'The Enchanted Glass': Britain and Its Monarchy, the 'Social Cement' of 'UKania'

Tom Nairn puts the 'enchanted' life of Britain's monarchy and its relationship with the people under the microscope.

The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy

Publisher: Verso
Length: 403 pages
Author: Tom Nairn
Price: $21.95/£12.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-09

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.






'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.