The Monarchy: Pomp, Ceremony and Soap Opera

Saturday 19th March, 2016

Jim McGuigan

This article is part of our Past and present series, in which current scholars look back at earlier works published in the journal.

The Meaning of the Coronation’ by Edward Shils and Michael Young was one of the first papers to appear in the New Series of The Sociological Review which, like the Queen, had entered into a new life in 1953. Why was it, asked the sociologists, that people in London’s East End seemed unable to say why their Coronation street parties were important? Why were political scientists silent on the matter of British monarchy and its survival? For Shils and Young this disciplinary silence was in part a refusal by intellectuals to acknowledge the religious sentiment that they dismissed in themselves and others as being irrational. But for these sociologists the heart ‘had its reasons which the mind does not suspect’. They knew, from Durkheim, that the unanimous sentiment of believers could not be ‘purely illusory’; the Coronation was, they claimed, ‘an act of national communion’. Shils and Young were, as they put it, ‘merely restating the interpretation in a particular context, of a more general view… expressed by a great sociologist’ [Durkheim].

Here then was a thesis of wide significance for understanding the ways in which collective identities were consecrated in the face of modernity’s egoism and anomie; it was for the authors an argument that might apply equally to Independence Day, Thanksgiving or May Day. Popular monarchy was like a religion because it transfigured the society that was austerity Britain. In his reflections on this 1950s extension of our classical tradition Jim McGuigan recovers its original context and goes on to show why, over the past 60 years, the paper has continued to fire the sociological imagination.

Nickie Charles and Gordon Fyfe


Edward Shils and Michael Young (1953) The Meaning of the Coronation

Jim McGuigan, Loughborough University

In 1953, The Sociological Review published a classic article by Edward Shils and Michael Young on Queen Elizabeth the Second’s coronation.[1] Shils, doyen of American structural functionalism and close associate of Talcott Parsons,[2] had recently been teaching at the London School of Economics (LSE). Michael Young, later Lord Dartington, had already distinguished himself by drafting the Labour Party’s manifesto for its 1945 general-election victory. By the early-fifties, Labour was out of government and Young was a doctoral candidate at the LSE.

Shils and Young formulated what they considered a genuinely sociological problem concerning power, authority and meaning. Their approach was unusual in that it departed from the typical focus upon social problems of a policy-orientated British sociology. The monarchy did not represent a social problem to be solved but, instead, something else of sociological interest that required explanation. How was it that the monarchy still held such sway over popular emotion as well as public opinion, as demonstrated so palpably around manifest enthusiasm for the pomp and ceremony of the young queen’s coronation in June, when it is no longer supposed to hold any real power in a modern democracy? Shils and Young remarked memorably at the outset of their disquisition, ‘The heart has its reasons which the mind does not suspect’ (p63).

The trouble with social scientists, according to Shils and Young, is their intellectual aloofness from ordinary people and, in consequence, they fail to comprehend a deep and genuinely felt moral consensus among the public at large. Emile Durkheim is cited, in this regard, on the societal need to constrain egotism for the sake of social solidarity, which is provided by shared moral values, the conscience collective. These values and their associated norms of conduct require constant affirmation not only in simple, ‘traditional’ societies but also - and perhaps yet more so - in complex, ‘modern’ societies. To this effect, the later Durkheim of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life[3] is quoted, the Durkheim who was to inspire the structural-linguistic tradition in French anthropology and the humanities. The assumption here is that societies are held together and social order is maintained principally by signs and symbols. This idealist philosophical assumption - idealist in that it attributes primacy to mental determination rather than material factors – also characterised the emphasis placed upon the cohesive function of ‘the central value system’ by Parsons and his followers in the USA. Parsons was preoccupied by how ‘the American way of life’ articulated the most advanced form of societal organisation in the world.

During the mid-twentieth century, Parsonian structural functionalism and its synthesis of classical social thought was the leading paradigm in sociological theory. The Shils-Young thesis on the coronation facilitated the embedding of this theoretical paradigm in an otherwise predominantly empiricist British sociology, though anthropology in Britain, it should be acknowledged, had long since pioneered functional analysis. Structural functionalism was later critiqued by the likes of C. Wright Mills[4] and Alvin Gouldner.[5] It was, to a large extent, defined and displaced as conservative ideology by the upsurge of ‘radical sociology’ from the 1960s.[6] However, such conservative and idealist theorising in sociology, which had lain in partial abeyance since the 1970s, has been revived with similar ideological underpinnings in recent years by the American school of ‘cultural sociology’, led by Jeffrey Alexander.[7]

Shils and Young were not only espousing a conservative position in social theory; they also praised the popular conservatism of an ‘old country’, in Patrick Wright’s later formulation.[8] In 1951, the Conservatives had squeaked into government with more seats but fewer votes than Labour due to the perversity of Britain’s ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system. So, Winston Churchill was back in Number Ten. Following an unsettling eruption of socialism in cash-strapped circumstances after the Second World War, post-war austerity was lifting. So, ‘a new Elizabethan age’ was lauded and represented conveniently by the good timing and theatrical flair of the coronation. This spectacular event unfolded with ‘a series of ritual affirmations of the moral values necessary in a well-governed and good society’ (p67), in the words of Shils and Young. They proceeded to comment upon the sacredness of the high Anglican moments of ritual through which the coronation ceremony passed: the recognition, the oath, the bible presentation, the anointing, the presentation of the sword and the orb, and the benediction, followed by the concluding procession. This was no secret event to be held behind closed doors solely for the benefit of a specially privileged elite instead of permitting the general public to see what was going on.

The coronation was televised live and narrated on TV and wireless solemnly by the hushed voice of Richard Dimbleby. People without TV sets crowded into the homes of people with sets. Rentals and sales of sets shot up over the following year. Television soon became the majority medium for public information and popular entertainment in Britain as a result. Shils and Young said of the televised coronation, ‘There is no doubt about the depth of popular enthusiasm. Only about its causes is there disagreement’ (p71).

Alternative explanations circulating in public discourse at the time are considered in passing by these authors: whether the evident popularity of the coronation was conjured up and manipulated by the modern media or, alternatively, derived from ancient plebeian delight in the pomp and ceremony of clergy and titled folk on a respite from labour, a Holy Day or whatever. Shils and Young give some credence to the claim that the coronation was merely an excuse for a collective blow-out in a manner reminiscent of the victorious street parties at the end of the war in 1945. The ‘spree’ had been a great expense to the state so there was reasonable doubt expressed concerning its value for money. Shils and Young thus noted David Low’s controversial cartoon, ‘The Morning After’, published in The Guardian on the 3rd of June.

Photo: David Low

There was a famous reply in The Sociological Review to Shils and Young’s article by Norman Birnbaum, also an American sociologist currently at the LSE.[9] He pointed out that Shils and Young attributed the monarchy’s popularity not to its power and authority; but, rather, to its lack of power and authority; that is, to its purely symbolic significance. Birnbaum regarded this argument as too sanguine and complacent about monarchy in Britain at a time when there was, admittedly, a virtual yet probably temporary absence of vociferous republican sentiment, the kind of anti-monarchism that had been so pronounced in the early-nineteenth century.

In a sense, then, Shils and Young were merely reiterating Walter Bagehot’s distinction in what he himself called ‘the English constitution’,[10] that is, between the ‘efficient’ and the ‘ceremonial’ functions of monarchy, the latter articulating ‘the public pomp of a particular social order’, in Raymond Williams’s words.[11] Bagehot’s distinction has always been somewhat misleading since the Royal Prerogative is not merely a symbolic relic of the past but remains in the present a potentially ‘efficient’ feature of an unwritten British constitution. To be sure, it has been gradually eroded since the seventeenth century but never entirely eliminated (you might say, ‘just in case’). The monarch is, after all, the hereditary head of state, not elected. By his or her good offices, efficient power and authority are ceded officially to parliament (‘the crown in parliament’). In special circumstances, the monarch has the capacity to dissolve a government, which has not happened in Britain since the 1830s but did in Australia in 1975. Then, the Queen’s emissary, the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dissolved Gough Whitlam’s Labour government. On the matter of signs and symbols, the British (and other members of the Commonwealth residue of Empire) are technically ‘subjects’ of the crown instead of formally defined as ‘citizens’ of a democratic polity. The monarch is also head of the Church of England and titular commander-in-chief of the armed forces, which is said not to matter, though it might well do so on the occasion of what is euphemistically called in official discourse an ‘emergency’, presumably something like a revolutionary situation. Such a possible eventuality had concentrated the minds of an Establishment cabal briefly yet alarmingly in the eventful year of 1968. None of these material and potentially coercive issues, however, were stressed by Birnbaum.

From a sociological point of view, Birnbaum was principally concerned with theoretical flaws in Shils and Young’s account of the coronation, largely resulting from what Gouldner would later call ‘domain assumptions’. Key to structural functionalism is the assumption that moral values hold society together. Parsonian theory assumes a ‘central value system’ which in a properly functioning society is normally subscribed to by nearly everyone, except for a few ‘deviants’. In reality, however, according to Birnbaum, social divergence is normal under modern conditions: tension and conflict between different interests and values are much more common in an urban-industrial society than universally shared morals. Britain in the early-1950s was no exception, albeit relatively stable politically, as Birnbaum conceded. Still, he went on to dispute the supposed embourgeoisement of the British working class, asserted by Shils and Young, along the lines of the American working class’s incorporation into capitalism. Birnbaum observes, ‘The authors at times write as if conflict, and especially class conflict, were in Great Britain a thing presently unknown’ (p13). Moreover, ‘Professor Shils and Mr Young place an extremely high valuation upon tradition, conformity, and authority’ (p20).

Although Birnbaum favoured ‘conflict’ over ‘consensus’, he did not undermine structural functionalism as a whole and its homeostatic model of society, which could not provide an adequate means of explaining socio-structural change. In effect, ‘conflict sociology’ stayed in close yet contentious proximity to structural functionalism over the next couple of decades.

A similar test-case ‘debate’ and one-time pedagogic vehicle for introductory sociology is the 1945 ‘Davis and Moore hypothesis’ on the functional necessity of stratification[12] that was disputed by Melvin Tumin,[13] also in 1953. In that case, as well as in the Shils-Young/Birnbaum ‘debate’, the protagonists shared more common ground in terms of organic and functionalist assumptions than was immediately evident in the binary division between ‘consensus’ and ‘conflict’ orientations in sociology.

Empirical data has tended mainly to substantiate and confirm the popularity of royal events in Britain, from coronations[14] to jubilees, weddings and births; and, indeed, funerals every now and again, most spectacularly with the extraordinary turnout on the 1997 death and funeral of Diana nee Spencer, ‘the people’s princess’, in Tony Blair’s words.[15] Great enthusiasm is manifested especially when a holiday is set to mark the occasion – a jubilee or a wedding, say. A free day off work facilitates the gathering of masses and the organisation of street parties. From the 1930s until the 1950s, the research organisation, Mass Observation recorded evidence routinely of widespread public celebration on these occasions.[16]

Public enthusiasm for royalist festivity was not denied by Birnbaum but he also noted dissidence on the margins. A significant minority, at least, always refuses to participate in such stage-managed events, thereby expressing anti-royalist and indeed republican sentiments, perhaps most notably in 1977 at the Queen’s silver jubilee.

The most in-depth research on popular attitudes to monarchy in Britain was conducted under the auspices of Michael Billig and published in 1992,[17] five years before the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 opened up much public criticism of the royal family, to a large extent qua family. Billig’s research involved recorded interviews with over 60 families in the English East Midlands framed by the approach of rhetorical psychology. At that time, the Royal family was still being discussed as an idealised family, albeit with difficult relatives, such as Princess Margaret, like any family. That frame became much more problematic just a handful of years later around the Diana affair and Charles’s gaucheness. Since the late-1990s a great deal of public-relations effort has been devoted to restoring the good image of the family, especially enhanced around the marriage of Prince William and Katherine Middleton. Even the image of a once Nazi-saluting Prince Harry has been cleaned up through military discipline and public service abroad. That he is a young man who likes to party does not in itself pose a problem. In fact, it underlines normality and the ordinary human qualities in a larger-than-life figure.

Two key features of the royal family were confirmed by Billig’s research. First, some members are appreciated for combining celebrity status with apparent normality, the greatest exponent of which in modern times was, of course, Diana herself; which is a trope since played out more or less effectively by her sons. The second popular assumption about the royal family is that it is ‘the envy of the world’ and, therefore, a great source of tourist revenue. It is true that the British royal family and its archaic rituals represent considerable fascination in other countries such as the USA and Germany. The argument about tourist revenue is widely held to deal with criticisms of the Civil List salaries and the general costs of royalty. So, the royal family is held, in spite of everything, to be ‘value for money’.

In an excoriating critique of the monarchy’s role in representing the multi-national state of what he considers an archaic ‘Ukania’,[18] reminiscent of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, Tom Nairn has been especially hard on the lazy republican belief that British people are merely deluded in their liking of royalty: ‘Royalism is visibly not passive and mindless’ (p53). If, as Nairn insists, we are to assume that consent to monarchy is not, however, just a spontaneous expression of popular feeling, as Shils and Young’s account would have it, then, a different explanatory framework is needed, one with a more satisfactory comprehension of ideology and cultural power. It is necessary, therefore, to replace the complacent Shils-Young version of monarchy as simply a ‘reflection of consensus’ with a much more complex analysis of the ‘production of consent’ through various hegemonic processes of signification,[19] as Nairn sought to do in his book, The Enchanted Glass – Britain and its Monarchy (1990 [1988]), He draws on Gramscian theory to examine the construction and cementing of a British ‘national-popular’ order that serves a set of backward-looking and entrenched interests. Nairn had long shared Perry Anderson’s view that Britain failed to modernise completely around the Civil War of the seventeenth century.[20] After all, the British had cut of their king’s head and, for a short time, established a republic but later invited his son back to succeed him. In light of Ukania’s faulty yet hitherto resilient hegemony, according to this account, Nairn has also been predicting ‘the break-up of Britain’ since the 1970s,[21] an eventuality which is yet more likely now with the astonishing rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party dedicated to eventually securing independence.

In The Enchanted Glass, Nairn said, ‘Ukainian identity is a sui generis variety of nationalism now undergoing rapid collapse’ (p102). His summary statement broadens the debate out from the discussion of the monarchy as such to the very constitution of Britain and the uncertain role of its multi-national state today: ‘an archaic institution may express something deeply and incorrigibly archaic about the society whose institution it is... a social formation itself quite authentically backward’ (p123). It is no doubt valid to suggest that the English, in particular, have had difficulty coming to terms with England/Britain’s reduced status in the world. So, they cling onto traces of bygone greatness, a futile pursuit which is now exacerbated not only by rebel rhetoric but also by serious intent on the largest fringe, Scotland.

Still, however, the popular appeal of the royal family is not just that it keeps the myth going of the enduring greatness of a post-imperial Britain. Its main appeal is, arguably, more domestic and mundane. Since the Second World War, the royals have been depicted as an ‘ordinary’ – or, at least, ordinary middle-class – family in paintings, news photography, television documentaries and comedy. Moreover, celebrity and ordinariness constitute a powerful mixture in mass-popular culture today, performed vividly by Diana and, since her death, by her sons.

There is also a strong feminine aspect to the royal family’s appeal that even turned briefly into a popular-feminist outburst around Diana’s death.[22] Seen in retrospect now, the Diana events, far from sexual politics rocking the institution of monarchy, were a high-point in the long-running soap opera of The Royals, reminiscent of the ‘Who shot JR?’ storyline of Dallas back in the 1980s. Around that time, when Princess Di was still playing the innocent young wife, Rosalind Coward wrote a brilliant essay simply entitled ‘The Royals’. She applied narrative theory to the show. It was of no consequence whether the everyday story events of royal-folk doings were fact or fiction: ‘What matters is the way the story is told’ (p164) As Coward observed prophetically, as it turned out, ‘family melodrama is preoccupied with sexual relations, marriage, the unity of the family, internal conflict within the family, and the disintegration of the family which is usually embodied in the threat of “outsiders” or “the problem of the modern woman”’ (p164).

In spite of much commentary to the contrary, journalistic and academic, the reasons for the apparent popularity of the royal family remain in some doubt. Shils and Young put an enduring topic of debate on the sociological agenda at the beginning of what now promises to be the longest ever reign of a British monarch. In addition to taking account of the monarch’s residually ‘efficient’ as well as ‘ceremonial’ role, perhaps we should now also consider royalty’s entertainment value. Is it too facetious to ask if the principal function of the British royal family is to entertain us regularly with soap-operatic twists and turns that occasionally justify a full-blown binge?

In her anthropological study, Watching the English, Kate Fox suggests that humour and irony are the most pronounced features of everyday talk and custom in England (whether this is so in Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland is yet to be ascertained by her).[23] She argues that the insouciant English are not supposed to take anything too seriously and ironic good sense is the usual order of the day. Perhaps they do not care quite so much about the monarchy after all. Still, you might ask, who is the joke upon: monarchy or the people?[24]


[1] Shils, E, & M. Young, 1953, ‘The Meaning of the Coronation’, The Sociological Review 1.2, pp63-81 (2nd series).

[2] See, for instance, Shils, E. & T. Parsons, eds., 1962 [1951], Toward a General Theory of Action – Theoretical Foundations for the Social Sciences, New York: Harper & Rowe.

[3] Durkheim , E., 2001 [1915}, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Mills, C. W., 1959, The Sociological Imagination, New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Gouldner, A., 1970, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, New York: Basic Books

[6] For example, Horowitz, I., ed., 1964, The New Sociology – Essays in the Social Sciences in Honor of C. Wright Mills, New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] See Alexander, J., 2003, The Meanings of Social Life – A Cultural Sociology, New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] Wright, P., 1985, On Living in an Old Country – The National Past in Contemporary Britain, London: Verso.

[9] Birnbaum, N., 1955, ‘Monarchs and Sociologists – A Reply to Professor Shils and Mr Young’, The Sociological Review 1, pp5-23.

[10] Bagehot, 1965 [1867], The English Constitution, Glasgow: Fontana.

[11] Williams, R., 2015 [1984], ‘State Culture and Beyond’, McGuigan, J., ed., Raymond Williams on Culture and Society, London: Sage, p305.

[12] Davis, K. & W. Moore, 1945, ‘Some Principles of Stratification’, American Sociological Review 10.2, pp242-249.

[13] Tumin, N., 1953, ‘Some Principles of Stratification – A Critical Analysis’, American Sociological Review 18, pp387-397.

[14] See for example Broady, M. 1956 ‘The Organisation of Coronation Street Parties’, The Sociological Review 2, pp. 223-242.

[15] Among the avalanche of publications on the Diana events and their meaning, see my own, McGuigan, J., 2000, ‘British Identity and “the People’s Princess”’, The Sociological Review 48.1, pp1-18.

[16] See Kynaston, D., 2010 [2009], Family Britain 1951-57, London: Bloomsbury, see pp290-307.

[17] Billig, M., 1992, Talking of the Royal Family, London: Routledge.

[18] Nairn, T., 1990 [1988], The Enchanted Glass – Britain and its Monarchy, London: Picador. Before Nairn renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain, ‘Ukania’, Raymond Williams, had already called it ‘the Yookay’ in 1983 in the first edition of his Towards 2000 and noted that nobody actually lived in that named country – see McGuigan. J. ed., 2015, Raymond Williams: A Short Counter-Revolution – Towards 2000 Revisited, London: Sage.

[19] Stuart Hall (1982) made this useful distinction between ‘reflection of consent’ and ‘production of consent’ in his ‘The Rediscovery of “Ideology” – Return of the Repressed in Media Studies’, Gurevitch, M., T. Bennett, J. Curran & J. Woollacott, eds., Culture, Society and the Media, London: Methuen, pp85-88.

[20] The classic statement of the Nairn-Anderson thesis was Anderson’s , 1965, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’ in Anderson, P., et al, Towards Socialism, London: Fontana, pp11-52. E.P. Thompson (1978 [1965] attacked the Nairn-Anderson thesis for its unwarranted claim that the bourgeois revolution in Britain was a partial failure compared to the relative success of the French Revolution – see ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ in his The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays, London: Merlin, pp35-91. Nairn and Anderson’s Francophilia is one thing but a teleology of modernity is something else and a seriously undermining of their whole thesis.

[21] Nairn, T., 1981 [1977], The Break-Up of Britain, London: Verso. See also his, 2000, After Britain – New Labour and the Return of Scotland, London: Granta.

[22] See, the extraordinary hyperbole, ostensibly from the Left, of Beatrix Campbell’s, 1998, Diana, Princess of Wales – How Sexual Politics Shook the Monarchy, London: The Women’s Press.

[23] Kate Fox, 2014 [2004], Watching the English – The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, London: Hodder.

[24] Fox does not believe that the English are as enamoured of monarchy and enthusiastic about royal occasions as is commonly supposed and represented dutifully by the media, television in particular. She says: ‘A few of us do emerge from our patriotic closet for big royal occasions, such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and the Royal Wedding in 2011. You may have seen many images of flag-waving crowds in London and people holding street parties in their home towns to celebrate these events, but those images are unrepresentative: only a tiny majority of the population (6 per cent at most) actually participate in such public celebrations.’

This article is part of our Past and present series, in which current scholars look back at earlier works published in the journal.

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