The Power of the Figurehead
As time has passed, I have found myself looking upon England’s flag with ever stronger feelings of shame and resistance. The present moment, in which this nation celebrates the Diamond Jubilee and anticipates Euro 2012, is particularly provocative, as both the Union Flag and the Cross of St George line the suburban streets. Now, and simultaneously, we must view ourselves through these two frames of reference: I am asked to think of myself, at one and the same time, as a citizen of the United Kingdom and as an Englishman. Just by regarding the flags, we can tell that this position is going to be difficult at best, contradictory at worst. Whereas the Cross of St George stands alone as one, it is subsumed with the Crosses of St Andrew and St Patrick under the other. The first asserts the pure, unimpeded Englishness that the second goes on to impede but never fully denies.
For a whole nation of people to understand its shared history, to coordinate the body of a collective self, national identity cannot appear to be in constant flux. It is, therefore, also something in a perpetual state of disrepair, since stabilising one area of the national identity merely transfers the stress and incurs fractures elsewhere on its surface. Hence we can inhabit a ‘broken Britain’ that, this month, has manifested itself whole, intact. The view of identity that focuses on what social groups share is continuous, in the words of cultural critic Stuart Hall. It is imaginary and static: a fictional narrative of unity inspired by a make-believe coherence.
The recurrence of ahistorical symbols is a trope of this genre and is largely responsible for the inertial atmosphere of its satisfying but dangerous works. The visual language of the English national identity is tightly regulated, and in this sense the Diamond Jubilee is a celebration of our pedantry. This month, the ubiquitous face of Elizabeth Windsor has provided a stable cover for a nation that is deeply ambivalent towards itself, the Union Flag and the Cross of St George, rendering the individuals who display them anonymous, performing the same role. It is the sheer endurance of that first figure that we acknowledge, the incredible stasis that her sixty years have conferred upon her subjects and their identities.
We often hear it said that the monarch is ‘only a figurehead’, that political and economic power remains in the hands of the democratically elected. The second statement is naive; the first is deceptive. For if the research into discourse has not reiterated its ability to empower or to marginalise, what has it done at all? One is never only a figure. Rather, one has to be a figure to attain power in the first place. The figure is not the impotent representation of the real. It is the powerful form of the self. Let it not be said that the Queen, being only a figure, is an empty gesture. As Head of the Church, the State, and the Army, she is charged to the highest degree with meaning.
In an increasingly global world, one in which the system of late capital has become decentred and in which migrations of people are both wide and widely documented, the stasis of the signifier is a dream. That is in part why we dream it recurrently. But the assembly of this fiction requires us first to disassemble what is real about us, to impart an imaginary coherence on the conflicting experiences of everyday life. I do not intend for others to associate me with the Crusades. Neither do I wish to celebrate the reign of any non-elected Head of State. What I would like, however, is a mode of cultural expression that legalises the free entry and exit of signifiers from its lexicon. One that recognises the power of the figure and in doing so makes possible a real, not a fictional, democracy.