While vacationing on the East Coast in September, I watched TV and couldn't help noticing that Queen Elizabeth died, her scoundrel son, Charles, was the king and that there had been a changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, sometimes know as "F***ingham" because of the antics the royals have played for centuries, going back at least as far back as the barbarous King Henry VIII who said off with their heads and his words turned axes bloody.
The whole epic was nauseating, though when I came home I discovered that I have friends who loved the Queen and were in mourning. The public relations industry for the Crown worked overtime and boasted repeatedly that political transitions in England have always been peaceful and that continuity has always been the name of the game. Someone at the front office forgot that the English had a civil war, a political revolution, that King Charles I was beheaded in 1649, and that for a time Levelers and Diggers who wanted to turn the world upside down animated the conversation.
In August 1819, at St. Peter's Field in Manchester, where I lived and attended the university, fifteen people died when the cavalry charged into a crowd of people who had gathered to demand genuine democratic representation. It was known as the “Peterloo Massacre.” The British government immediately passed legislation aimed at suppressing meetings advocating reform. I remember that on November fifth every year students, including myself, celebrated Guy Fawkes Day to honor the memory of the plot to blow up the House of Lords.
As recently as 1991, Labor Party members Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn proposed the abolition of the monarchy, the de-establishment of the Church of England, and an end to the constitutional status of the Crown. Then, sadly, Corbyn and Benn back peddled. Why don't I hear any commentators mention radical British history? Perhaps because they don't want to be accused of bad manners, practically a sin in bourgeois British life.
If you take a long close look at the British Empire, which was said never to see the sun set somewhere on the globe, you see many sunsets, anti-colonial wars and independence movements from Asia and Africa to the Americas. The Royals saved their own asses and assets—Charles III is one the wealthiest men in England— but couldn't stop the colonies from slipping away. Of all the major battles against the British Crown and what it represents, few have been as dramatic as the wars for national liberation, from Kenya and India to Jamaica and elsewhere.
Former colonial nations have often made a mess of things, after independence, by cozying up to the imperial center, but that doesn't excuse the British policy of dividing and aiming to conquer. Do I have to remind the BBC that the Empire remained in power for as long as it did by using brute force. The brutal British ruling class still tries to maintain control over capital and labor the world over. Thank you very much Queen Elizabeth and King Charles III who has his work cut out for him in a time of global crisis and dire times for working men and women in England, Scotland and Wales. No doubt, Charles can’t distinguish between his own self-interest, on the one hand, and that of the Crown and the London bankers, on the other. The procession of Elizabeth II’s coffin through parts of England, Scotland and Ireland struck me as an attempt to reconstitute Great Britain.
I lived in England and studied at the University of Manchester in the 1960s when the Beatles and the Stones and other British rock groups invaded the US and held it hostage. I survived on fish and chips, warm beer, the libraries in London and elsewhere and the tradition of working class solidarity. It was the time of Carnaby Street fashion and a movement to ban the Bomb. There were few if any teaching jobs in colleges and universities. Some of my mates had no choice but to migrate to Australia and reinvent themselves as Aussie academics. Those who remained would say they were waiting for old men to die so they could fill their shoes. An empire in decline is not a pretty thing.
I still have fond feelings for aspects of English life, including my local pub, the folk music scene, the English language as spoken and written by working class Brits and people from former colonies who brought their culture with them. The New Statesman and the Manchester Guardian were often a good source of news, and Marxist historians like Eric Hobsbawm taught at universities and were respected.
In movie theaters in the Sixties when God Save the Queen was played and the whole audience stood, I remained seated as a symbolic protest against monarchy. The Brits were too polite to castigate or scold me. Years later, at Shea Stadium where the Mets were playing the Cubs, my friends and I refused to stand for the national anthem and were called “Commies.” On one occasion in England, I complained to my mentor, Arnold Kettle, who taught at Leeds and who belonged to the central committee of the British Communist Party, that Brits were too polite. He disagreed. I might say the same thing now about the Brits. They've been too civil for too long, except when they're torturing the Irish, firing on Gandhi and his supporters in India or helping to perpetuate apartheid South Africa.
When I left England after three years in exile, I was no longer an Anglophile. I had seen smoke and soot, took bad air into my lungs, looked at housing for workers that was unfit for human habitation. I also experienced egregious class privileges, especially in the industrial North and in coal mining towns. Most of my friends were Irish, Welsh and Scots, the kind of people that the imperial English tried to conquer and control. In more recent times, as an empire in decline, the Crown has supported American military ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shame on the Labor Party's reactionary Prime Minister, Tony Blair, shame on union busting Margaret Thatcher and shame on the clown, Boris Johnson, who remained at 10 Downing Street far too long.
Troubling is brewing in places that never were never truly paradises, though tourist industries promoted them as such. In Jamaica earlier this year, protesters met Prince William and his wife with demands for an apology and reparations. In August, Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo urged European nations to pay reparations to Africa for the slave trade that he said stifled the continent’s “economic, cultural and psychological progress.” England kept its colonies underdeveloped.
In The Nation magazine, under the rubric “colonialism, imperialism,” anti-imperialist, Tariq Ali, wonders why the monarchy, which he calls “a farce,” has lasted so long. His answer is that it reminds the Brits of the glory days of empire and also as a way to co-opt the English working classes and strengthen the ties to the Commonwealth. Bread and circuses have worked since the days of the Roman Empire. The queen’s funeral procession was meant to distract Brits from inflation and unemployment. Also, the monarchy as I see it has appealed to the ingrown sentimentality of the Brits, and a kind of Dickensian appeal to family, tradition and continuity, though Dickens himself loved the London working classes, not the Crown and Queen Victoria.
Yes, Queen Elizabeth II is finally dead after a long reign. In 1952, at the age of ten my schoolmates and I were placed in front of a TV and made to watch her coronation as though she was our queen. Before long, Charles III will be a dead king. I am not holding my breath and waiting for the Brits to wake up, dismantle their monarchy and replace it with a genuine democracy of the people by the people and for the people. That would be revolutionary and of late the Brits have turned their backs on revolutions and evolutions and have aimed to devolve. In the Victorian era they opted for Darwin, not Marx, though the Brits did launch the first industrial revolution in places like Manchester, where the working classes lived in abject poverty and didn't enjoy the spoils of empire. Engels describes that sad state of affairs in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), still a classic. When I lived in Manchester in the 1960s, working class families were among the wretched of the earth.
American citizens, who think the Royals are cute and harmless, and who buy items like coffee cups and place mats with images of them, might take a close look, see that they're an outmoded institution and the product of smoke, mirrors, lies and movies that glorify the Crown. Can't we please join former colonies like Ghana and Jamaica and fire up our own War of Independence that began in 1776 and that didn't go far enough?