How the Royals headed off revolution

Palace archives reveal that King George V, fearing `Bolshevism' in the UK, set out to woo the working classes, writes Marie Woolf
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The Independent Online
THE ROYAL FAMILY'S altruistic interest in the urban poor and visiting rundown areas of Britain may stem from a historical distrust of republicanism and the rise of the Labour Party, documents from the Royal Archives reveal.

A paper by a respected academic, Frank Prochaska, to be published next month, states that at the end of the First World War the monarchy made deliberate attempts to cultivate the working class, Labour MPs and trade unionists to head off a possible "Bolshevik" revolution.

Advisers, who believed George V could meet a similar fate to that of his Russian cousin Tsar Nicholas II, told the monarchy to reinvent itself as a caring, unostentatious institution which could relate to the aspirations of working-class people.

One palace adviser even suggested that the Prince of Wales, - later King Edward VIII - live in Sheffield for "a year or two".

The survival strategy, which included publicly intervening to have a socialist agitator freed from jail, set the foundations of the modern Royal Family's approach to their public.

The rare documents, in a file in the Royal Archives titled "Unrest in the Country", set out palace strategy. The King's advisers, shaken by the fall of the German and Austrian monarchies, told George V to go out of his way to get to know leading members of the trade unions and Labour movement so they would be less likely to rise against him.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davison, advised more Royal contact with "genuine working folk" and "small dinners" for those on whom the King "would have to rely if trouble came". Canon Clifford Woodward, the King's Chaplain, suggested he be "far more accessible to the working classes than has ever been the custom".

He added: "If Royalty could do something that would capture the imagination to show how much it cared, ie by the Prince settling for a year or two in Sheffield, it would have a big influence on the future."

Lord Stamfordham, George V's private secretary, wrote in October 1918: "There would seem to be no reason why the King should not both visit hospitals and lay foundation stones and ... meet shop stewards and trade union secretaries and form personal and first-hand opinions of their grievances, aims and aspirations.

"I doubt that it would be possible or prudent to go further."

But Lord Esher, the King's confidant, counselled more drastic action to win round socialist opponents. In a letter in 1918, he calls on the King, who reigned from 1910 until 1936, to offer clemency to "a man with much influence with the most dangerous sections of the Working Class. He must be let out sooner or later. It would be good policy if he thought that the King had a hand in his release".

The man is thought to be John Maclean, a Clyde shipyard firebrand and a member of the British Socialist Party.

Dr Prochaska's findings, to be published in the journal Twentieth Century British History next month, shed light on early relationships between the Labour Party and monarchy. At the time of Queen Victoria's death in 1901, the Labour Party was a modest pressure group, formed in 1900. By 1911 it had 42 MPs and a membership of 1.5 million trade unionists.

Intelligence reports circulated to the monarchy warned of the spread of "class consciousness" and republican sentiment. During the 1918 General Election , Bob Williams, secretary of the Transport Workers' Union, declared that he wanted "to see the Red flag flying over Buckingham Palace".

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rev John Watts-Ditchfield, an adviser to the King who worked with the poor in Bethnal Green, east London, told George V to take the growing Labour Party more seriously. "I think if His Majesty could see the Labour leaders more, the benefit would be enormous.... The more the King can be brought into direct contact with these men the better." He also advised that the King "spike the guns" of two Labour MPs, Will Thorne and John O'Grady, who were planning a trip to Russia in 1917 by seeing them before departure and again upon their return.

Labour leaders were regularly invited for tea with the King, and Communists complained that Labour MPs, including Ramsay Macdonald, were grovelling to meet him.

Willie Gallacher, the "Red Clydesider" and Britain's first Communist MP, for West Fife, was a regular visitor to Moscow for personal meetings with Stalin, and had little love of royalty. He wrote: "Never has there been such a rush on court tailors and court dressmakers."

The King's advisers feared the republican movement would be bolstered by disaffected conscripts returning from the front and that events could take "a Russian turn".

During Armistice week the King and Queen toured the East End of London on five successive days and were moved by the tumultuous reception.

Lord Esher, the King's confidant and expert on military affairs, applauded what he called the "democratisation of the monarchy". However, he warned that "unless tact and sympathy are pronounced features of the demobilisation of the vast horde of men and women now employed under government, Bolshevism is inevitable".

Dr Prochaska, a research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, London University, feels the threat communicated to George V may have been exaggerated.

"The strategy of George V was to step up public work, and have a lot of people from the provinces to the palace and Labour MPs to Windsor," he said.

"They were trying to take the republican edge off socialism. They were looking at disarming the agitators. It was a policy of greater and greater penetration of the working class."