The Last Great British Summer for England

The desperate construction of cultural Britishness observable in this summer's Jubilee and Olympics is just another attempt to conflate British identity with an idealised vision of England. The motivation for those in power is clear: to disguise the gaping constitutional issues that threaten the UK's political authority. 

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

The 3rd June Jubilee flotilla brought a strained effort to display a colourful, confident and continuant British establishment. On their barge, the significant royals embodied the state’s colours: the Queen in white marking the purity of Britannia and the Faerie Queene; Kate’s red brought passion as well as reference to Nelson at Trafalgar and Wellington at Waterloo via her milliner (James Lock & co.); Charles, Philip and William wore the blue of military enforcement, emphasising the flotilla’s connections with the imperial navy (despite being borne in on HMS President). These colours were cast against an oppressively grey sky described by the BBC as making ‘the whole event even more British’.

The event was framed by the iconic (‘the word has been used so much – ’) buildings lining the Thames, signposting world dominance. The repeated flagging of the iconic betrayed an effort to appear historic rather than to be historic. This, of course, is also the logic of Britain’s constitutional reliance on experience as perpetually retrospective, in which the present is always subject to a reconstructed past. London as dark imperial capital is key here, now a capital of capital, at the heart of the Thames journey of expedition, escape, and return in which the movement home blends the savage and the domestic – Dickens’s Bleak House, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Eliot’s The Waste Land. Turgid coverage carried on despite a day so dark that the BBC studio had to be disorientingly lit on a June afternoon. No enlightenment here.

This British but ideally English history pushed together the Tudor queen’s endorsement of Drake’s journey with the Windsor queen’s celebration of a post-imperial retreat back towards a now-imaginary centre. This monarch was not really Elizabeth II of a unified Britain (Britain has only had one Elizabeth), but this cultural confusion allowed for the gluing together of the Elizabethan expansion of England and the confused twenty-first century contraction back to England. Repeatedly the challenge is to avoid showing this return as retreat, a collapse of Britain’s claim to world domination and the collapse of Britain. The constitutional sleight-of-hand is the real point of the para-Elizabethan imagery, a case advanced in an unusually vacuous Telegraph column by London’s mayor, who argued that if the first Elizabeth’s reign was the source of the imagery, the second Elizabeth’s reign was the real apogee of empire.

In fact three main historical moments were conflated by the flotilla – dominance over the Spanish Armada, Trafalgar, and Dunkirk. All these moments invoke fear of invasion, naval domination, and unification through retreat and survival. There is something particularly significant about victory via retreat, as the interpolated history rolls back with waves of mixed and abbreviated references. If the jubilee was the rolling back of the London-based boom of the mid-2000s, it also recalled the rolling back of the state declared just after the Silver Jubilee of 1977. This, of course, really meant a rolling back of the public rather than the state, as seen in the denigration of every shared service since. The rolling back up the Thames and back into the safety of imagined greatness could only happen via a multitude of mixed-up moments of decontextualised, nostalgic and branded history. To shore up this British state was also, it appeared, to paradoxically evoke a contemporary vision of the multicultural while relying on the idealised Englishness of the village fete, the parade of ensigns, the victoria sponges and the tradition-of-tradition.

Enforced celebration, the demand that the ‘public’ celebrate royal patronage, has been the staple of BBC coverage since the strong 1920s-30s ideological joining of union, monarchy, and empire, surviving as a state monopoly through the 1953 coronation. The sense of managed distance has changed little between 1953 and 2012: in a movement to be repeated throughout the last Great British Summer, the crowds themselves were a constant referent. The crowds were ‘the people’, but they were roped off along the banks, well away from royal interaction, or at specific sites that bore no immediate connection to the display. The corollary of imperial aspiration is that ‘the people’ can’t all be at the centre. The state is and must remain distant, divine, protected, but unanchored.

Narrow shots back down the Thames showed a tunnel vision that repeatedly revealed the structuring breaks of the bridges. This affected a cogent narrative, but marking the distance between the people and the event. The BBC transmitted a spectator’s comment that the event was ‘so democratic’ because of the variety of people involved – yet the scene retained an impenetrable sense of distance. The entirety of the public offered back to the viewer was radically altered and yet the same: ‘it’s hard to imagine how things can go back to normal after this’.

The Jubilee concert outside Buckingham Palace reinforced this sense of the performance of the public in an amalgamation of past moments: the moribund nature of the concert was excused by claiming that performers were ‘from’ each decade of the queen’s era, were both then and now. The concert also managed crowds into groups around big screens relaying action they couldn’t get near – yet the palace was overlain with a projection of a terrace to Madness’s ‘Our House’, as if this house really belonged to the people – a performance also hailed as a democratic triumph in the Telegraph.

The performance of participation unites the main events of the Great British Summer, and is also central to the sale and representation of the Olympics. The eternal Olympic flame was undermined by the bidding for torches, its hiddenness as it was transferred from place to place, and its standing for the surveillance of the entire visual field during the events, while calling on the public to proclaim participation. From the ticket sale, which few really believed was open, to the reclamation, sale, and militarisation of space, the Games have stood for the final erasure of the public in the neoliberal dusk. A kind of Olympic farce was the subject of auto-satire in the BBC’s Twenty Twelve, which marked the failings and stupidity of the ‘deliverance’ process – and although its ‘Jubilympic’ humour was alluring, it also tended to close down comment and critique by presenting the British disease as do-gooding effort, self-referential incompetence, and loveable, sanitised banality. What was missed here was the horror of the domestic dispossession, disenfranchisement and the militarisation intrinsic to the 2012 games, which compare unfavourably with even the apparent military might of China in 2008, and give the lie to the institutions lining the Thames as the bedrock of British democracy.

The performative Great British Summer is also dependent, of course, on a repetition of British instinctual democratic standards. One repeated move in reinstating the ‘us’ of the inherited standard is to ask how well these would translate in darker regions during international events, with recent BBC documentaries on Azerbaijan (Eurovision) and Ukraine (Euro Championships) suggesting without irony that these regions might not measure up as they had corruption and racism. Meanwhile, the tensions between the much-despised creation of an Olympic soccer ‘Team GB’ and the Jubilee hangover of the England team at the Euros carries the fallout of the Elizabethan flotilla’s constitutional fudging: in the pre-tournament friendly and in the group games, God Save the Queen featured heavily amongst supporters unaware that they have no national song of their own, any more than they have national political representation.

The real test for this comes if the Great British cultural ghost is given up with no explicit break. As Britain is ‘Englished’ again in devolutionary times – a situation quite visible in the choices of newspaper editors, and an embarrassing blindspot for the ‘British left’ as Ed Miliband has recently shown – there is every danger that Britain is kept as the ideally-expansive form of a conservative image of England which is itself a British invention. Flags don’t show everything, but during the Great British summer it is worth noticing the ways the St George’s cross butts up against Union flag, or may indeed seamlessly replace it. This is especially important if the 2004 Euro Championships really were a moment of English national revival, as is sometimes said.

One possible scenario, but one which is quite commensurate with what A.V. Dicey described as England’s ‘flexible’ – or infinitely expansive and unchanging – constitution, is that the jacks will be silently replaced with no acknowledgement of change (imagine a workfare line of flag-hangers with the front end hanging up jacks and the rear end crosses). The implication, again quite natural to the constitution, is that the British state can continue as an ideological casing for an idealised Englishness, with class relations turned back inwards on a domestic level rather than an imperial one. It is not that 2012 is the last British summer, or even the last summer for the United Kingdom: even if the Scottish independence referendum is successful, there will still be 2013 – but it is likely to be the last year in which such a strenuous attempt to recover the ground of cultural Britishness can be made.

About the authors

Claire Westall is a Lecturer in English and Related Literature at the University of York

Michael Gardiner is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at The University of Warwick and author of fiction and non-fiction, including short-story collection Escalator (2006) and critical work At the Edge of Empire: The Life of Thomas B. Glover (2008).