The Sociology of Grovelling
So what is the mystery of British Monarchy? As we have seen, the actual realm of this ‘powerless’ institution is in practice coextensive with really existing British society.
It binds the State together. Anyone who buys an elementary text-book on the British Constitution to read it (rather than pray before it) knows that the Crown is a crucial element in Constitution, Law and Government. Were it to disappear, these would require both theoretical and practical reconstruction, not a few adjustments with a spanner.
At the same time it is anything but a State institution in the sense of being confined to that plane. On the contrary, it also informs, entertains and deeply influences civil society. Since George V’s time it has established a formidable ascendancy over the public imagination. Though strong and pervasive media were a necessary condition of this, it does not follow that they alone ‘created’ the effect. Similarly, although Royalty-obsession could only have developed like this in the era of star-studded popular culture and mass fashion, it does not follow that Monarchy can be reduced to the terms of this category. It has its own distinct features and rules. The dominant power has made use of media, stardom and fashion for its own ends; not vice versa.
The principal of these ends is maintenance of what R. W. Johnson calls ‘the peculiar British political culture, characterised on the one hand by the imprint of a uniquely powerful and successful state and, on the other, by its noninclusive conception of the popular interest...’ The latter phrase (he goes on to explain) derives from the oddest feature of that culture – its lack of any notion of popular sovereignty. The People are ‘Represented’ at the Seat of Majesty but never in actual occupation there:
It is unthinkable that a state like the British one can be ‘possessed’ by its people. The very institution of the monarchy makes this plain ... (and) the fact of the monarchy is again critical to this strand of culture.
But the ‘strand of culture’ is the crucial, living nerve of the Old Regime: the very quick of its authority, and of the mass identity through which that power is wielded. Its living Word is incomparably more powerful than any competitive Weltanschauung which has so far challenged it: whether Labourite Socialism or (since 1979) Friedmanite Capitalism.
We see two contradictory views about the real significance of Monarchy coexisting within the Ukanian mentality, practically in the same breath: it is all-important, and of no real importance whatever. The absurdity is rendered invisible by our British sense of proportion. One finds the two notions (for instance) cuddling up together in that article of Henry Fairlie’s I quoted earlier. After underlining the sense of insecure personal outrage felt ‘by millions of humdrum people’ whenever Monarchy is denounced, he goes straight on to say:
For the life of me, I cannot understand why people should not be allowed to enjoy a prettily-staged wedding, or even a pompously-staged funeral, without someone breathing fire and brimstone down their necks. Nor do I understand the objection to pageantry and ceremonial...
And so to an all too normal conclusion: attacks on the Royal symbols avoid ‘the real faults of our society, its lack of national purpose’ (and so forth).
Hence, something capable of provoking a nation-wide taboo, frothing hysteria and death-threats is also an innocent, prettily-staged ceremonial no serious British intellect need worry about. The danger of the Crown becoming ‘the sole cohesive force in society’ is, at the same time, just ‘a piece of acceptable nonsense’. It is ‘the cherished symbol by which most of us live’. One might be pardoned for thinking this a matter of some moment. But no, not really, since it is also ‘as harmless a symbol as any human society could find’. It matters deeply to nearly everyone and is of no significance whatever. Grotesque self-contradiction of this order is so common in both popular and official native commentary about the British Royals that one has to put it down as systematic. It has the air of something built into the lived ideology of Royalism, and for that reason goes unregarded. Why is this?
The only plausible explanation is that a defensive machinery is at work, whose very success simultaneously suppresses awareness of the contradiction. The magic emblem is displaced by an accompanying taboo from the sphere of the criticizable, and the act of displacement itself paralyses any critical sense of what has been done. Then, thoroughly protected by redefinition as ‘acceptable nonsense’, its actual importance can go on being accepted and enjoyed.
The question of what the Monarchical mystique means is a matter of charting the surprisingly little known (because taken for granted) terrain of Ukania, and its main lines of relationship to the humbler and more disappointing material land we live in. Crown Britain is so to speak the spiritual landlord of everyday British realities; its mortmain is thorough and (for reasons so far obscure) not just accepted but obviously adored by most of the tenantry. What is the source of this magic-seeming authority? What bias does it impart to the social body from which it springs and to which it returns with its own special, added impetus?
The reader will be able to think of many other examples of the spirit-land’s topography. It is a family-country, hence ideologically ‘small’ in a sense having no relationship to actual geography. Its atmosphere is at once cosy (for those wanting security) and liable to seem claustrophobic (for a minority wanting greater freedom, achievement and mobility than the decorum allows). Both traditional Toryism and Royal Socialism emphasized the cosiness; not until the 1980s were they challenged (and then destroyed) by political forces focusing on the destruction and replacement of this old fabric.
But in spite of such dislocation it is still managed almost entirely by familial custom – that is, by conventions established, ‘commented’ upon and incessantly and footlingly modified, rather than by script and principle. This management remains in the hands of an essentially hereditary elite whose chief attribute is knowing how to manage: their ‘secret’ is knowing this secret. These family elders are (as we will go on to see) either bred or the products of a synthetic blood-line schooled into a simulacrum of breeding, and thus made capable of carrying on the right (Royal) spirit.
This spirit is diffused from above downwards in a process of (occasionally antagonistic) familial articulation signposted by notions like ‘fairness’, ‘decency’, ‘compromise’, ‘consensus’, plural concessionary ‘liberties’, ‘having one’s say’, ‘tradition’ and ‘community’ – rather than the humourless abstractions of 1776, 1789 and after: Popular Sovereignty, democracy, egalite, and so on. Ukania keeps Britain firmly in early-modern times, in other words. But since it is the posthumous times that have generalized the terms and consciousness of modem political life, this is – inevitably – also a strategy of deep dissimulation. It has required the services of a national philosophy of dissimulation and repression: ‘British empiricism’, or the priority of practice over theory, of conditioned reflexes over ideal principle. It has also been served by a literature devoted to mothering the same reflexes.
An important facet of such inbuilt hypocrisy is the taboo surrounding Monarchy. As we shall see, this affords a vital double protection. It shields the sacred totem of authority from direct disparagement and removes it even from the indirect criticism of theory by apologetic ‘disavowal’. In this way the naive emotionality, instinctive rapport and regressive colour of familial relations are preserved. In politics, the distinctive pseudo-adversarial conflict of family existence is also safeguarded: dreams of flight and murder are reconciled with a daylight of consensus where the millstones of memory grind on (‘Our way of doing things’, better than anarchy, and so on). The Royal way of doing things may have its drawbacks, but was (at least until Thatcherism got a grip) more essentially civilized than anyone else’s. In its very failures there always lay a superior moral capacity, a sage avoidance of overmuch modernity. Thus, where the millstones have ground rather fine and produced dilapidation or mess, a sort of redemption still shines forth from decay.
The task of Ukanian culture (and above all of its Letters) has been essentially to detect and register these redemptory rays. They are connected by hidden spores to the great emblems of Monarchic glamour, in a single and organic community of archaic grandeur: the same Royal-National (and deeply popular) conventions which have, since the middle of this century, been collapsing through remorseless stages into a single identity of ruin – into an accumulating backwardness which became the ultimate secret of the Monarchic riddle and eventually, with Mrs Thatcher's neo-conservatism, forced its own characteristically barbed solution: blind, backwards advance, or regressive modernization.
Negatively, almost any sceptic might suspect there is no chance whatever of domestic-industrial revival in Britain, or of a principled Republicanism capable of demolishing Hyde’s Mortimer and building something more rational. But a more positive suspicion too seems legitimate: why should Ukania not derive still another fresh lease of life from whatever capitalist revival follows the nagging depression of the last decade? It has done well enough during it. In which case, a wholly ‘unviable’ national economy (in Sidney Pollard’s sense) may flourish as never before, simply because the demand for its 'outward-looking' services is greater than ever: Royal Ukania redivivus, the Third Industrial Revolution’s indispensable parasite, will then be well able to bear forward its rotting polity and kitschig Monarchy into another century or so of life.
At the same time she will be able finally to put her longsuffering nations and sub-nationalities out of their misery. Never having been able to generate a Republic – either ‘British’ or their own – they will end up with Heritage Trails, Industrial Museums, time-share complexes and Japanese or American assembly-plants (all consecrated by a Royal Visitor).