30 September 2022
The new prime minister, Liz Truss, barely had time to announce that gas and electricity bills would “only” double this winter before she was forced into the background by the death of the queen and an orgy of royalism. Deference for the monarchy snaked in a queue along the river to bow before the coffin, politically extending from the far right to the trade-union leadership and many in between. One of the first actions of the new King Charles III was to threaten most of his domestic staff with redundancy, while the ceremonial laying to rest of the queen shut down essential services such as food banks, medical appointments—and funerals.
Official mourning over, Truss and her Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng swiftly moved in to attack working people in the interests of “stimulating the economy”. Kwarteng’s “mini-budget” on 23 September will transfer wealth to the top 5 percent of the population from ordinary people who are already attempting to cover skyrocketing food and energy bills with diminishing wages. As the pound tanked in response, even the Bank of England felt this was going too far and attempted to salvage the smooth operation of British capitalism by spending £65 billion on government bonds.
The change of guard at Buckingham Palace has revealed the interlocking threads connecting the institution of the monarchy and British capitalism. Usually the illusion is maintained that the crown is a powerless ceremonial role, but the speed at which Charles was proclaimed illustrates its essential function to the running of British imperialism, sitting atop a hierarchy that is sometimes disrupted but retains the same essential shape. From land ownership to sponsorship deals, the royal family is deeply integrated into the ruling class and its wealth. From “informal” conversations to veto of legislation, it has a hand in the political process, not least as an insurance policy that can be brought out in times of extreme crisis.
The period of “national mourning” between Elizabeth’s death and the funeral was designed to ensure a smooth succession, to prop up not only the monarchy but also a system in crisis. The “labour lieutenants of capitalism” in the trade unions and the Labour Party were quick to comply, competing amongst themselves to write the most subservient RIP tweet. A week after the funeral, Keir Starmer and his front bench began the Labour Party conference by singing the national anthem beneath a union flag.
Over the summer, rising pressure from workers facing spiking living costs and pay offers well below inflation prompted a series of strikes by trade unions representing transport workers, posties, exam boards, bin collectors, barristers and dockers, with many others threatening to follow. In a disgusting display of deference to the ruling elite, most were postponed in the wake of the queen’s death, risking a dangerous loss of momentum despite a rising mood of class struggle. This is all done in the name of “public opinion”—opinions shaped by endless homogeneous press coverage, seeking to convey a nation united in mourning.
However none of this could squash the anger at the police shooting of an unarmed black man, Chris Kaba, in South London three days before the queen died. More than 70 years her junior, Kaba was supposed to be just another “death in custody” statistic compared to the supposed national tragedy unfolding on our television screens, yet thousands chose to mourn him by noisily taking to the streets to denounce racism and police violence.
There are also signs that it will be possible to recover the momentum of class struggle now the pageantry is over. Dockers in Liverpool and Felixstowe commenced strikes immediately after the funeral, supported by workers on the Southampton docks who refused to handle cargo on diverted ships. Railway and postal workers will join them from 1 October—also designated a “day of action” by several campaign groups. Prominent among these is Enough is Enough (EiE), set up to fight the cost of living crisis by “trade unions and community organisations”, including some of those who put their militant personas on ice for the “period of national mourning”.
Enough is Enough is based on five simple demands: (1) A real pay rise; (2) Slash energy bills; (3) End food poverty; (4) Decent homes for all; and (5) Tax the rich.
The first four are nothing less than essentials to allow the working class to stay alive. We need much more. We need pay increases above inflation, with a substantial increase to the minimum wage and equal pay for all. We need a shorter working week with no loss of pay, an end to zero-hours contracts and other precarious work. We need a massive increase in real benefits (abolishing the inefficient and inequitable Universal Credit), free childcare, real accommodations for disabled workers and workplaces that are open and welcoming to all regardless of race, gender or sexuality.
The energy crisis shows more than ever that it is necessary to expropriate the energy companies without compensation, along with all health and education services, transport and other infrastructure—to be run by the workers in each enterprise in the interests of the population as a whole and of the planet we live on.
The trade unions, instead of calling and withdrawing strikes based on what the bureaucrats think the public mood will bear, need to be taking a lead on all of this with a particular emphasis on organising precarious and low-paid workers. This will require militant strikes that defy both “public opinion” and the many legal barriers to effective organising. The existing union leaderships, many still closely tied to the Labour Party, won’t do this. We need to replace them with democratically elected and recallable leaders who will break with Labour and the bosses and fight for their members’ interests.
Enough is Enough touches on some of this, but does not go nearly far enough. And there is nothing, not even in the expanded version of the demands, about defence against racism, fascism, immigration controls and detention, or equal rights for all regardless of gender or sexuality—issues that are used to divide the working class and hinder our ability to fight even for basic economic survival. The final demand in the list of five—“tax the rich”—is a feeble attempt at a solution. As Truss and Kwarteng lower taxes for the very rich, there is a clear sentiment for re-assignment of the immense wealth held by global corporations and landlords (including the crown). But this will never happen to a significant degree through the taxation system. There is nothing in the EiE programme about the state—the police and armed forces, the monarchy, the role of British imperialism abroad. To bring about significant social change, it is necessary to understand that the capitalist state has a monopoly of physical force and that it will attempt to suppress any action by workers and the oppressed that comes anywhere close to threatening the ruling class. Any government that attempts to legislate wealth away from the rich will face the same treatment, demolishing what little facade of “democracy” remains in a country with a hereditary head of state.
The web of imperialist interests (financial, strategic, military) of Britain and its allies extends this oppression and repression across the globe, dividing the international working class and obscuring our common interests. The inter-imperialist conflict over Ukraine, provoked by Britain, the US and their NATO allies, has a direct connection to the struggles of British workers. Shortages of oil and wheat keep us cold and hungry, and the ideological flag-waving (whether blue/yellow or red, white and blue) keeps us quiet.
In order to fight British capitalism, we can’t just push for piecemeal reform of the system. We need to destroy it. We need a new state that acts in the interests of the working class—and we can be sure that the ruling class will resist this with every means at its disposal. To simply rely on spontaneous upsurges of anger (although they will surely come) would be foolish. Instead, we must build a disciplined and democratic workers’ party with a full revolutionary programme to fight for all the oppressed, in Britain and around the world.
Abolish the Monarchy! Racist toff dies, establishment cries” (1917 No.44)
The Corbyn Project: A case study in social democracy” (1917 No.43)
The Transitional Program