Wednesday, 4 May 2011

King William - bloody good bloke & reactionary bastard. A prequel.

One of the more odious  aspects of the royal wedding circus was the re-cycling of the Ladybird 'king and queens of England' school of history. So much so that the BBC's Robert Preston has got in to trouble for tweeting that the collective noun for the constitutional studio pundits - including Andrew Roberts and Simon Schama - was 'a lick-spittle'.

There haven't been a lot of previous royal Williams - the first one (the 'conqueror' or the 'bastard')  was a thuggish warlord who ruthlessly introduced feudalism and imported a whole new ruling class. The second was a footnote who got himself killed in a hunting accident at an early age. And the third was the first 'constitutional' monarch whose reign marks the historical compromise between the capitalist and land-owning ruling classes that characterises the modern British state. 

The fourth one is often eclipsed by the reign of his niece Queen Victoria whose reign came to personify the high water mark of British capitalism and imperialism. But actually William IV or 'Sailor Bill' provides some interesting possible parallels with the future King Wills.

William IV came to power when the royal family were pretty low in public esteem. His elder brother - first as Prince Regent and then as George IV - had  made himself unpopular as a profligate glutton and serial-shagger at a time of growing radicalism and widespread hardship. By contrast William was a modest character. His coronation cost the state only a tenth of his brother's ten years earlier. As a younger son he had previously had  a frustrated career of sorts in the Royal Navy and enjoyed nothing more than dressing up in his admiral's uniform and messing about in boats.  In comparison to the  extravagence of his extrovert brother he lived modestly with his long term mistress and even went on incognito 'walk-abouts' around the country. From a style point of view if nothing else, he was arguably the first 'modern' monarch who derived his legitimacy from his subjects (at least the middle class ones) identifying him with their own lifestyles.

But beneath this cloak of 'bloody-good-bloke-ishness' that beat the heart of a reactionary old bastard every bit the equal  of his predecessors. As a younger son and royal duke he had sat in the house of lords and made a name for himself as a champion against the abolition of the slave trade. As king, after initially supporting the reforming Whigs, he did his best to obstruct their 1832 Reform Bill that would have enfrainchised a section of the middle class. When the reformers went to the polls to get a mandate, he ignored their victory and tried to impose a minority prime minister - the arch-reactionary Duke Of Wellington. Forced to back down from constitutional crisis and a potentially revolutionary situation, William eventually had to accept the reformers. But two years later he imposed a minority Tory government on the country despite there being a clear Whig majority in parliament.

But as Tony Benn would say, it's about politics not personalities. 

It doesn't matter if the monarch captures the popular mood with a blokey style - and 'WillsandKate' seem determined to project a more modern and accessible image than the old-fogeys of the Charles and Camila generation - the institution still serves the same purpose in class society as it has always done. A panic lever for the ruling class to pull when things get a bit sticky in the hurly-burly world of real politics.

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