The ‘state’ with no clothes on

16th May 2021

When I was young I had an illustrated book about kings and queens – but the one illustration which stayed with me was not any of the formal mannered portraits.

Instead, it was this engraving by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray:

It still dominates how I think about kingship, queenship and indeed any formality of power.

Strip away the paraphernalia of dominance – not just the garments but also the symbolism and the rhetoric and the concepts – and you just ultimately have people.


A great deal of what we posit as politics and law – almost all of it – exists only in the mind.

They may well have grave real-world effects – but concepts such as the ‘state’, ‘government’, ‘markets’ and ‘society’ are, just that, concepts.

And without those concepts we are all just as the French king in Thackeray’s engraving.

If everyone suddenly stopped believing in the legitimacy of the ‘state’ there would be little that those with political power could do, other than to resort to coercive power.

But even totalitarian regimes usually make some effort at legitimisation – as resorting to pure repression is demanding and unsustainable in the medium- to longer-term.

The anarchist may well want to ‘abolish’ the state – but the ‘state’ has no real existence other than in the minds of people.

All it takes is for people to believe differently about government and the law, or to believe nothing at all.


This is one reason why ‘legitimacy’ matters – and, because legitimacy matters, it is also why constitutionalism matters.

Constitutionalism is the notion that there are certain rules and principles of political conduct that have priority over mere political expediency and party advantage.

Once the institutions and processes of the state are stripped of their legitimacy then there is little to no reason for people to accord respect and deference to government and law.

And when people no longer see a government and its law as legitimate then, absent a programme of coercion, there is the pre-condition for a political – even social – crisis.

Sensible politicians of the right and left once knew this.

The reckless assaults on constitutional norms in the United Kingdom and the United States are the political equivalent of playing with fire.

And so there is immense danger when there are politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson that are hyper-partisan, undermining the legitimacy of (with Trump) elections and (with Johnson) the separation of powers and checks and balances.

This may not end well.







18 thoughts on “The ‘state’ with no clothes on”

  1. Even highly repressive and coercive governments like Ceaucescu’s Regime in Romania finally collapse by the expression of ‘the general will’. When enough of the army are no longer prepared to carry out orders to suppress dissent.

    1. The Ceaucescu regime essentially collapsed within10 mins, during a speech he gave from the balcony of his palace

      Someone started booing in the crowd, it spread throughout the crowd like wildfire

      Within days / weeks him and his wife were put up against a wall and shot

      Most of the footage is on YouTube

      “Slowly at first then all at once”

  2. One thing I think about a lot is how the many (most?) governments are referred to by their buildings. “How will this go down in Whitehall?” “We await a response from Number 10” “It has provoked anger in the White House” etc. The implication is that in order to get anything done you almost have to storm those buildings with a battering ram… rather than identify the two or three civil servants whose mind actually needs to be directed to your problem, in order to fix it.

  3. In a different way the actions of Prince Harry also de-legitimise the power of the state in the UK, especially among younger people. I listened to the ‘Armchair Expert’ podcast published recently and was unexpectedly moved by it. What came across was a young man placed in an impossible situation; traumatised by the death of his mother and unable to process that in any normal or healthy way because of his position. And there was an implicit criticism of the royal family because, without that it didn’t make any sense.
    In many ways the position of the Prime Minister has such power in this country because of the monarchy. In theory he reports to the Queen. In practice she has no power because she cannot exercise it. If the monarchy is de-legitimised then what happens to the Prime Minister?

    1. a young man placed in an impossible situation; traumatised by the death of his mother and unable to process that in any normal or healthy way because of his position.

      People the world over find themselves traumatised by the loss of a parent; and his “position” is an entirely self-inflicted condition, the remedy for which is the work of but a moment to identify.

      There’s nothing whatsoever special about the situation he found himself in, and the implication that his version of the experience is somehow “more” or “worse“, is exactly The Problem.

      1. As you say, people the world over are traumatised by the death of a parent. It is the one thing that most of us have or will experience and it is especially hard for a child. But most children in this situation do not have wall to wall media coverage on it. Most children are not asked to walk behind their mother’s coffin with millions of people looking on. And most children can try to return to some kind of normal life to heal the wound. It sounds as though Harry never had the option of a normal life and he wasn’t given the choice. He has now taken that choice and good luck to him.

      2. I’m sure you have made better life choices, Keith, but you have no sympathy or empathy for Harry?

        Harry did not choose to be the second son of the Prince of Wales and Diana, or to lose his mother aged 12, or grow up under an intrusive and hypercritical media spotlight. The second of these may be commonplace, though tragic all the same whenever it happens, but few people suffer the first or the third.

        One of the few significant choices he has made for himself is to make a dramatic break from the national soap opera of the Royal Family, in (as he sees it) the best interests of himself and his wife and children. I suspect in time he might come to regret it, but perhaps it is for the best. The “heir” knows who and what they are, but the “spare” always has to carve a role for themselves, without an official position unless someone close to them dies unexpectedly: witness Princess Margaret; Anne, Andrew, Edward; and now Harry.

        Maybe there are enough positive aspects that you’d trade places and act the part on the national stage, but I’m not sure I would.

  4. Yes, I agree.

    Though in the long run the result of a crisis can be a new form of government which enjoys much greater legitimacy than the old. New states have often been forged out of the decline of older states and empires. Perhaps Johnson is a transition to something more legitimate – in Scotland at least the options are clear.

    1. Are they clear in Scotland? I see a rogue’Government’ there which has ridden roughshod over the law and wiil continue to do so unless ousted. The jailing of it’s critics is particularly shocking. The lack of protest even more so.

  5. Here it is, in later editions of Thackeray’s 1840 “Paris Sketch Book” – or

    “… you see, at once, that majesty is made out of the wig, the high-heeled shoes, and cloak, all fleur-de-lis bespangled. As for the little, lean, shrivelled, paunchy old man, of five feet two, in a jacket and breeches, there is no majesty in him at any rate…”

    The clothes that Louis XIV is wearing in Rigaud’s portrait – – are so powerful that Napoleon felt the need to present himself in a similar manner some 100 years later –

    Just as our judges and lawyers in court often still wear wigs and gowns and bands, like men from the 18th century.

  6. So … in a way, by slowly and deliberately eroding the fabric of the state (legal recourse, media scrutiny, academic freedoms etc), the government are effectively weakening the source of their own power.

    Fucking idiots.

  7. “An authority which cannot be challenged is a tyranny and I will not submit to tyranny…”
    Professor Sir Terry Pratchett, blackboard monitor.

  8. Once again, this scene from “A Man for All Seasons” is appropriate:

    William Roper: “So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!”
    Sir Thomas More: “Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”
    William Roper: “Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”
    Sir Thomas More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

  9. What will do for Bojo, is an alternative. The vote in Dec 2019 was not an endorsement of Johnson, nor of “get Brexit done” but a rejection of Corbyn. Had a majority wanted “Brexit done” it would have been refelcted in polling which has consistently shown a majority for “remain” since July 2017. A similar situation arose with Trump, he was elected partly because some felt a visceral hatred for Hillary Clinton. Both the US and UK electoral systems are beased on a binary “winner takes all” system – Bojo may have won a thumpung majority of seats, but the majority of the electorate did not vote for his party (just as Trump lost the popular vote: twice!)

    Starmer’s major selling point is not being Corbyn. Given an election, I expect to see the Tories swept from power as the mishandling of the pandemic, the disaster of Brexit, sleaze and the fact that the great “levelling up” agenda is just as hollow at the “£350 million” a week for the NHS. Just as you can’t perpetuate a tyranny indefinitely, you can’t lie and cheat the electorate indefinitely either once a paletable alternative becomes available.

  10. Abigail, thank you for reminding me about that scene from “A Man for All Seasons.” I remember it so vividly, from when I was taken to see the film by my school when I was about 14 years old. I was so moved by it, that I went to see it again two days later, with my mother. Perhaps that is why I am so incensed by the behaviour of the likes of Johnson, Gove and Rees-Mogg today.

  11. “But man, proud man,
    Drest in a little brief authority,
    Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
    His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
    Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
    As make the angels weep.” (Measure for Measure)

    “Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.” (King Lear)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.