Royal revisionism

What attracted Jubilee revellers was the crowd, not the Queen.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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I was in the UK over the Jubilee weekend – not that it feels like it. Reading the reams of newsprint about the extraordinary success of the celebrations, the outpouring of reverence for the Queen, the sudden rehabilitation of the Union Jack and all who sail in her, makes me wonder – did I miss something?

No. But the make-it-up world of the mainstream UK media seems lacking in more than a little reality.

I spent the weekend in a provincial town. There were some flags in windows, some bunting adorning pubs or shops, but most of the flags on show seemed not to be the Union Jack, but World Cup-inspired St George’s crosses. There probably were some street parties, although I didn’t see any; there were certainly plenty of pubs hosting family fun days. But this was the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, not the Bouncy Castle Jamboree. In London, my East End friends tell me that houses which, 25 years ago, would have been bedecked in red, white and blue stayed bare; and street parties were few and far between, unless you include those in people’s back gardens.

What London did have, of course, was huge crowds descending upon the Mall, to revel outside the ‘Party at the Palace’ – which has been hailed as the high point of the Jubilee. But were we looking at patriotism here, or a good excuse for a party?

Alice Miles, columnist for The Times (London), applauds the ‘fantastic’ Jubilee mood. But she recognises that the crowds ‘were not the flag-waving enthusiasts who had settled down to wait in the Mall for half the day.’ Nor, she says, were they the people who saw the Queen Mother lying in state or watched the royal procession. ‘They were young and cheerful and had come for a party. There was hardly any alcohol, and barely a Union Jack, in sight.’ (1)

The Golden Jubilee clearly meant something – but something very different to the Silver Jubilee of 1977. In 1977, people celebrated the Queen with street parties in their communities, united in a sense of pride in, and belonging to, Queen and Country. In 2002, people flocked to the Mall to a TV-orchestrated festival, in search of strangers with whom they could share a sense of community and belonging. With the exception of the few diehard monarchists who camped out on the street and talked nuttily of their housefuls of royal memorabilia, those partying outside the Palace were attracted by the crowd, not by the Queen.

What about the celebrated concert itself? Kermit the frog engaged in stilted banter with Ruby Wax…ageing rock stars Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne and Paul McCartney getting on down with the manufactured teeny-pop bands like S Club 7…that old Aussie drag queen Dame Edna Everage hailing the arrival of ‘Jubilee Girl’…Prince Charles paying tribute to his ‘Mummy’ – and all this is supposed to represent what makes us British? In fact, it was a self-conscious camp-fest, where every joke seemed to be about gays and cross-dressers (and they didn’t even have Graham Norton). The annually painful Royal Variety Show does it better.

The carnival the following day similarly illustrated the official unease about how to represent Britishness and unity, throwing together 20,000 performers in a multicultural display of dancers, nymphs and butterflies. The spectacle owed more to Notting Hill than to 50 years of royal tradition.

None of this is to deny that the fireworks were spectacular, the organisation impressive, and that people had a good time. But for the royals to pull off a party is very different from the belief, spouted across the political spectrum, that the Jubilee’s success shows the newfound rehabilitation of the monarchy as a revered, robust and relevant institution in modern Britain. The British people’s relationship to the monarchy post-Jubilee is as agnostic as it has been for the past decade – they are neither strongly supportive, nor strongly opposed. And the most telling thing about the reaction to the Jubilee is not what it says about British subjects’ attitude to the Queen, but what it says about the British electorate’s attitude to politics.

In pondering the failure of republicans to make significant gains with their arguments, Guardian columnist Hugo Young notes that ‘The monarchy devotes far more organised time to thinking how to preserve itself than republicans do to plotting its destruction’ (2). The monarchy is insecure about its role in contemporary society, and is trying all kinds of tricks to boost its standing. Yet republicans are, if anything, even more insecure about their own arguments against the monarchy – to the point where they would rather give the Queen a helping hand than assist in her downfall. Instead of calling for abolition of the monarchy, republicans now tend to propose reforming it, taxing it, improving its PR skills – and are keen to stress that the Queen does a good job (see Golden Jubilee blues, by Jennie Bristow).

Republicans have not come round to an appreciation of the Queen’s superior virtues. But they increasingly lack conviction in the alternative of democratic politics, especially as expressed through Blairism. As the widespread disillusionment with mainstream politics gains ground, the argument ‘Well, who you would have as president?’ has gained currency – leading many self-styled republicans to weigh up the monarchy against the idea of an elected head of state, and to conclude that the Queen is the lesser of the two evils.

This idea is neatly summed up in the ‘Email of the day’ published on the website of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 5 June 2002, sent in by a man called Anthony Deane. Arguing for the ability to elect our heads of state, Deane says: ‘As a republican I have always felt that Queen Elizabeth would be even better and more befitting the modern world, as President Elizabeth Windsor.’ (3) When you read yet another Mori poll claiming that 82 percent of people are satisfied with the way the Queen is doing her job, and that 80 percent are in favour of Britain remaining a monarchy, you have to ask how much that is to do with royalist fervour and how much is motivated by a sense that there is no compelling alternative to it.

Now, I am no great fan of Tony Blair. But democratic politics has a great deal more going for it than hereditary privilege, and Britain has many more potential leaders than Tony or Liz. You do not shelve democracy because you don’t like the candidates (although this seems to be an increasingly popular idea), and if the Jubilee is as good as it gets, there really would be little to celebrate. So let’s stop this royal revisionism, and start imagining some alternatives to Kermit, Queen and the Queen.

Read on:

Golden Jubilee Blues, by Jennie Bristow

Myth as history, by Jennie Bristow

(1) ‘The Queen’s currency has never been higher’, Alice Miles, The Times (London) 5 June 2002

(2) We can’t abolish it, so let’s cut the monarchy down to size, Hugo Young, Guardian, 4 June 2002

(3) Email of the day, Today programme website

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Topics Politics


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