The world of 2020 is filled with important events and news: the Iran-US conflict, Australian bush fires sweeping the continent, and the ongoing Brexit process. Yet what story has dominated the UK media to a claustrophobic and obsessional degree in the early days of the new year? The answer is none of the above but the ongoing crises of the Royal Family engendered by Harry and Meghan's declaration of semi-independence.
This saga has nearly everything for the modern media, including familiar reference points, well-known characters (some loved more than others) and a rich back history. More than this, the royal obsession goes to the heart of what Britain is and what it represents, its established elite history and traditions, the protection and veneration of old and new monies, while offering an alternative and enduring concept of power and legitimacy to the democratic will. And if that were not enough, it also engages with class, inter-generational relationships and rivalries, sexism and racism.
Start with the basics. The royals can never just be another family or guilty pleasure soap opera. We live in a constitutional monarchy but that phrase in its literal meaning does little to capture the centrality of monarchy to what it is to be British – both in terms of the past and collective memories, and the unsettling present of 21st-century Britain.
Monarchy in the UK in what is increasingly a post-religious age represents the last standing religion in the country, namely monarchial religion. The continued existence of monarchy disfigures, demeans and corrupts public life and everything it touches. What was once presented as magical and even transcendental can no longer be seen by anyone in these terms, but the legacy and pretence of this remains. Hence, we have the ruins of what can only be called emperor worship of the Queen as an institution – a principle which from our 'Great British' vantage point theoretically stands out against other societies which lack our level of development and supposed sophistication.
This is combined with a near-Stalinist cult of personality around the Queen and senior Windsors which we would be shocked at and scoff about if it applied to others – with official public birthday celebrations, numerous anniversaries and a whole series of ceremonies, investitures, births, deaths and weddings, all for reasons that are never quite made explicit. This is ruling-class state propaganda and would be seen as such if elsewhere.
It should not come as a surprise that such has been the hold of the idea of the Royal Family that over the post-war era – as British writers and intellectuals have comprehensively critiqued nearly every aspect of society, institutions and power – one central area has largely remained free from this scrutiny in terms of books. One of the few polemics addressing the entirety of monarchy and the royals is Tom Nairn's The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy
, published over 30 years ago.
Nairn's assessment of the monarch takes off from where he left things in The Break-Up of Britain
. He sees it as having a central place in the construction of Britain, Britishness and the strange nationalism that binds the entities together. This is what he describes as an 'Ukanian' (coming from UK) nationalism, which in many respects is a mask for Greater Englanderism – a nationalism which was never about modernity but 'the glamour of backwardness'. Ukanian nationalism, Nairn believes, could not embrace or articulate a popular sensibility of 'We the People', instead being reduced to a royal reactionary conservatism imposed on the people which dominated the thinking of right and left, the Tories and Labour, equally.
Rather, the existence of royalty has invited us to embrace a topsy-turvy world turned completely upside down. We are presented with the opportunity of seeing the world from the position of royalty, of seeing them as human and normal and like us in certain respects. This invitation is a fraud and deception like many things royal, for we are also asked to see them as above us – a truth reinforced all the time by the fact that the Queen in her Christmas address or any kind of talk cannot say 'my fellow Britons', let alone 'my fellow citizens'.
The cost of the royals according to Nairn is a heavy one that has not grown any lighter in recent years for all the glib talk of modernisation. Instead, the modern Royal Family has deepened the distortive, damaging, anti-democratic principles at the heart of the ancien regime. Nairn observes that this has reinforced nationalism with little to say about constructive modernity, writing that 'the elements of infantilism so plainly in the Royal Infatuation derive from this history'.
This has simply destroyed, or even prevented from birth, any genuinely popular national culture, and in its place we have a carefully nurtured folklore-from-above. Thus, the question of nationalism and of its place as a constitutive part of modernity has never been properly solved or even raised in Britain.
Today, the Windsors can be seen as one of the first family firms of the age of globalisation and the global elite. The Windsors have all the accouterments of uber-wealth and of the international jet set: rampant wealth and assets, estates, castles, complicated family relations, courtiers, advisers and servants.
Perhaps the royals in the form of Harry and Meghan and their break for semi-freedom, wanting to earn their own way in life without renouncing everything royal including their titles, can be seen as the morphing of this global entity – and the setting up of formal activities in North America. Furthermore, this could be a shift from HMS Britannia – the entity not the former royal yacht – as it is engulfed in crisis and division with some of the younger socially mobile set believing they can escape Ukania's decline and ultimate demise.
This flux and future uncertainty is seen in the waiting and expectation of what happens to the royals after the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh are no longer with us. This will be a public watershed and elegy for past Britains and how it is seen across the world. One which will easily surpass that of the death of George VI – the Queen's father – in 1952, or Winston Churchill in 1965, or the Queen Mother in 2002.
Not only is the Queen the longest serving British monarch ever in history – having surpassed that of Victoria – she is the first monarch in the age of mass media and TV in particular. Hence, her reign has been documented from beginning to the present, from the coronation in 1953 to the 1977 Silver Jubilee, 2002 Golden Jubilee and 2017 Sapphire Jubilee (the last strangely unmarked).
The Queen's role is one of the few – if not last remaining public figure – who connect and run through, as an unbroken thread, post-war British society: covering the post-war consensus, its dismantling by Thatcherism and the failure of the brief hope of New Labour. Even before all this, there was the direct experience of the young Princess Elizabeth during the Second World War, the Blitz, Britain's 'finest hour' in 1940-41, and the foundation story of the struggle with Nazi Germany.
Recent events have posited this tradition in contradiction to the pressures and needs of the modern world. One of the great conceits of the Royal Family until recently has been its ability to accommodate these competing tensions, for all the tensions and fissures such as the divorce of Charles and Diana.
In the ongoing Harry and Meghan controversy there have been rival camps and claims. Some observers have claimed that the recently married couple have not had unfair or abusive media coverage in the UK, citing how Diana was portrayed – hardly a good precedent. Sexism is in the mix, as it has been with all royal woman who have become new members of the family. But with Meghan, a mixed race American, there is the added ingredient of being a black woman and the deep well of racism and racist leitmotifs in British society.
For those who say otherwise, race was always a factor in how Meghan was portrayed from the beginning, even in positive coverage. The announcement of Harry and Meghan's relationship and marriage was presented as proof of how modern, diverse and welcoming of outsiders the UK and Royal Family was.
This moment quickly turned sour with the Daily Mail
leading the charge with its infamous 'Straight Outta Compton' cover. This was a reference to the Niggaz Wit Attitudes (NWA) rap track; the only connection of Meghan to Compton being that both she and the band are from Los Angeles.
Even here, we had the last gasp of conservative white male commentators who rushed forth in indecent haste to pronounce that there was nothing racist in all of this, from Harry and Meghan's decision to newspaper abuse – from Piers Morgan to Robert Lacey to Iain Macwhirter. The latter's recent unfortunate role in mansplaining and racesplaining Amna Saleem was a sad note, with Macwhirter even happy to defend the above Daily Mail
headline. This produced the powerful, poignant retort from Saleem to Macwhirter about his white male privilege: 'You live in a different world from me and I am jealous you get to look at it this way'. Maybe in TV studios as well as real life we could listen to BAME people when they say they directly experience racism.
If we think any of this is a major crisis – or that it will shortly be back to normal service – we haven't seen anything yet. As Marina Hyde pointed out last week, the constitutional and popular issue for the royals is not really the sixth in line to the throne, Harry, but the first in line, Charles, and 'the coming Charles III problem'. Hyde writes: 'Waiting in the wings is a rather unloved and not especially admirable man. For all today's sound and fury, the real looming crisis for the Royal Family is not the sixth in line to the throne – but the first'.
The Queen has presided over a country which has seen dramatic change – about its place in the world, its international influence, and in society, attitudes and behaviours domestically. Yet, in this whirlwind of change, its core – the political centre of power and privilege – has remained profoundly anti-democratic and anti-modern, viewing people power as something to be curtailed.
We are still a country which only elects half the UK Parliament, one half being in Nairn's words 'Druidic waxworks', while the role and status of the Crown and Crown powers are used in day-to-day government to restrict and constrain democracy and accountability. All of this makes the royals more than a mere soap opera or a restoration drama tourist attraction. They represent the last organic Burkean thread between the Britain of past and present – between feudal privilege and theft, and the equally indefensible enclosures of the modern age.
The British Royal Family's exceptionalism – trumpeted as if some glorious virtue – is actually an enduring shame. This is not a monarchy like the Dutch or the Swedes or the Japanese: minimal, modern, without a huge footprint into public life and consciousness. Rather its only comparisons should shame all of us in wealth, status and arrogance, pomp and circumstance, and they are the House of Saud and Sultan of Brunei – both also active participants in many aspects of upper-class British life like horse racing and ownership of country estates. The continuation of this spectacle deforms, infantilises and reinforces deception and deceit along with the Disneyfication of what Britain is, our public life and sense of ourselves.
They may give us some pleasure at times, offer distractions at others, but it comes at a heavy price – and by that I don't mean the Sovereign Fund or burgeoning security bill. Despite everything, establishment liberal voices such as Simon Jenkins still come out to say that this is an entire fuss over nothing: 'The monarchy survives because it is not significant, not influential, not even definable' – wasting a whole column undermining his own argument.
Rather as Walter Bagehot wrote in The English Constitution
in 1867, having 'a family on the throne… brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life'. The whole edifice is deeply significant and influential, and the entire rotten structure needs to be overthrown or cut back to the immediate monarch. Do we really want to continue to live in a semi-feudal country run and constrained by such delusions, voodoo and prejudice?