From Political to Symbolic Power: Shifting Patterns of Royals’ Interactions with British Society, 1870-1920

Marta Pagnini, London School of Economics and Political Science
Fabien Accominotti, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Historians and lay observers have long described how the role of the monarchy in British society evolved profoundly in modern history (e.g. Bagehot 1867; Cannadine 1990). Between the mid- nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries in particular, power in Britain underwent a deep metamorphosis, with the British crown gradually relinquishing power as a ruling institution to instead become the keystone of the symbolic architecture of the British empire (Cannadine 1983). While British political and cultural history has examined this shift at a theoretical level, we know relatively little about what it looked like in practice. Concretely, what did it mean for the British monarchy to transform from an effective political elite into a symbolic one? How did royals’ patterns of interactions with British society evolve as they morphed from a ruling elite to a symbolic one? What can this teach us more broadly about the exercise of political versus symbolic power? This paper takes one provisional step toward addressing these questions by examining the 1870 to 1920 years of a new database recording all public interactions between British royals and British society from 1803 to 2021.

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 Presented in Session 217. Changing Meanings of the State: Symbolic Power in State-Society Interactions