Excerpt: 'The Enchanted Glass' by Tom Nairn


Queen Elizabeth II

From The Scotsman:

The Enchanted Glass originally appeared in 1988, with the middle-aged Elizabeth II in a pink hat and white gloves waving from its cover; twenty-three years later she’s still waving, and guaranteeing the stability of the British Crown for some years to come. Her son will then almost certainly succeed for a while as Charles III, with grandson William following on. So we find the Crown institution still hard at work re-establishing itself as a twenty-first century enterprise.

Nearly all commentators predict Great Britain’s continued decline, as ex-imperial status turns into increasingly unavoidable marginality, screened by special relationships, the Commonwealth, and other old club subscriptions. The UK has so far striven to keep up appearances, via a kind of half-honourable decline: unwilling negotiations with retreat, rather than outright defeat, the goal; a piecemeal and staged withdrawal rather than mere eviction from the historical stage. However, the climate of accelerating decline brings other changes in its wake.

A very minor one is that a mistake in this book’s first edition is more noticeable. I see now how I failed to focus sufficiently on one key motive for the successful working of “enchantment”: what one could call “surrogacy”, in the sense of an English-identity diversion from standard-issue nationalism to the symbolic supranationality of a Royal Crown and Family. The unusual intensity and emotion of the latter has come from certain peculiarities of the former: as if a communal feeling unable to find appropriate modern expression has been compelled to find compensatory voice in another way, or upon a different (though related) level. Such deeper emotion contains a usually unacknowledged advantage. It absolves the majority English nationality from the customary “-ism” of recent history. No Anglo-nationalism is felt necessary in the standard nineteenth- and twentieth-century form. Of course such feeling manifests itself none the less, in sub-standard form – round the edges, as it were, through panic over immigration, and distrust of “outsiders” and multiculturalism. However, the political expression of such ideas has been very limited, mainly by a “British” National Party tied to extinct racism as well as to state decline.

The resultant problems are the by-product of longer-range historical location. As Liah Greenfeld points out in her classic Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1992), England was “God’s Firstborn” in the formation of the nation-state world: but this very priority meant that the English would not themselves become just another state, a national polity like all the rest. Naturally the English had to adapt themselves to the world they had set in motion and fostered, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But they did so in two main ways, both of which have now lost most of their sense. One was simply expansion: the “greater England” represented by colonization and the emigration of one generation after another over the era of empire. The other was a “little England” of rurality and imagined roots, supposed to have both preceded imperialism and in some ways persisted through it as an enduring substratum.

The point of monarchy was the way it suited this unique double life.

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