Anthony Barnett: is this a republican moment?
what’s up with the monarchy and how people feel about it? Pundits are asking "Is this another annus horribilis?”. That’s a phrase the Queen used to describe what happened in 1992 when both Andrew and Anne divorced, Diana’s marriage to Charles broke down in a cascade of tabloid prurience and Windsor Castle caught fire. What happened then politically was that the monarchy recognised it was no longer untouchable and ‘above reproach’ (as Johnson laughably claimed in his TV debate with Corbyn) and had to accept that it could be subject to debate like other institutions. I recall the moment well and took advantage of it to hold a Charter 88 conference on the Monarchy and publish a book about it called Power and the Throne to try and consolidate what was a democratic opening – or at least a chink.
Is the combination of Harry’s marriage to Meghan turning the monarchy into an openly mixed race affair and now Andrew’s interview greeted with wall-to-wall revulsion a similar moment? Personally, I think not. But something is changing perhaps thanks to The Crown. Without doubt it has created support for the royals as people, but it has also diminished the enchantment and sense of magic that is so important for their power (which Tom Nairn wrote about in The Enchanted Glass). Is there also a connection with Brexit? I don’t mean the endless, pathological ‘going on’ about Brexit that gets us nowhere. But what we might call ’the long Brexit’ – the undeniable fact that whatever the outcome the country is changing forever, that ‘Great Britain’ is on the way out, that Scotland is bound to be independent and Ireland united in the coming decades, and therefore that all of us are both clinging to a past that is drowning and trying to escape from it. Do the monarchy now represent this? If so, it is a process that is going on inside us as well as outside us and you are the most brilliant writer about this uncomfortable experience.
Suzanne Moore: Diana and Meghan were policed, while Andrew’s behaviour was ignored for years.
Dear Anthony and Adam,
I think this is a moment of rupture and we know that the Royals are experienced at handling them but lately they been shaky. Less sure footed, Even their trusted allies at Associated (The Mail and The Mail on Sunday) are gunning for them, well Andrew anyway. Little has unified the nation as much as gob-smacked revulsion at that interview.
How much that means he becomes persona non grata – we hear the republican murmurings – 'how do you sack a Prince?' – but if this scandal is contained, the institution is still safe, personified of course by the Queen who cannot be held responsible for her favoured son.
The last remnants of enchantment are now absolutely tied to her. She is untouchable still I would say and even a so called Marxist would-be government that finds billionaires immoral won't point out her net worth is £20 billion.
The question is what happens when she dies. Younger generations really have little attachment to the family. I don’t mean they are all radical, it’s just not a narrative that has much emotional oomph for them. It is this indifference that is more a threat than anything else.
The attempt to modernise via celebrity (flowing on from Diana) by bringing in Meghan has shown a complete inability to carry through.
‘Bad Meghan’, ‘graspy’, ‘PC’, ‘biracial’ is held in permanent contrast to Kate, princess of Beigeness; ever thinner and more pliable and “normal”. It is always interesting to me that change is so often delivered or disrupted by ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ femininity. Diana would not stick to the agreed script. Meghan won’t. But Andrew’s behavior has been ignored for years.
I completely agree with you that Brexit means the breaking down of institutions and of the United Kingdom in various ways. It is very strange to see things I desire – an Indy Scotland and the unification of Ireland – being ultimately delivered by the right and not the left. But that’s how it feels.
Still for me the most helpful way to think about now goes back to Raymond William's definition of residual emergent and dominant processes that are in flux all the time in culture.
He makes a distinction between residual and archaic elements while saying they are often difficult to differentiate. What I guess is in play right now are “available elements of the past”. Andrew in his utter bubble did not appear to be living in the present as most of us understand it.
At the moment there is a complete dislocation of what the past is. And therefore what the future is. Where does the monarchy fit into that now?
One can feel the establishment desperately holding onto a version of the past that is “too honorable” while the rest of us look on in bewilderment. Something is fracturing though. These are anxious times.
Adam Ramsay: the Royals and reality TV
Thanks Suzanne and Anthony,
I'm only just beginning to get my head around some of this, but here are my current thoughts. It seems to me that two things happened in 1997* which transformed Britain's relationship with the monarchy. The first, as you say, was the death of Princess Diana. The second is the arrival of reality TV when Dutch producer John de Mol invented the original Big Brother, and Swedish television aired the original "Survivor" series.
The timing is significant, because it's a reminder that Reality TV arrived before social media and at the height of neoliberalism: allowing working class people a route to fame that didn't require brilliance with a ball (and a parallel to the National Lottery, which had arrived three years earlier and offered the fantasy of the other false promise of neoliberalism: fortune).
Read The Sun today, and its pages are dominated by coverage of reality TV, and the biggest reality TV series of all? the monarchy.
If we think about how, as you say, the Windsors have tried to modernise through celebrity, and through the nexus of power that is the billionaire press, we also need to think about how, in parallel, the idea of celebrity has morphed: we can vote them in and out of the TV show, we can publicly shame them on Twitter: they are other, but they are also us.
The arrival of, first, Kate, and then, Meghan showed how 'ordinary people' can 'win' this lottery too: and be treated like any other reality TV contestants, with the usual disciplining for race, gender and class.
This tapping of the energy of the crowd grants them vast power. But it also means they are no longer untouchable. Where once the Windsors sat at the apex of church and state, symbols of the nation at its foundation in 1945 and of the memory of imperial greatness, they are now enthroned at the peak of the reality-TV-billionaire-press-social-media-complex: a space where Donald Trump can build up his brand, but #metoo can challenge the power of grotesque men.
And so when Boris Johnson says that the Royal Family is "beyond reproach" – something he has to say for the elderly monarchist Tory voters – the audience gasps. Because modern celebrity isn't about the worship of distant deities, but persuading us that we too could be famous one day, if only we're 'good' enough. And so when they aren't good, when they are caught up in paedophile and sex trafficking scandals, when they are the very opposite of good, and yet aren't torn down, the myth is ruptured. The feral elite are exposed for what they are.
Does any of that make any sense?
*of course there was also the election of Blair and the Hong Kong handover, but those are for another day.
Anthony Barnett: we need a republican revolution
Something is fracturing. The only escape from the fracturing turning into a shattering earthquake that will throw up a triumphant far-right is a republican revolution: a revolution that will have to upturn Labourism as much as Conservatism. I don’t mean by republicanism a literal return to Milton or a rigid obsession with ridding us of the monarchy. I mean a contemporary, networked, digital, secular constitutional democracy. Constitutional not in the dry legal sense but in the passionate collective sense that we know the basic rules because they belong to us.
How long will it take? If Suzanne is right and "what happens” to the “last remnants” happens after Elizabeth dies, we’re looking at the 2030s as the Queen is only 93, her mother lived until she was 101 and women today tend to live longer than their parents.
Can ‘Great Britain’ really last that long? Suzanne’s point that change is delivered through femininity is acute. The Queen herself ensured a profound social transformation could happen after 1945 without the democratic revolution the country needed. It was two-sided, in other words. She was both an agent of conservatism and an enabler of change. The monarch and her advisors will surely try to reproduce this role to preserve themselves. But this time, it seems to me, something different may be taking place, symbolised by the instant defenestration of Prince Andrew. The Monarchy, however strange this may seem, has prepared itself for the republican revolution better than the rest of the British state.
I think I got this right in my short chapter on the monarchy in The Lure of Greatness, written immediately after the Brexit vote. For the Crown, the ‘Brexit moment’ – meaning the breakdown decade – was the crisis of the nineties brought on by Diana. Her challenge was major. Diana frontally defied the Royal Family, defining them as “The Establishment” and herself as the “Queen of people’s hearts”, the “light in their dark tunnels”.
Of course, it was a reactionary challenge as well as a popular one. She was, I show, the UK’s first modern populist. Donald Trump homed in on her immediately, claiming they had “a great relationship” even if he failed in his own words, "to nail” her. The Monarchy was saved from the threat of Diana first by the car-crash, second by Blair’s declaration that she was “the people’s princess” and third by his insistence that the Queen bow her head to the crowds. The Palace learnt its lesson: the future King William was sent to St Andrews not Oxford and married a commoner. Meanwhile, alas, Blair absorbed the populist contagion that led him to Iraq and now us to Johnson.
Where does Adam’s brilliant analysis of the new nature of celebrity fit in? I don’t think the monarchy is seeking this, perhaps Meghan is drawn to its glamour, rather once burnt twice shy. But something more important has happened. The end of deference and the sense that ’they’ could be us. The profound belief that they were different, special, and the living personification of ’the whole nation’ and in that sense embodied the constitution and so ensured it did not belong to us – this has crumbled before "the power of the crowd”. The question now is what happened to this power? It roared approval of ’take back control’. Labour’s refusal to embrace the agency it expresses leaves it as easy picking for the right. Feral elite they may be. Exposed they surely are. But we want power. If we can’t experience it AT ALL, then visceral it will have to be.
Suzanne Moore: the project of modernisation has failed
There is so much here and it is changing day to day with simple headlines about how can a mother sack her son. How can a royal stop being a royal... and the recognition that there is no mechanism by which this can happen.
Obviously I don’t know how long the Queen will go on but that sense of duty and of having lived through wars is going anyway. I don’t think many people for instance could name her four children. It is not just a Republican idea – the slimmed down monarchy – it is this complete lack of interest in them that is a dangerous moment.
They are actually appalling at negotiating the celebrity world that Adam describes. They are not there on merit or talent and the schism between Harry and William points to this, this representation between Harry and Meghan being too celebby and right on and show biz and William and Kate being more normal and dutiful and all that BUT innately boring.
For me the two indicators that we were moving into a deeply conservative era were always Kate Middleton and Samantha Cameron held up as bland mute untroubling role models for women. But that centre could not hold.
It is in its way crumbling as Anthony said and anyone on the left should be bolder about it. We can’t have this new transformative programme of change while they remain in place. Andrew's sordid doings reveal that the royals inhabit a world of oligarchs, that they operate a court not a corporation, that the values they are meant to embody personally are tossed aside for a contact, an arms deal, an affair. How on earth they represent the Church of England mystifies me. How they own so much of Wales and Scotland is another bone of contention, surely.
“there are only so many impossible things one can believe before breakfast”
Essentially the project of modernisation has failed. It has to fail because there are only so many impossible things one can believe before breakfast. Social mobility has stalled. Meritocracy is a myth. The elites are now multi-national enterprises with nomadic loyalties. The idea that a family at the top of this tree can tie together all these strands is patently untrue. And it is seen to be untrue even by tabloids with whom they were tied into symbiotic relationships. They are no better than us and often worse. "Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the first scope for ridicule" (Edward Gibbon). Andrew has provoked both ridicule and repulsion.
Is this a republican moment? Well yes if it seen in the context of unearned privilege, Andrew's sense of his own worth was delusional. The whole thing is delusional but as the country is currently fighting over competing identities and often irrational sentiments, how much damage this will do is hard to gauge. We are clearly not United. And as for Kingdom? Really???
Adam Ramsay: a crisis for the Royals means a crisis for the Tories: and the union
Thanks Suzanne – yes, I hadn't ever really thought about quite how terrible they are at navigating their new reality TV role: too staid to be Jade Goody, too inoffensive to be Donald Trump.
The political implications of what you say are surely profound: particularly, as you say, for the Union. When I first moved from Scotland to England in my early twenties, the most obvious difference (apart from the fact that there are no proper hills, you can't get decent black pudding and it's far too hot) was that there were people who actually cared about the monarchy. During the Queen's diamond Jubilee, I was amazed to discover people were actually organising street parties: there were 10,000 across the UK, of which only sixty were in Scotland.
One of the most important questions in British politics is "why does England vote Tory?". Look at opinion polls, and English people are almost as left and almost as socially liberal as their Scottish and Welsh neighbours on most issues. And yet, in election after election, they vote for a party consistently to the right of their views on most issues.
The one issue on which there is a consistent and significant gap in attitudes polled (other than Brexit and Trident) is support for the monarchy: a trend which UnHerd have recently mapped (see below).
If the monarchy is at the centre of the Anglo-British nationalism which expresses itself in Toryism, and that same monarchy is failing to make a transition from the imperial throne to the centre of reality TV celebrity, then this spells trouble for Toryism.
It also, by the way, asks important questions about Northern Ireland: Loyalists are loyal to the crown, specifically. How does that sentiment hang on, as the monarchy struggles through the coming onslaught? Northern Irish unionism is already under serious pressure from a modernising Ireland, Brexit, austerity and demographic and cultural changes. The DUP may be about to lose all three of their Belfast MPs and Rangers has had a torrid decade. What would a crisis in the monarchy mean for the most ardent monarchists there are?