- The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy by Tom Nairn
Radius, 402 pp, £25.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 09 172960 2
Tom Nairn has, for many years, been pondering the peculiarities of the British state with impressive intelligence and originality. His earlier work, The Break-Up of Britain, remains a landmark – but had the curious deficiency of devoting relatively little space to England, which is, even from Nairn’s Marxist and Scots nationalist vantage-point, the heart of the matter. He has now repaired this lacuna with a long and brilliant meditation on the nature of the British or, as he calls it, the Ukanian or Anglo-British state, its identity and national culture. For we are not, he feels, a nation state – not only because there is not one nation but four, but also because we are a state-nation in which the antique ruling structure unites and defines the nation rather than the other way round. Nairn thus finds, somewhat angrily and almost reluctantly, that the monarchy must stand at the centre of his picture, and parts of his book are a form of polemic against those of his friends on the left who feel the subject to be unimportant alongside the issues of class. Nairn derides not merely the ‘Royal Socialism’ of the Labour Party but the whole Ukanian notion of ‘class’, which here denotes a sort of lumpish, self-encapsulating and self-perpetuating corporatism: knowing-one’s-place erected into social theory and a servile national identity. Less a nation of shopkeepers than of butlers – the most that can be said of a true patriot in Ukania is that he is ‘a loyal servant of the Crown’. The ideal, it seems, is the Admirable Crichton. We even have a labour movement so denatured and corrupted by instinctive Ukanian authoritarianism that it takes a reactionary government to impose elementary democratic procedures on it, while in the party of Royal Socialism itself the democratically obvious idea of one-member-one-vote is bitterly resisted even by self-described ‘democrats’. Nairn despairs utterly of this royal Left and is reduced to feeling grateful for Mrs Thatcher’s transparent dislike of the Queen and the right-wing republicanism it implies.
For Nairn is a republican in a way that many, even on the left, have forgotten to be. The matter is simply not much discussed in Ukania, for even the greatest devotees of the Family Windsor are aware that a theoretical discussion of monarchism will be bound to lead many to discover that they are republicans at heart. So royalists do not make a cause out of royalism and would be embarrassed by anyone who did. Even the most full-throated monarchical warblers – the purest example in Nairn’s book is William Rees-Mogg – do not wish to argue that the Americans or, say, the Swiss ought to have a king. And many would probably be embarrassed to have the Windsors bracketed with the House of Saud or the Sultan of Brunei – although these are the only two monarchies to compare with them in wealth: the Japanese royal family, though presiding over a far richer country and actually being divine, are paupers by comparison.
One of Nairn’s early chapters is entitled ‘Are we all mad?’ (occasioned by the sight of three middle-aged ladies bursting into tears of joy as they read the news of the Andy-Fergie engagement in the paper) and he has two chapters on ‘The Sociology of Grovelling’. Nairn writes with a bitterness that is truly wonderful and has a line in highly literate, off-hand abuse which is frequently extremely funny, especially when he espies what he calls ‘the stuffed badger side of royalty’. The sort of thing which drives him wild is ‘the warm smirk’ of the TV announcer as, at the end of each BBC newscast, his tone abruptly alters to introduce the obligatory royal story; or the official biographer’s treatment of Edward VII’s gluttony. Edward loved huge amounts of rich food and pigged himself all day, every day, eating quickly and eagerly: even his coronation had to be postponed due to appendicitis brought on by over-eating. His biographer, Sidney Lee, faced with this utter grossness, wrote only that the King-Emperor ‘never toyed with his food’. This is, in a very strict sense, false consciousness: faced with the reality of monarchy, people simply lie.
Similarly, Nairn catches Kinnock at the Andy-Fergie wedding delightedly telling the media about how Fergie had smiled and ‘that smile was worth all the rest of it!’ Or Ken Livingstone, after a brief handshake with the Queen: ‘I have always thought that the Queen is a very nice person indeed. Today confirmed that view.’ As Nairn points out, our Ken ‘had no basis whatever for this observation in the normal sense of the words’. We see this phenomenon all the time, even from the leaders of the Left. People are so overcome with pleasure at meeting a royal personage that they seek to rationalise this ecstasy by investing the said royal with impressive human qualities, often appearing to claim knowledge of the royal which they cannot possibly have. Again, monarchy makes them lie. And hence the phenomenon of the Royal Joke during which people fall about in near-hysteria when Philip or Charles say something like: ‘If it rains today we could all get wet!’ People then queue up to tell the TV camera about ‘the Prince’s wonderful sense of humour’. More lies, always more lies. The cultural compulsion is truly strong. I was once at a garden party attended by the Queen and Philip and saw many people I actually knew behave like this. They all lied like cabinet secretaries, the Americans just as much as the Brits.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.