The Departed Spirit
Tom Nairn on the English Quandary
What was it that departed during the first week of September? Much of the country was not convulsed by grief, although we do not know the proportion that stayed unmoved, or even critical, and perceived the events as a Southern or heartland spectacle. Yet it appears to be true that even among the more detached, many found themselves touched by unsuspected melancholy, strangely coupled to a sense of liberation and change. An inescapable shift was occurring, displayed in unheard of symptoms like the applause in Westminster Abbey, as well as the mountains of flowers and poems.
But what was the nature of the shift – and what exactly shifted? For all that has now been written around the event, the answer remains obscure. There are nevertheless a number of possibilities, of which the strongest might look something like this: a fairly long-lasting structure of English national identity which, though already in serious trouble, required this sudden blow from an unexpected angle to collapse. Much of the evidence remains circumstantial, but that is often the case when ‘identity’ is involved. What we are discussing is (or was) a subcutaneous circuit of attitudes and feelings which functioned best when it was unconscious, or taken for granted. Except when called upon, the mechanism invisibly behaved itself. While there and available, few paid it much heed. When it broke down, on the other hand, everyone noticed, was affected to some degree, and looked for an explanation. ‘She called out to the country,’ Elton John sang at the funeral. But may it not have been the English Rose’s country which, in the aftermath of loss, ceased being able to call out in a traditional way? If so, a call long responded to – not really ‘down the ages’ but for quite a long time, about a century and a half – would not be made or heard again.
I have a corner to defend in this argument, having suggested in these pages last April that the future of the monarchy might have some relevance to the general election. It looked like being the first election ‘without the Crown’, inasmuch as the institution had so shrunk in popular appeal that it would end up being actively despised. Earlier in the year, a TV survey had shown an anti-monarchy majority in Scotland. How long would it be before the same was true in England? The answer was not long coming: six months, if we reckon it between Carlton’s televised debate in February and another poll conducted in August, shortly before Diana’s death, which showed the first modest anti-royal majority among the English. In April the royal family had looked like mouldering waxworks: in midsummer it seemed that the removal van might be called before too long. May I reduced the United Kingdom’s ‘natural party of government’ to a leaderless playground gang. When Diana died less than a fortnight remained before the decisive vote for Home Rule in Scotland, the least royal-minded part of Britain; preparations were advancing rapidly to turn Australia into a republic; the British Empire had been formally wound up in Hong Kong; and in Northern Ireland a peace process was actively resumed. This, if it gets anywhere at all by 1998, is bound to imply a more ‘neutral’ form of government in which the Crown is less prominent.
Then came the accident in the Pont de I’Alma underpass. The monarchy had already been sliding so fast that it was daily harder to measure the fall. Charles Windsor (future sovereign etc) and his mother were chiefly preoccupied with making life more tolerable for him by navigating Camilla Parker-Bowles back into public acceptability. Without offending the wish of two divorcees for a decent life together, one can surely point out that, set against the landslip going on around them, that preoccupation was probably futile. It served to isolate royalty further in a sepulchral world of its own. Even then, the couple’s only way was probably out: an Edward VIII-plus solution, with its terminal implications for the future of the institution. After September, can there be any doubt at all? There are still trusties like Vernon Bogdanor and Clive James who feel that ‘we’ cannot live without the institution, and hence – since this institution is unavoidably genetic – without the well-meaning Charles as a bridge to a brighter future in Prince William’s sun. But such keep-it-up monarchism is now far more strained than anti-monarchism used to be.
Like the rest of us, Bogdanor and James saw the last vestige of life disappear from the wondrous mirror, as the remains were ferried across England. They, too, may have felt the sense of never-more – of a time that had finally expired – yet they cannot accept it. Other empires have been shattered on the wheel of military defeat, revolution or economic catastrophe: this one was merely shaken down by an accidental wind into the sweet, wry decomposition of a Post-Modern September. Though the dying fall still had some grandeur in it, there was an unmistakable relief that it was over. It showed throughout the mourning. What the crowds wanted was enigmatic, but it felt as though they had gathered to witness auguries of a coming time, without knowing what these might be. England is due a future – one that can smartly exorcise the ghosts of Balmoral and Windsor. During the years 1992 to 1997 that wish for a future had become locked onto the figure of Diana. But the fixation was temporary. Her death released it, and since 31 August it has been walking the streets.
Vol. 19 No. 22 · 13 November 1997
From Keith Flett
The peculiarities of the English which Tom Nairn (LRB, 30 October) focuses on in his post-Diana state of the nation analysis are one thing, but as nothing compared to the peculiarities of Nairn. Thirty years ago Nairn might have reminded us that the 1905 Russian Revolution was led by an even less likely figure than Princess Diana, Father Gapon. It is, however, Nairn’s loose usage of the term ‘revolution’ that rankles. A revolution, even the half-revolution that St Just rightly warned of, must actually change something. If the events around Diana’s death had even resulted in the provision of more cash for schools and hospitals, or had stopped Jack Straw mindlessly implementing Tory immigration laws, then I would have been cheering it on. I can agree with Nairn that the millions who mourned Diana were groping for some kind of change. But he should take his thoughts to some of the foot soldiers of the floral revolution before pronouncing further.
From R.V. Ward
Tom Nairn makes heavy weather of the situation arising from the death of Princess Diana. Ever since the Winter of Discontent, public affairs had been conducted in an atmosphere of hatred and malice repugnant to ordinary people, and foreign to the way they go about their everyday affairs. This feeling increased their susceptibility to Diana, whom some saw as a victim of the prevailing malice. Subconsciously they were nurturing an incipient love for her, and the shock of her death brought this to the surface, transformed to a love as irrational and powerful as any one person can feel for another. I experienced it myself, and would have laid flowers had I been living in London, though I had taken no special interest in Diana’s life. I had never felt anything like it before, and do not expect to feel anything like it again. It has not changed my social attitude in any way that I can discover.
From Leonard Pepper
It was good to see grown men crying in the streets and carrying bunches of flowers. For a week the routine of the country was disturbed, which is always welcome. It is probably wise to stop there and not be lured into further speculation. Nairn, however, is summoned onwards. In a pretty conceit he talks about the crowds ‘electing their first president, without bothering to set up a republic first’. In the rest of Europe the passage from monarchy to republic has generally been cataclysmic, and the odds are that if the British monarchy does go, there will have been hard days of some kind leading up to its departure. It is an irresponsible fantasy to suggest that Diana could open the door to a republican future without anything more than a few million flower petals being ruffled. It is equally a fantasy to believe in the Labour Government’s promises of equality without the hardship of a redistribution of wealth, and I liked what Nairn said about Tony Blair appropriating the charisma of Diana. It is just a pity that he has reinforced a presumption which has been flying around since September, to the effect that Britain can be changed by people feeling differently about themselves.
Vol. 19 No. 23 · 27 November 1997
From Walt ‘Bugsy’ O’Brien
If, as a military police clerk and C/I liaison in the US Marines some years back, I were going 80 mph (which is what 121 kph works out to, roughly) through a downtown area with a drunk at the wheel without my seatbelt fastened and hit something really hard and died, I should imagine the traffic cop would have shrugged and called it suicide. Having driven for class-warfare pimps such as American civilian intelligence officials, I can just see the stony stares that young security fellow from the Paras got for reminding Di and Dodi to buckle up, as he was paid to do. Thank God there wasn’t a busload of 15-year-old tourists in their path, coming back from the only night in their ‘little people’s’ lives at the Paris Opera. ‘Candle in the Wind’ is not the appropriate song: better ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ by Jan and Dean. Whatever gave us the idea there was such a thing as ‘little people’ in the first place, if not that era Diana signified and embodied – the Eighties, with its numbing fixation on the lives of the rich and famous and beautiful? Fat chance all this would have happened if she were five feet tall and weighed in at 300 lbs.
The Evil Prince so far has created what? thirty or forty thousand jobs with his Trust, saved London from more Albert Speer-inspired high-rise, turned his back in public on that butchering bastard Idi Amin, and is probably a pretty good CO when he is serving with his regiment. And Tom Nairn is quite wrong about the stiff upper lip being a figment of the imagination (LRB, 30 October). Whether it is a kindergarten teacher like Ms Potts extemporaneously making like Gordon of Khartoum to protect her little charges, or right-minded crowds being trampled by horses for protesting at having to pay to vote (the selfsame issue over which our King, Dr Martin Luther King, was shot: the poll tax), it is a little difficult to think of the English – of whatever ethnicity – as posers or shams when the chips are down. My impression is that the UK is the world’s largest street gang, and when you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet, as the song goes. It is not the Crown’s fault that quiet competence and perseverance have gone out of fashion. Be patient, they are coming back. These new kids are up to the challenge; they have had us as excellent counter-examples. Meanwhile, Nairn’s is the fifty zillionth article I have seen on England’s spiritual death. Either die or get up off the floor and get on with it.
Walt ‘Bugsy’ O’Brien