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14 September 2022

Silence reigns

The real power of the Crown lies in its ability to forge and occupy a space of psychic comfort and safety “outside” politics.

By Rory Scothorne

The last time a Charles was king of Scotland the country was independent. Its parliament sat in Edinburgh’s old Parliament House, close to St Giles’ Kirk, where the body of the late Elizabeth II spent 24 hours lying in state before being delivered south for the final time. When the body arrived in Edinburgh on Sunday, it went first to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, a cobblestone’s toss from the new Scottish Parliament building. For all that the monarchy is supposed to be “above politics”, crown and politics have never been far apart. And as the royal processions around Edinburgh demonstrated, the embroilment of pomp and power has always taken particular national forms.

As Queen, Elizabeth’s denomination as the “Second” was a source of minor controversy in Scotland, where Elizabeth I never reigned. In the 1950s Scottish nationalists blew up postboxes inscribed with “ERII”, and sang “Nae Liz the Twa, nae Lilibet the One/Nae Liz will ever dae/We’ll mak’ oor land Republican/In a Scottish breakaway”. But Charles III is unlikely to face such explosive pedantry: his two 17th-century Stuart predecessors inherited the Anglo-Scottish Union of Crowns, forged in 1603, from James VI and I. Charles I and II presided – not without contestation – over a growing interlinking of their two kingdoms until Anne finished the job in 1707.

It is not clear whether Charles III will be able to hold it all together. The Union of Crowns, however, is considerably more likely to survive than the Union of Parliaments; Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, still eyeing an independence referendum next year, have taken the opportunity of Elizabeth’s demise to remind everyone of their dependable monarchism, declining to offer even a referendum on the monarchy should Scotland break away. There is nothing inherently republican about Scottish nationalism. Indeed, the Scots caused a lot of trouble by crowning Charles II king after the English murdered his dad and declared their own republic in 1649. But, unlike British nationalism, there is nothing inherently monarchist about it either.

Ever since James VI of Scotland set off for London in 1603 there has been a certain distance – psychic as well as physical, constructive as well as troublesome – between the Crown and the Scottish nation. Between Charles II’s return to exile in 1651, fleeing Cromwell’s conquering army, and George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, no monarch visited Scotland for 171 years. George’s two-week visit, 200 years ago this August, was carefully engineered by Walter Scott to display a new, fashionably romantic vision of Scotland to itself and the world. Seventy-six years after Jacobite rebels, led by another Charles, were broken at Culloden, Scott took the brutally pacified culture of the Highlands, washed off the blood and gunpowder, and renovated it as an exotic, vernacular wing of “Britishness”.

This “cultural sub-nationalism”, as the political theorist and nationalist Tom Nairn has called it, provided an outlet for Scottish identity that was perfectly aligned with the wider requirements of monarchy itself: romantic, glamorous, ostensibly apolitical, binding the present to a shared, sanitised past. Two centuries of territorial branding across the monarchy’s nations are reflected in images of a bekilted Charles III standing vigil by his mother’s coffin, the magic box draped with the lion rampant of Scotland’s medieval sovereigns. The coffin had travelled to Edinburgh from the royal family’s Balmoral estate, a Scots-baronial Disneyland from where fanciful tales emerged of Elizabeth speaking Doric, the local tongue, with locals. The appeal of these fables derives from precisely that distance described above – from the implication that the Queen should not be able to converse with her neighbours according to their own speech patterns, and that her ability to do this normal activity is what makes her so special. As Nairn writes in The Enchanted Glass, “the inner meaning of the belief that ‘They’re just like us’ (‘ordinary beings’, ‘got their own problems’, etc.) is the certainty that they are not, and cannot concievably be just like us.”

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The Highlands and monarchy are thus well-suited to each other; here are two things that are at once different from the rest of the country yet, unlike those far-flung colonies, intoxicatingly close at the same time. Balmoral’s high-security idyll also inspired Charles’s claim, speaking to the Scottish Parliament on Monday, that his mother found “a haven and a home” in “the hills of this land”. This was echoed in the tribute of the poet laureate, Simon Armitage, who envisioned “rain on the black lochs and dark Munros”. One of those Munros, Lochnagar, is the Crown’s very own, and its careful paths (currently sponsored by Brewdog) have ferried royals and guests on to the wildest peaks of the Balmoral estate ever since Victoria took a shining to the Highlands in the 1850s. In her own commemorative poem for Elizabeth, the Scots makar Kathleen Jamie describes a place:

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“Where weather chases weather
Across the lands she strived
To serve, and served supremely well,
Till the call came from afar:
Back to the country kept in her heart,
The Dee, and Lochnagar.”

Here is a vision of Scotland liberated from time itself, where “history is distant roiling skies”, and free from politics; a place of retreat and consolation for our sleepy striving Queen. This is, ironically, precisely one of those “theatrically empty places” whose distortions Jamie has criticised on less guarded occasions: the Highlands is a “wilderness” produced by the forced clearance of people from their land, which has been beaten, burned and chewed into submission by soldiers, factors, ghillies, grouse and deer under a regime legitimised by monarchy. This utopia of “ancient wind-honed heights” promises a Scotland, in other words, which matches perfectly the function of monarchy itself. We might call this the naturalisation of silence.

What silence? Whose silence? On Monday, standing on Canongate – part of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile between Holyrood and the castle – I watched the King and his siblings trudge by, following their mother’s hearse, flanked by soldiers in tartan. As soon as the cortége came within hearing distance, the crowd fell so quiet that I could hear the King’s footsteps. Outside Holyrood Palace, somebody was thrown to the ground and arrested for calling Andrew a “sick old man” as the hearse left Holyrood. I didn’t dare speak up myself – there was something in that silence beyond “respect”, something angrier and more purposeful; a kind of command, not handed down from on high but bubbling up from below, from the nature of the moment itself, not to let politics intrude. Here is the practical side of that rationed insistence on royal ordinariness which Nairn describes; at any convenient moment the royals become just another grieving family who deserve peace and kindness, and you wouldn’t disrupt a normal person’s funeral procession, would you? But then, normal people don’t get to shut down the entire old town of Edinburgh for their funeral procession. We are still being taught something here, about our normality and theirs.

[See also: From the archive, Christopher Hitchens on the man born to be king]

This is not just about mourning an old woman’s death. We are also being told something new about a living man: that this weird, big-eared prince is now a king. None of us saw the change happen. It happened in private, at the moment of the Queen’s death, the precise time of which we still don’t know either. But we gathered to be told about it all the same. On Sunday I stood in another crowd to watch the proclamation of Charles III at the Mercat Cross. The cross is an ancient symbol of the city’s status as a royal burgh, though its current incarnation is, like so much of Edinburgh and Scotland, a nostalgic Victorian reconstruction. As the King was proclaimed, a chorus of boos emerged from a brave little republican delegation squashed up against a wall, soon drowned out by the blare of trumpets, the blast of cannons from Edinburgh Castle and a hearty rendition of God Save the King from the rest of the onlookers. One of the protesters, who was brandishing a cardboard placard reading “F*** imperialism, abolish monarchy”, was arrested and charged with the catch-all offence of “breach of the peace”.

What peace? Whose peace? In the hours after Elizabeth’s death was announced, the RMT union cancelled a wave of strikes and the Trades Union Congress abandoned its annual gathering, bringing months of industrial unrest and flowering working-class morale to a self-imposed halt. Extinction Rebellion cancelled its planned “Festival of Resistance”. Did the prices stop rising? Did the oil stop burning? Did republicans get a chance, in between the death of the Queen and the accession of the King, to propose an alternative set of arrangements for choosing a new head of state?

Silence reigns. While I write this, protesters outside St Giles are brandishing completely blank banners and empty sheets of paper, inspired by a man in London who took out a blank page and was told by police that if he wrote “Not My King” on it he risked arrest. It would be nice to believe that this silence is being imposed from above, like a proper authoritarian regime. In reality, it has a kind of democracy to it – nobody forced RMT to call off its strikes; nobody made Extinction Rebellion push pause; nobody told me not to boo as the King walked past. We are not even talking about the very British tyranny of good manners. We are talking about a People – that fundamental component of modern politics the world over – that quite simply does not know how to speak for itself, and which sees almost every attempt to do so as dangerous and sinister.

Imagine the outrage if the RMT or Extinction Rebellion had carried on with planned disruption, in the week of the Queen’s funeral. Not even the threat of climate disaster can compete with the all-consuming injunction emerging from deep inside the British soul to be quiet. A kind of fear is involved here, certainly, but it is fear of the public, not fear of the powerful. And the public, crucially, do not stay quiet out of fear, but out of comfort. The monarch commands this silencing respect because in the public eye they still symbolise something truly precious: a component of the state – of the thing that supposedly binds us all together into a meaningful, powerful “community” – which is also miraculously “beyond politics”.

“The monarch is the general representative of all the people and stands aloof from the party political battle,” wrote Clement Attlee in 1959, in his own “democratic socialist” defence of monarchy. “A president, however popular, is bound to have been chosen as representative of some political trend, and as such is open to attack from those of a different view.” It is testament to the intellectual subservience of the British left that even today this remains an attractive position for some. The split between “head of state” and “head of government” in the British constitution does not allow the monarch to function as a fair, impartial “referee”, as Attlee put it; on the contrary, it allows the state to float away from democratic accountability altogether. While it remains legitimate to “politicise” the government by criticising the Prime Minister, her cabinet or her party, the system of constitutional monarchy renders it not just illegitimate but despicable to criticise the state itself (just look at the treatment of the SNP, which genuinely does contest the British state, by every wing of English politics). It does this by blurring the lines between state and family, leaning the most impersonal and lethal institution of all against that which, for vast numbers of people, retains an indispensable aura of dependable intimacy.

Forget the various legal quirks, the expense, the symbolic inequality and the constitutional eccentricity on which republicans normally base their critiques. The real power and evil of the Crown lies in its ability to forge and occupy a space of psychic comfort and safety “outside” politics – a space that everybody wants, because politics is unpleasant, and hard, and necessarily involves power and coercion. Monarchy allows the British state to draw the boundaries of this good place, this great Balmoral of the soul, in a way that just happens to exclude all those who seek to contest politics in order to transform it. Instead, it monopolises this terrain in the name of stability and continuity. As Queen, Elizabeth provided – and still provides, beyond death, beyond politics – a parental solidity to the British regime. We are thus tempted, by something genuinely enchanting, to resist the notion that this regime is not designed to help us; that it actually enables the very forces that continue to destabilise everything – fossil fuel extraction, capital accumulation, militarisation and so on – and implores us to adopt instead the Queen’s old motto: “never explain, never complain”. The royals are not really beyond politics. They exist to convince us that politics is beyond us. So we stay quiet, and listen to the King’s footsteps.

[See also: Would there still have been climate change under socialism?]