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4 April 2022

Why the left needs to develop a vision of national weirdness

In its familiar oddness the monarchy monopolises British strangeness, and so curtails popular expectations of real, emancipatory unfamiliarity.

By Rory Scothorne

Where are Britain’s republicans? This ought to be a boom time for the movement, if only there was one. Waves of scandal continue to engulf Prince Andrew, while William and Kate’s recent trip to the Caribbean was a public relations disaster. Jamaica is reported to be planning to remove the Queen as head of state, following Barbados’s declaration of a republic last year. Harry and Meghan’s resignation and ongoing estrangement from “the firm” is an enduring stain on its image, while concerns about the Queen’s health mean that the next Queen’s Speech — the centrepiece of British constitutional politics — may be delivered by Prince Charles, a far more divisive figure than his mother.

The prospect of King Charles III is treated by Republic, the UK’s foremost republican campaign group, as a kind of trump card. Their website’s landing page is dominated by a picture of the Prince of Wales captioned with the words “Not Another 70: It’s time for a republic”. Whenever it comes, Charles’s coronation may intensify a generational break within the public: while support for the monarchy remains strong, its popularity has plunged among young people since 2019. Last May YouGov found that 41 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds wanted an elected head of state, while just 31 per cent sided with the status quo.

Yet loyalism remains stubbornly adaptable. Charles’s approval ratings are rising. With Jeremy Corbyn and his allies in Labour forced back to the political margins, republicanism has little support in the mainstream. While the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, has made no secret of his republican sympathies, the Scottish National Party insists that the monarchy would survive even the break-up of the UK.

Part of the problem facing republicans is the widespread sense that the monarchy doesn’t particularly matter. When opposition to monarchy is expressed, it tends to be framed in moralistic terms — as a question of “democratic principle” or a meritocratic disdain for “hereditary privilege” — but the trouble with royalty goes deeper than that. If democratic sensibilities are so naturally offended by the principle of monarchy, what does it say about Britain, an ostensibly liberal democracy, that the majority of its people continues to support that principle?

For Tom Nairn, whose 1988 book The Enchanted Glass is still the most substantial analysis of the subject, the royal family’s real function was to sustain a special kind of nationalism which precluded the expectations of egalitarian democracy that were supposed to characterise modern nation-states. On the one hand, Nairn argued, the royals enabled the British “state-nation” to be understood by its people in familial terms, exempting it from the more impersonal, rights-based equality that legitimised governments elsewhere. Yet the distant, quietly cosmopolitan nature of the royal family also insulated Britain from the overtly ethnic nationalism which had been deployed to legitimise other states in familial terms.

Rather than a mythic blood-family of the whole people, which would have rendered Britain’s multinational “state of unions” unsustainable, royalty offers a surrogate form of collectivity, a literal bloodline with which (and under which) all the peoples of these isles can identify, and thus avoid the more difficult and transformative political task of recognising each other as genuine equals.

Nairn’s argument was not blind to the appeal of this model of nationalism, which appeared to hold the country back from fascism even if it also ruled out socialism. Yet, he noted, Britain’s “small, antiquely Liberal light shone so brightly and for so long almost entirely because of the Stygian surrounding darkness” — a geopolitical chiaroscuro which had been inverted by the late 1980s, as Thatcherism’s reactionary agenda became self-evident.

Monarchy was not merely a side-show of Britain’s more general failure to modernise, but fundamental to it, legitimising this failure as part of Britain’s special way of doing things. Nairn has been vindicated by the replacement of New Labour’s “modernising” project, which left the monarchy untouched, with yet another reversion to social and cultural decrepitude.

Even in its most advanced, Nairnite form, there seems to be something missing from the republican project. Nairn is fond of unfavourably comparing Britain with a modern, nation-state “normality” that is devilishly hard to pin down. Every country has its structural quirks — these are, after all, part of why the world still has to be subdivided into nation-states — and every competent political movement finds a way of turning these idiosyncrasies into a means of self-legitimation.

In fact, one of the biggest problems with Britain is not so much its failure to reach “normality” or “modernity”, but the royal family’s ability to dominate and neutralise the terrain of national strangeness. Opposition to royalty tends to focus on its silliness and pomposity, yearning for something more rationalised; Britain’s peripheral nationalisms regularly express their desire to be “normal European countries”, free from the rule of the “old and silly” which Orwell lamented in The Lion and the Unicorn.

This tendency, which we might call “national normalism”, misses one of the most significant elements in royalty’s — and thus British conservatism’s — ability to renew itself. It may thrive in part on familiarity, but it is a familiarity elevated far above the banal, rendered fascinating by an equal dose of the exotic and absurd. Nairn calls this “the glamour of backwardness”, emphasising the ability of royalty to “enchant”. Yet enchantment relies on estrangement — a close encounter with the unknowable and incomparable that opens up the imagination to something wholly Other. The secret sauce of monarchy is its special capacity to combine this total alienness with total ordinariness, in which a nice old lady in a colourful frock is imbued with the cosmic authority to appoint a government on your behalf.

In doing so, the British constitution also creates a set of popular expectations about what it means to be acceptably strange: in their familiar oddness, the royal family help to render real unfamiliarity intolerable, and this is surely part of why British culture is so viciously hostile to the inaccessible and the avant-garde. While Britain prides itself on its silliness and (Orwell again) its “hatred of uniforms”, it insists on an accessible silliness and a populist non-conformity. Monty Python’s chummy Oxbridge slapstick is much preferred by centrist taste-makers to the more radically discomforting Clydeside surrealism of Limmy’s Show.

There are countless examples in talk radio and the tabloid press of everyman commentators selling their fury at some cultural product that is disgracefully not for them, a post-imperial rage at not being in on the joke cultivated over centuries by a family-culture that must discourage rulers and subalterns alike from developing their own code-words and counter-publics, in case autonomy becomes a breeding-ground for corruption or subversion. One result of this is a palpable fear among mainstream republicans of the potential stain of the countercultural, and a determination — evident in Republic’s output — to focus on spelling out accessible issues of practicality and principle: Crown Prerogatives, financial cost, formal equality and so on. On no account can republicanism — which, as Nairn argues, has been effectively taboo for over a century now — be allowed to pass over into the terrain of the weird.

Yet some kind of estrangement must be an ingredient of republicanism too, and of any politics which tries to place society on a more realistic and self-aware footing. In his 1944 essay on the figure of “the stranger”, the sociologist Alfred Schuetz wrote of the “grievous clear-sightedness” that any stranger experiences upon seeking acceptance to a new group. To operate “normally” within this new group, the stranger has first to observe and understand its rituals from the outside. In doing so they are ultimately able to develop a more critical sense of how that society really operates, gaining a “vivid feeling for the incoherence and inconsistency of the approached cultural pattern”.

This kind of critical consciousness of how one’s own world operates is a precondition of the collective and individual self-determination that socialists and republicans seek. One reason for those doctrines’ unpopularity in Britain is that the abstract, formal “citizenship” they advocate implies a degree of alienation from the “organic” community Britain still pretends to be. As proudly modern ideas, they promise to turn the universal strangeness of capitalism into something worthwhile; monarchy, on the other hand, succeeds by consoling and concealing that endemic disenchantment, leading its subjects into ever more bizarre depths of forced nostalgia and pseudo-community.

To combat this, republicanism — especially English republicanism — has two options. It could, on the one hand, offer its own re-enchanted vision of national community, dusting off the populist republicanism of the 19th century which condemned the monarchy as indelibly tarnished by wider aristocratic corruption, besmirching the otherwise pure identity of the People. This would be broadly in keeping with Bennism’s fondness for the submerged heritage of English radicalism. This could also entail a dialogue between constitutional thought and a more avant-garde embrace of folk culture’s witchy subversions or sci-fi utopianism, along the lines of the “acid communism” and countercultural regionalism espoused by thinkers such as Jeremy Gilbert, Mark Fisher and Alex Niven.

The alternative is something bleaker and more existentialist that may yet find a foothold amid gathering ecological ruin and cultural fragmentation: a bracing defence of disenchantment itself, a kind of doomer-republicanism that observes monarchy with something closer to anticipation than outrage, biding its time for Britain itself to disintegrate and take the whole charade with it. Once Britain’s imagined community has been unimagined via Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh dissent, the inhabitants of the rubble may get a chance to see what they are really made of.

The actual response is likely to be a mixture of both. The second option will probably predominate, if only because the first requires a degree of serious, active republican thought and politics that has been largely absent from the wider British left in recent decades. After the trauma of Corbynism, left-wingers are understandably afraid of reasserting their inevitable estrangement from the wider public they want to lead, and a more vocal republicanism would undoubtedly do that. Without it, however, British socialism will never be able to make the country its own.

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