A Republican Monarchy? England and revolution

Tom Nairn argues that the monarchy will have to choose between burial among the ruins of the ancien regime or become a symbol of partnership and good will

I’m writing this just after Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Dublin in May this year. And the Irish celebrations have come shortly after another British Royal Wedding Day, with schools on holiday, crowded streets in central London, and the media on full-alert for Kate Middleton and her husband-to-be, the Windsor Dynasty’s future King William of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and other remaining ‘dependencies’.

The Enchanted Glass originally appeared in 1989, 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 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 principal Crown institution still hard at work re-establishing itself, and trying to look more plausible as a 21st century enterprise.

Nearly all commentators perceive Great Britain continuing to decline, as ex-imperial status turns into increasingly unavoidable marginality, screened by Special Relationships, the Commonwealth, and other old club subscriptions. This has so far striven to keep up appearances, via a kind of half-honourable decline: unwilling negotiations with retreat, rather than outright defeat, 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. I see now how at the end of the eighties 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 supra-nationality 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 19th-20th century form. Of course it manifests itself in sub-standard form, round the edges, as panic over immigration, and distrust of ‘outsiders’ and multi-culturalism. Yet its political expression has been very limited, in a ‘British’ National Party tied to extinct racism as well as to state decline.

Today’s problems are the by-product of  longer-range historical location. As Liah Greenfeld points out in her classic Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, England was ‘God’s First-born’ 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 ― an enduring sub-stratum of earlier culture. During the later 19th and early 20th centuries the prime mover naturally sought to at least resemble the rest of the ‘nation-state’ normality it had fostered. Contrived timelessness was the answer. Thus the over-blown came to be counter-posed to  an under-estimated essence, a fictive inheritance variously interpreted as genetic or socio-historical.

The point of monarchy was the way it suited this unique double life. Steve Pincus, in his major book, 1688 The First Modern Revolution has shown how the improvisations of the ‘Glorious and Bloodless Revolution’ of 1688 led to a make-over: rather than Absolutism, an institution ‘over and above’ mere government was created. The resultant British ‘Crown’ then acquired quasi-global reach, to preside over a wide variety of countries and cultures. Such overplaying of ‘nature’ ― as an actual family, a by-product of natural selection ― then found new global amplification via Darwinism and related ideologies of ‘blood’ and lineage. The term remains mainly academic, but ‘transcendence’ is what this was about: a conduit from nature to the universal, from families to extended ‘families’, to nations and even to ‘race’ as an imagined future collectivity. In the 19th century the glass’s enchantment thus seemed to reflect back a story that apparently reconciled the spiritual and the material ― religion with economic progress. God’s first-born now co-habited with Free Trade, industrial revolution and capitalism. All modern nations have done something like this, perhaps; but for God’s first-born, monarchy offered the most convenient way of doing the trick ― a trump card to be treasured across the age of nationalism and imperialism.

I’m glad to say that its workings are now better understood than in the nineteen-eighties. Following Pincus’s 1688 a substantial re-analysis of the context within which both revival and transformation of the monarchy became central to Anglo-British statehood, Edwin Jones’s The English Nation: the Great Myth has described how Protestantism was re-interpreted and mobilised for the task. 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. For a vigorously expanding North Atlantic polity, this ‘periphery’ had to be aboard, and actively participating. But earlier archipelago history ― above all the recurrent wars with Scotland ― had shown how difficult that could be, whether through force, dynastic alliance or both together.  There was in fact no alternative to a symbolically  ‘reinforced’ regal establishment. Republicanism had been attempted by Oliver Cromwell after the seventeenth-century Civil Wars, but abandoned: always unpopular with the aristocracy, it came also to be distrusted by the lower orders.

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. 20th century wars were very effective in consolidating the institution.

Warfare of course boosts nationalism, but this would never be straightforward for Englishness: neither the ‘periphery’ nor a dwindling Empire would easily accept ‘little England’ as a mere partner. The English represented three-quarters of the archipelago, and most of the colonial settlement. Again, the sole available solution was Royalty: an ever more pronounced and ceremonial ‘enchantment’ that at once allowed and qualified 19th and 20th century democratic advances. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II fifty-eight years ago set new standards for the new age of TV and tabloid media, 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 remains ‘England’. The Crown is less popular in Scotland and Wales, and has a different sort of importance in Northern Ireland ― for many in the latter, maintaining a United Kingdom appears vital, 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 Steve Pincus’s ‘First Modern Revolution’. But for the Scots matters can’t help appearing quite differently. Their place in the early-modern 1688 upheaval was fixed by a Parliamentary Treaty in 1707: an international accord intended to underwrite the monarchical fusion of a previous century, and guarantee 1688 more thoroughly. 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 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, possibly in 2013 or ’14. This might be lost, of course, like the Quebec one of 1995; but the principle would nonetheless 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 multi-nationality? Though attractive to many, the notion simply cannot escape from 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, a nation for whom anthropological customs and observances have assumed the role that nationalism has provided for most modern-period states. By contrast, what Plaid Cymru and the SNP offer are aspirations towards this standard national identity ― ‘-isms’ akin to most other European and UN States.

It is also sometimes thought that Scandinavia offers a model. After all, the Baltic countries are also monarchies, where the ‘nation’ is symbolized as one 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 inherent diversity of a different kind. I suppose Welsh or Scottish royal houses might evolve royalties of their own, like the Netherlands and Belgium.  However, the English question remains ― partly determined by a multi-national focus of allegiance much more like that of the 19th century Hapsburg domain in Central Europe.

Nor is this disparity likely to be resolved via any change of mind or movement, since it has longer-range or ‘structural’ elements which a whole population has inherited and used to define itself  nationally. In other words, English majority identity really is ‘different’ for historical causes resistant to rhetoric and good-will ideology. No doubt English self-government would be desirable, and most conversations in the area disclose a touchiness, and a strong feeling of ‘identity’, if not of superiority. However, this isn’t the same thing. England can’t help clinging to priority, and invents new versions of it for each international epoch that has succeeded Pincus’s 1688 modernity. London’s last or latest thing is invariably other than the norm. It may appear old-fashioned and pseudo-feudal to outsiders, but justifies itself internally as renewal of an ageless, inherited secret. Thus a fossil remakes itself as ultra-modern thanks to Britishness, the original ‘exception’ to history’s course. It stays just…well, different ― ‘above that sort of thing’. In recent times, both Tony Blair’s New Labourism and David Cameron’s New Conservatism have been redemptive convulsions of that sort: new uniforms for the cadaver, as it were, preserving the tradition and spirit of congenital non-revolution. Pincus’s book shows how there actually was an authentic revolution in 1688; but it was one that was then able ― uniquely ― to disown the rupture, partly via the adroit manipulation of a re-invented ‘Crown’, a monarchy salient enough to provide continuity without obstructing a new bourgeois régime.

And today, the same institution remains an important ingredient for continuing the performance, primarily among the English. 1688 points out how the monarchy was renewed, and quite effectively ‘modernised’, nineteen years before the Treaty of Union. This made the resultant United Kingdom genuinely post-feudal ― ‘early modern’, of course, yet reasonably adaptable to later episodes of evolution, as long as outright defeat and catastrophe could be avoided. These did threaten sometimes, but were kept at bay by significant external fortune, a combination of military success and one alliance after another with favourable foreign forces. From Empire/Commonwealth down to the Special Relationship and an obliging European Union, the English hegemony has been able to keep going, and even to maintain Great-Power pretensions notoriously far beyond its real capacity.

The sole important lapse was Ireland, under the combined shocks of World War I and the Dublin uprising in 1915. There, miscalculation was forced by the very factors underlined by both Jones and Pincus: the ‘original sin’ of a missionary Protestantism incapable of modest self-judgement and compromise. Religious absolutism resurrected ghosts that have now pursued the all-British identity to the very end of its days, in a Northern Ireland resistant to secularity as well as to Roman Catholicism. The forces that inspired Linda Colley’s Britons (1992) outwards to global power have survived that power’s shrinkage and general ridicule. But 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 can’t help falling into the trap ― the hysteria of counter-decline, and willful 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 under-estimates the factors of tradition and retrospect that national identity also 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, to which I will return below. Decades of half-apologetic, ‘ironical’ Royalism are likely to leave their own heritage diminished, 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 simply unlikelihood of this transfer puts Scottish separation and statehood in a different perspective ― different and, it can be argued, simpler and more acceptable both in the archipelago and internationally, By comparison with reforming God’s First-born it is, surely, a relatively minor change. Of course both the Scots and the Welsh need and wish to escape from ‘the periphery’. And furthermore, one survey after another has shown 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’ or other common clothes chosen to carry on some selected features of such lengthy coexistence and societal inter-penetration: 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 of May 5th, 2011. 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 Royalty-obsession, even adulation. One way the English have avoided ‘little England’ (the country on its own) has been the curiously amplified elevation of regal family dynasty described below, informally shared by the peripheral countries. A formal agreement between periphery and the core-majority, by contrast, could include acceptance of monarchy in a spirit different from what has so far prevailed. In effect, the replacement of ‘enchantment’ and emotionality by straightforward calculation of joint benefits and their costs. ‘Constitutional’ monarchy always contained that, of course ― but transported by the singular fervour and (in the older sense) ‘enthusiasm’ for Royalty which 1688 and 1707 originally made part of the new corporate state-nation of Anglo-Britain.

As I argue below, this exceptional structure has then consistently sidelined all attempts at written constitution, helped by unceasing outward expansion and colonization. No longer: Mrs Thatcher may have been concerned to restore ‘Greatness’ to things British, but the real question remains of removing it for good. What does ‘resignation’ from an older Great-Power club (Security Council position, et al.) truly mean? The Westminster-British political elite (including periphery members) 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 what one might call 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 acceptance of reality in a rapidly globalizing world. The latter’s finality 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 19th and 20th centuries.

Tom Nairn is an expert on nationalism, British institutions and Scotland. He is Research Professor in the Politics Department of Durham University and was a Professor of Nationalism and Social Diversity at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, from 2002 until January 2010. This is the forward to the new edition of The Enchanted Glass, Britain and its Monarchy, published by Verso. It originally appeared on openDemocracy.com

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