Will Charles be able to hold the Union together?
OPINION: The Queen represented a romanticised vision of Britain. With her gone, Scotland has even less reason to stay
Gold spangly banners and polished cornets adorned Monday’s procession. A decent-sized crowd had gathered along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and, while boos were audible, most were clearly signed-up royalists. Cheering was heard as Charles was proclaimed King, joining in with rounds of ‘God Save the King’ and more cheering as one banner-waving republican was bundled away by police.
The enthusiasts, though, represent a minority, gathered as part of a push to reanimate the corpse of British nationalism.
A poll earlier this year found that only 45% of Scots wanted to keep the monarchy after the death of the Queen – a demographic that, like support for the Union itself, skews heavily towards older people, heavily towards a cohort which is already starting to thin in numbers.
But does anyone think Charles III will be as popular as Elizabeth II? That he will bring about a new era of popularity for an institution that, beyond what’s now a memory of the Queen, has been most famous of late for the scandals around Prince Andrew and Meghan Markle?
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The ‘great generation’
If Winston Churchill was the founding father of the British nation that emerged from the Empire after the Second World War, then Elizabeth Windsor was its much younger founding mother. Old enough, just, to have served in the war effort – she famously qualified as an auto mechanic in April 1945, just before her 19th birthday – she came to represent a whole generation in the minds of much of the British public. A demographic known as ‘the great generation’, because of their victory in the war, and the public services they built afterwards.
As long as she was alive, that generation lived on. Care homes for the elderly continued to play Vera Lynn war songs to their charges, despite most of them now having grown up post-war, with Elvis, the Beatles or the Stones. Retired baby boomers sit at home watching endless documentaries about a world war they like to imagine they were almost involved in, because perhaps they can just about remember rationing.
And so the ache in the hearts of so many people across the UK isn’t just a sadness at the death of a frail elderly woman most had never met, though of course it’s easier to feel because it is that too. It’s the ache at the passing of an era of British history, of a connection to that past.
But if this feeling was common, it was never universal. Royalist sentiment has long been much weaker in Scotland, in particular, where folk songs and national myths about the Jacobites still abound, not creating a desire to restore the Stuart line – in reality, they were terrible kings, deeply implicated in the transatlantic slave trade – but in a sense that the Windsors aren’t really ours, and that the whole monarchy thing is a bit silly.
The consequence, then, was two competing national myths: feelings of connection, on the one hand, to a Britishness rooted in wartime; and, on the other, to a Scottishness that, particularly since devolution, has felt somehow easier to reinvent – a Scottishness convened less around aristocratic hierarchies and feudal performances, and more around democratic institutions and mediated debate.
Sometimes, and for some people, these British and Scottish identities could slot together like Russian dolls. But increasingly often, events force them directly into conflict. And in that competition, affection for the Queen, and the post-war version of Britain that she animated, played an important role. In the final days of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, desperate unionists evoked her image in an attempt to woo waverers back.
Charles, whatever his personal merits or demerits, can’t play the same role. A baby boomer, he evokes none of the same emotional connection to the war, and has none of the capacity to animate those deep feelings of British nostalgia.
Similar stories can be told across the domains. In Northern Ireland, Loyalism to the Crown will of course continue – its roots are much older. But the British nation’s reach into the souls of the Northern Irish population, already shaky since Brexit, has lost some of its grip from the death of Elizabeth. Australia elected a republican government earlier this year, and could well now hold a referendum on keeping the monarchy, while many of the remaining Caribbean realms seem likely to follow Barbados, which replaced the Queen as head of state last year.
Because Elizabeth died at Balmoral, Scotland has played a central role in the funereal pageantry, which has provided a rally for Royalism and, in the short term, may even boost feelings of Britishness and so support for the Union. But as the reality of a Britain under King Charles III sets in, and myths about the Britain of the Second World War retreat into the graves of those who remember it, British nationalism will have either to reinvent itself, or to use increasing force to assert itself.
Under its new authoritarian prime minister, the latter seems more likely.
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