British socialist should see the monarchy as useful

CounterBlasting Mrs Windsor

The Monarchy, by Christopher Hitchens.[1]  Reviewed by Brendan Clifford.

CounterBlasts is a series in which, according to the blurb,

“Britain’s finest writers confront the critical issues of the day. Jn the best tradition of pamphleteering, Counter Blasts offer new perspectives, fresh ideas and differences of opinion.”

The publicity material informs us that this particular CounterBlast

“dares to break the taboo surrounding the most sacred of British institutions, exposing the true impact of the Royal Family on the nation’s life and thought.”

And it tells us that the author lives in Washington DC, where he is a columnist for Harpers and The Nation. He has been the American columnist for The Spectator, The New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement. But it said he would be in Britain for publication in January, and a phone number is given at which he could be contacted for an interview.

The CounterBlasts are quite beautiful productions. They are the most beautifully produced pamphlets I have ever seen, and I have seen a great many pamphlets. The thoughtfully designed cover is both striking and tasteful. The text is perfectly laid out in large clear type on big pages with extensive margins. (I seem to recall a character in a Swedish play who ‘meanders in a meadow of margin’. If paper ever got scarce one could write a book in the margins of these CounterBlasts.)

In short, what we have got here are not pamphlets at all. I know something of ‘the tradition of pamphleteering’ in England, and it is obvious that these productions are not pamphlets in either format or content.

English history is in great measure the history of pamphlets.

What happened in England in the 1640s is one of the great divides in history. The modern world begins there. And the reason is not because the King’s head was cut off, because a King complete with head was restored eleven years later with apologies from the nation. Nor is it because Parliamentary government was established then: it was not.

Hitchens writes:

“without Oliver Cromwell there might not have been a Parliament to which our Sovereign Lady might make her gracious address”. (p 13).

That is absurd. Parliament and the Crown had lived together for centuries. But Parliament and the Lord Protector were essentially incompatible. The Long Parliament was purged and purged again until finally, as the Rump, it made Cromwell Lord Protector for life, with the job to run in the family. And the Parliaments which he assembled as Lord Protector, and whose members were vetted by him, were not trusted by him to · engage in any extensive debating. If Cromwell had lived ten years longer, and if his son Richard had been up to continuing the Protectorship, it is very doubtful indeed whether England would have got Parliamentary Government. In actual history Parliament and the Crown make a pair. And the decades when there was no Crown was not a happy or fruitful period for Parliament.

The 1640s in England is the great divide between the middle ages and the present day, because of the explosion of pamphleteering which happened then. I have followed the course of the Civil War and of the Republic from the pamphlets of the time (having given up as a bad job the attempt to understand the period from the books of 20th century historians). I have read hundreds of pamphlets from that time. And Carlyle (who edited Cromwell’s speeches for early Victorian England, when according to latter-day political mythology Cromwell was about), claims, if I remember rightly, that 50,000 pamphlets were produced in that great upheaval. England was a ration at war with itself, and in the midst ,f war great multitudes of people felt free md able to publish pamphlets on vital issues of state. Nothing like that had ever happened before in the world – not in a big, complex society. And the medium of politics was thereby altered for good in England, regardless of what happened in the narrower sphere of government.

There was little pamphleteering under the Lord Protector or in the early years of the restored monarchy, but gradually it resumed  and became the accepted medium of political thought in England until the 1960s.

I have done a bit in the way of pamphleteering during the past twenty ears. And a couple of those pamphlets have had a perceptible effect on the course of the world – at least the two Irish bits of it. In the same period many beautifully produced books by successful academic socialists have been published without affecting the course of the world the slightest degree, even though the  various writers of them reviewed each other’s emissions in prestigious periodicals. About ten years ago, a lavish press conference in Dublin to launch one of these academic products, somebody asked why my pamphlets were treated by the mandarins of the publishing world as not existing. The explanation was that they were held together by staples. If an item is not held together with paste it is presumed not to exist. (CounterBlasts are bound with paste, and though a mere 40 pages long they contrive to have their names on a spine.)

Another piece of relevant information came my way. A left-wing editor of one of the main socialist weeklies, who in the mid-1970s denounced socialism and took up a position on the right wing of Thatcher Toryism, brought up his son very carefully to be a proper intellectual. And one of the basic maxims he drilled into his son is that an article which is not paid for at the going rate in Fleet Street is of no value. And this maxim was not adopted in the leap to Toryism – it was held at least as firmly when the father was a left socialist.

In my naive way I got it fixed in my head that commerce and truth were largely incompatible, and that put me completely out of court with the socialist intelligentsia of the 1960s and 1970s. Christopher Hitchens was never naive in that way. From his earliest times as a revolutionary Trotskyist he carefully tended to useful commercial contacts – as in my experience did all Trotskyists except the Militant Tendency. And now the publisher of his revolutionary pamphlet on the monarchy gives as his credentials that he is a columnist for Harpers, The Spectator etc.

It is as if Tom Paine had been paid by The Anti-Jacobin and commended by The Times.

It so happens that when Hitchens was making it into the big-time I was offered a column in The Spectator. This came about because of my pamphlets on Northern Ireland. There was momentarily an appearance of compatibility between what I was publishing and what the late T. E. Utley felt. And in the late 1970s the Thatcherite militants were full of apostolic zeal, like the Cominternists in the early 1920s, and they believed that everything of substance could be drawn into their movement.

Their proposal struck me as bizarre, but I let them buy me a few lunches in order to explain to me why it was sensible. Their point was that I was tearing the socialist movement to shreds and so were they. There was an appearance of truth in that. But we were doing it from opposite poles. I saw that British socialism from top to bottom was lost in verbiage, that in so far as it had any definite ideas they were wrong, and that it was heading for catastrophe. I was attacking a misconceived socialist ideology in order to conserve the inheritance from Attlee and Bevin. The Thatcherites wanted to develop a meritocratic capitalism in every sphere of life.

I put this to them, but I could see that it struck them as being no more than an evasive debating point. It was their experience that people didn’t reject lucrative journalistic offers on theoretical grounds. Your proper socialist took the money and made mental reservations. They were entirely convinced that human nature was Thatcherite.

On my side no virtue at all was involved in not doing what made no political sense. Over the years I had seen enough of Fleet Street to know that it consisted of self-important windbags who were permanently sozzled and who were satisfied with each other’s company because they knew no better. I quickly grew tired of my avant-garde Yuppies, stopped having Soho lunches, and got a job on the buses. If only I had had a higher threshold of boredom, and had been prepared to sacrifice pleasure for money, it might be that I would now be the author of one of these coffee-table ‘pamphlets’ that nobody in the real world will ever read.

Insofar as Hitchens’s effort has a gist, here it is:

“The British monarchy inculcates unthinking credulity and servility. It forms a heavy layer on the general encrustation of our unreformed political institutions. It is the gilded peg from which our unlovely system of social distinction and hierarchy depends. It is an obstacle to the objective public discussion of our own history. It tribalizes politics. It entrenches the absurdity of the hereditary principle. It contributes to what sometimes looks like an enfeeblement of the national intelligence … ” etc. (p 19).

It is of course a fair thing for somebody to show his personal disdain for “an unlovely system of social distinction”. But I have always thought that it would have been a much more impressive egalitarian gesture if, for example, Tony Benn had given up his great wealth rather than his hereditary title. In relinquishing his title he sacrificed nothing, but freed himself from an obstacle to ambitions.

Of course the republican spirit needs to be kept alive in this republic with monarchical and aristocratic trappings. But John Mortimer does that much more effectively for the public at large than the likes of Hitchens could ever do.

Tom Paine himself recognised that, even before the 1832 Reform, England was a republic within a monarchy. Today, what we have is a monarchy within a republic.

The “unlovely system of social distinction” keeps a lot of jumped-up tradesmen happy. And it puzzles me why socialists, who disdain the Queen’s Garden Party and the honours system, imagine that the people who do not disdain them would be socialists rather than fascists if they were deprived of them.

I’m not sure I know what tribalized politics means if it does not mean class politics. And it probably does mean class politics, because there are distinct signs that Hitchens is going American.

It is true that something like “an enfeeblement of the national intelligence” has occurred in recent times. Within the national intelligence there used to be a functional Labour movement, capable of winning elections and enacting durable reforms. What happened to it? It was destroyed from the inside by a plague of trendy lefties on the make. The monarchy could not have destroyed it. And what is needed to get Labour back in shape is not the abolition of the monarchy, but a revival of determined working-class socialism out of the trade unions.



This article appeared in March 1990, in Issue 16 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at

[1] Chatto & Windus, CounterBlasts No. 10. 42 pp. £2.99.