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.

It may be the world of Edmund Burke which lies rotting in the grass: the deeper identity structure founded by Great Britain’s defeat of the French Revolution. The scholarship of David Cannadine and Linda Colley has shown how this was done and how vital the monarchy was to the process. The rejigged royal institution was the mechanism for weening an unruly, half-revolutionary people away from its own past. The defeat of France shored up a potent popular nationalism which, unharnessed, might easily have recoiled on the class-state that had ridden it to victory in 1815. Burke sensed this possibility acutely and devoted his efforts to stabilising the old spirit of tumult and insurrection. As he understood, more was required than success and foreign conquests to fasten it in place. In his own day, during the interminable twilight of George III, conditions did not favour that sort of conservative-domestic redressement. When a suitable monarch presented herself in 1837, however, the formula of a people’s royalism became viable, and was quickly seized on. The tradition invented at that point was a subterranean weld of nationalism and personal regality: the Crown as moral persona, natural and yet non-ethnic. Its feigned immemoriality helped cast the English for so long in the moulds of hierarchy, protocol and the stiff upper lip.

One of E.P. Thompson’s ‘peculiarities of the English’ – and in its intensity peculiar to England. It echoed and fortified what was to be the true peculiarity of the English throughout this period: Britain. Their imperium was sustainable only by England not being itself. The standard politics of nationality in the 19th-century world were contrived just for that: to enable peoples to become themselves more fully and self-consciously. Anglo-Britain, however, required a more distinctive, tailor-made garment. Neither ethnicity nor Tom Paine’s republican, civic-territorial nation could have stabilised the vital bond between the English masses and all their alien or multinational attachments. The main feature in the making of the Anglo-Brit working class was that it shouldn’t appear too crassly to be ‘Made in England’. Coat-of-arms Britain represented the hegemony of the English – but also their containment and repression, and the symbol system of monarchy was a crucial part of that. Its decorous restraint was much more than bourgeois stuffiness. The formula was not infallible, as Ireland would demonstrate. Yet on the whole its efficacy was astonishing: a self-control mechanism for controlling the rest of the world, lubricated by contrived archaism, pageantry, and a sentimental hyper-personalism, all of which preserved the Early Modern, unwritten constitution of England against what Burke perceived as the joint perils of modernity: abstract ideas and liberated ethnic fury.

It was a one-off world, and it was inside the coffin borne up the MI to Northamptonshire on 6 September. England was grieving for its former self. All mourners do this to the extent that the shock of death evokes everyone’s mortality. But here the circumstances do look fairly conclusive. The demise was of, not merely in, the erstwhile national family. During the period of death agony, from 1990 to 1997, popular feeling, as Julie Burchill first pointed out in the Modern Review in 1992, had become displaced onto the figure of Diana. She was the royal who wasn’t: as everyone said, a ‘modern’ personality in flight from the waxwork world, yet aristocratic in manner and monarchical in aspiration. An ideal transitional object, therefore, enabling visible change and emotional rebellion without relinquishing nostalgia and the possibility of redemption. As long as this reluctant renegade lived, so did the remains of the ancien régime. The jealous goodness-competition between them kept the old national psychodrama going. Spectators could continue to subscribe to one or other version of its hoariest myth: ‘modernising the monarchy’. No one knew we were really into the epilogue, until the curtain abruptly fell.

But then the entire audience grasped in a microsecond what was up. And they grasped that it was no small thing. The structures of an effective national identity are by definition reproduced in its individual bearers. In that sense it is not an exaggeration to say that on the night of 30-31 August something was killed in each member of the public. In today’s computerese, it could be imagined as something like a Java-language ‘applet’ embedded in most Britannic craniums: that is, the micro-code of emotional authentication and orientation through which a community is triggered, maintained, occasionally celebrated – but also controlled. Nor is it so astonishing that they then rushed forward to throw flowers and poems onto the stage. This had been one of the oldest codes around, only slightly younger than that of the 1789 French or the 1776 Americans. ‘Tradition’ is just another way of denoting the fact. Over time it had generated a proportionate amount of national-popular poetics: quasi-familial belonging, idolisation of (and nostalgia for) impossible goodness, the blue remembered hills of here, there and (in the case of London) practically everywhere. Just how powerful the control system had been was clear the day after its annihilation.

A key image incessantly repeated on TV screens that week (usually in slow motion) was of a grinning Diana rushing forward to pick up and hug her sons on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. She did so amid the more kosher-royal effigies, gamely carrying on with the waving and smiling. Queenly matrons probably didn’t dispense this kind of warmth (one couldn’t help feeling) nor, probably, had Charles known what to do about it. One did not have to be kosher-English to appreciate the scene. Indeed it may even have helped to be black, motherless and Welsh, to mention only one subject who effortlessly achieved world media renown at the same time down in the Mall. The prominence of non-Anglos in the proceedings is quite logical – like MP Bernie Grant’s defence of monarchy on the Carlton TV programme in February. Once outright colonialism was over, the Windsors’ non-ethnic pretensions acquired more weight: putative multiculturalism, as it were – warmer towards minorities than a potentially ethnocentric republicanism would be. At the end, Princess Diana herself gave powerful emphasis to that bit of the code. She died in Paris meaning to marry an Egyptian who left poems under her pillow, and was latterly most celebrated for her international campaign against the use of landmines: an increasingly cosmopolitan celebrity, and according to her brother, thinking of quitting England for good.

Yet I doubt if this at all diminishes the event’s in-dwelling Englishness. World spectacles require a local origination and vitality. This alone provides the intensity, the dramatic dynamism capable of commanding the widest audience. President Kennedy’s assassination was an ultra-American melodrama, and Diana’s obsequies had their meaning only under palace walls, among visible relics of feigned timelessness, fading banners and mildewed hierarchical protocol. The crowds may have been disavowing that ‘England’ rather than celebrating it; but this may also have been the point.

All revolutions celebrate one past in order to get rid of another. Here the revolutionaries were demanding a more real, personalised, sincerely loving (etc) monarchy, in order to disembarrass themselves of the Windsors. But the Windsor code is the one they happen to have been governed by for nearly two centuries – ‘Balmorality’. Such devices have built-in limitations: they can’t be stretched or re-coded at will, by Princess Diana or anybody else. In one sense post-Hanoverian royalism was an odd instrument of adaptation, founded on the response to social change and hence always ‘modernising’, moving closer to the people (and so on). However, the programme parameters for that were set by many other factors – by a whole environment which, in the summer of 1997, had almost completely vanished. And to think that a Queen of Hearts could change this was real superstition. Unfortunately, Diana herself believed in the magic, as did all too many of the September mourners.

In that case, what can such a tidal current of sentiment portend? Over this point darker suspicions have been aired. Almost from the outset, the antennae of more critically-minded commentators felt something else stirring behind the tears and floral tributes – the air from another country, the distant sound of a different drummer.

On 2 September, the journalist Isobel Hilton said in her column in the Guardian that there was already something oppressive about the elegiac mood. It was as if the entire population had been spirited into another straitjacket: obligatory national grief-convulsion, so to speak, intolerant of dissent or qualification. But many people considered her guilty of potentially discreditable heresy. The old establishment taboo on criticising the royal institution had been made inoperative by royal misdemeanour; yet within 48 hours a new one seemed to have sprung up around the monarchy’s renegade daughter – as if, however improbably, she had become the repository of the Reithian BBC’s nationalised moralism and authority. The following week, Joan Smith pursued a similarly dangerous line in the Independent on Sunday: ‘In recent days ... those of us who are not willing to pretend to emotions we don’t feel have been getting an ominous message – that we ought to keep quiet. It’s a message which is not easy to defy in the face of repeated assertions about the country being “united in grief”.’ She had published a book discussing Diana’s role as media icon, and a review appeared suggesting the volume ought now to be pulped. Nothing should be permitted to sully the perfection of the departed image. Although ‘benign in origin’, Smith argued that this process is ‘a peculiarly dangerous one’ which can also be seen as exhibiting ‘alarming manifestations of totalitarianism’. Several other critics have made the same point, invariably taking ‘fascism’ as their point of reference.

The national circumstances, it may be relevant to recall here, are those that prevailed until 1 May: a pitiful government which for several years had lurched round in narrowing circles at the mercy of its anti-European, nationalist wing. The election showed how little support ‘Euroscepticism’ really enjoyed. But at the same time it dramatically reconfigured the political geography of that support. Toryism disappeared from Scotland and Wales. It will never reappear there in its old forms. And the new Government moved smartly to promote a liberal (i.e. less Unionist) solution in Northern Ireland. While no longer commanding an automatic heartland majority (as many used to think) Conservatism is unlikely to vanish or break up in England. But it does look as if it has completely lost the British control codes. The crowds might just as well have been mourning ‘what united us’ in monarchy and imparted a broader radiance of meaning (even if it also cramped our style). For most of those grieving, England is the only possible inheritor: a narrower ground of identity, and one still to be defined.

I suspect it was this lack of definition the critics were responding to. ‘Fascism’ is in-apposite: there was no militarism, and the only flag that counted was the one missing from the Buckingham Palace flagstaff. Ross McKibbin’s account of the events in the LRB (2 October) has emphasised how diffuse, quirky and quite unhysterical these mostly were. What panic and paranoia there was lay more obviously in the reaction of the authorities, and the media, uncertain how to tack in the new wind. And yet, the Cassandras were surely not mistaken in detecting an impatience with insults to mourning which might become intolerance of almost anything this post-British ‘we’ decided (or was persuaded) was intolerable. There was a vivid sensation of popular authority – but was it really democracy? The latter implies a certain impersonality, too, and the legitimation of new institutional rules. There was little sign of this amid the decisive mass emotions. Unfortunately, floral-nostalgic populism is compatible with a deep vein of irrationalism: in the end, the magic won out.

Funerals are also rehearsals. The fact is we do not know what England was rehearsing in its prolonged wake for Diana; but we do know from the history of other identity shifts that no nation simply discards one character and steps unscathed into another. Burke’s England-Britain may be dead, but there could be elements in its decomposition which remain toxic. Here, too, it’s a matter of guesswork, with reference to the ambient conditions. The old identity syndrome linked to monarchy would probably not have lasted so long without the final boost it got from the Falklands War in 1982. Margaret Thatcher permanently destroyed many of the supports of Britishness, but concealed this damage by Churchillian leadership and her personal ultra-fervent royalism. Once that wore off, the profounder current of disintegration resumed, and gathered momentum beneath the top-layer stagnation of Major’s government. It is still accelerating. The drummer may not be all that distant. I mentioned earlier how it took a mere six months for the Crown to fall through the floor, once it had been made openly criticisable. After Diana’s interment, it took a mere six weeks for the English Tory Party to reconstruct its historic image comprehensively, in accordance with what were deemed to be the populist lessons of the Mall. The iron man of market law, big-stick sovereignty and sock-it-to-them Windsordom, Michael Portillo himself, wenton record at the Party Conference slobbering over a ghastly Blackpoolrock confection of new compassion and multiculturist schmalz.

The nation is in the streets, and her suitors are lining up in earnest. The most urgent is of course the new regime carried into office by the May landslide. Has any government of modern times enjoyed such an astonishing opportunity? Only four months after the election Tony Blair ran into a spiritual earth tremor as well: his nation changing its ideological skin. He knew as well as other subjects what was happening and expressed it in his remarks at Trimdon on 31 August: the ‘People’s Princess’ was officially sanctioned. But unlike others he had some power to influence what was being buried, and who was to take over from it. There is a sense in which the new constitution of England was in his hands at that moment – a question more important than the devolutionary strategy his government was committed to on Britain’s periphery.

In his incisive comments on the event in last month’s Prospect, Michael Ignatieff underlines the sense of Blair’s response. The Government ‘intervened on the monarchy’s side’ – and repaired what it could of the rupture between past and present:

In insisting on a large public funeral, in urging the royal family to make a public show of their grief, he loaned them the formidable public relations skills which had won him the election. In the process, he managed the difficult feat of becoming a national rather than a political figure ... In managing the monarchy’s counter-attack, while simultaneously promoting himself as a national leader, and accomplishing all this without appearing to profit from national distress, Blair may have guaranteed himself the kind of hegemony which Margaret Thatcher enjoyed in the Eighties.

But this means he has profited from the distress, and powerfully, by turning himself into the People’s Prince. In the Eighties to which Ignatieff refers, Thatcher was sometimes mocked for setting herself up in business as an alternative monarch. But at that time Queen Elizabeth and her heir enjoyed much greater prestige: until 1990 the symbolic order remained largely intact, though many of its props had gone. Now, the alternative is a lot more serious. Anthony Barnett puts this argument strongly in This Time, a study of constitutional revolution due out next month. Keeping the waxworks in business could be a way of concentrating even greater real authority in the prime ministerial function. There is, after all, not likely to be much charismatic competition from an elderly Queen or her eccentric and tarnished heir. So, New Labour has not just inherited the most centralised state in the Atlantic world, and the apparatus of quasi-regal sovereignty, and the House of Lords, and a virtual absence of regional contestation within England itself, and a preposterous electoral majority – it has been able to elect its own monarch, too. The funeral crowds were in a sense electing their first president, without bothering to set up a republic first. Unfortunately, that candidate was dead. But this didn’t matter, since another candidate (the only live one) ended up stage-managing the whole business.

September’s funeral-fête showed an England turning away from the British armorial bearings all right, and questing instinctively for a different future. But it may also have displayed a fatal instinct still at work: the one derived from the long historical experience of regality and empire, which is not so easily shed. British popular monarchism established a very powerful fusion of nationality and personality, a channelled identity which worked by separation of the charismatic and the political state. As the latter was battered by Thatcher, and then ruined by Major, the two have shown signs of collapsing into one another. Was this not the sense of Thatcher’s quasi-regal autocracy? And has that not become Blair’s plebiscitary quasi-dictatorship? In between these phenomena, we now know how the nation nurtured its extraordinary cult of Princess Diana. The heart which burst into the streets in September was as yet far from that of a republic. It remains that of a national romanticism. I would not speak ill of romanticism as such in this context, I doubt whether nations can exist without it. But there is also such a thing as regressive romanticism, one rooted in anteriority even while it feels it is gazing eagerly forward. Burke’s world-view promoted that inclination of the heart and September suggested it goes on reproducing itself.

Ross McKibbin concluded his observations by remarking how ‘a democracy which admired her with such intensity is both incomplete and immature.’ Yes, and an unreformed state will always have some interest in keeping it that way. The Diana spectacle was a kind of splendour in the grass. But republicans perceive the same phenomenon as the essence of the rottenness in the grass. And in the identity battleground we are entering, their instinct ought to be just as peremptory, and asserted just as strongly: get rid of it. A Europe-oriented republicanism is the only cure, and the only way of realising the more generous and creative aspirations of the great crowds. Whether or not it has the motivation, this Government and its Liberal Democratic allies have the power to do it. Their time has to be now – rather than beyond the great Millennium show, under the government after next.