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The Last Dance of the British Monarchy?

posted 6 Jun 2012, 03:04 by heiko khoo   [ updated 6 Jun 2012, 11:10 ]

by Heiko Khoo        

The grand celebrations for Queen Elisabeth’s Diamond Jubilee were a splendid success. Despite miserable weather conditions on the day of the flotilla on the river Thames, huge crowds turned out to wave at Her Majesty. There followed a star studded pop concert in front of Buckingham Palace, and a parade through the cheering streets to St Paul’s Cathedral for a religious service, then back to the Palace for a balcony wave. This rounded off the events. Flags were waved, songs were sung, copious quantities of food and alcohol were consumed and we remembered 60 years of the British nation through the enduring presence of our Queen.  


Karl Marx once wrote: “The tradition of all generations of the dead weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” These Regal occasions act as a central emotional reference point in the formation of national memory. The general socio-historical context is internalized through the personal experiences and circumstances of people at the time of these events. This proliferates everywhere in the brain by the firing and wiring of neural cells, the process that generates long-term emotional memories. Queen Elisabeth’s Jubilee celebration retrieved 60 years of episodic emotional states in the living memories of the nation. In this way she literally got inside everyone’s head.


When looking back at personal and national life, nostalgia is the dominant sentimental response evoked by the retrieval of these memories. But, sadly, being human entails death, and Her Majesty is slowly treading her weary path towards this fate despite her good health and the excellent physicians at her disposal. The big question after the Jubilee celebration is, can the institution of the Monarchy survive the death of its Queen? Or to put it another way, will King Charles III sit firmly on the throne?


The marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 produced the biggest monarchical spectacular the world had ever known. This fairy-tale wedding was to turn into a nightmare for the Royal family as Charles and his entourage was accused of callous mistreatment of the young Princess. Global media empires exposed the lurid details of their miserable marriage and divorce. This Royal celebrity drama succeeded to an unexpected extent. Diana’s weepy-eyed work for the poor and the sick captured many hearts, as rampant material acquisition dominated the world in the boom of the 1990s. When Diana was killed in a car crash in 1997, this unleashed a perverse sense of global tragedy. Huge crowds adopted the role of mass mourning as their mode of expression and turned in anger at the Royal Family for their cold-hearted response. Oceans of tears flowed from many millions of people watching this TV show.


At one moment this peculiarly idiosyncratic drama appeared to imperil the monarchy itself as the bitter crowds gathered expecting an emotional expression from the Queen. The masses wanted a common display of tears and sorrow and demanded that the upper lip should twitch a bit, so as to look human. The man of the moment was the then Prime Minister Tony Blair. His ingratiation with media and celebrity culture made him the perfect candidate to produce a spectacular funeral, one worthy of the madness that the media and circumstances conspired to create. At the funeral Diana’s brother spoke rebellious words claiming that Diana was a symbol of ‘selfless humanity’, ‘classless’ and a ‘standard bearer for rights of the truly downtrodden’, a preposterous exaggeration of the aristocratic charity work of this so-called ‘Queen of Hearts’. 


However, the Royals did try to modernize as the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton revealed. But, simultaneously, there is a social process of bringing back the aristocracy and the privileged to the centre of power. For example, recent research indicates that the traditional disproportionate influence of Oxford and Cambridge graduates on politics and power has made a big comeback. Pomp, ceremony and the magic of the Jubilee and the Olympics will bring Britain to a new high where the nation unites in a way not seen for decades.


One cannot but feel that, although romantic-revolutionary concepts of a glorious regicide, or the storming of Buckingham Palace are but comic dreams – the internal systemic cohesion of British capitalism will be far more profoundly shaken by the death of Queen Elisabeth than many imagine.


The BBC has been lambasted in the Conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph for its coverage of the Jubilee events. Their reporting was said to lack a sense of occasion, be puerile, vacuous and focus too much on celebrity. The issue of presentation certainly is a problem when an institution supposedly ‘above emotion’ becomes the emotional focal point of the nation. Sing-songs by pop stars (some, like Cliff Richard are nightmares in their own right), might seem good ideas at the time, but simultaneously serve to further undermine Monarchal mystique.


It should be admitted that Queen Elisabeth has splendidly performed the art of being ‘Her Majesty’ as the incarnation of the Monarchy. Her distance from politics, indeed from ‘opinions’ and the sense of above-ness that she encapsulates, structurally supports the existing order in the widest sense, though reinforcing tradition and incorporating and controlling impulses for change.


Robbie Williams chose the song Mack the Knife to perform at the Jubilee Concert. Its lyrics are the haunting description of a notorious murderer and villain who stalks the Streets of London dressed as a gentleman. It comes from a Theatre play by Bertolt Brecht called the Three Penny Opera, which is a satire of Karl Marx’s Capital. In the play, the poor of London take to the streets to disrupt the Coronation of the Queen, an act that destabilizes the entire system. Collective memory not only recalls the unity of Royal celebrations, but also reconnects these memories to emotions of injustice, at the loss of innocence and misplaced trust, when a people, or the ‘lower-orders’, feel wronged.


The Monarchy acts as constitutional centripetal force unifying order in key institutions of the state with conservative moral and intellectual values. The British police, army, judiciary, church and government, all remain formally subject to the hierarchy of this mystical authority and tradition, and surrounding the formal hierarchies are psychological patterns of traditional authority and respect, associated with this. Are these systems really so robust that their internal cohesion will be unaffected by constitutional transformation? I suspect not. The era of profound unrest that will follow the dawn of this age of austerity will leave few stones unturned.