On 8 September 2022, Queen Elizabeth II died, ending the longest reign of any British monarch. In Northern Ireland, her death, the events around it, the actions of the establishment as well as how the worker’s movement responds can have significant consequences.
These events are happening against the backdrop of important struggles of workers in Britain and Northern Ireland including the strikes of railway and postal workers as well as other ballots for strike action including in the NHS. The death of the Queen is being used across Britain and Northern Ireland by the capitalist establishment to stoke feelings of “national unity” in the face of economic uncertainty. This has gone alongside rhetoric attacking rail workers for taking strike action. We have also already seen a wider ideological offensive attempting to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement and the movements for abortion and trans rights. Over the past week there have been reports of several arrests of peaceful protesters. Criminal charges have reportedly been brought, for example against a woman who held up a sign calling for the abolition of the monarchy at a ceremony for the King in Edinburgh. It is vital that the trade union movement defends the right to protest and does not lose focus on the ongoing and scheduled industrial battles as we can be sure that the pressure on working-class people will not ease.
The Queen’s death has been a stark illustration of how so many things in Northern Ireland are seen differently by people from the two main communities. In many Protestant areas, messages have been erected at prominent places including at the image of the Queen on the Shankill Road. This reflects that for many Protestants, the monarchy is connected to their sense of British identity. People have gone there to show their respects, leave flowers and take photographs. For many this feels like a personal loss of someone who has been with them for all their lives – an emotional connection to history and identity with many sharing memories of Royal visits to Belfast. For others, including most Catholics in the North, the Queen has been the figurehead of oppression and exploitation by the British state and British imperialism. There is a long association of the monarchy with some of the worst atrocities in Ireland including the relatively recent history of repression. There is also a sense among many Catholics of the need to be respectful, primarily reflecting a desire to be respectful towards Protestant and Unionist friends, workmates and neighbours rather than any sense of support for the monarchy. This illustrates a resistance of ordinary people to issues and events being utilised to divide them.
The monarchy, democracy & the state
The focal point of the news coverage at present is on the Queen and other Royals as individuals, and this remains the focus for those who feel the death of the Queen as a personal loss. The institution of the monarchy, which is one of the most elite, wealthiest and privileged institutions in the world, will also move more into the spotlight not just in Britain but perhaps more clearly and immediately in former colonies. Jamaica for example was already moving towards becoming a republic.The connection between the Royal family and the violent history of colonialism and imperialism can be seen very visibly in the Crown Jewels which were amassed through systemic plunder across the globe.
In existence for over 1000 years, the British monarchy pre-dates the development of capitalism and, alongside the House of Lords, remains as a relic of feudalism which in many other countries has been abolished. However, the monarchy, like other supposedly ceremonial heads of state, is not some neutral institution. At times of crisis it has been utilised undemocratically to defend the system. In 1975 the Queen’s power was used in Australia to dismiss a democratically elected Labour government under Gough Whitlam. In 2019 it was Queen Elizabeth II who agreed to Boris Johnson’s undemocratic and unprecedented prorogation of parliament – a move that would have not been possible without her involvement. These examples illustrate that the monarchy’s power continues to be used to defend the powerful under this system and that they will not shy away from undermining, hindering and even removing democratically elected Labour governments. That the monarchy is not on the side of workers has again been displayed by the sending of redundancy notices to over 100 staff working for King Charles – that this was done during a service for the Queen surely added insult to injury for many.
Across the UK, support for the monarchy has been declining in recent years, with support among 18 – 24 year olds having shrunk to just over 30% with a similar percentage supporting replacing the monarchy with an elected head of state. Overall, support for the monarchy remains at around 60% but this is a decline of over 10% in as many years. Contributing to this decline have been the numerous allegations of sexual assault against Prince Andrew who early in 2022 paid a settlement estimated at £12 million, to avoid a civil law case being heard against him in the US. He is also associated with billionaire serial predator Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, who was convicted of multiple child sex trafficking charges. Prince Andrew’s prominent role in public appearances and ceremonies in the days after the Queen’s death have correctly caused anger among many as it is an absolute insult towards all victims and survivors of gender violence. The monarchy has also been impacted by the substantial and credible allegations of racism made by Meghan Markle. This is in sharp conflict with the changed attitudes in society in recent years with young people in particular rejecting sexism, racism and other forms of oppression at unprecedented levels. This change in attitudes has also come about due to the #metoo and BLM movements which have shone a light on abuse in so many powerful and unaccountable institutions and settings as well as on the history of colonialism including of the British Empire, with which the monarchy is so closely associated. As the Windrush scandal has again demonstrated these issues are not confined to history.
In the context of the cost of living crisis, the contrast between the difficulties faced by working-class families across the UK and the luxurious lifestyle of the Royal Family is likely to further add to the critique of this institution. It is also the case that the Queen was seen in much higher regard than Prince, now King, Charles. We got a stark illustration of how out of touch the King and the monarchy are last year when he was investigated for taking £3 million in cash donation from Qatari Sheikh for his charity foundation. Forbes magazine estimates that ‘Monarchy PLC’ holds nearly $28 billion in assets. They remain the largest landowners in Europe and like many of the wealthy in our society they have been exposed in the Paradise Papers for offshoring millions to avoid taxes while receiving around £100 million a year in public money.
The institution of the monarchy is used as a tool under capitalism to strengthen a sentiment of national unity and identity that masks the class differences in society. It is part and parcel of the undemocratic nature of the state. We are not in favour of such riches and power being passed from one generation to the next in a privileged family. In fact, we are not in favour of such unaccountable power full stop. Instead, we are in favour of all undemocratic institutions – be that the House of Lords, the Irish Seanad or the mediaeval relic of the monarchy – to be abolished as part of a programme that seeks to democratically transform every aspect of society. We stand for a socialist, and genuinely democratic, society in which the working-class – the people who actually make society and the economy function – democratically control, own and organise society. leaving no place for privileged and unaccountable positions in any aspect of the state or society.
Battle over the cost of living crisis continues
Many will nevertheless feel loss and grief at the Queen’s death and there will be significant focus on the events over the next days and weeks in the press and society. For others, there will be anger at the millions spent on this state funeral. Trade unions have in many cases postponed or altered plans for industrial action. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) has delayed the strike action of postal workers. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has postponed its conference to a yet unknown date and the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) has even halted balloting in a key dispute over pay and asked their members to also suspend all campaigning activities. In the face of extreme cost spiralling, which will not let up, it is imperative that workers continue to discuss how we can move forward and fight not only for double digit pay increases linked to inflation but also for cost controls and reductions. Fuel costs, food costs and housing costs are pushing more and more people into poverty increasing fear of what the autumn and winter will bring. Some union leaders, likely scared of what they have begun to unleash, maybe realising that once the working-class moves significantly into action it will be difficult to dampen and put the movement under the control of the hesitant union bureaucracy that still prevails in most unions. Holding against the increased appeals to national unity, the perceived common experience and united interests which Liz Truss and her government will try to push is important – that requires a united working-class response particularly of those engaged in struggle against this government.
We can be sure that for many in the establishment, including those in Liz Truss’ government, this will be deployed in an attempt to take the wind out of the sails of the workers’ movement. This cannot be allowed to happen. It is noticeable that there has been no mention by the government of the impact on ordinary people or the economy of the cancellation of events, reports of disruption in tribunals, expected traffic disruption and other measures that will be necessary, when the government and bosses have complained all year about the disruption caused by strikes. This illustrates that it is not the disruption they have an issue with but the fact that by striking, workers have the audacity to fight back.
At times it may be necessary to postpone or alter action, especially if it risks dividing striking workers, but in general, the approach must be to not let strikes be run down. This situation demonstrates that decisions about industrial action should be made on a case-by-case basis with full involvement and democratic oversight of workers involved in the disputes. It is also essential that the ranks of the trade union movement watch this situation closely and ensure the fight on the cost of living crisis is not sidelined or essential momentum lost. In fact, a stronger campaign now needs to be built linking different workplaces and sectors together to coherently challenge the current onslaught on our living standards. We cannot allow the Queen’s death to be used as an excuse by hesitant trade union leaders to cut across the various industrial disputes that have been spurred on by the cost of living crisis.