The UK has been a different place over the past two weeks – and will never be the same again. In a world of constant change, it is unsurprising that ceremony and ritual has come centre-stage during the last 11 days from the death of the Queen on 8 September to her funeral on 19 September. Such historical (and sometimes more modern) practices, increasingly imbued with importance and symbolism, are one of the enduring points of monarchy, not just in the UK but across the last remaining European serving royals.
Monarchy, in the modern sense, began to assume its current form across Europe in the 19th century – a period of rapid industrialisation and imperial expansion. Some monarchies never made it through the turbulence and the age of empires crashing: Austria-Hungary, imperial Germany, Tsarist Russia, Italy. Those that endured, such as the British Crown, have retained and adapted the pomp and occasion which they created to give sense and meaning to Empire and imperialism, in the long era of colonial retreat and decline.
All of which begs key questions, such as: What will be the story of the UK after 70 years of the Queen? Will a new account of continuity and adaption come to the fore, or is the UK minus the soft power of Elizabeth inevitably diminished – with the debate on decline becoming more explicit?
A pivotal thread of the past two weeks has been the act of remembering and making sense of the recent past of the Queen. This entails recreating, remaking and reinterpreting the history of the UK into a single narrative and set of collective memories. There is a visible emphasis on framing the inclusivity and uniformity of a national community and consensus. Inevitably, this has boundaries, criteria for membership and exclusion – all of which have been self-evident in the media coverage of the past few days.
This official story of Britain is partial and problematic. It is an updating of the version that many of us grew up with – the Ladybird Book and Whig version of history – of Britain as a special place which stood up to others, stood tall when it was needed and stood apart when others fell. The implication of this story is that Britain is both homogeneous and diverse, a single people and nation for all our differences – which is where problems with reality obviously begin to kick in.
Degenerating what passes for democracy
Underneath commentaries of the past two weeks run two strands about the state of democracy in the UK. The first is the yearning for the firm hand of authority and even military authority at that. All through post-war Britain, one perspective has yearned for a return to deference and respect for elders, tradition and the law, and permanently seeing the country as 'going to the dogs'. This was one of the defining narratives of the older generation and of the right in the 1970s – which transmuted itself into Thatcherite authoritarianism in the subsequent decade.
It is no accident that this is emerging again given the crises affecting the UK. Even though this is now a result of the forces of conservatism and the Tory Party, it is not beyond imagination that this convergence of crises could be seized upon by the populist right. Hence, the likes of Richard Tice, leader of UK Reform (the former Brexit Party), eulogising the professionalism of the military in the past two weeks and wondering if they could have a bigger role in running public services. Expect to hear more of this in coming years underneath which is a diminution and pessimism about politics, politicians and what passes for UK democracy.
The second is even more profound and deeply embedded in the English psyche. It's about a more historical fear of the potential implications of democracy that believes letting people take major decisions is misguided as they may make the 'wrong' decisions. The author Ben Judah gave voice to this recently:
If Britain became a Republic, left-liberal republicans would hate the results far more than the reality of eco-conservationist liberals Charles and William: I can easily imagine President Clarkson. Reality is Windsor TM tilts more liberal/green than the hypothetical successor.
This is, at its core, a fear of what democracy might result in but goes much further than the more immediate concerns of the like of Tice. In effect, it is drawing upon the vein of a deep anxiety about the British people – and predominantly the English people – if they are left without guardrails and guardians, to govern themselves.
All through English conservatism – from the French revolution and the reaction of Edmund Burke – there has been a fear of the mob, disorder and revolution, and that it could, if authority and tradition is overthrown, see an explosion of violence. Today, nearly 250 years after the French and American revolutions, one argument for British monarchy says implicitly and explicitly that the people should be invited and agree to not become a people.
'We are the people' sing Rangers fans but we are not a people in a civic, legal or political sense. The English transformation from royal absolutism to parliamentary absolutism, from 'the divine right of kings' to the fetishisation of parliamentary sovereignty, has been sold down the centuries as showing English and British adaptability and evolution, and compared favourably to the likes of the French.
This meant that as the Enlightenment brought forth ideas of popular sovereignty embraced in France and the US, UK elites believed they could manage and curtail the idea of 'a people' and invite them into the public domain on the terms of the establishment.
Monarchy has been central to this arrested development, both as cause and effect. Neal Ascherson, surveying the state of Britain after the Queen, drew on Tom Nairn's understanding of monarchy as an 'enchanted glass': 'a mirror in which her subjects see themselves reflected as united, brave and kindly, loved and respected by the giant spread of the outside world that was once the Empire and is now the Commonwealth'.
Scotland has its own tradition of popular sovereignty which can be traced back to the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 and the notion of monarchical authority based on popular consent. This is part mythology, folklore and the reinterpretation of the 1320 Declaration in a modern setting but still matters. It is the exact terrain that is being presented uncritically about the lineage of the British monarchy and about which Scotland has its own unique stories.
The sounds of silence in public
People in crowds, gatherings and public spaces in the past two weeks have shown a variety of responses and behaviours. One of them amidst the noise of public life has been the power of silence. The silences have denoted respect, solemnity and remembrance, but have also underpinned that we the public are not really a public in any real collective or civic sense and that we are still, in effect, spectators and trespassers in what should be our public realm.
Informing this is that not only are we not citizens in what should be our own land, but that the UK is not and never has been a democracy. Neither still is Scotland. This might not be that shocking. What is has been the connivance of the Labour Party and much of the left tradition in maintaining this state of affairs by pretending otherwise – and that through the years the advance of parliamentary socialism could be achieved through the UK's undemocracy and Empire State.
Scotland's story in this has not been as different as many would like to believe for all for our own distinctive traditions. If, in the analysis of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, the UK never had a fully bourgeois revolution which overthrew the aristocratic class, then that is still equally true of Scotland.
At the heart of all this is deception about power, history, who we are and what we have done. All of this is concealed – hidden in plain sight – in the public discourses of recent days. But occasionally it arrives in public view. On the Monday evening following the Queen's funeral, historian Sathnam Sangera, author of Empireland
, talked on Channel 4 News of the evasions of the royal family, establishment and politicians on Empire and Britain:
When she passed away this year, Empire was over and we are struggling to hold on to the Union. I fear she did not make much of an effort to confront this history in that she went straight from talking about Empire to talking about the Commonwealth. I think in this way she conspired with the British people and establishment to pretend that Empire never really happened. Empire explains so much about who we really are. It explains our multiculturalism, our racism, our psychology…
All through the past two weeks, the UK and Britain have been described as a nation when this is wrong for both. The UK is not and never has been a nation. Britain is a geographic term and an idea. This inexactitude never used to matter in times past. People like Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill regularly called the UK and Britain a nation; they even went further and used the terms 'Britain' and 'England' interchangeably: something which used to be common in senior Tory circles.
These are very different times and now such inexact language jars, given the state of the Union and UK. The UK Prime Minister, Liz Truss, stood outside Downing Street and spoke of the late Queen as representing 'the very spirit of Great Britain'.
This sort of misspeak happens all the time in the media, but has import from a new Premier planning to tear-up the Northern Ireland Protocol. It points to the collective amnesia now at the heart of UK Government, not just about Tory unionism and the union but about the nature and complexity of the UK.
This will be tested in both Northern Ireland and Scotland by Truss, with Oxford University academic Iain McLean describing the Tory attitude to the Union as the antithesis of what unionism used to be, writing: 'Muscular unionism is not truly unionism. It is imperialism'. This makes a sort of deranged sense: the Empire State coming back home.
Recent days have revealed beneath all the pomp and endless platitudes a UK which in Martin Kettle's analysis is much more 'three-dimensional' than the UK political classes, media and the official story of Britain allow for. There seems little chance that the UK Tory Government will take cognisance of this; or that Labour will somehow summon up the courage and radicalism to recognise the need for far-reaching change.
Instead, they cling to tradition and the mantra that it encourages continuity and change, oblivious to the damage it does; Janan Ganesh in the FT describing the 'growth blocking wall of past-worship' which reinforces inertia, the status quo and special treatment of older voters compared to the young.
The UK is a state and it is in
a state – a state of denial, discord, division and foreboding about what the future will bring. These past weeks have offered an insight into one version of Britain, what that official story is, and that unsurprisingly, millions of people want to believe things will somehow work out.
We will soon be brought back to reality very quickly, and will find out post-Elizabeth just how diminished the UK is in global reach, the limits of tradition, and how difficult it is to manage a politics and economics of decline and retreat – particularly when the UK political classes do not want to confront some inconvenient truths.