The Nation and the Grid
On countries real and fake
I was camping by a lake when I heard the news. My son and I were off fishing and hiking in Connemara in the Irish west, hunting down pollock and wrasse and trout, and plunging into bogs on the slopes of the Twelve Bens. I’d do this most days if I was allowed. Last Thursday evening we were camped on the shores of a lough, cooking our day’s catch on a grill as the sun set. Remote though we were, there was still a phone signal - this is the Machine age after all - so my wife was able to bring us the unwelcome news from the outside world.
‘Did you hear that the Queen died?’ she said.
I hadn’t heard. I had been living in different world for a while, but now the bigger, bleaker one had broken back in. I was surprised at the sense of loss which swept over me. You have to be British to understand this - and British at this moment in time especially. For my entire lifetime, and almost all of the lifetime of my parents, ‘the Queen’ was just there. She was on the stamps and the coins and the telly every Christmas. The national anthem was all about her. Technically, she owned the whole country and had the power to dismiss governments and sack prime ministers, but we all knew she would never use them. Even republicans admitted a sneaking admiration for her sense of duty and her work rate. At least somebody in the country, ran the subtext, still knew what duty actually meant.
The Queen lasted: nothing else did. As Aris Rousinoss wrote this week, Britain’s decline in my lifetime - from a country which ran much of the world to a country which can barely run itself - has perhaps been unprecedented in modern history. Come up with whatever diagnoses you please, blame who you like, but you can’t deny the downward trajectory: steep, dizzying, painful. Only the Queen stood still, or seemed to, and as she did so she represented something much older than any of the rules we live by. A monarch has sat on the throne of England for 1500 years. The meaning of this is mostly inaccessible to our argumentative modern minds.
Now we have a new monarch, we British, and sitting by that Irish lake last week I felt both sad and, suddenly, homesick. I felt that I wanted to be back in my country to share what was happening with my people. All the ceremony that is unfolding around me as I write, leading us smoothly and impressively towards the funeral and the coronation that will inevitably follow, embodies at once both the determination of the British state to maintain itself and the strange, proud, bloody-minded anachronism of the whole business.
How much longer can it last? The republicans and the rationalists have mostly been keeping their heads down this week as the tide of media-fanned national sentiment roars over them, but those who want to ‘modernise’ the country still further will be back soon enough. A monarchy is, after all, an offence against modernity. It is a hangup from an earlier, more organic age, which at its worst is a trapdoor to a particular type of tyranny (our new king’s ancestral namesake ended up with his head in a basket on this charge) but at its best is a bulwark against another: the money-power of the Machine. A monarchy is irrational, uncommercial and inexplicably mystical. It embodies tradition passed down through time. As such, it is deeply ‘unrepresentative’ according to the current, constipated definition of that word, and yet it manages somehow to represent the country better than any elected politician, celebrity, pundit or philosopher ever could.
For all these reasons, a monarchy in the Machine age will always be in the crosshairs. It was impossible to take any effective shots against the popular, dutiful and largely silent Queen Elizabeth, but our new king is another matter. A pioneer of organic farming, a campaigner of behalf of a wounded natural world long before it was either profitable or fashionable, and a champion of traditional architecture, Britain now has a sovereign who quotes René Guénon, calls himself a traditionalist and, as I heard on my own recent visit, has spent more time than is publicly acknowleged on Mount Athos, the ancient centre of Orthodox Christianity. These traits - which naturally endear him to me - may, after his mother is safely buried, prove useful cudgels with which to attack him and the institution he represents.
What, after all, is the point of a monarch in the modern world? There is really only one: to represent a country and its history; to be a living embodiment of the spirit of a people. As such, the throne represents to its critics more than some putative offence against ‘democracy’: it stands for something whose very existence is increasingly contentious in its meaning, form and direction: the nation itself.