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New Left Review I/174, March-April 1989


Anthony Arblaster

Taking Monarchy Seriously

The institution of monarchy presents one of the most glaring paradoxes of British society and British history. It is a monarchy unique in the developed capitalist world in remaining unmodernized, undemocratized and utterly mystified. Elsewhere, in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, the institution survives as a kind of hereditary presidency, whose very ordinariness, unobtrusiveness and lack of glamour are held to be its special, symbolically egalitarian virtues. The contrast with Britain could hardly be greater. Here visibility, glamour, and the theatrical enactment of rituals which are thought, often quite wrongly, to be of immense antiquity, [1] Tom Nairn cites Lloyd George’s invention of an Investiture ceremony for Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1911, and its re-invention in 1969, at a time when Welsh nationalism was reviving. For a general survey of such invented traditions in the nineteenth century, see The Invention of Tradition, edited by E.J. Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. and therefore symbolic of continuity and reverence for the past (Our Heritage), are central to the character and role of the modern British monarchy. Publicity is its lifeblood. No television news bulletin is complete without its royal item (Next: The Baby Elephant who met a Princess); no popular newspaper would dream of letting an entire week pass without devoting a ‘spread’ to speculation about the home life or sex life of one or another couple within the royal ‘family’. Books about ‘royalty’, or using ‘royalty’ as their peg, pour from the presses, and if many of them end up remaindered in dusty heaps, there is nevertheless a huge market for such sanctified trivia.

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