Ghosts in the Palace

Tom Nairn

The first British election ever without the Monarchy: is this not how it’s likely to be remembered? The Italian phrase for it is better than ours: perdere la bussola, the loss not merely of bearings but of the compass itself. Queen Elizabeth II will still be around for the vote, I know, but as little more than an accusing spectre. Within less than half of her own reign the glamour of Monarchy has vanished. All that the Crown now accomplishes is to counterpoint and somehow exaggerate an ambient unreality: the new, motherless country left behind by its moral decease. Through Queenly spectacles the past looks at the shattered glass of Britain present, with a gaze already cold.

A certain frigidity is in order, since it is actually a distinctively Royal sense of nationhood which has been thrown overboard. But too little attention has been paid to all the identity-accoutrements which have gone with it. Better British yesterdays, for example. This is the real trouble with Conservatism: its identity-bedrock has dissolved. Old-Brit nostalgia has found for itself a kind of foreign country, the one where things were done differently. Tories are as little at home there as anybody else. The past turns out to have been institutional in character, and not, as so often thought, an aspect of ethnic English character. When deep-set presuppositions are discarded in this way, those who have relied too heavily on them have to ‘go mad’. Over-individualism, selfishness, loads-a-loot, heedlessness, wilfulness, everything now packaged as ‘sleaze’, move irresistibly into the vacuum. This happened first of all inside the Royal Family itself. It quickly extended from the head down to the gills, to the ‘natural party of government’. People wanted to believe the trouble came from the personal quirks of younger Royals like Di and Fergie. In fact, personalities who would once have been safely suffocated or rendered decorous by Establishment guardians found easy voice among the loosening stays of the enterprise culture. The alteration had nothing to do with ‘human nature’ in general: all it vented was a British national character too long compressed and deformed by class responsibilities and alibis.

The monarchical nature invented in Victorian times was ballast as well as guidance-system: as conservatives (meaning pretty well everybody) used to say, it did make up for such a lot. It was a hallmark of fairness as well as grandeur, the national tea-ceremony, hierarchy’s human face, balm for the marginalised. From that set of attitudes the over-celebrated sense of continuity and permanence was derived, the identity which was argued for by Edmund Burke but not really in existence until well after 1832. Once up and running it posed as immemorial, but actually it has lasted for about a century and a half. Thatcherism was its terminal disease. Enforced rejuvenation of the economic body destroyed a head far too dependent on forged antiquity and protocol. During its hegemony the second nature of regal possession was never just the mixture of theatre and contrivance depicted by philistines like Walter Bagehot. It was more like an identity-fabric which, in the odd conditions of Empire-Britain, stood in for other forms of nationalism.

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