In his seminal analysis of British nationalism and the monarchy, The Enchanted Glass, Tom Nairn beings by asking the rather pertinent question (especially in the light of today’s events): ‘Are we all mad?’ I suspect that the typical response from republicans during the Jubilee to all this Royalism, pageantry, and standing in the rain to watch a psuedo-antique boat sail past, is to answer in the affirmative. I certainly wonder what causes apparently sane grownups to bedeck their houses, cars and streets with bunting and to eat pasta salad in the street.
Nairn concludes the answer is somewhat more complex than simply a mad or even ‘duped’ public –- the monarchy, for Nairn, and the adulation of it, is part of an infatuation with a “gilded image, made up of sonorous past achievements, enviable stability, and the painted folklore of their Parliament and Monarch”. It’s a lie, but far from being duped into believing it by cynical politicians and newspaper editors (as Bagehot posits), it’s a lie that we want, and it seems, need to believe. That lie, or rather the image that people see, for me, is at the centre of the (continued and astonishing) popularity of the monarchy – not the supposed, synthetic personality of Elizabeth, or Charles, or Phillip, for that matter. Of course, to some extent we are duped; at least in the sense that there is never serious discussion of the alternatives, or analysis of the current situation. The BBC, supposed to inform and educate, offered, as its sole acknowledgement of even the existence of republicanism, “We know that not everyone is a monarchist. Not everyone will - literally or metaphorically - be raising a glass this weekend.” Thank you, Auntie, for that insight. Though I suppose for once the chairman of Republic wasn’t wheeled out as some kind of pantomime villain to the jeers of the newscasters.
I ask you, dear followers, to stop for a second and consider what it will be that you’ll be celebrating tomorrow. Will you be celebrating the continued success of the most autocratic, undemocratic and expensive institution that survives into our age? Or the adulation and worship of inherited privilege that infects every level of society, from the top down (consider that Britain makes the USA look socially mobile)? Or will it be the glories and leadership of this new Elizabethan era? Perhaps it will be part of the long tradition of celebrating the Royals, with these ostensibly traditional mass shows of adulation? I want really to discuss two things: the first being the somewhat inglorious history of ‘the invention of tradition’, and the second being the significance of what I somewhat doubt will be remembered as a new Elizabethan era, and of Elizabeth’s role in it.
On the former point, the monarchy has always ruthlessly exploited and adapted ceremonies in order to maintain and in some cases boost its popularity, whilst reshaping its image in the public consciousness. Charles II, upon returning to England after 12 years of republican government, sought to reshape himself as a divinely ordained monarch by reintroducing medieval rituals such as ‘Touching’ his subjects, because it had been believe that the royal touch could cure leprosy and other diseases (he ‘touched’ around 100,000 of his subjects – leading one commentator to remark that he ‘had touched near half of England’ – though maybe that was actually a reference to Charles II’s prolific womanising). The same may be said of Victoria, who invented all sorts of rituals in order to reshape the monarchy.
Take, for example, the trooping of the colour, the State Opening of Parliament, and the very notion of the Jubilee celebration. Victoria and her advisers invented all of them after 1870, in order to increase the public appearance of the monarchy, and to elevate it to the front of people’s consciousness and reshape Victoria herself as the bearer of the Imperial Crown. The now hallowed and seemingly ancient Royal Weddings and the monarch lying in state at their death are even newer ‘traditions’ – Victoria and her children all got married in private services at the chapels of Sandringham or Windsor (Princess Mary in 1912 was the first to have a Royal Wedding, and Edward VII the first to lie in state). The Royal Weddings were created for a new age of mass media, and a new age of personal celebrity; now the Royals had to be seen to be people, and what better way than to showcase their private lives for all to see? The coronation of Elizabeth II became so frenzied in its need to present a new scale of spectacle for the nation to watch on TV that horse drawn carriages were hired from film production companies, as not enough real ones existed. Royalist ceremony, then, is shaped and reshaped in order to match the age it is in -– whether that be recovering from a republican crisis; forming a new image in an age of imperial grandeur; or remodelling itself as a wholesome family for an age of personality and celebrity, the institution of monarchy adapts, cynically casting its newest invention as steeped in some ancient tradition. As for the flotilla, we were uncritically told by the BBC that this pageant would evoke the waterborne royal pageants of the good old days — sadly the painting that they’ve been using to illustrate that point is a scene depicting the Lord Mayor’s Day, and not a royal celebration at all. Oops.
But perhaps that needn’t matter, perhaps for all that the Jubilee ceremony is one that’s little more than a hundred years old, we really do owe something to dear old Liz. After all, she’s been a beacon of hope and leadership in what has been a pretty turbulent sixty years. Britain has, as the cliché runs, had to lose an empire and find a role. But I challenge you this, royalists of the land, and there are plenty of you (republicanism recently commanded the support of a mere 15% of the population), to select for me the one moment that Elizabeth II has done something that has given us hope, leadership and direction. One speech, one sign, one act; let me know if you can think of one. The truth is, sadly for you all, that the Queen has really done nothing for us. She hasn’t been the leader in tough times, or a rhetorician of notable skill. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that the most influential things the Queen has ever said have been “have you come far today?” and “I declare this [swimming pool/community centre/etc] open”. If you’re going to send me something about the death of Diana, don’t even bother. Had it not been for the oratory and political skill of Tony Blair, we probably wouldn’t have the Windsors now, and would instead have an autocratic state run by Earl Spencer and his ilk.
No, the true titans of this age have not inherited their positions, and do not reside in royal palaces. I put it to you that, for better or worse, the figures that have defined this age, and the figures that will truly be remembered, will be figures like Clement Atlee, Nye Bevan, Harold MacMillan, Margret Thatcher and Tony Blair. They, gave the speeches we will remember; they did the things that have shaped and directed this country; and some of them even gave hope to this country. All of that is far more than you can honestly say for Elizabeth Windsor. And that is how this period will be remembered – not as the Elizabethan age, but as the ages of Atlee, Thatcher and Blair.
Rather than try and pull this slightly disparate post together, I’m going to leave you with one final thought. Britain is not a democracy. A democracy is a country, in the words of the US Constitution, that is governed of the people, by the people and for the people. Upon all three counts, we must find that the United Kingdom does not meet the criteria. In Britain, political authority is not derived from the people, but from the monarch, who stands at the apex of our constitution. It is in the name of the monarch that acts of parliament are passed. It is in the name of the monarch that her subjects are put on trial. And it is in the name of the monarch that we are governed, as cowering subjects and not as empowered citizens. We declare that the Windsor family represent our nation — and we’re all too right — inherited class privilege and the uncritical reverence for that privilege pretty much sums Britain up. That must end, and so must the monarchy.
And in typing that, I just broke the Treason act. Oops. See you in a long, long time, dear followers.
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