In the days following the death of Elizabeth II, it would appear that Wales is far from immune from the hysteria surrounding the British monarchy’s transition from one figurehead to another. Although most people may have settled upon an easy indifference, the various royal ceremonies are still capable of attracting enthusiastic crowds. National media coverage is just as saturated with fawning as its London-based parents. And although support for the monarchy may slowly be dwindling, all recent polling suggests that the majority of Wales remains in favour of royal rule.
While popular sentiment may diverge little from the rest of the House of Windsor’s realm, Wales’ relation to this spectacle is unique among the nations of the United Kingdom and wider Commonwealth, thanks to the additional procedure and pageantry it is subjected to: the matter of the Prince of Wales.
The monarchy’s use of this title, with its origins as a symbol of Wales’ de facto incorporation into the kingdom of England, has for three-quarters of a millennium served as an apprenticeship for the heir to the throne, giving its holder an early taste of power and embedding into public consciousness the unassailable continuity of hereditary rule. That the new king installed his eldest son as Prince in his very first national address – an immediacy that has taken many observers aback, not least the First Minister of Wales – says much about the centrality of the title to this social reproduction of the monarchy. Indeed, one can easily make the case that the Prince of Wales performs no function other than this: there are no formal duties inherent to the role, and constitutionally, as Dafydd Elis-Thomas described it this week, ‘there is no meaning to it’.
The significance of ‘Wales’ – as polity, as land, as symbol – within the UK–Commonwealth, and its role in the implementation of state power, is thus coded differently to the rest of its constituent parts, as is the interpellation of Welsh people as British subjects. Much political potential could be mined from this fundamental difference, were anybody able to foster a new common sense that diverges from that of the British state: away not only from the inherent injustices of monarchical governance, but from the political culture of the United Kingdom altogether.
At present there appears little chance of an organised tendency engineering such a rupture. Dissent from Wales’ nominally-progressive political establishment has been predictably weak and unforthcoming, with most political leaders deferring any debate on the merits of the continued existence of the Prince of Wales (and with it the monarchy as a whole) to an indeterminate later date, if they even acknowledge the existence of Republican sentiment at all.
Among those willing to firmly speak out against the continued imposition of an unelected cipher upon Wales – a public stance mostly confined to activists and commentators – there is a propensity for leaning all-too-heavily upon the historical circumstances of the Prince of Wales title’s relation to the British, rather than engaging critically with its material function in contemporary society.
We see this trend often in nascent Welsh political movements, usually to their detriment: the romantic – if not outright ahistorical – invocations of the past in order to justify modern political demands. In this case, it runs the risk of obscuring that, rather than being a medieval anachronism that has somehow survived into the twenty-first century, the Royal Family is the continued and active cultural underwriter of British capitalism and class-based rule.
This is the common thread that the majority of Welsh reactions to the new Prince possess: none adequately address the ways in which this interminable institution has, as Richard Seymour puts it, ‘successfully woven itself into the fabric of British capitalism’, and thus even the most ardent critics of the monarchy can remain oblivious of the notion that, as Seymour continues, ‘to be an effective republican one must first be a socialist.’
In the midst of a society plunged into multiple crises this winter, it matters little that the Prince is thrust upon Wales from without; or that there once was a native Prince; or that Tywysog once carried a greater significance than that which it is afforded by our present-day overlords. What matters first and foremost is its existing being an affront to democracy: not in the sense of being forced on a people by a ‘foreign’ body, but as the ultimate ’symbol of state power’ in a society defined by its entrenched inequalities.
The imposition of the Prince may be an expression of British authority that is unique to Wales, but its primary function in our time is as a means of renewing ruling class power over a subservient class, rather than expressing the dominance in our kingdom of one nation over another. Rejecting the Prince of Wales thus presents an opportunity for the working class of Wales to throw off their own modes of oppression, and assert that the wealth of a territory should not – in principle or in reality – belong to an individual by birthright, nor to any other expropriator, but rather to the people whose labour creates it.
Between now and the investiture (whenever that may be, and in whatever form it may take), there will be ample opportunity to take this conversation forward, and expand misgivings over the Prince of Wales into a general questioning of the structures that govern Welsh and British society. There is much fertile ground here already: the media saturation is already causing fatigue; repressive policing is leaving a sour taste in the mouths of people normally oblivious to the UK’s creeping authoritarianism; and it is unlikely that Charles will ever cultivate the demigod-level of goodwill given to his mother.
This could be a real pivot point – a site of egress, a means of escape – that could play a key role in altering taken-for-granted conceptions of what society is today, and how it could be remade in the future. It is imperative that this once-in-a-generation chance to throw off royal rule – and more importantly, what that rule represents – is not wasted on the interminable wading through the bogs of history that Welsh political discourse is apparently so susceptible to.