Queen Elizabeth II and British capitalism: The role of tropes and distractions

Procession from Buckingham Palace to the lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Hall. Photo by Katie Chan (CC BY-SA 4.0)

While we all watch and consider and reflect on the death of Elizabeth II after such a long and stabilising reign, British capitalism now slumps over the true inadequacies of Liz Truss and her band of Tory cabinet changelings. The social distraction inherent in such a major emotional, cultural, and political event, however much it might have been expected and even prepared for, is manna from heaven for the power players and beneficiaries of modern capitalism, whether in Britain or elsewhere.

This could be dangerous for the social health of Great Britain for many months to come, just as the world is expecting to begin its recovery from COVID-19 and perhaps even Ukraine, too. Here we are in the process of burying our very real problems in notions of family, continuity, faith, and the softness of sovereign hierarchy, giving the Tories a free lunch to the next election. Thus, Martin Kettle in the slight leftness of The Guardian on September 9 wrote “With the death at Balmoral of Queen Elizabeth II, a prepared but nevertheless shocked nation finds itself at such a moment, and it is important that our troubled politics and our wounded civil society face up to it as calmly and sensibly as possible because this event will resonate politically and constitutionally for years to come.”

If we want as a nation to be happy and fulfilled, if we want the Commonwealth to really become a common-weal, a provider of a greater degree of safety and understanding in our complex world, we should do the opposite of allowing our parliamentary leaders to hide under civil trauma, the degree of which will depend on the excesses of the British media.

From the need to properly stimulate productivity to creating a more independent and enlightened foreign policy, hiding behind the highly constructed legacy of the queen will lead to a continuity of stasis where the only innovation comes in the character of the vapid language of personality battles and worsening invective  just as, and because, the two major parties find it increasingly difficult to creatively diverge over major policy trajectories.

I suggest that the tropes and motifs of the end of the reign of Elizabeth II shall surely be forged as follows:

The queen as the symbol and embodiment of “united” in the term United Kingdom. There has seldom been a significant speech from the Palace in the last 70 years that has not rehearsed the centrality of the “four-in-one” unity of the British Isles. For the sake of the “apolitical” status of the queen, this has been mostly an oblique stance, but nonetheless a steady one. Others might agree with me that Scotland has been the favoured nation with Elizabeth II, for which there are many reasons, and Balmoral since the time of Victoria has often acted as a retreat for the sovereign and her most immediate family. But the prime trope has been unity within the Isles and an unquestioned peace with the Republic of Ireland, this cemented in the notion of the “family” as realm.

The queen as the spirit and presence and head of the British Commonwealth. In the terms of the queen and in her long-repeated actions and demeanour, the Commonwealth extended the notion of “family” from the maintenance of unity amongst the four “nations” of the UK, to the sustenance of the paraphernalia of the 14 “realms” of the Commonwealth. For the queen, the heads of Commonwealth nations were “of one mind,” a figure of speech that required a huge amount of faith and a requirement that history be rewritten in the cause of harmony and stability. It also required the nation at large to disregard the insidious tensions within her own family.

The queen as the figurehead of faith. Of course, Elizabeth II was Head of the established Church of England, and clearly of sincere religious belief throughout her life. But here I am referring to the notion of the strong yet “soft” nature of the social power of faith and belief generally, as a distinction from the harder power gained by general elections or military might. The queen represented the veracity of believing in good, and that so doing would make the world a better place. However much a rational intellect might face her “Commonweal as family” with the detailed histories of slavery and colonisation, the former remained intact as a major trope of British social life, proof that stark irreconcilables may be held in the minds of millions over years. What will be of great interest is whether the pinnacle of royal sovereignty in the person of King Charles III will be able to serve an equal function? How many tests of person versus position may we come up with?

These rather macro tropes for our time rest on a sturdy platform of more local notions, much as good macro-economics depends on micro assumptions regarding behaviour in response to economic stimuli. So:

The philosophy of good social behaviour is a highly significant aspect of the whole reign of Queen Elizabeth. However much challenged by both the recurring behavioural crises within her own all-too-visible family and significant social destabilisers such as COVID-19, of all single members of the British elite, Elizabeth II demonstrated an assured stability of culture and values over a period of 70 years, an equilibrium that remained apolitical yet stretched deeply into the dampening of both the right and left extremes in British society. The combined images of the queen and her family, the many royal assets from Buckingham Palace to Balmoral, the actions and clear and simple assumptions of royalty remained very little changed despite the “annus horribilis,” the heady commercialisation of the lives of her key family members, the strife of COVID-19 and all such things beyond her control. The power of Buckingham Palace as a pictorial trope will remain for many years to come but was assured from the early years of her reign as the electronic media entered directly into British homes. At 3:00 p.m., the Christmas Message could be imbibed alongside the Christmas turkey.

At the outset, I suggested that such tropes and confections are more than merely en passant. Rather than incidental, the way important events are massaged by way of trope, even more the effectiveness of such, is perhaps the most singular feature of the globe during the early 20th century. The insidious character of distraction capitalism, and the manner in which it has become embedded within all our discourse, is almost certainly some result of both demand-side and supply-side forces. On the latter at the top of the list is surely the ease and chaos of social media, where almost anything imaginable may go viral at the drop of a puppy dog into a swimming pool. And amongst the nonsense is the increasing frequency and dominance of distractions away from considered analyses of political, social, and economic events and processes.

But it is well to remember the demand side. Inefficient governance, embracing both government and opposition parties, demands distractions that are basically benign, embracive, relatively simple or immediate, and of sufficient strength and reliability as to disguise underlying economic and social realities. In this situation, we should not be surprised if the several tropes associated with the reign of Elizabeth II will not be encouraged and used as reformulated elements of conformity and acceptance.

Thus, there are serious things to say about Queen Elizabeth II and her passing, but most of this will not be said, or will not be readily debated within the routine cultures of civil society.

My argument is that such nominally benign tropes are readily transformed into useful distractions within the culture of democratic capitalism. In the UK there is little doubt that the next months and beyond will be a period of extreme difficulty, potentially leading to a period of severe conflict on one hand and far more considered critique of the inefficiencies of British governance on the other. Resting on the laurels of the very early years of the reign of Elizabeth II, the nation remains very high amongst the ranking of world economies and foreign investors, probably the second or third military power and in close alliance with the US as by far the most powerful of all systems, and a very major centre of diplomacy, financial probity, and cultural production. The first job of today’s style of British governance is to identify with such long-term assets of the queen’s long reign, however wasting they might now be, and to attach to the present national emotions the tropes above, all of which serve the continuing unchallenged dominance of distraction. The failure of civil society to take governance to task for its inability to at least retain, if not grow, the means whereby the nation might increase in both economic and social health in a period when the character of the imminent global recovery is yet to unfold, shall thereby continue.


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