What future for monarchy in our changing nation?
In the new edition of his book ‘The Enchanted Glass’, Tom Nairn looks at the impact of nationalism on an institution that helped to shape the United Kingdom
THE Enchanted Glass originally appeared in 1988, with the middle-aged Elizabeth II in a pink hat and white gloves waving from its cover; twenty-three years later she’s still waving, and guaranteeing the stability of the British Crown for some years to come. Her son will then almost certainly succeed for a while as Charles III, with grandson William following on. So we find the Crown institution still hard at work re-establishing itself as a twenty-first century enterprise.
Nearly all commentators predict Great Britain’s continued decline, as ex-imperial status turns into increasingly unavoidable marginality, screened by special relationships, the Commonwealth, and other old club subscriptions. The UK has so far striven to keep up appearances, via a kind of half-honourable decline: unwilling negotiations with retreat, rather than outright defeat, the goal; a piecemeal and staged withdrawal rather than mere eviction from the historical stage. However, the climate of accelerating decline brings other changes in its wake.
A very minor one is that a mistake in this book’s first edition is more noticeable. I see now how I failed to focus sufficiently on one key motive for the successful working of “enchantment”: what one could call “surrogacy”, in the sense of an English-identity diversion from standard-issue nationalism to the symbolic supranationality of a Royal Crown and Family. The unusual intensity and emotion of the latter has come from certain peculiarities of the former: as if a communal feeling unable to find appropriate modern expression has been compelled to find compensatory voice in another way, or upon a different (though related) level. Such deeper emotion contains a usually unacknowledged advantage. It absolves the majority English nationality from the customary “-ism” of recent history. No Anglo-nationalism is felt necessary in the standard nineteenth- and twentieth-century form. Of course such feeling manifests itself none the less, in sub-standard form – round the edges, as it were, through panic over immigration, and distrust of “outsiders” and multiculturalism. However, the political expression of such ideas has been very limited, mainly by a “British” National Party tied to extinct racism as well as to state decline.
The resultant problems are the by-product of longer-range historical location. As Liah Greenfeld points out in her classic Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1992), England was “God’s Firstborn” in the formation of the nation-state world: but this very priority meant that the English would not themselves become just another state, a national polity like all the rest. Naturally the English had to adapt themselves to the world they had set in motion and fostered, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But they did so in two main ways, both of which have now lost most of their sense. One was simply expansion: the “greater England” represented by colonization and the emigration of one generation after another over the era of empire. The other was a “little England” of rurality and imagined roots, supposed to have both preceded imperialism and in some ways persisted through it as an enduring substratum.
The point of monarchy was the way it suited this unique double life. In 1688: The First Modern Revolution (2009) Steve Marcus has shown how the revolutionary improvisations did lead to a make-over: an institution “over and above” mere government was created, but not a form of absolutism. The British “Crown” compromise then acquired quasi-global reach, to preside over a wide variety of countries and cultures. Now the glass’s enchantment reflected back a story that apparently reconciled the spiritual and the material: religion and economic progress, God’s Firstborn cohabiting with free trade, industrial revolution and capitalism. All modern nations have done something like this, perhaps; but for God’s firstborn, monarchy offered the most convenient way of doing the trick – a trump card to be treasured across the age of nationalism and imperialism.
Edwin Jones’s The English Nation: The Great Myth (2000) has described how Protestantism was reinterpreted and mobilised for the task. Alongside Pincus’s 1688, a substantial re-analysis now exists of the context within which both revival and transformation of the monarchy became central to Anglo-British statehood. As “constitutional monarchy”, the Crown mythology was an instrument for holding such a “united kingdom” together. Three-quarters of the latter was of course England; but Scotland, Wales and Ireland remained too significant to be either absorbed or ignored. So crucial was this factor that the later ruling class imported foreign monarchies to make the grade and keep things going, not once but twice. After the 1688 upheaval, the Dutch William of Orange became king, and then (when that line ran out of heirs) princes from the tiny German state of Hanover were invited to take over: the “Hanoverians” of 1714 and later. Queen Victoria was one of them. Incomers can learn ways of making themselves more native than their hosts, and these Germans worked hard at it. They became the “Windsors” during World War I, grafting themselves on to a still successful and expanding multinational enterprise. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II fifty-eight years ago set new standards for the age of TV and tabloid media, an example which we currently see the future King William learning to emulate.
But he and Queen-to-be Catherine do so in increasingly difficult circumstances. As ever the problem is “England”. The Crown is less popular in Scotland and Wales, and has a different sort of importance for many in Northern Ireland, but maintaining a United Kingdom remains vital, a matter of life and death as well as emotion and flag-waving. On 5 May, 2011, local elections in England coincided with those for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the devolved authority in Northern Ireland. Power had originally been given to these countries with the aim of strengthening “Britishness”, and carrying on the substance of 1688. But for the Scots, matters couldn’t help appearing quite differently. Their place in the Glorious and Bloodless set-up was fixed by a parliamentary treaty of 1707: an international accord intended to underwrite the monarchical fusion of a century earlier. Thus the new 2011 parliament in Edinburgh can’t help seeing itself as more than an administrative convenience. The Scottish National Party did so well on 5 May, 2011, that Alex Salmond’s resultant government is bound to use its power to (at least) challenge and modify 1707. A referendum on independence has been proposed. This might be lost, of course, like the Quebec one of 1995. But the principle would none the less be established of the right to secede via popular vote at some later time.
At such a juncture, some commentators have suggested another possible outcome: why not replace the “Union” with a federal or confederal structure, a “looser” state form that might (so to speak) carry forward useful aspects of British multinationality? Though attractive to many, the notion simply cannot help forcing the argument back on to the English ground: more than three-quarters of any such body don’t care much one way or another. Not only is there no devolution in prospect for England’s majority, the latter is, not surprisingly, quite satisfied with the de facto authority Great Britain provides, and subscribes energetically to the colourful symbolism which monarchy bestows upon their preponderance.
In Wendy James’s terms, the English are specimens of The Ceremonial Animal (2003), a nation for whom anthropological customs and observances have assumed the role that nationalism has provided in most modern-period states. By contrast, what Plaid Cymru and the SNP offer are aspirations towards this standard national identity “-ism”, akin to most other members of (or candidates for) “the Spirit of the Age”.
It is also sometimes thought Scandinavia offers a model … or a way out. After all, the Baltic countries are also monarchies, where a concretely “national” icon is conjoined with the shared, but more abstract, common ground of social democracy. Is there any reason why the British-Irish realm should not follow that example? What the position fails to acknowledge is of course the difference in background. Apart from the odd problem of establishing Welsh, Scottish and Ulster royal houses, what the unifying centre seeks is different as well. Great Britain’s ideological demands are for a much stronger multinational focus of allegiance: something more like that of the nineteenth-century Hapsburg domain in Central Europe, and befitting a recent Great Power with a permanent Security Council seat.Nor is this disparity likely to be resolved via any change of mind or movement, since it has longer-range or “structural” elements a whole population has inherited and used to define itself.
In this context of break-up, monarchy has become stressed to the limit: each new lapse or misfortune is accompanied by exaggerated flag-waving and over-rehearsed adulation. Prince William and Catherine Middleton, right, can’t help falling into a trap formed of the hysteria of counter-decline and a wilful failure to quit a darkening stage. Prince Charles has already prepared the way for this survival strategy, with his theatre of determined populism: too “with-it” by half, a modernising exhibitionism that deliberately underestimates the factors of tradition and retrospect that national identity requires. His antics have marked a meaningful shift of emphasis, one that appears likely to prevail for some years, once Elizabeth II takes her leave.
However exaggerated and ambiguous, it may be that the Prince of Wales’s posture also echoes deeper shifts under way. Decades of half-apologetic, “ironical” Royalism are likely to leave their own diminished heritage, currently being handed down to the future King William. In 1688, Pincus shows how “like all modern revolutions … 1688-9 was a struggle ultimately waged between two competing groups of modernisers”, which a traditionalist centre ground had to accept. But if the future brings a more self-conscious “little England” with it above all, with the departure of the Scots, then ongoing modernisation (or re-modernisation) could be quite different.
Most formulae for perpetuating the United Kingdom envisage some sort of “federalism” or looser association of equal-status units, and are accompanied by redefinitions of “independence” for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. Occasionally this is hopefully modified by notions of regional autonomy, of the kind that John Prescott attempted without success to foster in the English North-East. However, the resounding defeat of that attempt by popular referendum makes the route seem most unlikely. Britannic “confederation” (or whatever) cannot either avoid or minimize English nationalism. Four-fifths of the electorate would be invited to shift allegiance from “Anglo-Britain” to a quite different model, one inevitably according much greater importance to “the periphery” and especially to Scotland.
The simple unlikelihood of this transfer puts Scottish separation and statehood in a perspective that is different and, it can be argued, simpler and more acceptable both in the archipelago and internationally. By comparison with reforming God’s Firstborn this is, surely, a relatively minor change. Furthermore, one survey after another has shown the English public relatively indifferent to the alteration. “Westminsterism” attaches far more significance to Great Power stature and the Security Council seat than do most English or British subjects. Also, the “detachment” of the Monarchy could prove useful, if the institution can distinguish itself more definitely from the disintegrating heritage of Union and Empire. It looks as if the true choice of kings Charles and William will be between burial among the ruins of the ancien régime or some new, more modest function as symbol of “federal” identity chosen to carry on some selected features of such lengthy coexistence and societal interpenetration: the less-than-Great, less-united Kingdom of a European Union member, one that takes “modernization” and formal democracy more seriously.
Republican Monarchy? The term appears self-contradictory, and yet nothing else corresponds to what may be emerging right now, following the decisive SNP victory in the Scottish Parliamentary election. There will be a referendum on Scottish independence quite soon, and Premier Alex Salmond has repeatedly made it clear he does not want outright republicanism to be part of the bid. The future envisaged is therefore one of statehood equality over the former United Kingdom, in which a crowned head of state will remain, as the symbol of partnership and good will, established social and personal relations, and the historic closeness derived from 1688. It should also change and probably moderate the “surrogacy” mentioned earlier, through which English national identity has been transmuted into an adulatory obsession with royalty. One way the English have avoided “little England” (the country on its own) has been the curiously amplified elevation of a regal family dynasty described in this book, informally shared by the peripheral countries. A formal agreement between the periphery and the core-majority, by contrast, could include the acceptance of monarchy in a spirit different from what has so far prevailed. In effect, the replacement of “enchantment” and emotionality by a straightforward calculation of joint benefits and their costs.
What does “resignation” from the former Great Power club (Security Council position, et al) truly mean? The Westminster-British political elite will naturally cling on to it. Without an “ethnically” English resignation from the outward-reaching model, therefore, the change has to come from the periphery, by a return to themselves of the archipelago’s minority nationalities. Fortunately, this seems to be under way, and has been given a great boost by the 2011 elections in Scotland. Different varieties of nationalism there, in Wales and Northern Ireland, are bound in turn to require a novel style of constitution that could certainly include monarchy but of a somewhat different style from the one imposed by (as one might put it) the glamour of backwardness. A distinctly English input would be demanded from the four-fifths majority, as well as the assorted democratic minorities. There’s nothing “little” about this, in any demeaning or has-been sense: merely the acceptance of reality in a rapidly globalizing world. The finality of that imparts a comparable importance to what “we” all are, the distinctive deposit of past time or “history”. First-round nationalism accompanied and voiced first-round industrialization, and it can be argued that second rounds are now in formation, involving not the end but the renewal and advancement of “who we are” – of the collective identities derived from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
• This is an edited extract of the foreword to the new edition of Tom Nairn’s The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy, published by Verso this month.
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