles II (1660 – 85), the more adaptable son of the ‘Royal Martyr’, Charles I.

That this transformation came about was, again in Marxist terminology, due to the inherent contradictions of a class-divided social order.

To summarise briefly: as a result of its victorious revolution which had liquidated the traditional medieval order along with the monarchy itself, the bourgeois class in whose interests the revolution had been made had superseded the old feudal nobility as the dominant force in their current social order. But they had only been able to secure this end with the active support and military assistance of the ‘lower’ and non-propertied classes of seventeenth-century England. For example, Cromwell’s ‘Ironsides’, his crack troops that actually won the civil war, were drawn mostly from the poorer class of English society.

Consequently, no sooner had the bourgeoisie disposed of the king and the old ruling class than they found themselves menaced by the upsurge of the ‘lower’ (poorer) classes represented by such then radical movements as the ‘Diggers’, ‘Levellers’ and ‘Fifth Monarchy Men’, etc, all revolutionary sects who in the then contemporary society were as much opposed to the new bourgeois ruling class as to its monarchical predecessor.

The ‘Bare Bones’ Parliament (1652 – 54) represented the first and perhaps still the most radical democracy in modern England. Had it continued indefinitely, and had men like the contemporary ‘Levellers’ and ‘Diggers’ succeeded in their egalitarian aims, all propertied classes in England would have been overthrown, including, incidentally, any revival of the monarchy. [3]

However, the Republican interregnum only proved to be temporary. For the threat represented by the ‘lower’ classes getting out of hand and making a second revolution by their demands for an egalitarian republic, terrified the propertied bourgeoisie into looking for some alternative means of preserving the social order based upon their own property and prestige. Their earlier efforts to effect a compromise with a royal power during the lifetime of Charles I had broken down due to Charles’ intransigent advocacy of divine right and absolute power of the monarchy. Eventually, the ‘Royal Martyr’ preferred mounting the Whitehall scaffold to any compromise with the Revolution. Again ‘sovereign and subject are clean different’.

However, this mood of intransigent defiance was not hereditary, for Charles II compromise was preferable to permanent exile (he did not, he explained, ‘wish to go on his travels again’). In 1660, the monarchy was restored on terms, henceforth it was reduced to the more modest role of a ‘constitutional’ monarchy; that is, a permanent figurehead of modern bourgeois society – a fundamental role that has continued down to the present day. As the contemporary French ambassador informed his master, King Louis XIV, henceforth the King of England was no longer a king as they understood it on the continent, where the absolute monarchy still prevailed.

In Shakespearean phraseology, the former absolute monarchy had ‘suffered a sea-change’ into the merely symbolic figurehead of the then still revolutionary bourgeois society.

This transformation was finalised by the second revolution of 1689, described by its protagonists as the ‘Glorious Revolution’, which overthrew King James II when he repudiated the 1660 compromise and tried to restore the absolute prerogatives of the pre-revolutionary monarchy. [4]

During this modern era of constitutional monarchy, an era broadly contemporary with the present Hanoverian dynasty (1714 – 1982), whilst the monarchy has still retained its external pomp and dignity, as is exemplified at the opening of Parliament and other ceremonial occasions, it has virtually abandoned any power of a directly political character.

One would probably be correct in stating that the influence of the House of Hanover on the political and economic evolution of modern England has been virtually negligible. Whilst ‘God Save the King’ (composed in 1745) has remained the official national anthem, the really effective anthem of modern England has been that anthem of maritime supremacy, ‘Rule Britannia’.

As the political importance of the British monarchy declined so too did its personal status. During the earlier epoch of absolute monarchy, the personal stature and political ability of the individual monarch was always important and often decisive. A strong ruler like Edward I (1272 – 1307), or Henry VIII (1509 – 47) actually dominated his contemporary social scene, whilst a weak or incompetent king, like, say, Edward II (1307 – 27) or Henry VI (1422 – 60) made heavy weather and then perished violently at the hands of rebellious barons or hired assassins.

Actually, in the modern era of the constitutional monarchy ever since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ (1689), the personal character and political attributes of the individual monarch were of little consequence and made only a negligible impact on the contemporary social and political scene.

Again, the personal characteristics of the present Hanoverian dynasty has been mediocrity and personal insignificance.

The scathing lampoon which served as the obituary of one eighteenth-century heir to the throne, Frederick Prince of Wales, father of George III (1760 – 1820), who was accidentally killed by a cricket or tennis ball before actually succeeding to the throne, would probably have applied equally well to most of the English monarchs throughout the last three centuries:

Here lies Fred
Who was alive and is dead.
Had it been his father
I had much rather.
Were it his mother
Would it were another.
But since it’s only Fred
Who was alive and is dead
There’s no more to be said.

One could in fact summarise the majority of modern English monarchs, especially the ‘Four Georges’ (1714 – 1830), who successively inherited the thrones of these islands, by comprehensively dubbing them ‘the apotheosis of mediocrity’. As one nineteenth-century republican, Charles Bradlaugh, writing in the heyday of the Victorian era sarcastically noted in The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick, ‘when George IV invented the shoe-buckle the inventive genius of the House of Hanover was exhausted’.

One might also add relevantly that Bradlaugh’s own titular sovereign, Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901), owed her popularity largely to her advancing years. The altitude of her personal reputation was measured by the altitude of her years! For it was really only in her old age that the ‘Widow of Windsor’, as Rudyard Kipling irreverently described her, became a universally respected figure and gave her name to an entire era in human annals, ‘the Victorian era’.

Victoria, who was not really ‘great’, for she probably would have made an excellent ‘Victorian’ landlady in Bournemouth or Torquay, became at least and at last eventually respectable for reasons which will shortly appear. But even this modest epithet was generally lacking in the case of most of the earlier and perhaps some of the later members of the still-reigning dynasty.

When, for example, George IV, probably the most absolutely despicable individual who ever occupied the throne of Great Britain, from ‘earth descended’, The Times newspaper recorded this scarcely flattering obituary upon the late king: ‘If there is in these islands a single man or single woman who had a good word to say of the late king, his or her name has not yet reached us.’

From the standpoint of the political evolution of Great Britain, the role of the monarchy was not really important. The only exceptions were the Dutch leader of the revolution of 1689, William III (1689 – 1702) and perhaps for a short period George III (1760 – 1820), who by devious parliamentary intrigues briefly acquired a temporary authority. When, however, George and his satellites failed to reconquer the revolting American colonists (1773 – 83), the political power of the House of Hanover finally collapsed.

However, two almost simultaneous revolutions, both occurring at the end of the eighteenth century, shook traditional British society to its foundations. These two upheavals were represented by the French Revolution (1789 – 94) and that British industrial transformation commonly known as the Industrial Revolution.

Both these transformations profoundly affected the current British social order, both political and parliamentary. In relation to our present theme, the British monarchy, the French Revolution set in motion a tidal wave of political democracy as expressed by such contemporary radical writers as Thomas Paine and Charles Bradlaugh (respectively 1732 – 1809 and 1834 – 1891), that threatened to subvert the contemporary and still predominantly aristocratic social order and transform it into a ‘red’ republic on the model supplied by the French Revolution.

When George IV concluded his ignominious reign, not only was the King himself universally detested, but the monarchy itself appeared about to disappear upon a wave of revolution based after the French model. The Victorian novelist William Thackeray pungently summarised the era of the ‘Four Georges’ in the following lines:

George the First, you know, was vile.
Viler, George the Second.
Has anyone ever heard
Of anyone like George the Third?
When George IV from earth descended
Then God be praised, the Georges ended.

When the young Victoria ascended to the throne formerly occupied by her ‘wicked uncles’, George IV (1820 – 30) and William IV (1830 – 37), the monarchy appeared to be upon the verge of extinction. Even the then Russian ambassador, the then representative of Tsar Nicholas I (1825 – 55), the most reactionary ruler in contemporary Europe, predicted that this attractive young lady would probably conclude the long succession of English monarchs; the sunset of the British monarchy appeared to be close at hand.

At first indeed it looked as if this melancholy prediction would be fulfilled to the letter. For the first half of Victoria’s long reign (1837 – 1901) gave every promise of impending disaster.

This was particularly so when, after the premature death of her German husband, Albert, ‘the Prince Consort’ (1861), Victoria, without formally abdicating, retired into virtual seclusion in her new and deeply regretted role as the ‘Widow of Windsor’.

For a couple of decades or so Victoria was virtually an absentee monarch, a state of things that powerfully stimulated the contemporary growth of a republican movement. Two notable and widely influential publications, The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick (1879) by the republican secularist Charles Bradlaugh, and an anonymous publication entitled What Does She Do With It?, focused this wave of discontent.

Bradlaugh’s powerful analysis brought into glaring relief the corruption and incompetence of Victoria’s predecessors in ‘The House of Brunswick’. Whilst What Does She Do With It? asked the pertinent question, what her subjects were getting in return for the vast revenues that Parliament annually voted to Victoria and her numerous descendants.

In protest the following verse was added to the National Anthem:

Grandchildren not a few,
With great-grandchildren too
She blessed has been.
We've been their sureties,
Paid them gratuities, pensions, annuities,
God save the Queen.

As no answer was forthcoming to these searching and relevant questions, the prospective extinction of the British monarchy, already at rock-bottom after the ‘Four Georges’, appeared to be close at hand.

Round about 1870 – 80 percipient pamphlets were again predicting the speedy demise of the monarchy. As the Russian diplomat had already predicted, Victoria showed every sign of being the last British monarch. After her, the deluge!

A British Republic with, by no means impossibly, that formidable republican orator Charles Bradlaugh, author of The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick, as its first elected president?

We repeat: such a prediction was neither utopian nor improbable. However, it remained unfulfilled! Why? The answer to this question is to be found in the astonishing contemporary expansion of the British Empire that reached its zenith during the second half of the nineteenth century; and in the imperialist ideology that accompanied it.

This powerful combination of territorial expansion and political ideology prolonged the British monarchy for another century (1881 – 1981).

During this century five monarchs have come and gone, and the sixth, Elizabeth II, is still with us. For how long?

The imperialist cult of Britain’s far-flung Empire can of course be dated back beyond the early nineteenth century. Without going back as far as King Alfred and his perhaps mythical navy or the medieval expansion that led to the English invasion of France which culminated in the victories of Crecy and Agincourt (1346 and 1415), one can trace the origins of continuous English expansion overseas to the days of Sir Walter Raleigh, who colonised Virginia, named after Elizabeth ‘the Virgin Queen’, and Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658), who may perhaps be styled as the effective founder of the Empire ‘over which the Sun never set’. But it was not until the end of the long, drawn-out Napoleonic Wars in 1815 that England acquired worldwide maritime supremacy and simultaneously received the ‘green light’ which beckoned her towards the creation of a literally world-wide Empire, the most ubiquitous and perhaps the most powerful empire in recorded human annals.

This Empire reached its political zenith concurrently with its maximum territorial expansion during the second half of the nineteenth century under the political leadership of statesmen like Palmerston and Disraeli (respectively 1784 – 1865 and 1804 – 1881).

While the self-conscious and aggressive cult of imperialism was violently propagated by an influential group of writers under the leadership of the vastly popular Rudyard Kipling.

During this half century the British Raj was finally established in India by the ruthless suppression of the Indian rebellion commonly known as the Indian Mutiny (1857 – 59), while later in the century Cecil Rhodes gave his name to an African empire (Rhodesia), and Joseph Chamberlain precipitated the Boer War (1899 – 1902) which painted the southern half of Africa red. (NB: the colour red at that time had not yet assumed its revolutionary significance!)

Between 1814 (the fall of Napoleon) and 1914 (the outbreak of the first Anglo – German war) the British Empire expanded on a scale such as had never previously been known, whilst along with it the creed and cult of imperialism acquired an almost religious intensity.

This startling development transpired in the reign of Victoria, one of the last political acts of whom was to inaugurate the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ at the other end of the world (1 January 1901).

In 1876 she had already been solemnly installed by Disraeli as ‘Empress of India’, in itself an empire of continental dimensions. The descendent of petty German princelings now sat on the ‘Peacock Throne’ of the Great Mogul – a peripatetic breed which Bradlaugh himself comprehensively described as ‘small breast-bestarred wanderers’.

The effects of this startling expansion, and of the impressive imperialist creed that accompanied and justified it, upon British society were incalculable, and nowhere more so than in relation to the British monarchy. From the then uncertain standpoint of this institution, the earlier evolution of which we traced in the preceding pages, the arrival of the imperialist cult at this point in its chequered career postponed for at least a century the end of the British monarchy. For the earlier monarchy under Victoria’s predecessors, George IV, et al, had sunk to the lowest ebb. [5]

Again we recall the obituary notice of Victoria’s ‘wicked uncle’ and, in point of fact, the obituary notice of his successor was not much more flattering, nor had Victoria’s own virtual abandonment of her royal functions after the death of her beloved Albert done much to restore the institution.

By the middle years of Victoria’s long reign (1837-1901), the British monarchy appeared definitely on the way out.

By the 1880s, when Charles Bradlaugh wrote his scathing attack upon the monarchy entitled The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick, not only was the ‘inventive genius of the House of Brunswick’ exhausted, but even its lifespan appeared to be at an end. Queen Victoria herself appeared destined to conclude both her own dynasty and British monarchy itself.

‘The Empire on which the Sun never sets’ and, along with it, the imperialist cult of Empire, may be said to have begun with the aggressively imperialist Prime Ministers Palmerston and Disraeli (respectively 1855-65 and 1874-80) and to have lasted, along with the Empire itself, for about a century down to the final spectacular collapse of the old Victorian Empire between the end of the second Anglo – German war (1939 – 45) and the present year of grace, 1982.

The high-watermarks of this imperialist century (c 1850 – 1950) were represented by Queen Victoria’s ‘Diamond Jubilee’ (20 June 1897), and the Imperial Durbar in Delhi (1912), when Victoria’s grandson, George V (1910-36), in his imperial capacity as Emperor of India, a title previously assumed by Victoria in 1876, visited Delhi, the old capital of the Mughals, and in his imperial capacity as their successor received the homage of the princes and peoples of India, then and thereafter the ‘brightest jewel’ of the British Empire.

Fifteen years earlier, in 1897, the aged Victoria, the life and reign of whom had been reinvigorated by imperialism in her old age, had driven to St Paul’s Cathedral through streets packed with cheering crowds to give thanks to divine providence for its almost miraculous transformation of an off-shore Atlantic island into the metropolis of a world Empire, and of the descendant of petty German princes into a monarch of worldwide stature.

Throughout this imperialist century, the British monarchy underwent what may perhaps be termed a ‘second spring’, for it had acquired a new and indispensable function as the unique and common symbol of an Empire embracing every species of race, culture, religion and civilisation. It was a unique function, and under the prevailing circumstances, no English republican, no elected president as envisaged by contemporary republicans such as Charles Bradlaugh, could conceivably have performed it. The British monarchy had acquired a new and indispensable function that had prolonged its life for at least a century.

It was due primarily to imperialism, to the cult of Empire, that not only did the ‘impeachment of the House of Brunswick’ fail, but the moribund monarchy of the early Hanoverians was prolonged for another century and, in Shakespearean phraseology, ‘suffered a sea-change’ into a popular and world-famous institution.

The functionless monarchy of George IV had been ‘translated’ into the active and globe-trotting monarchy of George V and his present successors. The medieval autocracy of William I (the Conqueror) and the succeeding bourgeois ‘constitutional’ monarchy, founded by William III after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689, had now been succeeded by the imperialist monarchy of Victoria and her descendants.

However, empires, like other less exalted institutions, have their day and cease to be. Rome, Assyria and now England! Already in the heyday of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897), the unofficial poet laureate Rudyard Kipling sounded a warning note in his ‘Recessional’, published upon that glorious occasion:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.

Rudyard Kipling, himself the imperialist author of this solemn warning, did not survive to witness the fulfilment of his Cassandra-like prophecy. For the Empire briefly survived its poet laureate.

However, the ‘decline and fall’ of the Empire under modern conditions proved to be a much faster business than that of its classical predecessors had been. It was crowded into decades, not centuries. For this decline began at the end of England’s ‘Thirty Year’s War’ with rival German imperialism (1914 – 45).

Today, half a century later, this process of imperial decline is virtually concluded. Beginning with its ‘brightest jewel’, India, in 1947, the once mighty Empire ‘on which the Sun never set’ has simply disappeared. [6]

Like the famous ‘Snark’ of Edward Lear, the Victorian Empire has ‘softly and suddenly vanished away'!

The British imperial anthem no longer appears to be ‘Rule Britannia’ but rather that melancholy dirge ‘Oh God Our Help in Ages Past’.

However, one aspect of continuity still continues. For the official national anthem is still ‘God Save the King’. Queen Elizabeth II is still Queen of Great Britain, even though she is no longer Empress of India. Great Britain is still a monarchy. It is still at least nominally ruled in the name of an hereditary monarch and a descendant of the ‘Four Georges’. The self-same dynasty which came over in 1714 when ‘George in pudding time came o'er’, as the contemporary Vicar of Bray so picturesquely described it.

In this post-imperial age, an age that really began after the second Anglo – German war (1939 – 45), and as the twentieth century draws to its close, the British monarchy still continues, but for how long? What nowadays is the future of the British monarchy?

Epilogue: Has the British Monarchy a Future?
(Charles the Last or What the Stars Foretell)

Up to the present day and age, as we have already noted, the British monarchy has pursued a chequered career. The old medieval monarchy ‘by divine right’ perished on the scaffold with Charles I (30 January 1649). Since the Restoration in 1660 (to quote a contemporary) when ‘not his own strength but our divisions’ brought back Charles II, the monarch became by and large little more than a ceremonial figurehead for bourgeois society. When the attempt of the restored Stuart monarchy to revive its medieval status finally failed after the revolution of 1689, the modern monarchy abandoned any attempt to recover the autocratic status it had enjoyed under the masterful Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and became effectively (as noted above) a figurehead for successive Tory and Whig bourgeois rulers of Britain itself and the then fast-expanding British Empire ‘on which the Sun never set’.

As already noted, the British monarchy has thus passed through several stages: monarchy by divine right, figureheads of bourgeois society, symbols of Empire. But today all those reincarnations of the monarchy have been consigned to the irrevocable past, divine right passed with Charles I, bourgeois society is rapidly losing its position as the dominant social force and its place is being taken by the British proletariat, while Britain’s Victorian Empire is now as dead as the proverbial dodo. How long its rather nebulous successor, the British Commonwealth, will last is anybody’s guess. Mine is, not long!

The only useful service the present-day monarchy may seem to perform is to boost the tourist trade, for, as the hullabaloo over the recent royal wedding demonstrates, this branch of royal advertising is quite profitable. But is this a sufficient basis for the indefinite continuation of a now senile institution? For, after all ‘Christmas comes but once a year’, and royal weddings are still more infrequent. Queen Elizabeth II will probably last out her reign, but will her successor Charles III also prove to be Charles the Last? The last of his name and the last British monarch?

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to foretell the future, so perhaps we had better leave the delicate art of prophesying to the professional prophets. But here the traditional ‘royal art’ of astrology comes to our aid, for naturally this ‘royal art’ takes a lively interest in royalty!

Recently the soothsayers have got busy on Charles. The eminent French astrologist ‘Arcturus’, a pupil of the world-famous French astrologer ‘Madame Soleil’, has categorically predicted that the reign of Charles III will be ‘brief, disastrous and beset with terrible problems’, while his English opposite number, Roger Elliott, writing in that world-famous journal, the News of the World, is equally gloomy. In his book Astrology and the Royals he becomes more precise, and announces that in the early 1990s the stellar map will repeat the exact pattern of the skies as 1649, the year Charles I was executed, and that this presages dire trouble for Charles and the royal family, if not actual revolution.

Evidently the stars take a dim view of the future of the British monarchy. The ‘royal art’ has become republican!

The author will merely add his own terrestrial conclusion based upon the analysis set out in the previous pages, that all the present signs point unmistakably in the same direction. Presumably, some form of republican government will eventually succeed the British monarchy. We can perhaps hope that this will take the form of a federal republic embracing England, Scotland and Wales, and perhaps Ireland and Cornwall, as autonomous entities. (The present growth of nationalist movements in these areas will also probably become contributory causes for the eventual fall of the monarchy.) Such a Federal Republic of Great Britain might well become part of a larger European Republic, of a United States of Europe.

The present century, ‘the century of the common man’, has witnessed the progressive disappearance of the hereditary principle – a process that will ultimately, or so one may hope, lead eventually to a classless society from which all political and economic privilege will have completely disappeared. Amongst the last survivors today are the British House of Lords and its culminating symbol, the British monarchy. All present signs point to the perhaps early disappearance of these and other functionless relics of the bygone feudal age by, or at least soon after, the expiration of our ‘century of the common man’.


Notes

1. After the abdication of Edward VIII, a rather mysterious event which has never been adequately explained, an American journalist stated that henceforth only a ‘rubber stamp’ could perform the duties of an English monarch.

2. During this fairly lengthy era, 1066 – 1649, nine English monarchs perished violently: William II (1087 – 1100), Richard I (1189 – 99), Edward II (1307 – 27), Henry VI (1421 – 71), Edward V (1483), Richard III (1483 – 85), Lady Jane Grey (briefly queen in 1553) and Charles I (1625 – 49). All these monarchs perished by violent means.

3. The sects mentioned in the text, Levellers, etc, openly advocated economic democracy and political republicanism. Winstanley, the Digger, went so far as advocating agrarian socialism. The same percipient writer was also the first to point out that the Stuart monarchy derived ultimately from the Norman Conquest of 1066.

4. Somewhat later, a French writer, contemporary with the French Revolution, summarised the English constitutional monarchy in these apt terms, ‘a constitutional monarchy resembles a monarchy in form but a republic in substance’.

5. Queen Victoria once asked Liberal politician Sir William Harcourt: ‘Do you think, Sir William, subjects are ever justified in taking up arms against their sovereign?’ Harcourt replied: ‘Madam, I am a too good a subject of the House of Hanover to say “Never"!’

6. The famous expression ‘on which the Sun never set’ was originally coined not about the British Empire but about its Spanish predecessor.