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,footnote1 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.

Yet this relentlessly floodlit institution, now the focus of obsessive public attention and gossip, which arouses the fiercest and most passionate loyalty on a vast scale, becomes almost invisible when we turn to social and political analysis. Excavating for his brilliant new study of the British, or Anglo—British monarchy,footnote2 Tom Nairn has plainly had difficulty in unearthing anything of real substance in either sociology or the standard treatments of British government and politics. A few sociological articles around the time of the coronation, more than thirty years ago, and routine descriptions of the residual formal powers of the monarch (appointing the prime minister, creating peers, etc.) in the staple textbooks of British politics—that was about all he could find, and, so far as I know, all that there is to find. There are exceptions, of course—some of the work of R.W. Johnson, for example—but in general academic and intellectual neglect of this most conspicuous institution in British, and especially English, public life is itself a phenomenon that requires explanation.

Why, above all, do radicals ignore it? It is a measure of the rare value of Nairn’s Glass that it is impossible to think of a comparably ambitious and penetrating study of its subject—one written, that is, from outside the parameters of the more or less breathless reverence for British political traditions and institutions which renders most commentary, including academic commentary, which is not merely sycophantic, virtually useless as serious analysis. In fact, even modest studies in a sober vein have been uncommon. If we leave aside Willie Hamilton’s My Queen and I, which was at least more substantial than its tiresome title, the last cool look at the monarchy was taken by Kingsley Martin more than a quarter of a century ago.footnote3 To say that Nairn’s book fills this yawning gap would be an exaggeration, simply because, as I think Nairn would be the first to agree, the gap is so vast; and what is required is not a single study, but a whole range of investigations and debates, not to mention polemics, which will explore the roots and expose the workings of the social and political structures and culture to which the monarchy is so integral. It is in fact one of the merits of Nairn’s book that it is so consistently suggestive, so creative in indicating areas and directions where further exploration is needed. I shall mention some of these later.

The Enchanted Glass is timely for several reasons, not the least of which is the impetus it will bring to the revived debate about the interpretation of modern British history and the modern British state. For it is clear that Nairn’s new book is closely linked to his previous studies of nationalism and the British state (especially The Break-up of Britain), and also to those arguments which Nairn himself describes as having won ‘an arcane and spurious dignity under the title of the “Nairn–Anderson theses”’ (p. 379), originally put forward in New Left Review more than twenty years ago. Perry Anderson has recently reconsidered those arguments in these pages,footnote4 and once again they have attracted critical comment from other socialists—this time from Michael Barratt Brown and Alex Callinicos.footnote5

Barratt Brown’s view, indicated by his title, seems to be that to attempt any comprehensive interpretation of modern British history is inherently objectionable, especially because of the somewhat cavalier disregard for detail that can admittedly result from trying to take a synoptic view. This is the voice of traditional British empiricism, a tone commoner among historians than economists. But in the end Barratt Brown does recognize that the very general questions posed by Anderson and Nairn do require answers, even if not those they themselves provide. ‘If the current peculiarity of the British state does not lie in its origins in a landed aristocracy and City plutocracy and their combined interest in international commerce, where does it lie?’ he asks at a key point in his article.footnote6 What alternative answer he then offers is far from clear, except that he seems inclined to pinpoint ‘the gap that opened in British society. . . . between . . . the practice of practical men in industry, technology and in banking and commerce, and . . . the philosophy of the academics in education, science and government’, as well as ‘the growing gap between government and industry’.footnote7 These observations hardly seem adequate as an alternative explanation; but in any case they do not stand at a great distance from the Anderson–Nairn approach, and might even be subsumed within it.

Both Barratt Brown and Callinicos valuably draw attention to the international capitalist context of Britain’s state and economy, and to what Britain has in common with other developed capitalist societies. But Callinicos goes further than this to suggest that there is little that significantly differentiates the British state from other capitalist states: ‘Democracy is circumscribed in Britain because the state is capitalist, not because of its peculiar “patrician” nature.’footnote8 And he argues that to concentrate on changes to political institutions and the political system would ‘only reinforce the deep-seated parliamentary cretinism of the British Left’.footnote9

There is undoubtedly at present a strong tendency in some quarters of the Left to turn away—with relief—from the always difficult issues of class and class power, and ownership and economic power, towards issues which can be seen and presented in terms of ‘liberal’ ideas like freedom and democracy.footnote10 Given the familiarity and acceptability of such ideas, it is always tempting to try and fight the political battle on such well-trodden terrain, rather than choose the more arduous course of trying to introduce new ideas into political discourse, or of employing the controversial and ‘extreme’ language of class struggle. There may be those, too, who think of political changes as a substitute for social and economic changes, or who subscribe to an updated form of the old Chartist belief that political reform will more or less inevitably lead on to social and economic reform or even transformation. They might even, somewhat cynically, cite Marx in their support, since he at one time shared the Chartist view that in Britain at least the ‘inevitable result’ of universal suffrage would be ‘the political supremacy of the working class’.footnote11