Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 53 Number 13, May 6, 2023 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Coronation of King Charles III

Abolishing the Monarchy and Completing the Democratic Revolution

In Britain, the English Civil Wars of the 1640s resulted in the beheading of the monarch, King Charles I, and the abolition of the House of Lords. The period from the lead-up to the execution of the king through to the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, which, from the royal perspective, has been known as the "interregnum", was one of serious and fierce debate centred on how the people can decide how government should function. That period marked the beginning of a democratic revolution that has still to be consummated.

It was at this time that the notion of vesting sovereignty in the people was first raised. Prior to the removal of the monarchy, the Levellers and others put forward popular sovereignty, demanding extended suffrage and regular parliaments. The democratic conception upheld by the Levellers was grounded in their doctrine of natural rights, an early expression of the modern definition of rights as held by all people by virtue of being human. They declared inalienable rights such as freedom of conscience and equality before the law, and significantly, the right to participate in decision-making. On this basis, the Levellers argued neither for monarchic nor parliamentary sovereignty, nor army rule, but that sovereignty should be vested in the people. To the new ruling clique, this threatened their very existence, and so in response they raised the spectre of "the mob" and "anarchy". The issues were openly discussed at the famous Putney Debates of October-November 1647, which were shut d own after less than two weeks by the Army Grandees headed by Cromwell, who feared the consequences of the debates treading on increasingly dangerous ground and undermining their authority. [1]

Words of Colonel Rainsborough - The Putney Debates

Following the beheading of Charles I on January 30, 1649, leading Levellers John Lilburne, Richard Overton, Thomas Prince and William Walwyn were imprisoned in the Tower of London, during which time, in May 1649, they wrote the important pamphlet "An Agreement Of The Free People Of England". This was their last major statement of their demands. The Leveller-supporting Banbury mutineers were defeated and their leaders executed by firing squad at Burford on May 17, and the Levellers' newspaper The Moderate ceased publication in September 1649.

Though the Levellers were defeated, their conception reflected the emergence of the people as a political force in their own right, with a claim to the sovereign power. The emergent claim of the people for decision-making power transformed the content of the battle of democracy in a way that has still to be brought to full completion in the present day.

Political theorist Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century held that an indivisible power was necessary to prevent the always-simmering state of civil war from boiling over. His theory, which came to underpin the arrangements found in the constitutional monarchy following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, located the supreme power in a fictitious person of state that he called the "Leviathan". A crucial feature of this conception is that the people relinquished their right to speak in their own name. It served to give the new ruling elite the appearance of legitimacy, purporting to represent the collective will, while in reality representing the interests of the new ruling class via its fictitious person of state embodied in the monarch. Under this system, all delegates pledge allegiance to King Charles, the sovereign, rather than the people.

Scarborough, Yorkshire

The British state, constituted in accordance with Hobbesian theory, is governed by police powers: arbitrary discretionary powers held by the executive, judiciary, intelligence services, police, and military. The sovereign has prerogative powers, which are not in any way ceremonial, and exercises them both personally and through the courts, senior civil servants, and other officials whose primary duty it is to perpetuate the sovereign's rule. Hobbes' Leviathan was depicted with a sword in one hand and a bishop's crook in the other, symbolising authority over all issues pertaining to war and peace, crime and punishment, and the values that are supposed to unite the nation, nowadays called "British values" and deliberately conflated with "universal values". The fiction creates a sense of mystery and hides how the government functions, with the sovereign standing above the people, who are said to hold him in awe.

By giving such a fictitious person of state sovereignty, the people are deprived of the ability to make decisions. Yet the fiction is failing. The antiquated institutions built on this model of power widely recognised as obsolete.

The Coronation of Charles III is an attempt to perpetuate the fiction, riddled as it is with contradictions. But it will not wash. However, while these old arrangements and underlying conceptions are failing, the new have yet to come into being. The issue today is an entirely new conception of power. All vestiges of absolutism and the old notion of supreme power have to be replaced by a new human power that does not stand above the people but as a power at the base of society. Rather than accommodating and managing competing interests and warring factions, the individual, collective and society as a whole need to be brought on a par, allowing the harmonisation of their interests. Concretely, this requires new mass democratic forms, new mechanisms of decision making with a mass character, where all members of the polity have equal rights and duties and share the decision-making power as one.

[1] "375th Anniversary of the Putney Debates", Workers' Weekly, November 19, 2022


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