The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy
US: Sep 2011
We live in a world where we ‘love’ Princess Kate and Prince William, and in which Prince Charles is proposing to convert Buckingham Palace into a luxury hotel (apparently to spare the nation the huge heating bills for such a big old barn of a royal residence). The latter idea would give the public (or those who could afford it) the full ‘Downton Abbey Experience’.
It’s a timely new edition that returns to us Tom Nairn’s fascinating meditation on what it means to be ‘royal’, and what being ‘Royal’ really means. Why, he asks, is the United Kingdom (or ‘Ukania’ the nationalist construct he coins to describe the disparate regions) obsessed with, or just simply tolerant of, the Royal Family? Still… after all these years – almost 1,000 to be precise, since the Norman Conquest of 1066.
He raises the point that of course there was once a real purpose to the Royal Family – they had a very clear role, which was to rule and govern, and even risk their lives in battle. Since the Victorian era they have had to modernise. The Abdication Crisis of 1936 really clinched it. The Windsor dynasty needed to reinvent itself. Nairn dissects what they did and how they did it over the years; their responses to differing trends and nuanced displays of just the right amount of fashion and cultural change to be relevant: from the correction of George VI’s stammer to the Queen’s elaborately garnished hats for the royal ‘walkabout’. His manifold conclusions are as varied as Britain’s culture is today. But one of the most convincing results he comes up with can be summarized as the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ argument.
The large swathes of Britain’s working classes and lower middle classes have been doggedly loyal to Royalty. Probably different from the governing and aristocratic classes, they have shown immense affinity with and sympathy for the Queen, Queen Mother, and especially Princess Diana, over the years. Before the scandals and divorces of the early ‘90s rocked the institution, and even before Diana’s untimely death in 1997, Nairn records, they thronged the streets in the rain to welcome the monarch to a new shopping centre or to open the wing of a hospital. This, he informs us, is the ‘glamour’ they possess. It denotes the difference between ‘royal’ and ‘Royalty.’
It also explains the tolerance that the British public exhibits towards its royal family, so very different from the impatience felt towards other idols when they display their flaws and weaknesses. Far from the fleeting nature of modern celebrity, the British royal family seem to transcend barriers of class and relate to ‘Us’. The pains they take to associate with the lower classes are rewarded by acceptance and gratitude. The great heights from which they stoop and the condescension shown to their subjects, it seems, is proportionately reciprocated by the degree of warmth and loyalty felt by those subjects.
That is because, Nairn proposes, they are bewitched by the ‘glamour’ – that is, ‘The Mystery’ of monarchy, to which this volume takes a microscope. One of the central issues that he uncovers in so doing is the ‘idea’ of a ‘United’ kingdom, a perceivable realm over which the present and future monarchs can govern, and in which any ideology of Republicanism is relegated to the comic status of eccentric ‘court jester’.
In his new introduction for 2011 Nairn highlights the unfolding problem of the fracturing of the kingdom following the huge rise in popularity of Scottish and Welsh nationalism. The Scottish National Party is in the majority in the Edinburgh regional parliament, and for the first time since the Act of Union (1706-07), which united Britain, there are genuine and consolidated moves towards some kind of separation.
The ‘future King William’ and ‘Queen-to-be Catherine’, he remarks, strive to emulate the success of Elizabeth II and her long reign in an age of new technology, mediatisation and growth in tabloid journalism. But they do so in an increasingly difficult and challenging situation. Doubt hovers over Prince Charles’s succession. Will he ever make it to the throne – and the conversion of Buckingham Palace to luxury apartments for weekend breaks? Nairn reckons it will all depend on the unravelling and developing notion of ‘Britishness’ and also the famously robust and long-lived Windsor women, who seem to have unlimited stamina.