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New Left Review I/174, March-April 1989


Victor Kiernan

Meditations on a Theme by Tom Nairn

In China an immemorial throne crumbled in 1911; India put its Rajas and Nawabs in the wastepaper-basket as soon as it gained independence in 1947; in Ethiopia the Lion of Judah has lately ceased to roar. Monarchy survives in odd corners of Asia; and in Japan and Britain. In Asia sainthood has often been hereditary, and can yield a comfortable income to remote descendants of holy men; in Europe hereditary monarchy had something of the same numinous character. In both cases a dim sense of an invisible flow of vital forces from generation to generation, linking together the endless series, has been at work. Very primitive feeling may lurk under civilized waistcoats. Notions derived from age-old magic helped Europe’s ‘absolute monarchs’ to convince taxpayers that a country’s entire welfare, even survival, was bound up with its God-sent ruler’s. Mughal emperors appeared daily on their balcony so that their subjects could see them and feel satisfied that all was well. Rajput princes would ride in a daily cavalcade through their small capitals, for the same reason. Any practical relevance of the crown to public well-being has long since vanished, but somehow in Britain the existence of a Royal Family seems to convince people in some subliminal way that everything is going to turn out all right for them. In H.G. Wells’s novel about the setting up of a fascist dictatorship, the public is acquiescent, but a silent crowd gathers in front of Buckingham Palace, seeking reassurance. [1] H.G. Wells, The Autocracy of Mr Parham(1930).

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