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.

With only a few years of hindsight it is obvious how such a moral structure can vanish far more utterly than places and buildings. Majorism was like an interminable funeral rite. Alan Bennett isn’t alone in feeling that there’s something deeply uncouth about this mutation: general melancholia and regret might indeed be more seemly for the old state-nation. Yet, as the famous Carlton TV programme on the Monarchy earlier this year showed, there is no chance of that: the wake naturally takes the form of a raucous, invigorating, escalating, would-be democratic row – itself entirely at odds with the spiritual ethos of yesteryear. The phone-in poll following the on-screen fisticuffs showed that overt republicanism had increased by only several hundred per cent, not yet enough for a majority in England. But in Scotland the dreadful had already happened. Not only was there a republican majority, but the once loyal Scotsman was falling into the grip of Andrew Neil, one of the brashest anti-Royal voices in the Carlton debate. Most commentary about the programme was fearfully disapproving: crass, vulgar, ill-judged, a ‘tasteless screaming-match’ and so on. The Independent Television Commission later supported such genteel verdicts, decreeing that it ‘could not be regarded as a programme of high quality’. No, thank Christ, the audience did seem positively ‘out of control’, the pundits were not granted nearly enough time and even the telephone voting system contributed cheerfully to the chaos. But all that the row demonstrated was that broadsheet commentators and committee-folk have not yet shaken off old-order habits: they dwell still in a universe where the highest possible quality alone befits Royalty, and debates should be run by and for chaps. Oicks should express opinions only when requested under the appropriate fail-safe mechanisms: first-past-the-post voting is better than they deserve. I couldn’t help feeling also that some of these notables must have forgotten what the old days were really like. This may be another feature of the bizarre transition now under way: once an over-starched taboo-culture has collapsed, within a short time surprisingly few can recall how it felt and functioned.

Back in the Sixties, for example, the Scotsman had a faithful operative entrusted with a quite peculiar task. When a Royal photo was to appear in the next day’s paper he was handed the negatives well in advance and asked to eliminate too-prominent wrinkles or blemishes from the faces of Majesty. Off he would go to toil with sets of tiny brushes and jars of off-whitener, in a special darkroom somewhere in the basement of the newspaper’s weird Neo-Gothic premises on Edinburgh’s North Bridge, to forge a series of possible images for editorial approval. They had to be just right. This was glamour-enhancement where subtlety was all, the opposite of crass photo-vérité. Old Ukania thought it could still teach the Commies a thing or two. True iconisation was quite different from the over-obvious clean-up jobs being stamped out every day in Moscow and Tirana. The goal of Great Britain was maintenance of belief, not crass assertion of power. Taboos gratefully supported by the tabooed themselves: such was our way of doing things, clearly deserving help from responsible journalism. The overall result was that weird and now half-forgotten world of strangulated put-downs and place-knowing, the land of done things and seemly gestures in which nobody could say a serious word against Royalty and hence, by the oneiric subterranean logic of Britishness, not against continuity, permanence, wigs, Mr Speaker, fox-hunting, the Commonwealth or sovereignty either.

Yet it is in the nature of taboos to be broken: they are founded on custom and tradition, not democracy. In the UK they were a substitute for democracy as well as nationalism. Once smashed up by the Thatcherite wave-machine they fell immediately beyond redemption, and good riddance to them. The future we have to get on with is different. So let’s start by treating the Royals as ghosts. Yes, we did once love them truly, madly, deeply; but Anthony Minghella’s Zeitgeist movie didn’t just argue that after-images may – perhaps even should – come back to haunt us. The point, surely, was that their sole utility should then be as midwives of a new start, a time that will allow them to cease hanging about, and depart with a sort of honour.

As things stand just now, would-be post-Brits have little chance of emulating that happy ending. Not, at least, for as long as there are so many utterly unghostlike Windsor presences still among us, sweating to keep the show on the road. All they are likely to achieve from now on is the annoyance of other road-users, but that doesn’t seem to deter them. Once drained, a principally symbolic greatness can only turn into a burden, and before long into an irritant, and then into a source of division. For the Royals, to be costed was to be found wanting. It was often noticed at the time how Thatcher was always competing with Queen Elizabeth. An Independent story the other week related how, since being ennobled, she has even appropriated the Royal insignia for her notepaper. However, Thatcher was like King Midas in reverse. Everything she touched was magically transformed into lead: a metered liberty, the lowest common denominator of coinage. For the golden refulgence of Monarchy this was fatal. Something which ceases being priceless can only appear absurdly pricey. Is this what taxpayers were paying out for – not fairyland, only a cost-effective national showcase? Paying some income tax and charging for visits to Buckingham Palace simply compounded the offence. ‘Good for tourism’ is the most pitiable of defences. It turns Majesty into something good for a bob or two, alongside airport boutiques, Madame Tussauds, Travel Inns and the grazing herd of Royal biographers. Once upon a time the Royal Family was supposed to be good for us. Good, one now struggles to recall, in the sense of honourable, and ennobling to the collective consciousness.

I never felt sorry for them for the old reasons – no privacy, born to serve – but must admit to a few stirrings nowadays. For symbols to survive the evaporation of their meaning is shaming for us, but worse for them. In the dishonoured and nameless country where Britfolk will soon be voting, republicanism has become no more than anticipatory Grace: let a secular Mercy take care of these souls, and remove them from our daily sight. They used to emanate a stuffy, stilted and yet reassuring sense of familial continuance. Within the same spectrum of meaning lay their boringness, philistine cheeriness and all the rest of the taken-for-granted societal glue. But it all hung together: no one could now stand the stuffiness and class oppressiveness, and this means they can’t have ‘God bless’em!’ and the sense of wonder either.

On the party-political side it may indeed be that whatever guarantees against lunacy a monarchy furnished have fallen off the cart as well. We can’t be sure about this yet, in the darkling subsidence of Majorism. However, John Redwood, Sir George Gardiner and Michaels Howard and Portillo are scarcely arguments against the view. ‘The source of the authority and legitimacy of government ... the personification of the nation ... an institution vital to our national well-being’: once Portillo boomed his tawdry redemptionist eulogy of the Royals in 1994, they should have been on the first plane out. A political campaign to ‘revive Monarchy’ is the worst possible news for Prince Charles, Nicholas Soames and the other trusties. It means the game is really over. They will never be taken for granted again. More recently, Major cranked out his own version of the Royal thousand-year thing, and everyone remarked how unlike Laurence Olivier he sounded. This was actually rather unfair. It is the whole echo-chamber of Anglo-Brit imagined community which has fallen away; today, I doubt whether even the greatest of hams could successfully replace it.

Fintan O’Toole posed the right question about the episode in the Irish Times: ‘why, if British identity is so secure, does its pedigree have to be so fantastically exaggerated?’ To compensate for Monarchy-deflation, I’m afraid. O’Toole concluded: ‘The invented British nation (1707-1997) is ... in urgent need of re-invention ... and this is why the forthcoming election will be a turning-point. This may be one of those very rare elections fought not on the firm ground of finance but on the slippery and uncertain territory of how a country might go about finding its lost destiny.’ A sociological theorist might make the point this way: though not necessarily visible on a day-to-day or party-political plane, the loss of a key identifying system can cause a profound malaise, at once social and psychic, which finds expression through all sorts of circuitous or ‘irrational’ channels – O’Toole’s ‘uncertain territory’ is one explored with much reluctance, amid wilful backsliding, bouts of scapegoating, escapist brainwaves and aggressive apathy, in a strange atmosphere specific to the recently bereaved. I noted the new salience of rogues and chancers earlier. Anxiety-ridden liberation may sound like a contradiction in terms, and yet individuals and societies do live out such contradictions, at least for a time.

Royal socialism used to be kept in reserve for such bad moments: the old cart-horse of the Movement, responsible trade unionism rising to the occasion, beer and sandwiches at No 10, the ennoblement of protesters. But here, too, the paternalistic parade is no more. It was condemned under Kinnock, and Tony Blair delivered the coup de grâce. Amitai Etzioni and Geoff Mulgan’s Demos have been upgraded to fill the community-relations slot which was once the Monarchy’s by right. Of course democracy ought to have moved in to supplant the deficiencies of a fallimentary patrician order, but that’s the whole point: it couldn’t. The United Kingdom’s earlier victories over successive waves of revolution had so co-opted and stunted democracy that now, when a crasser impulsion was at last required, the internal resources were lacking. What was needed was a heedless, levelling, shouting-and-dancing brawl, Carlton’s Monarchy programme on the stage of the whole UK; what we got was Blairism, an improvement on the class-bound Left but, as Ross McKibbin pointed out (LRB, 3 April), still lacking in the state-reforming energy the moment requires. Like Thatcher before him, Blair has cloaked a sharply intensified centralism in the rhetoric of devolution. What she claimed to be handing down was economic opportunity, through the individualism of the enterprise culture; he claims to be allowing harmless new forms of local government in Scotland, Wales, Ulster, and even in the English regions if they make a sufficient nuisance of themselves. Yet such granted empowerment may also be power retained, or even reinforced: sovereignty can in this way survive the decay and disgrace of our figurative sovereigns, the miserable blood-royals themselves. It is being rehoused in sovereign-presidents, Gaullist concentrations of holy state-magic who see elections mainly as opportunities to make phoney contracts and pledges, or for the people to display ‘trust’ in referenda. The end of Monarchy might turn out to be its apotheosis.

There is a contrary, republican direction. But it would depend on reforming the centre itself: changing the Commons and the state’s whole way of doing business, the electoral system, the Second Chamber and so the national identity and place in the world – above all its place in the European Union. It would involve making an end of Ukanian sovereignty, the Geist, not just its current bearer – a revolutionary task, but one which, as McKibbin suggested, may already have been hamstrung by so much safety-first, such a host of concessions to the Thatcherite economic spreadsheet.