History,  Monarchy

Orwell on the Monarchy

Speaking of the British Monarchy

George Orwell, a democratic socialist, was hardly an enthusiastic supporter of royalism, but– unlike many on the Left– he disdained reflexive sneering and hatred, and actually observed and thought about things enough to offer some fresh (if now somewhat dated) opinions.

He wrote for the Spring 1944 Partisan Review:

Nothing is harder than to be sure whether royalist sentiment is still a reality in England. All that is said on either side is coloured by wish-thinking. My own opinion is that royalism, i.e. popular royalism, was a strong factor in English life up to the death of George V, who had been there so long that he was accepted as “the” King (as Victoria had been “the” Queen), a sort of father-figure and projection of the English domestic virtues. The 1935 Silver Jubilee, at any rate in the south of England, was a pathetic outburst of popular affection, genuinely spontaneous. The authorities were taken by surprise and the celebrations were prolonged for an extra week while the poor old man, patched up after pneumonia and in fact dying, was hauled to and fro through slum streets where the people had hung out flags of their own accord and chalked “Long Live the King. Down with the Landlord” across the roadway.

I think, however, that the Abdication of Edward VIII must have dealt royalism a blow from which it may not recover. The row over the Abdication, which was very violent while it lasted, cut across existing political divisions, as can be seen from the fact that Edward’s loudest champions were Churchill, Mosley and H. G. Wells; but broadly speaking, the rich were anti-Edward and the working classes were sympathetic to him. He had promised the unemployed miners that he would do something on their behalf, which was an offence in the eyes of the rich; on the other hand, the miners and other unemployed probably felt that he had let them down by abdicating for the sake of a woman. Some continental observers believed that Edward had been got rid of because of his association with leading Nazis and were rather impressed by this exhibition of Cromwellism. But the net effect of the whole business was probably to weaken the feeling of royal sanctity which had been so carefully built up from 1880 onwards. It brought home to people the personal powerlessness of the King, and it showed that the much-advertised royalist sentiment of the upper classes was humbug. At the least I should say it would need another long reign, and a monarch with some kind of charm, to put the Royal Family back where it was in George V’s day.

The function of the King in promoting stability and acting as a sort of keystone in a non-democratic society is, of course, obvious. But he also has, or can have, the function of acting as an escape-valve for dangerous emotions. A French journalist said to me once that the monarchy was one of the things that have saved Britain from Fascism. What he meant was that modern people can’t, apparently, get along without drums, flags and loyalty parades, and that it is better that they should tie their leader-worship onto some figure who has no real power. In a dictatorship the power and the glory belong to the same person. In England the real power belongs to unprepossessing men in bowler hats: the creature who rides in a gilded coach behind soldiers in steel breast-plates is really a waxwork. It is at any rate possible that while this division of function exists a Hitler or a Stalin cannot come to power. On the whole the European countries which have most successfully avoided Fascism have been constitutional monarchies. The conditions seemingly are that the Royal Family shall be long-established and taken for granted, shall understand its own position and shall not produce strong characters with political ambitions. These have been fulfilled in Britain, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, but not in, say, Spain or Rumania. If you point these facts out to the average left-winger he gets very angry, but only because he has not examined the nature of his own feelings towards Stalin. I do not defend the institution of monarchy in an absolute sense, but I think that in an age like our own it may have an inoculating effect, and certainly it does far less harm than the existence of our so-called aristocracy. I have often advocated that a Labour government, i.e. one that meant business, would abolish titles while retaining the Royal Family.

And the same year, in his long essay “The English People,” he wrote:

At normal times it is only the richer classes who are overtly royalist: in the West End of London, for instance, people stand to attention for “God Save the King” at the end of a picture show, whereas in the poorer quarters they walk out. But the affection shown for George V at the Silver Jubilee was obviously genuine, and it was even possible to see in it the survival, or recrudescence, of an idea almost as old as history, the idea of the King and the common people being in a sort of alliance against the upper classes…

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