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.footnote1

Things of today may have ancient roots; on the other hand antiques are often forgeries, and Royal sentiment in Britain today is largely an artificial product. Or, at least, the timeworn heirloom has more than once had to be carefully restored and polished up. England was the first country to put its king on trial and execute him (after executing a deposed Scottish monarch as a trial run). France did not follow suit until 1793, when Louis xvi’s death fluttered all the dovecotes of Europe. In England anxious care had to be expended on a polishing up of George iii. A praiseworthy interest in turnips had earned him the title of ‘Farmer George’, but what he had accomplished was chiefly the loss of the American colonies. In October 1795 a Norfolk parson visiting London and taking a walk in St James’s Park watched the king pass in his state-coach, ‘with eight Cream-Coloured Horses in red Morocco-leather Harness’, and was greatly shocked to see His Majesty ‘very grossly insulted by some of the Mob’. A bullet flew through the coach window, and on its return journey its occupant was ‘very much hissed and hooted at’, and was close to being roughhandled by a set of ‘the most violent and lowest Democrats’. Next night he was well received at Covent Garden by a more respectable gathering, and ‘God Save the King’ was played six times, as though to make sure that Heaven was listening. ‘Thank God!’ exclaimed the parson’s diary.footnote2 In 1799 money expended on George’s birthday celebration by the small weavers’ town of Girvan on the Ayrshire coast rose from the customary few shillings to £2.13.10, including a ‘mysterious item’ for drink.footnote3 A great deal of loyal enthusiasm must always have been called forth by judicious donations for the drinking of toasts. For the throne and its Tory custodians George’s madness was a stroke of luck; it gave him the best of alibis, and ensured facile sympathy. Two years after his death in 1822 the not very politically-minded Charles Lamb, indignant at a legal verdict against Leigh Hunt for publishing Byron’s ‘Vision of judgment’, derided ‘the good old talk about our good old King—his personal virtues saving us from a revolution, etc. etc.’, and wound up: ‘What a wretched thing a Lord Chief Justice is, always was, and will be!’footnote4

After George’s blackguard offspring, Providence came to the rescue by setting an innocent maiden on the throne; the fountain of loyalty could gush freely once more. There was less satisfaction later on with Victoria as a dumpy do-nothing widow, and even a brief flutter of republicanism. In 1870 France abandoned monarchy for the last time. But the massacre in Paris next year, by its republican heirs and their troops, of thirty thousand Communard prisoners, could not recommend republicanism, at least to British workers. That huge bubble of collective illusion, the empire, swelling dizzily at the end of the century, helped to float the throne into a blue sky. Two great wars since then, putting a premium on any national figurehead, have been a further bonus. Dull presidents and beastly dictators abroad have provided a useful foil. George vi died at the right moment to bring another easily romanticized young woman into the limelight.

This advantage has been sedulously exploited by vested interests like the cheap press, for which royalty is a never-failing source of profit, and politicians who want the common herd to stick to such harmless reading. Historians may have grown too disdainful of anything that can be called a ‘conspiracy theory’. Most of history has been a conspiracy of rich against poor, under one concealment or another. After the Second World War all politicians were in dread of a demand for real change, and a conjuror’s wand to cast glamour over the crown and bemuse the crowd was a panacea not to be neglected. One of many sins of the feebly progressive Labour Party was its falling in so readily with this stratagem, and especially with the elaborate hocus-pocus of the Coronation. Royal ceremonial and spectacle have flourished in the congenial soil of our age of selfadvertising. They had an early start in England, where rulers from the sixteenth century had less real power than abroad and more need to cultivate public favour. Philip ii of Spain could shut himself up in his Escorial, Elizabeth i had to be on view to her people. There is a foretaste of our latest coronation in the rapturous description of that of Elizabeth i’s mother Anne Boleyn, and her romantic charm and ‘saintlike’ bearing, in a play partly by Shakespeare, Henry viii. Later on, empire contributed skills learned from the staging of tamashas to please and impress Calcutta or Hongkong, and brought droves of tributary princes to be paraded through London.

Tom Nairn has written a searching full-length study of the effects of this potent intoxicant on British life and habits; it well deserves the Scottish book-prize it has shared. Most of those with political leanings similar to his have preferred to pass by the subject, as too ineffably silly—like women’s fashion-magazines—for serious discussion; Nairn has proved that it can and must be confronted in all seriousness. Rather puzzlingly, it is true, he begins by saying that Britons know the flattering image they see in their royal mirror to be ‘only a decreasingly useful lie’ (p. 9); if this were so, the task of getting them to throw it away would surely be much easier. They have puffed up their self-esteem by being faithful devotees of their talisman; and with little else in public life to stir emotion, even a tinsel covering for its drabness is better than none at all. Many who are, or like to think themselves and be thought, too intelligent to share the infection, will say when challenged that it is good for the country’s ‘stability’, or shrug it off as an irrelevancy. Part of Nairn’s case is that republican arrows suffer from having no tangible target to hit, as they did when monarchs really ruled.

Britain’s monarchy is ‘Europe’s greatest living fossil’ (p. 115); progressives are too apt to blink the fact that ‘an archaic institution may express something deeply and incorrigibly archaic about the society’ it belongs to (p. 123). There is a ‘totemic’ flavour in the ‘obscure relationship’ between Royal trivialities and a mysterious collective unconscious (pp. 31, 36). ‘Royals’ (who invented this repulsive neologism?) exude a mystique over and above the fascination of the ‘media stars’ they have to be nowadays (p. 27). This must be admitted, but it is important that they are members now of the Entertainment industry, in a time when actors and entertainers are among the world’s most idolized and highly rewarded inhabitants. ‘Royals’ trail long shadows after them. Nairn points out how Coronation publicity made play with history: a thousand years were watching, it appeared, from behind the monuments of Westminster Abbey (p. 124). General Bonaparte at the battle of the Pyramids exhorted his men to think of the two thousand years of history looking down on them. History, or rather the ‘historical amnesia’ of the ordinary man, is too often on the wrong side: conservatism needs only evocative catchphrases, socialism needs real understanding.

Civic spirit has been choking in our urban antheaps. Locally it may be reduced to attachment to the fortunes of a football team; nationally it is fanned into life quickest by an absurdity like the Falklands war. Royal appearances do something to fill, or hide, the blank. They may be a routine laying of foundation-stones, cutting of ribbons, or breaking of champagne bottles, acts elsewhere performed more economically by presidents or ministers. As Nairn says, workmen who have had a hand in building something like the Thames Flood Barrier are gratified by their work being recognized in this way (p. 47). But for the monarchy to be extolled as the keystone of the nation—it used to be credited with holding the Commonwealth together—suggests that Britain must be in a parlous condition. A morbidly excessive harping on the word ‘community’ is one symptom of this; it is not without undertones of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft (pp. 178, 317). There is, no doubt, an unacknowledged human preference for the irrational; it appeals to emotion, stronger and more agreeable than reason. Only laborious self-training can harmonize the two things, never perfectly. Collective consciousness revives on ‘State occasions’, when royal participants express, not so much by speech as by ritual, symbolic gesture or ‘body-language’, what the inarticulate multitude deeply but indistinctly feels. At such moments any foibles of the individuals concerned are forgotten; hieratic uniforms conceal all inadequacies. ‘Institution and personality’ are fused (p. 46).