The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy 
by Tom Nairn.
Radius, 402 pp., £25, June 1988, 0 09 172960 2
Show More
Show More

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.

Monarchy is, in a secular age, Britain’s own curious form of religion – it is publicly far easier to say one doesn’t believe in God than to say one doesn’t believe in monarchy, as, in their own way, the quotations from Kinnock and Livingstone both attest. In other societies emperor-worship waned as Christianity waxed: in Britain it has been the other way round. Fewer people go to church here than anywhere else in the world, but that’s because we have a monarchy which is not only a religion but a popular cult: it’s Michael Jackson as well as Runcie. The younger royals instinctively understand that they are a sort of super pop-star, and, while they may occasionally complain about it, the fact is that, as any pop star must, they court tabloid attention, are indeed largely tabloid inventions. Their lives seem to be constructions of sheer kitsch, in the approved tabloid style of thunderous bad taste. No wonder the Sun’s journalists are so intrusive with Princess Di – it is they who created her and they who propagate what Nairn terms ‘the expanding mass illusion of intimacy’. Monarchy is, too, our Cult of Personality: it is always a terribly bad sign when people’s birthdays get to be celebrated, whether it be Nero, Joseph Stalin, Nelson Mandela or the Queen. But it is, above all, the Great Lie at the Centre. It demeans and corrupts our culture by commanding the worship of rank, not merit; of inheritance, not achievement.

It makes people accept that sheer humbug is normal, it makes people grovel and it makes people lie. Politicians long ago realised the uses of royal circuses: Lloyd George devised a wholly bogus Investiture Ceremony for the Prince of Wales at a time when the Irish were getting out of hand, and Harold Wilson did the same in the late Sixties when Welsh and Celtic nationalism was again on the rise. Despite an enormous media build-up, the latter occasion was a considerable flop – policemen outnumbered spectators, the crowd-control barriers had no crowds behind them, and houses trying to rent seats with views of the Procession found no takers. Even at the Castle itself the crowds were only ‘Third Division football size’. But the press sells too many papers with royal guff to allow a Royal Flop.

The media described it as a resounding popular triumph and crowed about ‘investiture fever’. Lord Snowdon devised special ‘tasteful’ souvenirs for the Event – Investiture pie-funnels and Investiture doilies. In a word, more lies, more kitsch.

Nairn is, though, more interested in how the Crown has denatured Ukanian nationalism and national identity. The ideology of Great Britain (= Greater England) dates, he argues, from the mobilisation of popular opinion accompanying the titanic twenty-year struggle against Napoleon. But the problem has been that nationalism must ultimately be a populist phenomenon, must depend on a strong sense of ‘we the people’ – and this Ukanian nationalism can’t manage. Instead, a peculiar royal-conservative, not-above-one’s-station national identity was imposed on the people from the top down. This has simply destroyed, or even prevented from birth, any genuinely popular national culture, and in its place we have a carefully nurtured folklore-from-above. Thus the question of nationalism and of its place as a constitutive part of modernity has never been properly solved or even raised in Britain, and ‘the elements of infantilism so plainly present in the Royal infatuation derive from this history.’ Instead, what we have is a true ancien régime, our own version of the Habsburgs, presiding over a country which is really just a super-Venice, a city state writ large. Typically the educated classes of Ukania view things as if from the palace and talk, from the ‘Home Counties’, of ‘the provinces’ – thus triggering a typical Nairn soliloquy on the subject:

Those unversed in the Queen’s tongue may not appreciate the full sodden misery of the concept. With medicine-pill intensity it evokes all that Crown and Court are not: a terrain vague of indeterminate rusticity and toil which chaps enjoy (on holiday) and quite definitely have a duty to help and encourage. This far-flung waste of garden-gnomes and factory-chimneys is in effect an image of nation-state prostration before the City’s hegemony.

Much of Nairn’s book is taken up with an exploration of the ways in which Ukanian culture is denatured by the monarchy: how our intellectuals have been corrupted by the cult of ‘greatness’ (a swipe at E.P. Thompson here), how, in a thousand ways, the culture tries to see things from the royals’ view down – but, since we can’t be in their position, how the thing becomes contorted and crippled, decked out with a bogus ‘pageantry’, itself a key, ritualised part of the ‘glamour of backwardness’. Other peoples’ leaders retire back to ordinary citizenship, but, under our monarchical religion, ours do the equivalent of going to heaven, ascending into the peerage and presenting us with ‘Druidic waxworks like the Gartered Callaghan’. Again, sheer kitsch reigns: when you get your knighthood the Marine band plays ‘If I were a rich man’. Those who pay such large sums of money to Tory Party funds are really buying this. But they’re buying something else too – a sort of trickle-down of deference. As Gustave Le Bon observed almost a hundred years ago, a title also brings a minor version of the ecstasy people feel when meeting the royals. There was, he said, a ‘peculiar sort of intoxication produced in the most reasonable Englishman by the contact or sight of an English Peer ... They may be seen to redden at his approach, and if he speaks to them their suppressed joy increases their redness, and causes their eyes to gleam with an unusual brilliance.’ So you get a bit of redness for your money too. Many of our great men and captains of industry fight and scrabble for these honours like so many pigs after acorns. It’s difficult to see how any word other than ‘infantilism’ can fit.

Nairn trudges through the various defensive justifications and cop-outs occasioned by any public mention of the themes above. Perhaps the most interesting is the Ukanian tendency to decry nationalism as if it always led to Nazism or other terrible (but, in fact, rather rare) deformations. Hence Kingsley Martin’s famous dictum that ‘if we drop the trappings of Monarchy in the gutter, Germany has taught us that some guttersnipe (or house-painter with a mission) may pick them up.’ So there you have it, chaps. It may be a bit embarrassing to be ruled over by ‘Europe’s greatest living fossil’ but if you don’t have the gluttonous King-Emperor, you get Hitler. What is left out here is the obvious comparison with French nationalism – indeed, our royal conservative identity was forged in resistance to it and its American cousin. And yet how much poorer we are in patriotic terms than the French. I well remember, in the balle populaire which followed the Mitterrand victory in 1981, seeing young Frenchmen of the Left brandishing the Tricolore aloft in triumph: in Britain, if we see a Union Jack in a demonstration we assume it’s the National Front. We do not even have a truly common flag. Similarly, the French President, when he addresses the nation on TV, begins: Françaises, Français ... But we can’t imagine the Queen, in her Christmas broadcast, addressing us as ‘Fellow Brits’. Or ‘fellow’ anything, because the whole point is that she’s not. My dear subjects? My loyal subjects? De pire en pire. Better leave an embarrassed silence. And who really calls himself a Briton? The word tends to get used only in newspaper headlines such as ‘Rabid Hamster Runs Amok: Three Britons Bit.’ We can’t even agree on a name for Ukania. Do I come from England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles or the UK? More feet-shuffling and embarrassed silences. No other country has this nonsense. And, of course, we can’t manage a national day.

Nairn, without much doubt, would like to celebrate that frozen January morning of 1649 when Charles I was beheaded, a scene he recounts with relish, together with the debate which followed in which it was voted ‘that the House of Peers was useless and dangerous, and ought to be abolished.’ It would certainly be nice to have our own Bastille Day, but the whole point of Nairn’s book is that our Bastille has not fallen. In today’s Ukania, which has not so much a Constitutional Monarchy as a Monarchic Constitution, the Bastille is full of Japanese and American tourists who have, for this privilege, paid large sums to the National Trust. The owners have long since removed to pleasanter seats; receive enormous tribute from their subjects (in addition to their huge private wealth, on which they pay no tax); and appear daily on stamps and coins, in the Mirror and the Sun.

Nairn’s meditation on English nationalism is one of the most powerful and original pieces of writing I have ever read on the subject. Shakespeare, he feels, has played a critical role in the construction of the royal-conservative ideology: his depiction of an antique kingship, already out of date when he wrote, has been taken to express eternal truths. But, Nairn argues, the key period in the development of English/Ukanian nationalism lay in the long counter-revolutionary struggle against France: like Shaw, Nairn feels we lost a great deal by not being defeated by Napoleon.

This is, though, a contestable account. One of the key ingredients in the growth of national consciousness is the pressure of other nations upon one’s own. Typically, the imagery which seems to inspire this consciousness is sexual: the foreigner is seen as someone bent upon taking and ravishing one’s women or oneself. Far more than is often noticed, the language of nationalism is the language of violent sex. The foreigner will invade one’s country, penetrating its defences; Germany will rape Belgium; coloured immigrants will overwhelm us; we are concerned about our nation’s racial purity, and so on. Many other key words in the nationalist vocabulary – ‘surrender’, ‘humiliation’, ‘oppression’ and so forth – have at least an equal sexual meaning. In a country like France, with multiple and porous frontiers, this pressure was permanently and insistently felt: French boys would grow up knowing that, sooner or later, the Boches would come again, as they so often had in the past, and then one would have to fight for France. And there is, of course, nothing like living with the permanent expectation of fighting for one’s country to generate an utterly profound nationalism: indeed, in a sense, that expectation is nationalism. Britain, being an island, has lacked this insistent pressure on its borders. For us, making war meant going abroad – we never fought on our own soil, and we were usually able to get away with employing mercenary armies.

So English nationalism was more often implicit than explicit, domestically presumed rather than externally theorised – and it really came into its own only when the fear of invasion became strong. In that sense, the Armada scare of four hundred years ago may indeed have been a fundamental moment in the birth of an English national consciousness – which Shakespeare was merely reflecting. Hence the immediate importance, too, of 1940 in the national psyche: at the moment of its happening the event became instant mythology. English nationalists have always known that they had to conjure up a really good invasion scare if they were to be listened to – hence the way in which many years before 1914 were lived as one long invasion scare. And hence the way English nationalists like Enoch Powell, seeking to excite a national reaction against the ‘threat’ of coloured immigration, instinctively couched their message in terms of an invasion: the immigrants would come in ‘hordes’, ‘pouring in’ in a ‘flood’ to ‘take over’ whole areas, ‘robbing’ the natives of their ‘birthright’ and so on. The French have had many actual invasions to endure – Frenchmen are used to fighting on French soil: our national consciousness has grown, more weakly, from mere invasion scares. In other words, the long-drawn-out threat from Napoleon may be seen as merely a chapter in a sporadic series and not, as Nairn would have it, the one key moment in the birth of Ukanian nationalism.

Nairn argues that for the oppressed peoples of the Habsburg Empire social emancipation could only be achieved through the national struggle, and that the same will be true in Ukania too. At least since 1923, when the Labour Party Conference turned down its last republican motion, no hope has lain in that direction. Instead, Ukania’s various countries will simply have to go their own way in the end, he hopes, as republics. He argues strongly thoughout that Ukania is suffering from irreversible decline, an ‘unarrestable de-industrialisation’ which may precipitate such a crisis. The concept of this ‘decline’ is vital to his thesis, for he believes that Ukania’s economic failure stems from its antique political system, and that there can be no way forward without the completion of the democratic revolution. The question is whether this is more than revolutionary pessimism. It’s not that Thatcherism has produced sustainable prosperity – once the oil and nationalised asset sales cease, all too many chickens will come home to roost. But a great deal of our ‘decline’ has simply been a matter of losing imperial markets as a deferred consequence of decolonisation, a process which has begun to bottom out. And many countries have achieved economic miracles under shambolic political regimes. Our antique social order, unique in the world, has already survived so much that I would not like to bet that it won’t be able to survive ‘decline’, or indeed European integration.

In fact, something more interesting may be taking place. It has for some time been clear that we are moving towards world standardisation in many things. We have the world car, the world soft drink (Coke/Pepsi), the world meal (steak and chips). Visibly, the Pope in recent years has won the competition for world holy man (world holy woman is Sister Theresa). As the integration of the global village moves on apace, the one thing that is dead is cultural parochialism. And it seems possible that there may be a slot for world royal family. In which case the Windsors have got it all locked up: there’s no real Pepsi to their Coke. That is to say, elements of the British infantilist religion of monarchy may become universalised. Already, if one travels in the States or France, let alone the Commonwealth, one sees this happening: tabloid newspapers everywhere now feature the Windsor royals. Moreover Hollywood has realised that there is a market for a whole new genre about the fabulously rich – people so rich that every manner of sexual fantasy, power urge and designer-consumption can be paraded on screen. That way, all the women can be beautiful; they can all have wonderful clothes, hairdo’s, cars, houses, jewellery. And they can have scandals and sagas on the same heroic scale. The result – Dallas, Dynasty and various non-American imitations have broken all audience records: the market exists all right. And all that’s being sold is pseudo-royalty. The Windsors are, unbeatably, the real thing.

We should not then be surprised by the super-kitsch of the Windsors, nor by the way they jostle side by side with J.R. and Sue-Ellen and Joan Collins in the tabloids of the globe. For while Hollywood may have produced pseudo-royals, the royals in turn are too much the creatures of the media not to produce pseudo-Hollywood. The Windsors have all the right qualifications: fabulous wealth, estates, castles, servants, complicated sex-lives, horses, yachts, pretty women with the best jewellery, clothes and hair-do’s – the lot. True, the royals have been held out to their Ukanian subjects as exemplars of niceness, decency and ‘family values’, and this is something of a problem if Balmoral is to rival the Ewing Ranch. But this fabled decency is, as Nairn puts it, only a ‘taboo-supported niceness’. That is, it’s not necessarily real: it’s just that to sound a critical note is taken to be an attack on what Rees-Mogg, flushed with royalist passion, calls ‘the inner spiritual essence of our national life’. These taboos are what really make all the lying possible, but the lying may only be necessary at, so to speak, the Rees-Mogg stratospheric level. For the rest of Ukania – and, increasingly, the world – the Windsors have become a sort of super-Dynasty.

Already they have done things for family life which might seem over the top even in an Aaron Spelling mini-series. Princess Margaret we have become accustomed to see as the Bad Sister of the family – with the spoilt behaviour and the boyfriends: the royal Joan Collins. Philip is clearly an ageing variant of J.R., with the Queen as Miss Ellie. The climactic episode will have, inevitably, to centre upon Princess Michael, with her driving social ambition. What she’s after is nothing less than the Crown Jewels, and once she gets them she’s off to Berchtesgarten in a stolen Gestapo helicopter (the famous Bavarian heli-chase scene). She can be confronted by a heroic Andy (in Falklands pilot hero gear), who will snatch the purloined pearls from her quivering bosom. To be sure, the family badly needs someone called Bobby (there has to be a Bobby for the US market), and it would be a nice gesture towards the Australian serialisation if at least one Bruce or Barry could be found among the ever-proliferating royal brood, as also a Charlene or Betty-Lou. It’s very promising that the royals have begun to visit America so much more: they’ve obviously got the point about marketing strategy. But these are details. The point is that, even if Nairn does turn out to be right about Ukanian ‘decline’, the Windsors can become world tabloid figures and thus escape Ukania’s fate. We have long had monarchical soap and it hasn’t stopped the Rees-Moggs worshipping at the Monarchical altar. Why should full-blown Soap Monarchy be different?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 10 No. 15 · 1 September 1988

There wasn’t much left of the Royal Family after R.W. Johnson got through with his review of Tom Nairn’s The Enchanted Glass: Britain and the Monarchy (LRB, 7 July). Nor, as I gather from the review, is there much left of the Royals in the book. Quite obviously they like their UK plain. Instead of wasting their time wallowing in Jacobinism, both should get down on their knees and thank their lucky stars that they are the subjects of a queen who has produced, in her son and heir, the only public figure in the world to denounce one of the universal horrors of our time, Modern Art, especially as found in architecture. When the future looks back to this bleak era, the one name to shine above today’s nihilism will be that of HRH Prince Charles.

Henry Hope Reed
President, Classical America, New York City

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences