The Queen: an elegiac prophecy

About the author
Tom Nairn is an expert on nationalism, British institutions and Scotland. He is Research Professor in the Politics Department of Durham University and was a Professor of Nationalism and Social Diversity at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, from 2002 until January 2010.

The Queen is much more than an elegy for the British monarchy. By recounting in 2006 the real elegiac events of the first week of September 1997 - the death of and popular lamentation for Diana, Princess of Wales - director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan have extended the target of denunciation from crown to state. Unlike most journalistic or academic essays, they touch upon certain deeper feelings and attitudes. Like poets, film directors and scriptwriters may sometimes try to be unacknowledged legislators of an age - and in this case, I think that some acknowledgement is due.

Thin political rectitude often dismisses such concern as sentimental or frivolous, and The Queen hasn't entirely escaped the treatment: exploitation of mere gossip, impropriety of presenting living people who can't answer back, the supposed quirks of Royal Household personalities - and so on. Fortunately, few hearts touched by the tale are likely to worry over these fences. Today they stand in dire need of such legislation, even more than at the time of the dreadful events in the Paris tunnel.

Frears's focus is indeed on the stilted theatre of a regal establishment accustomed to ritual worship and obedience, and unable to understand the weird revolution going on outside its front gate. However, the accompanying point is to show how that contradiction was resolved by the other Great-British Household, the one at 10 Downing Street. And the film has appeared just as the latter is writhing under a siege worse than that of Buckingham Palace in 1997.

The story is of a shortlived reprieve, within a continuing historical trial and judgment. The film does use hindsight wisdom to hint at this; but after all, it's only reminding the audience of what it knows already (and not only in Great Britain). In the film script, Helen Mirren's depth as an actress almost makes plausible a suggestion that, at the time, Queen Elizabeth may have understood how temporary her salvation might prove. Naturally that will only be verifiable at greater historical distance.

Tom Nairn is professor of globalisation at the Globalism Research Centre, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia

Tom Nairn is writing here aboutThe Queen, a feature film directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Morgan, with Helen Mirren in the title role of the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II

Among Tom Nairn's articles on openDemocracy:

"Pariah Kingdom"
(May 2001)

"The party is over"
(May 2002)

"America vs Globalisation "
(a five-part essay, January-February 2003)

"Britain's tipping-point election" (June 2005)

"After the G8 and 7/7: an age of 'democratic warming'" (July 2005)

"On the beach: a bonfire of monarchies in Melbourne"
(November 2005)

"Ending the big 'ism" (January 2006)

The subject people

Even at nine years' distance, however, the question is effectively posed of just what was so smartly "saved" in 1997, and of what is likely to succeed the story's real end, as yet unreached. Camilla Parker-Bowles country? Not at all likely, in the view of Frears and Morgan. They know what they're talking about here, having previously made a drama-documentary about the rise of Blair, and his long wrangle with his chancellor Gordon Brown. And most viewers probably agree with them.

The 1997 revolution was weird, but real, and is now showing itself to be irresistible in another disconcerting form. Today, the adroit saviour of the crown from post-Diana wrath finds himself the victim of much greater popular resentment, his party torn apart by implausible successors fighting madly to (once more) restore a dying régime. While Queen Elizabeth II may yet check one or more of them in at Buckingham Palace, few will see in this more than a rite of passage; and fewer still will expect King Charles III to carry on bestowing the sovereign power.

But how is this possible? The principal actor in The Queen is not the much-praised Helen Mirren. It is the people in the streets. The film displays this movingly, without needless excess. At first we see a few bunches of flowers beside the palace guardsmen; then something astonishing happens. Looking backwards from the film's vantage-point, it can be seen as a single colossal heartbeat, which deposited across the middle of London a floral ocean of mingled grief, longing, inscriptions and bad verse, and endured through to Diana's funeral and internment.

The Frears film makes sense because a good deal of this persists, nine years later. It was an act of presence, as it were, and not merely of whimsy or nostalgia. A turning so profound and unexpected was not related exclusively to the victims in the Paris tunnel. This is, incidentally, why the doubts and recriminations about Diana herself (common in 1997 and dusted off for the film) seem irrelevant. The car-crash triggered something else. It was "in people's hearts" all right; but not only in individual romantic fantasies. A rediscovered societal instinct was at work too, a togetherness - a sensation related to underlying community and will, to identity and "what we stand for" (or ought to stand for) as both people and state.

Both place and time are too important to leave out. One can call it "nationalism", I suppose, but more definition is needed. The United Kingdom population inhabits a country where since the mid-19th century an extensive, important zone of popular imagination had been over-concentrated upon royalty.

The royal imaginary

For a society anchored in class rigidities, this proved an ideology capable of holding together the emerging collectivity of modern, urbanised nationalities. And it did so by avoiding (or minimising) the abstract concepts that had been linked to earlier modern revolutions like those in America, France and elsewhere. Queen Victoria's nationhood emphasised the new period's romance and circumscribed its principles of universal liberté and egalité.

David Cannadine and others have shown how UK circumstances favoured this lopsided style of "imagined community", and thus bore early-modern forms into the age of empires. Other states did try the formula, like Austria-Hungary, the Russian Czardom and Spain; but none succeeded so well.

All too well, one could also say. The system's underlying archaism absorbed working-class socialism well enough, but would eventually give way under the tensions of a less restrained capitalism. This is why locating the drama retold in The Queen is so important: it was roughly halfway between the expulsion of Margaret Thatcher (1988-90) and that of her successor, Blair (2005-07). Their two "-isms" have marked the principal phases of capital's social triumph and domestic integration.

It is often too readily assumed that empire was itself responsible for the reconstruction and popularity of the British monarchy. Certainly, the UK's global and naval overstretch encouraged anachronism to persist; but this wasn't just via uniforms, borrowed bagpipes and cut-price overlordship. Such conditions also diluted and staged capitalism's domestic mutation. While British societies had of course been pioneers of capitalist development they were never (so to speak) alone with it, until Mrs Thatcher's assumption of office in 1979. Only after that did they find themselves simultaneously deprived of "overseas", the former patriciate, credentials of Greatness, and the supposed alternatives of socialism.

Hence a sourness and confused nostalgia was to poison the material achievements of the 1990s, a longing that failed to find a name - until Diana provided one, and then consummated it with her death. The old royal establishment had merely gone along with the process; now here it was back, emanating a fossilised indifference to popular feelings by denying the new music, and burying itself at Balmoral.

A far horn

In the film we hear Prince Charles whining about being a "moderniser" in the background. But Blair understood the great force of a claimant and disappointed nationalism, and how - unless tamed - it could sweep away much more than the monarchy. He was already aiming to defuse peripheral nationalism (in Scotland and Wales) with devolution. But the moral collapse of Windsordom was that much more important. It would have really put the "Third Way" on the spot, and had to be averted. Frears relates how the "people's princess" was accorded due recognition: Queen Elizabeth was first nudged then dragged back to London, where the mutinous crowds found they "weren't so bad" after all.

Thus "Blairism" could carry on. That is, the old two-party see-saw, a domesticated House of Lords, and sufficient continuity to make the masses swallow more deregulation, a diminished public sector, and more supine dependence on the United States in lieu of former grandeur. Had the royal pillars of the old constitution collapsed, then it would have been difficult to avoid reforming all the rest. No think-tank could have "invented" a new monarchy today: some kind of republicanism would have imposed itself. And that would have been very hard without replacement of Westminster, and of the winner-takes-all machinery so dear to both great modernising parties.

This is what "grovelling" is about. The film skilfully shows how it worked in Blair's personal case; but Gordon Brown is also on record as thinking the royals "do a very good job". Bowing to Her Majesty encourages people to bow in other directions as well. Thus modernisation can become instant tradition, and an instinct for continuity is maintained. That's what Anglo-British modernisation is about: never allowing it to get the upper hand, not being carried away by it.

In this perspective, millions of people getting carried away by tears and inchoate longing is clearly the worst of precedents. If they felt they had demolished the monarchy, what might they not get rid off next? Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell and wife Chérie Blair are shown in the script as mocking the mummified features of courtly existence. But this is thin scorn, meant to support Westminster's half-democracy by decrying excesses and moribund rituals.

What the mourners then got was Blairism, the prosecution of Thatcher's socio-economic revolution, prostration before George W Bush, war in Mesopotamia and Afghanistan, evasiveness in Europe and the pumping up of Britain's pretended world role (including its nuclear arms). It is not necessary here to deny all saving graces to Blair's (or Brown's) domestic policies. But for the government that began by saving Queen and crown, foreign policy was to grow ever more dominant, eclipsing their effects.

Saving and being able to mobilise British nationalism has always been the key issue. These powers were implicitly menaced by any unsanctioned surge of popular feeling or resentment - like the huge anti-war demonstrations that filled some of the same streets a few years later. Opening such doors is itself the threat, even without banners declaring "Republicanism - This Way!"

In this film we see how Blair and Campbell saved the old essence of state. Then viewers come out blinking into the light of Gordon Brown's attempt to "elect a new people" (in Bertolt Brecht's famous dictum) that might settle for a new modernised, quasi-American "vision" - that is, an orderly all-British identity, more capable of containing devolution and multicultural discontents within prescribed limits, and thus of renewing ancien régime leadership (I and others have written at greater length on this theme in a special book-length issue - entitled "Gordon Brown: Bard of Britishness" - of Agenda [Cardiff], the journal of the Institute of Welsh Affairs).

British republicanism is unthinkable solely in these hidebound Anglo-British terms. One need only look across to Ireland and observe how the population of a republic enjoys voting for a symbolic president. And in a way, that's what the enormous mourning crowds were doing in 1997, and why they had to be stopped: they were as good as "voting" with feet and flowers for something hopefully better, more humane, sweeter and more meaningful.

But shortly thereafter, in 2001 and 2005, about half of them wouldn't bother to vote at all, for anything on offer from the post-funereal, living-dead régime. They were not to be allowed a Mary Robinson, or a President Mary McAleese. Like an elected second chamber, a president might have interfered with the preserved and sacred essence: prime-ministerial and party authority, the old pantomime that has "served us so well".

A civil society denied state and constitutional reforms appropriate to the great changes it has suffered, ends by "reforming itself" piecemeal, fragmentarily, emotively, sometimes blindly or negatively, or by dissociation, withdrawal and escape. The Queen recounts a milestone-episode in this breakdown: the moment when a people stopped recognising itself in the traditional looking-glass, and called for another, only to be rewarded with Prince Charles, a warlord-premier, and the crazily enhanced power of the other Household at Number 10 Downing Street.

One of the most discussed sequences of the film shows Her Majesty stranded in a corner of the Balmoral wilderness, communing with a magnificent stag. Is this the errant spirit of Diana, or simply of something other and better? Anyway she advises him to make himself scarce, since Philip and his boys are out with the guns. Hopeless, naturally: she later finds the beheaded corpse strung up, and it turns out the kill was prolonged, and probably agonising. It bled to death in stages, an appropriate symbol for the later phase of Blairism.

Sure, these "legislators" of the heart don't end with formulae for what ought to come next. All we can know - more certainly after the movie - is that it will not be like the timeless essence so complacently projected in the conclusion of Kenneth O Morgan's Twentieth-Century Britain : A Very Short Introduction (2000), a work one can only hope has not bled too many non-Brits to academic death: "Debates over the significance of Diana's death offered insights into the abiding folk memory...At the dawn of the new millennium, as in times of greater pomp and power in the past, the values of being British could still be affirmed and sustained. So might they be again, in centuries yet to unfold..."

Come on, republicans of all nations and classes; give this kind of stuff both barrels, Diana and the stag will be with you.