Monarchism is being subculturalised. How long can it last with the support of the alienated and ideological, ask David Jamieson.
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A few weeks ago I noted the strange juncture of modern Scottish (and British) republicanism. The left gloss of the centrist establishment – exemplified above all by the Scottish Greens – scurrying to announce their radical credentials as the corruption soufflé of the Scottish Government finally implodes.
My argument, simply, was that republicanism – as understood by its 19th and 20th century pioneers – is unrecognisable in today’s shallow and opportunist anti-Monarchy performances. It’s been reduced to a demand (present to whom?) for government without the office of King. Gone are the republican concerns for representative government, the obligations of citizenship, and its basis in the nation-state. These ‘republicans’ are outspoken supporters for modes of governance – such as transnational member-statehood in organisations like the EU and Nato – specifically designed to banish these republican preoccupations. Representative government at a nation-state level has been replaced by modern forms of unaccountable, elitist rule on which so many modern ‘republicans’ are either silent, or celebratory.
This week, I turn my attention to the phenomenon of Monarchism. Is it any less hollowed of meaning? To answer, we must return to the beginning of the modern monarchical tradition – and like so many state traditions, it’s much young than you might think.
The secret of the regicide of 1649 is not that it failed, but that it succeeded. Once the head had been lifted from Charles I’s shoulders, the spell was broken forever. His son could retake the throne, but power had shifted elsewhere in the state and civil society. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 only confirmed this. William of Orange, far from a conquering Protestant hero, claimed victory with a bowed head. He was allowed to rule by the forces that were pressing into a post-absolutist future. As the centuries passed, the symbolic power of the monarchy was wielded to various ends by the new elite – based in the power of industry, trade, empire and finance. Every time it was thus wielded, some of its accumulated symbolic power was spent. Constant attempts to renovate and replenish the crown have amounted to treading water at best.
What causes confusion is the tendency – rendered so lyrically by Marx – for the present to masquerade as the past from which it draws legitimacy. What is the Coronation, if not a grand, state co-ordinated attempt to “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to [Chucky’s] service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise”. In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx was writing about great turning points in history, when revolutionaries assert their continuity with a lost golden age. But this condition has become permanent in our times.
It’s no less true for being frequently stated, that we have lost the capacity for cultural invention. Through the 90s, 00s and 2010s old fashions and musical tastes return with increasingly frequency. If the boomers were the first generation to stop dressing like their parents, they were also the last. Today, we both lack a sense of historical time, and inhabit a nostalgic fiction of the past every day.
In this climate hundreds of faux-reactionary subcultures have sprouted. Tik-Tok trends for Trad-Wifery, mournful glances at neo-classical architecture, mangled readings of ancient Stoicist philosophy, and general injunctions to ‘retvrn’ to something, anything but the present, abound. These paper-thin creeds cohabit and clash with all kinds of faux-ultra and post-modernisms – nouveau moralities, racecrafts, bespoke sexualities and familial forms, self-experimentation of every kind. Sometimes, when they meet, the subcultures feign enmity. But mostly they refer to themselves and community-build the way youth music and fashion subcultures do.
The subculture bearers, left and right (if these labels have any meaning here) are also untied by their anti-politics – their lack of belief in really changing existing circumstances. The less meaningful political disputation is expressed in civil society, the more it emerges as neurotic cult and fantasy.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of something called Blue Labour. It’s worth checking out, if only to see what happens when people stop worrying and simply embrace ideology (in the pejorative sense). It’s a group of intellectuals and their online following who like Tolkien and Beatrix Potter, wish Royal Mail was still a public utility and the old patrician middle classes would return to establish their uneasy alliance with workers in the Labour party. This jumble of nostalgias is an identity first and foremost – far more than it is a real political programme. I suspect many devotees loved the Coronation, or simply pretended to, with one eye to an imagined noble past and another to a present day mass population who they imagine love all this guff as well.
Measuring the popularity of the Royals is difficult. Most across the UK support the Monarchy, and this has held up as the popularity of other institutions – from political parties to banks and broadcasters – has declined. The widespread suspicion is that it is the ostensibly non-political character of the Windsors that has protected them. But that doesn’t mean the institution is popular in the ways it once might have been. Charles’ reign seems unlikely to inspire the same support as his predecessor, who inherited a symbol of war-time national resistance, and eased Britain through its transition from empire. How much real mass enthusiasm remains for The Firm? How many feel it embodies a real national identity – one which combines not just king with ‘people’, but King, people, employer class and, especially, state? That is, after all, the real intended function of all the crepe paper and sponge. It’s the most important sense in which the Royals are political.
Here’s just one limited metric of the dissipation of royal popularity: just 20 million watched the coronation across all channels and platforms. East Enders in the 1990s could beat that on a weekly basis. It’s about 10 million fewer than watched the Queen’s funeral. People made TikTok videos mocking the Coronation with millions of views.
The Windsors are bleeding-out what remains of their post-rule, constitutional monarchy function. As the British state continues to manage its diminished global standing, and its chronic economic and social contradictions, the long tail of tradition will be exploited to the last. But there’s nothing vital here. Modern Monarchism is as etiolated and lifeless as the mock-republicanism of so many of its critics.
Leon Trotsky once noted: “Naive minds think that the office of kingship lodges in the king himself, in his ermine cloak and his crown, in his flesh and bones. As a matter of fact, the office of kingship is an interrelation between people. The king is king only because the interests and prejudices of millions of people are refracted through his person. When the flood of development sweeps away these interrelations, then the king appears to be only a washed-out man with a flabby lower lip.” That point is close. Charles is – or is very nearly – only a flabby-lipped, sausage-fingered man. In the transition, mass imperial or national sentiment has given way to the micro-sentiment of trainspotting ideologues. Subcultures cannot sustain royalty, or republic, for long. A new paradigm must, someday, emerge.