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The party is over

Tom Nairn
22 May 2002

I no longer recall the name of the village. On a sunny afternoon in June, 1977, somewhere in Somerset or Devon, we ended there by accident, after taking a wrong turning off the main road from Bristol down into Cornwall. Attempting a U-turn in the narrow High Street, I backed the Volkswagen van into a Jubilee street party.

There were trestle tables set up in the middle of the side street, with odd assortments of chairs brought out from the terraced houses. Plates of sandwiches and cakes were lined up, with big metal tea-pots, and red, white and blue bunting was draped over the garden railings and in between the front doors. A large framed print of Queen Elizabeth IInd was propped up at the end of the row, just where I finally stalled. People came forward to se if they could help. “It’s our Jubilee party”, one of them explained, “…I hope we’re not in your way.”

They explained how to get back to the main road, simultaneously inviting us to the party. It was all done with such kindness, there was no way to refuse. My partner of that time, Christine, was handicapped, and they could see the wheel-chair in the van. We needed space to put down the ramps for it, and someone led me into an adjoining street with wider pavements. I explained we had come from Scotland. “You’ll be ready for a cup of tea, then!” said a bright, organizing lady who had taken charge of events. She led us back round the corner, and cleared enough space for Christine at one of the trestles.

The conversation was not of Empire or grandeur, and I don’t remember the Monarchy itself being even mentioned. The past was taken for granted among the scones and sandwiches. It was like finding oneself in an unexpected and astonishingly extended family. On that day I had noticed how the signals of familiarity multiplied south of the border: there were no flags in Scotland, but they became visible in Cumbria and Lancashire, even from the motorway.

In 1977 the parameters of this re-imagined community were still vast. They extended to Vancouver and Auckland, and were ‘spontaneous’ in the sense of popularly willed and enjoyed. The local council had ‘encouraged’ the event (the same lady explained) but it was mostly voluntary, people chipping in with this or that. If the weather stayed fine they would clear some of the tables later on, and make part of the street into a dance floor. But it wouldn’t go on too late, she insisted: a kind of superior self-restraint was built into this social display, at once stuffy and reassuring. Within its profound conservatism, there was also something innocent and protective. It might have grabbed, bullied and exploited a quarter of the habitable globe. Yet ‘decent’ was the code word for the resulting metaphorical kinship: the homeliness of living icons, endowed with foibles as well as meaning. They were ‘what we stood for’; it was still important to show it.

Half an hour or so later, we were back on our way. Twenty-five years later, I find myself looking back on that distant summer with curiosity, near to disbelief. The heart of those times has ceased to beat. All that was two years before the winter of discontent, when Margaret Thatcher arose from the ruins of post-war social democracy; and twenty-three years before the Dome, New Labour’s attempt at a recapitulation of the glory. In 2002, everyone knows that what 1977 did stand for can never be recreated. It lives on only among some Ulster Protestants, for motives no longer shared by the mainland nations. In the mainland countries it can only be half-heartedly simulated, by stilted professions of loyalty, or clammy calculations that the state still needs a Monarchy to stay United.

A state of nostalgia

Official fears of a damp-squib Golden Jubilee are now unrelieved by wild hopes of ‘inspiring’ enthusiasm from above. Yet the Great and Good should not despair. They still have something pretty significant to work on, and through: nostalgia. Between 1977 and the present a huge sea-change took place, on the level of economics and (hence) social relationships. The solvents of belated modernization have destroyed an older sense of deferential community. Although itself artfully built up over a century and a half, by the ‘70s it was still tradition; and today it can still figure as ‘the world we have lost’. Naturally, people are attached to such customs in common. They may inhabit a neo-liberal or would-be ‘entrepreneurial’ society (hall-mark ‘Thatcher’, currently franchised out to Tony Blair); but ‘what we stand for’ dates from antecedent times — which in the rear-view mirror appear more comforting than was really the case.

Such attitudes and sentiments ‘decay’, or wither away. But this is a slow, behind-the-times process. And they are not being allowed to: that’s the point. In the United Kingdom, society may have changed, but the state remains essentially unaltered. Since 1979 it has been ruled by unbending Royalists, apostles of 1688 and 1707, fervents of first-past-the-post Sovereignty. A clerisy devoted to Britain’s ‘pivotal’ posture in world affairs strives to keep Greatness in a semblance of working order. It makes the harsh toxins of neo-liberalism more palatable. Great-power postures and low-level changes to the Constitution are both ways of keeping the latter going. Because there can now be few differences in socio-economic policy, political ideology has grown more important. The British redemption formula has become: ossified conformism of opinion, plus respectful Devolution, plus Nostalgia. And all three need the Monarchy to survive.

This was demonstrated the year New Labour won power, twenty years after that 1977 street party. Princess Diana’s aberrant death produced an astonishing wave of popular feeling and demonstration. This was directed immediately against Royal officialdom and stodgy out-of-touchness. A people so long schooled in imagined Royal communalism could manifest discontent and longing solely in that mode. The result was the mightiest Wake of modern times —the true funeral rites of Victorian Monarchy, in fact. But officialdom is of a piece, as Blair and his renewed élite at once realized. They had to salvage the cadaver of Windsordom, in order to keep Westminster (and their own authority) safely intact. The Wake had to be made permanent. This entailed a mounting emphasis on retrospect. Evocations of the Finest Hour have multiplied since 1997, reaching a new crescendo after 11 September 2001. But so have elaborate genuflections before historic Britishness, in books, films and television series. Conserving identity against the present means forcing it into ever more retrospective key: living in Past Times-shop nostalgia, as it were.

Philistines think of nostalgia as a sentimental excess, or a kind of indulgence. In reality it is one of the deepest social emotions: the emotive terrain people can’t help standing on, a great deal of the time. They need it most when ‘being themselves’ : that is, when allowed to stop being cost-effective cogs in someone else’s enterprise. In this sense it goes to the root. It also seems to be true that disappointed or insulted nostalgia turns readily into vitriol — as if a hair’s breadth separates it from heedless disenchantment and resentment. The wilderness on the other side attained a new depth at last year’s British General Election, when forty per cent of electors simply stayed away, and Blair re-triumphed on less than one quarter of the vote. Nor is there any indication of this descent stopping, or even slowing down. It seems to have assumed vicious-circle characteristics, within which the current Golden Jubilee will signal a farther slump.

Retrieving democracy

Sometimes current anti-political fury is attributed directly to neo-liberal economics and the crazed excesses of its accompanying trahison des clercs. But I doubt it. In important places, these absurdities are also taking place in a context of state decay, where out-dated systems are still felt to be inescapable — indeed, are still represented as timeless political wonders, consecrated by past achievements and assorted finest hours. The American, British and French polities exemplify democracy. By God, it’s what we all stand for, on both Atlantic seaboards! Whatever is needed to cure the malaise, therefore, democracy has nothing farther to contribute. Democracy is for the Hopeless of the Earth, like the Burmese and the Indonesians, who have unfortunately still not become like us. As for grotesque episodes like the non-election of George W. Bush (2000), New Labour’s non-Landslide (2001), and the panic-apotheosis of Jacques Chirac (2002), these are perfectly normal examples of Enlightened polities in 21st century action. Get ready for more.

Until democracy staggers back on to the Atlantic stage, the only factor likely to alter things is death. Mourners die off as well as those mourned. There was nothing surprising about the large numbers attending the Queen Mother’s obsequies. They were being sorry for themselves, and not (I again think back to 1977) without some cause. Nostalgia is still quite a nice place to live. Lashings of it will follow, against a somber litany of Ministerial and think-tank musings upon community (virtues of, preservation, equal entitlements to weep, etc.). Also, the sheer weight of nostalgic grieving may provide an excuse for whatever dismal and low-key ‘celebrations’ do follow. That’s how they would have been anyway, but now it can be accounted for by tears.

It is these depths that tell us where republicanism should be located. As long as it remains opposition to the show alone, it will be marginalized. Arguing for abolition of Royalty by itself will merely arouse a protective instinct in the heart of this increasingly heartless world. The Australians attempted it, and were rewarded by a wave of anti-political loathing. Raising a republic has to be part of creating an integrally new constitution, in which late-17th century representation gives way to democracy. Nor (we now understand) can the latter be a half-baked copy of American or French examples, themselves hopelessly discredited by the millennial turning-point. Personally I would prefer to follow Robert Unger’s ‘democratic experimentalism’, and see six or more different republics emerge out of the U.K. ruins. But the principle’s the same: after a political revolution, such new societies are unlikely to vote for Crowned Nostalgia.

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