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.

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