Tate Britain, London, 2019.
Is everyone on the British left anti-monarchist? Does anyone even care?
What does the left think about monarchy? Seems obvious, right? Off with their heads! But no, there’s some complexity here and it connects closely with the weird (almost unique on planet earth) constitutional arrangements that persist here in the archipelago.
On the left there are basically two positions on the monarchy. Not on monarchy in general — only one there really — but on Britain’s actually existing monarchy, the Crown-Constitutional Parliamentary state that’s been locked in here since the 17th Century.
In position one, the monarchy is an unequivocally, catastrophically bad thing—a major impediment to meaningful popular sovereignty and an aspect of Britain’s backward machinery of state. Britain’s monarchy, in this view, is a vital contributor to the country’s long-term decline, solidified in the retreat from empire and the disastrous deindustrialisation of the post-war period.
In this perspective, identified with the British ‘New Left’ since the 1950s and developed in great detail in the pages of New Left Review by brilliant writers like Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, the settlement that secured the monarchy in 1688 locked in the dominance of sclerotic aristocracy, land-owning elite and the compliant institutions that sustain them. The result is a country that, paradoxically, became a nation-state first and industrialised first but failed fully to make the transition from ancien régime to modernity, whose progress from feudalism to capitalism is still incomplete. In the New Left worldview ceremony, deference and acceptance of hierarchy have naturalised and hardened aristocratic dominance and neutralised the popular radicalism that has expanded democracy elsewhere in the capitalist world.
The other left anti-monarchist perspective, embodied these days by lefties belonging to populist or ‘realist’ strands of the tradition, is much less bothered. These anti-monarchists oppose the unelected power of the monarchy (obvs) but would probably be quite happy to leave the Windsors where they are and get on with the class war. In fact, for left-populists, the fervent opposition to the crown and its institutions embodied by that earlier generation of left-wingers is actually damaging to the cause. For them, the critics and theorists who developed the declinist narrative of the New Left—whose animating idea was that Britain is stuck in a deferential mire and can aspire only to a steady loss of status, relevance and prosperity—are a bit FBPE, a bit ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ and not least because opposing the monarchy puts them at odds these days with a clear majority of the British working class.
It’s not just the left who oppose the monarchy, of course. There’s an indignant centrist/liberal republican movement too – in fact they’ve been at it for longer and they’re more organised than the left. In the Crown’s 19th century slump it was largely Whig/Liberal radicals like Charles Dilkes who opposed the monarchy and, in the present day, the Liberal party itself still has a robust republican strand. The young Liz Truss was not alone in her vituperative opposition to the royals.
The rehabilitation of the monarchy that’s taken place since the end of the 19th Century, described by Tom Nairn in his brilliant and thoroughly New Left book The Enchanted Glass, has, to put it bluntly, worked. The Crown-Parliamentary state won. In the middle ages, monarchs cowered in their palaces, derided publicly. When they ventured into the streets kings and queens were often booed, some were so often away crusading (or hunting, or carousing) they might not be known to their subjects at all.
Working people who, until the early 19th Century, were suspicious of or even hostile towards royalty are, especially in the most recent decades of the Queen’s reign, mostly in favour (the numbers might be a bit different among fans of The Crown and the young, of course). Principled opposition to monarchy will just put the left in conflict with the working class and leave lefties in a very familiar position—thrashing about trying to explain why ordinary people don’t agree with them. It all begins to look a bit Remoaner/People’s Vote/Russian money.
So now, a left wing party or movement that put much energy into opposing the monarchy, that set out policies aiming at an elected head of state or even a slightly less anti-democratic settlement—one that, for instance, removed the monarch’s powers of consent to new laws—could only damage its prospects with working people. Leave the monarchs alone, lefties, they’re not worth it.
Over on Goodreads, I reviewed Nairn’s beautifully-written and highly-entertaining page-turner The Enchanted Glass which dates from the period before the annus horribilus but has two excellent forewords by the author bringing the story well into the 21st Century.
I’d go so far as to say that this is a beautiful book. Funny, angry, imaginative – an unforgiving demolition of the fantasies and self-deceptions of Britain’s backward, complacent, destructive tolerance of the invented rituals of modern royalty – the damage done to our democracy, the permanent strangulation of popular sovereignty, the narrowing of our national potential, the bleak prospect of unstoppable decline made inevitable by our unthinking acceptance of the Crown-constitutional status quo.
Published in 1988, there is absolutely nothing dated or irrelevant about this book – in fact one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the constant, startling correspondences we find between Britain towards the end of the Thatcher revolution and Britain after the Brexit revolt.
The scope of the book is not limited in any way to a critique 0f monarchy or monarchism. My understanding of Britain’s constitutional weirdness (Nairn’s wonderful name for Crown-constitutional Britain is ‘Ukania’) and the powerful parasitic grip of Britain’s social and economic elites has been so enhanced by his excoriating, wide-ranging critique of City, Crown, complacent Parliament, self-interested administrative class, complicit media elite (and so on). I feel I have a new super-power.
Nairn is a brilliant writer, his language sparkles and surprises – you’ll find yourself stopping to look up words you’ve never heard that always turn out to be perfect for the job. It’s an absolute joy – and it took me a long time to read, mainly because I couldn’t help myself from highlighting brilliant passage after brilliant passage on the Kindle (it’s a cause of immense Bezos-directed resentment that I can’t share my highlights with you because I read the book in a non-Amazon format! Sort it out Jeff!).
Nairn, who as of this review, is still with us, developed his powerful argument for the backwardness of Britain’s constitutional arrangements and for the inevitable decline of the state and the polity across his many decades as writer (and editor) at New Left Review. If you have a subscription you can read the entire archive of his writing (and of his pal Perry Anderson – also still with us – another brilliant writer with whom he worked closely) online.Review of The Enchanted Glass, from Goodreads
I’ve been bingeing on texts about monarchy lately, for obvious reasons. I also recently reviewed David Cannadine’s influential paper ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual : The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’ c. 1820–1977’ which is in a terrific book of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. The essay, published in 1977, explains how the rituals and customs invented or updated in the 19th Century rescued Britain’s Crown from irrelevence or even obliteration in a revolution like those that wiped out the monarchies of Europe one after the other (Hobsbawm’s essay in the same book, a wider-ranging survey of the twilight of monarchy across Europe, is also worth a read).
Another good read in this context is a David Edgerton’s 20th Century history The rise and fall of the British nation, which aims to dismantle the whole declinist New Left narrative. Perry Anderson, owner but not quite sole proprietor of the declinist story, predictably enough dismantled Edgerton’s dismantling in the pages of New Left Review (you might need a subscription to read that one).
Listen to this episode of Bungacast, the podcast from the people who brought you ‘The end of the end of history‘ for a good illustration of the modern, populist left perspective on monarchy—dismissive, derisory but definitely not bothered.