The bitch that bore him is in heat again. – Bertolt Brecht
STAGE LEFT looks at lessons from history and fiction on monarchy’s relationship with right-wing governments.
An edited version of this blog post has been published on Bylines Scotland:
The authoritarian creep of the UK under the Tories led SNP MP Mhairi Black to deliver a blistering speech in the House of Commons in May. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVZ3QwA5wy8
She warned that Westminster policies are leading us slowly towards the f-word. Fascism, she said, happens subtly. It arrives through the othering of people, the normalisation of human cruelty.
Edward VIII and his support for Hitler
This month, the queen’s death led me to The Crown, Netflix’s dramatisation of Elizabeth’s life and reign – a handy and entertaining source for matters historical and regal.
One particular episode is titled Vergangenheit – the past, in German. Does it have echoes in the present day, for all of us, including the new king?
It’s 1957. Queen Elizabeth gets a visit from the abdicated king, Edward VIII, now Duke of Windsor.
Exiled and bored in Paris, the duke wants to come home and find a new role – a roving ambassador, perhaps? The queen is inclined, based on her Christian faith, to forgive her uncle. Until, that is, she learns that his past links with the Nazis went far deeper than anybody knew.
Not only did he consort with Hitler and pals, he even tipped them off about the Allies’ plans and encouraged them to keep bombing London. What’s more, the duke colluded with an enemy plot to usurp his brother, George VI, and get himself reinstated as a pro-German king. Such treason makes it impossible to allow him back into public life.
The Crown is, of course, fiction. Yet, at the end of the drama, real-life footage of the duke – Nazi salutes and all – confirms the story. There’s also, in German Naval Office papers of 1940, clear evidence of the duke’s advising the Nazi war effort.
Lessons from Italy and Spain
History offers further insights into the relationship between ruling kings and despotic regimes. Victor Emmanuel III’s support for Mussolini led to the end of the Italian monarchy with a 1946 referendum (in favour of abolition: 52%).
In Spain, by contrast, the king was in exile during the Franco years and a constitutional monarchy was restored in 1977, after the dictator’s death.
Back to reality – the UK, September 2022
Prepare, writes Andrew Marr, for the most right-wing government of our lifetimes.
We had a slew of draconian laws from Boris Johnson and ministers to criminalise protest, outlaw asylum-seekers; disenfranchise ID-less voters and overrule judges’ verdicts on the government.
Now, the Truss regime’s priority is already painfully clear: the enrichment of the wealthy and the suffering of the poor. We are in for much more. More extreme, reactionary policies against trade unions, benefits, migrants, Europe and devolution.
Suella Braverman – keen to ramp up the policies of her predecessor as Home Secretary, Priti Patel – wants the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. This will help her double down on the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda.
As heir to the crown, Charles privately thought the idea appalling. Could the fact that we got to hear about his view mean that the late queen herself favoured his opposition to this divisive policy?
Can Charles afford to stay silent?
In his first speech as king, Charles stepped back from issues. Yet he confirmed that he will uphold the precious traditions, freedoms and responsibilities of our unique history and our system of parliamentary government.
With the Truss administration, we can expect an onslaught against the environment (fracking, anyone?), the NHS, the BBC, parliament and our whole system of civil liberties. As the Tories take us further down the road towards the f-word, how will our new head of state react?
Constitutionally, the answer is clear – he is bound to be politically neutral.
The deep mourning for Elizabeth showed how much people shared the values of tolerance, respect and decency she came to personify. Many seemed to find the pomp and circumstance of monarchy a kind of comfort, a reassurance that all would be well.
Come the first King’s speech, that same paraphernalia will be deployed to strengthen this government’s grip on people’s freedoms.
Could Charles stay above the fray? Would he risk the future of the monarchy on its consent to an assault on democracy itself?
If so, we might draw on the title of another TV series charting the fate and fall of a royal house: The Hollow Crown.