When millions of people are rejecting austerity and support the idea of taxing the rich, how does the monarchy manage to maintain a level of popularity that defies its privileged position? And why is the bigoted Prince Philip treated as a national treasure? John Newsinger investigates.
The “retirement” of Philip Mountbatten from his “public duties” led to a great outpouring of carefully orchestrated royalist propaganda right across the British media. The press carried page after page of lightweight pap covering the life of this royal nonentity. Even the Daily Mirror gave the royal parasite four pages.
His many “gaffes” were acknowledged, or rather celebrated, as amusing eccentricities that showed how ordinary he was, a sort of posh Alf Garnett. He was as fine an example of the good old-fashioned traditional British racist and bigot as you could get. A great British icon was stepping down after years of service to a grateful British people.
The reality is, of course, very different. Prince Philippos Andreou Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg was born on Corfu in 1921, a member of the royal mafia that through years of intermarriage had been on the way to making the monarchies of Europe one great extended family.
This comfortable arrangement had all been thrown up in the air by war and revolution, with crowned head after crowned head falling. The Romanovs in Russia in 1917 were the first to go but they were followed by many more, including the Greek royal family, which was thrown out in 1924.
The British royals were much better advised than their Continental relations. The royal family cunningly changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, which sounded a bit too German, to Windsor. And after the February 1917 Revolution in Russia, despite wanting to offer sanctuary to the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, King George V was persuaded to leave his cousin to his fate in order to safeguard his own position.
More importantly, he was also persuaded to try to build up support for the monarchy by introducing honours for commoners. The modern British honours system was created in response to revolution in Russia. The Order of the British Empire (OBE) with its motto “For God and the Empire” was introduced in June 1917 with the intention of handing the award out wholesale. The court thought in terms of 1 percent of the population receiving one, hopefully creating a mass royalist party in the country.
In fact the OBE was widely ridiculed and while Lloyd George was prime minister (1916 to 1922) only some 25,000 people received one. Lloyd George was in fact notorious for selling honours, but it does seem that he never actually sold an OBE. This was primarily because nobody would actually pay for one.
Although widely regarded as a joke at the time, from the very beginning there were trade union officials and Labour politicians eager to accept the award as a first step towards joining the establishment. And, of course, in the long run it has proved tremendously effective in making the monarchy look like it is concerned with the mass of the population rather than with just the narrow circle of aristocrats and the rich with whom the royals interact and socialise.
It is important to recognise what a sacrifice George V felt he was making when he agreed to an honour for commoners. He found the whole idea repellent, but gritted his teeth and put the interests of the monarchy and the empire before his personal prejudices.
The monarchy found itself in trouble again when Edward VIII succeeded to the throne in 1936. Not only was he sympathetic to the Nazis, but he also wished to marry his American mistress, Wallace Simpson, a divorcee, who enthusiastically shared these sympathies.
The then Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, was determined to bring Edward to heel. MI5 put Mrs Simpson under surveillance and any telephones the couple were thought likely to use were tapped, including the Buckingham Palace telephones.
There was a real fear at the time that Edward might try to stage some sort of constitutional coup, dissolving parliament, dismissing the government and installing his strong supporter Winston Churchill as prime minister. The British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, was convinced that Churchill would invite the British Union of Fascists to join such a government, his last chance at getting into office before the war as far as he was concerned. But Edward backed down and abdicated.
However, the Duke of Windsor as he became was still a danger. If the British ruling class had decided to come to terms with the Nazis in 1940, then Edward would almost certainly have been restored to the throne. This was in any case what Edward believed and he maintained covert contact with the Nazis until it became clear they had lost the war.
At the end of the war the man despatched to retrieve Edward’s correspondence with Hitler was Anthony Blunt. This was a vital task because public opinion was in a vengeful mood with even the son of a senior Tory, John Amery, being hanged for treason. Blunt secured any incriminating material. He was also an agent for the Russian KGB so the information was all shared with them, with only the British people kept in the dark.
When Blunt was exposed as a spy in 1964, one of the reasons he escaped prosecution was his promise to remain silent about the Windsor-Hitler connection. What we do know, however, from a letter found in a Spanish archive, was that the former king had actually urged Hitler to bomb mainland Britain as a way of forcing the country to surrender in June 1940. If this had come to light in 1945, it is difficult to see how Edward could have escaped the noose.
Blunt’s services to the royal family were not yet at an end. In 1963 Stephen Ward, soon to be embroiled in the Profumo Affair and publicly condemned as a pimp, was preparing an exhibition which included a number of drawings of Prince Philip. Blunt was sent to buy them before they went on public display and could cause any embarrassment.
Philip never liked to admit to his Greek origins, much preferring to identify himself with the Danish royal family. With Europe increasingly in turmoil throughout the interwar period, he ended up at school first in Germany and then in Britain and when the Second World War broke out, he became an officer in the Royal Navy. If he had remained at school in Germany then he would certainly have ended up a Nazi, fighting for Hitler.
Not only has he never shown any great liking for parliamentary democracy, but three of his sisters married men who became senior Nazis. His youngest sister, Sophie, was married to an SS Colonel who headed up Goering’s special intelligence agency. As for Philip, when he was preparing to marry the future queen Elizabeth, he too cunningly changed his name from Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg to Mountbatten.
One of his great disappointments in life was never to have become king. Instead he has been the royal consort condemned to forever go through the empty pretence of caring about the lives of ordinary people in order to safeguard both the monarchy and the social order more generally.
His racism, bigotry, class prejudice and reactionary views on just about everything have all been either marginalised or suppressed over the years and any news stories that might have involved the royals in scandal have been successfully buried. A man without any concern whatsoever for ordinary people has been somehow turned by the magic of PR into someone who has devoted himself to charity.
Certainly, the royals have led the way in public relations and press manipulation and this despite having an heir to the throne who lacks any redeeming features whatsoever in the normal way of things. Only the death of Princess Diana has caused them any real problems in recent years and they rode this out with the help of Tony Blair.
Does any of this matter? Surely today the monarchy has only symbolic power? First of all, what power remains to the crown could still be used against the left in a political crisis. This was brutally demonstrated by the constitutional coup carried out in Australia in 1975 when the Gough Whitlam Labour government was dismissed from office by the queen’s representative, something urged on by both the CIA and Rupert Murdoch.
And the monarchy remains a powerful symbol of deference, concretely embodying privilege, inequality, hierarchy and inherited wealth — a world where everyone knows their place.
In a supposed Age of Austerity when the poorest have to make sacrifice after sacrifice for the recovery of the capitalist system, these people live out their lives in royal palaces, surrounded by servants and PR men and women, contributing nothing to society.
Nevertheless they are celebrated as being somehow more valuable than mere commoners. There are few spectacles more dispiriting than seeing working class people who have had hard lives and struggle to make ends meet expressing gratitude to the royals for lording it over them.
This royal con trick is still important for the way that it strengthens and gives confidence to our enemies. Their values prevail. and not least in the way that it strengthens the more backward elements within the working class.