The festivities around the London Olympics and Diamond Jubilee will paint a picture of a stable, timeless (simultaneously modern) Great Britain. But the Anglo-Britishness it appeals to is far from the present-day reality of contested identity and authority, in which England is preparing to speak.
This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
A ‘Great British Summer’ of celebrations is about to start: the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee followed by the London Olympics – a Jubilympics of jubilation! Oh yes, and there’s the little matter in between of the Euro 2012 football tournament, in which it will be England that will be upholding the ‘honour of the nation’. Watch the politicians squirm as they attempt to perform the Jubilympic juggling act of celebrating the England team’s success, or commiserating its all too likely failure, as a ‘national’ phenomenon without offending the many non-English Brits who’ll be rooting for ‘anyone but England’! Don’t commit the cardinal sin of suggesting that the ‘whole nation’ will be behind England, unless you actually mean to imply that the nation is England (and even then) – but above all, try to minimise your use of the word ‘England’ itself!
But which nation is in fact being celebrated, and is celebrating, under the guise of the ‘Great British Summer’? The very name ‘Great Britain’ is invoked mainly metaphorically in the countless celebrations of the ‘Great British’ (or merely ‘great British’?) characteristics of ‘our nation’s’ cultural or geographical landscape that are being undertaken throughout this Jubilee year – most typically by the hallowed custodian and oracle of all things British that is the BBC. Great Britain. A name that puts me in mind of the French feminist Julia Kristéva’s seminal work, “This sex that is not one” (Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un): this nation that is not one – neither a nation, nor ‘one’ (united, singular).
Does anybody really believe in 'Great Britain any more: that there is an actual nation called Great Britain that subsumes the territories of England, Scotland and Wales? The term is a metaphor, or perhaps more strictly a synecdoche: the whole (Great Britain) that stands for the part ('Little England'), and serves as the acceptable projection of English patriotism across a greater, grander stage – if not now the vast waves of Britannia’s imperial rule, then at least the air waves of global TV through which we Brits may still project power and show to a worldwide audience that we can punch above our merely English weight.
And so our Jubilee is above all theatre and spectacle, in which we and the rest of the world watch ourselves actualising and commemorating a seemingly timeless institution, personified by the queen herself, who bridges the pre-war era of empire into the present day of contested national identity and political authority. And so – we imagine for a day, at least – we have demonstrated that all is still orderly and serene under the unsetting British sun.
But of course, the question that all this serves merely to postpone is what happens next? When the queen dies and is succeeded by her hapless heir, who seems unwilling or incapable to serve as Defender of the British Faith?1 If Scotland votes to leave the Great British festival, bringing the fiction of a nation called Great Britain to a premature, or should that be stillborn, end? And if Scotland doesn’t vote for independence – this time – will that really put an end to the paradoxically interdependent, centrifugal forces of globalisation and nationalism that are tearing the kingdom apart?
But for the time being, in this Great British Summer, we don’t have to answer those questions. After all, we’ve got the Olympics: another global TV spectacle through which we’ll show them that Britain’s still great, if not Great. And in which we compete, of course, as Great Britain: the only Olympic country that’s neither a nation nor a state, and is holding the games in a city that’s so globalised that it’s not even recognisably a national or imperial capital any more – not, at least, of anything called Great Britain, and definitely not of England.
But what of England, indeed; not invited to the party it’s actually hosting?2 Perhaps we English should simply stay at home and turn off the BBC. Celebrate with family and neighbours. Go out to the pub: that great English institution, and one that is more in need of custom than many global and / or British brands that enjoy the patronage of Her Majesty and the opportunity to market their wares worldwide that the Jubilympic celebrations provide. Enjoy the little things of England and set aside the cares of toiling for economic growth, for a day or two.
And while we’re at it, let’s raise a toast to Her Majesty: not the Loyal Toast, but as if to a friend or a distant, wealthy relative. A great Briton – perhaps one of the last – who’s prayed for her kingdom and our kingdom – whose fragile unity she personifies – and for her people every day for 60 years. God bless our Liz, and God bless England.
1Prince Charles has said that, when he is king, he would like to be regarded as the 'Defender of faith' rather than as 'Defender of the Faith'. But this would involve a failure to fulfil the monarch's constitutional role as safeguarding the essential Protestant-Christian character of the United Kingdom and of the monarch himself. In this sense, this would be a failure to 'keep faith with' Britain and, in constitutional terms, would absolve the British people of their duty to obey the king, as set out in constitutional statutes such as, among others, the Act of Settlement of 1700 (Article 1) and the Acts of Union of 1706/7 (Article 2).
2And what of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall, as many of Our Kingdom's readers might ask: are they not invited to the Great British Summer party either, not even as guests? I can't answer that question. They must do so: I can't speak for the UK's other nations. But I am attempting to articulate an English-national perspective, and part of what that involves is not being afraid to give up trying to speak to, and as part of, an implied British-national community – especially as the 'Great British' identity we're all supposed to share is in fact primarily a means to redirect English patriotism towards, and absorb it within, the established British order.