The Firm and its long-lasting grip

Laura Clancy examines the history of the Crown, its role in empire and its continuing functional and ideological purpose today

June 12, 2021 · 16 min read
Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference, 1960 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

We are usually presented with a set of typical images of the British royal family: the queen as an elderly (great-)grandmother clutching her iconic handbag; Prince William, Kate Middleton and their children as an ‘ordinary, middle-class’ family; ceremonial state spectacles providing familiar scripts of national identity. Republicanism has never really taken hold in Britain, and it remains at the fringes of political debate, even among the left. Monarchy seems to be understood as an archaic institution, an anachronism to corporate forms of wealth and power that are seen to constitute global inequalities, and therefore irrelevant.

And yet the monarchy is an imperial and corporate entity, embodying hundreds of years of colonial expansion, white supremacy and capitalist development. In my book, Running the Family Firm: how the monarchy manages its image and our money, I argue that the ‘typical images’ of the royal family are a prism. They are an ideological project to distance the monarchy from colonialist inequalities and capitalist vulgarity, and reproduce monarchical power by, in Stuart Hall’s terminology, ‘producing consent’ for it in the public imagination. I often invoke the common nickname for the monarchy, ‘the Firm’, but take it more literally to describe the monarchy as a capitalist corporation, oriented toward, and historically entrenched in, processes of capital accumulation, profit extraction and forms of exploitation. Think, for example, of its imbrication in the ‘Paradise Papers’ tax avoidance scandal alongside corporate giants like Amazon.

The Crown is legally a common law corporation. Medieval law used Roman ideas of the body politic as ‘universitas, a corporation of the polity’, to distinguish between the Crown and the monarch’s natural body, meaning laws made regarding, and assets belonging to, the monarch(y) will pass to the succeeding monarch rather than dying with an individual. Historically, the Crown used private corporations to manage public services, such as municipalities, universities, or the Corporation of London, and to manage colonisation projects across the British empire. The Bubble Act 1720 decreed that chartered companies must be granted through royal charters – documents issued by the Crown – and many monarchs benefited directly from trade deals through custom duties. This corporate, imperial evolution tells us a lot about how monarchy operates today.

Imperial royal histories

The British monarchy was central to the establishment, expansion, and maintenance of the empire. The first declaration of English empire was made by Henry VIII as part of the Ecclesiastical Appeals Act 1532. Elizabeth I granted a royal charter to Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583, who went on to claim Newfoundland as England’s first overseas colony, and Sir John Hawkins, who was central to the establishment of the global slave trade. She also granted a charter to the British East India Company in 1600, which would establish trading posts on the island of Java and at Surat in India, before expanding across Asia and the Caribbean as a sovereign power on behalf of the British Crown.

After Elizabeth’s death, James I oversaw the establishment of the first permanently successful colony in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Charles II formed the Royal Africa Company (originally the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa) in 1660, led by the Duke of York, which extracted commodities (mainly gold and ivory) from the Gold Coast. It also established a brutal slave trade, transporting over 3,000 Africans to Barbados, many with the initials ‘DY’ burned into their chests to signify their belonging to the Duke of York. Both men invested private funds in the enterprise.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, colonies expanded across the Americas, Africa, the Caribbean, India, Canada and more. On Victoria’s accession to the throne in 1819, the empire stood at two million square miles; by 1844 it was 9.5 million. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857-8 against the rule of the British East India Company, administrative authority was passed from the company to the Crown, and Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India in 1877. By 1920 the empire was 13.71 million square miles. Sociologist Gurminder Bhambra argues that this process of appropriation, possession and enslavement constitutes the first stage of capital development: mercantile capitalism, funded and legalised by the British monarchy.

On a symbolic level, the empire was unified by representations of the British sovereign – for example, numerous everyday references to royalty, such as coins, stamps, rituals and place names. In one of the most famous portraits of Elizabeth I, used in much teaching and imaginings of Tudor history, her hand is outstretched onto a globe to signify ownership, while the Spanish armada is depicted being decimated by British ships in the background. Sociologist Ty Salandy notes that the British empire was partly established by ‘the violence of “knowledge”… spreading a narrow and ideological system of values, culture and information’. Adopting ‘God Save the Queen/King’ as the national or royal anthem, for example, instils subservience to colonial authority.

‘God Save the Queen/King’ is still used in Australia, Jamaica, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Tuvalu and Barbados, among others. The empire may have dissolved, but imperial legacies remain.

A Commonwealth family?

One of these imperial legacies is the Commonwealth. Formally constituted by the London Declaration 1949, the Commonwealth is a transnational organisation of 52 ‘independent and equal’ member states headed by the queen, promoting principles of peace and security, human rights, tolerance and access to health, education, food and shelter through the Commonwealth Charter.

Most of the 52 member states are former colonies of the British empire. Historian Philip Murphy describes the ‘haphazard’ way the Commonwealth developed from this history as a postcolonial project, not least because the British monarchy remains, according to the London Declaration, ‘the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the head of the Commonwealth’. At the Commonwealth heads of government meeting 2018, Prince Charles was appointed as the queen’s successor, continuing the superiority of the British monarch.

The queen’s relationship with the Commonwealth is often depicted as familial and compassionate. On her 21st birthday in 1947, when still heir apparent, she gave a broadcast speech in South Africa. In its most famous line, she said: ‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.’ Here, the queen emphasises ideologies of global community, masking unequal histories of power through family branding. The dramatisation of this speech in the Netflix drama The Crown was paired with the Queen referring to the Commonwealth as her extended ‘family’, reinforcing a narrative of community.

Members of the royal family continue to undertake regular Commonwealth tours. These are positioned as benevolent, charitable visits, promoting Commonwealth community. But they also serve to promote global deference to the Firm. For example, then prime minister Tony Abbott said to Prince Harry during his Australian tour in 2013: ‘The Crown is a symbol of stability, continuity, decency in our public life.’ This follows a key rationale for the ongoing presence of monarchy in supposed secular democratic states as an enduring symbol, ensuring political stability, despite the antithetical values of monarchy to systems of democracy.

Similarly, like other contemporary capitalist economic relations, the Firm is positioned around (im)moral modalities of exchange and logics of reciprocity. Discourses of patronage, philanthropy, heritage and nationalism offset criticisms of monarchy against its wider cultural, historical or economic ‘value’. But, as with corporations, this is not an exchange amongst equals, and hierarchies order moral relations of inequality, conducted as logics of precedence and privilege.

Discourses of familialism also disguise that the Commonwealth continues to afford Britain a position of economic, cultural and political global dominance. There are hundreds of Commonwealth-wide nongovernmental organisations, including the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, an organisation promoting intra-Commonwealth trade and investment between government and private sectors. Although not a trading bloc, the Commonwealth secretary general has said that trade ‘is the lifeblood of the Commonwealth’, and in 2013 intra-Commonwealth trade was calculated at $592 billion. Despite claims of equality between the Commonwealth nations, this trade relies on an imperialist framework: 57 per cent of imports to developed countries were sourced from developing countries.

To this day the queen remains head of state in 16 Commonwealth countries, including Caribbean islands such as Barbados, African states such as Ghana, and Canada and Australia. Canada was unified in 1867 and Australia in 1901, when each developed independent constitutions as self-governing dominions, while vesting ‘executive power’ in the Crown. Since 1842, each country has nominated a local governor-general as the queen’s representative, with the power to propose legislation, (dis)prove bills and dissolve parliament. We could interpret this as ongoing monarchical administrative power. In 2020, Barbados announced it would remove the queen as its head of state to ‘fully leave our colonial past behind’.

The Commonwealth’s corporate interests reflect my framing of ‘the Firm’. Neither institution is ‘archaic’, as people often suggest, but rather they have developed in, through and alongside capitalism, making full use of the affordances of financial capital to wealth accumulation, while still drawing on traditional political privileges and prerogatives. As historian Nicholas B. Dirks argues, today empire has transformed into global, corporate forms of power using international banking systems (for example, the World Bank) to achieve domination under so-called free trade. The Firm’s global interests reveal how it reshapes itself, moving from the nation to the globe, from mercantile capitalism to financial or neoliberal globalised capital.

Imperialism today

The romanticisation of Commonwealth values speaks to the wider depoliticisation of imperial, colonial and monarchical histories, particularly in the past few years. A 2019 YouGov survey found that a third of people in the UK believe Britain’s colonies were better off for being part of an empire, and 32 per cent felt proud of the UK’s imperial past. In a similar vein, following Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey in March 2021, in which they accused the royal family of racism, the former UKIP and Brexit party leader, Nigel Farage, made the wild comment that ‘nobody has done more for people of colour than the royals’. He attributed this to the claim that ‘the queen and the royal family have spent the last 70 years touring around the Commonwealth. The vast majority of those people are black and Asian.’ While in some ways this boils down to the racist apologist statement, ‘Some of my best friends are black’, it also raises broader questions about the stories Britain tells itself about empire, and monarchy’s ongoing imperial role in Commonwealth nations.

The lack of engagement with empire’s violent history feeds into permutations of what academic Paul Gilroy calls ‘postcolonial melancholia’. Gilroy describes how Britain mourns its imperial power through selective nostalgia, for instance by remembering its alleged ‘role’ in ending slavery but forgetting centuries of violence. What’s more, these histories are often romanticised in an attempt to reignite Britain as an imperial power, as most recently seen in the rhetoric of Brexit.

The British monarchy operates as part of this ‘postcolonial melancholia’. When the queen succeeded the throne in 1952, the last vestiges of the empire were still intact. She remains one of our last living links to histories of British expansionism, and her image of British stoicism remains vested in such imaginaries of superiority. Likewise, global interest in the royal family (particularly in the USA) reproduces a sense of international importance, as British state ceremonies are still considered a form of spectacular entertainment across the world.

In times of political uncertainty, the royal family still provides a sense of stability, couched in discourses of national identity. The furore over whether or not the queen’s blue hat with yellow flowers purposefully resembled the EU flag during the state opening of parliament in 2017 demonstrates the symbolic power of the monarch’s image during a period of national upheaval, as does her embroilment in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

The royals also provide a sense of white stability. Representations of monarchy are vested in politicised notions of the royals as idealised white subjects. During Britain’s initial colonial voyages, Elizabeth I painted her white skin lighter to emphasise her superiority over her colonial subjects. Likewise, Queen Victoria’s white hair (in older age) and penchant for pearl necklaces accentuated her white privilege. There has never been a British monarch who is a person of colour. While structures of white supremacy operate perhaps most obviously in monarchy’s historical sponsorship of the slave trade, colonialist mindsets endure, for example in Prince Philip’s casual racism and the institution’s treatment of Meghan Markle and her son Archie.

The monarchy has largely avoided being categorised negatively alongside wider anti-elite, white-supremacist sentiment in Britain. Even the brief onslaught of criticism triggered by Meghan Markle’s account of racism seems now to have abated. But even in this interview – perhaps the most explicit critique of royalty and racism – Harry and Meghan spoke of how Markle could be an ‘asset’ to the Commonwealth given the dominance of people of colour in the member states. Markle’s presence as a woman of colour in a traditionally white institution was positioned by the couple as potentially image-enhancing, making the institution more appealing to multicultural Britain, the Commonwealth and beyond. This fails to engage with the structural racism in the monarchy and the Commonwealth or, as many have nicknamed it, Empire 2.0.

What’s next?

The Queen is 95. It is safe to assume she will soon be succeeded as monarch, and this will be a pivotal moment for Britain and the stories it tells about itself. It will also be a central moment in the struggle for a republican future. Love, or at least apathy, for the monarchy seems to remain embedded in the national zeitgeist. But what will the death of the ‘nation’s grandmother’, to be replaced by the much-criticised King Charles, do to this status quo? How will we respond to the inevitable deluge of grief from our mainstream media, as previewed recently with the death of Prince Philip?

No left-wing mainstream political party is yet to offer a serious anti-monarchy platform. Even Jeremy Corbyn’s brief displays of republicanism were widely mocked. For progressives, monarchy is not ‘irrelevant’ to contemporary inequalities and its continued existence flies in the face of movements to deepen democracy. The long process of imperial capital accumulation was legalised and funded by the monarch(y) and the institution continues to benefit from this history. As such, we can’t pursue an antiracist, anti-capitalist future without actively calling for the abolition of ‘the Firm’.

Laura Clancy is a lecturer in media at Lancaster University.

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