This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
I was in Scotland during the Jubilee for a family celebration of Tom Nairn's 80th birthday. Being in Edinburgh, walking the Radical Way and admiring the parliament building and later going round the new extension of the Museum of Scotland was a nice way to pass the weekend: celebrating the long life of the Monarch's finest demystifier in his analysis of the glamour of backwardness The Enchanted Glass.
There were very few street parties north of the border. The reports were of a total of 60, with 30 of these run by the Orange Order in Glasgow with official support. The only bunting I saw was outside Edinburgh. It was strung from the very tops of lampposts along a main road, hung so high only a council crane for replacing the lights could have lifted someone up to fit the string. It was as if the bunting had to be well beyond the reach even of a man with a broom! It looked very odd, almost lonely, as bunting should have a sense of bustle and be just above one's head.
When Gordon Brown launched his ill-concieved version of Britishness there was an upswelling of English symbols and the flag of St George. I have a feeling that 'The Firm's' Way Ahead Group in Buckingham Palace sensed the danger. There was a clear official effort to brand last year's Royal Wedding with just the Union Jack, and not encourage the flying of the UK's many other flags. The same this weekend with the Jubilee and no doubt in the upcoming Olympic Games with team GB. David Rickard has wrestled with the peculiarity of it but perhaps it is not so strange. The mobilisation around the Queen was a success but it was above all an English success and an English celebration of an English Queen flying the flag of a 'British nation'.
I'm not saying that the coverage has no influence or resonance in Scotland. Also, the deepening of the great recession makes a No vote in any independence referendum much more likely. People are fearful and the recent launch of the Yes campaign has not released or inspired new energy. But Scotland felt even more different. It may still be loyal to the Queen but it does not belong to the same country as the crowds by the Thames. It was even sunny.
Just by chance I found myself in the midst of hundreds of people thronging the streets to and from Bankside, London, to watch the river pageant (I was there for the raucous Lithuanian Hamlet at the Globe). Sheltering under umbrellas, huddling in hoodies, cold, wet and ultimately drenched, they were all stoically jolly and the atmosphere friendly. The policemen and stewards bossing us were unusually helpful. Given what’s to come, I felt happy for people to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee, in a such a festive and friendly spirit.
But the obsequious manner with which so many prominent people celebrated the Queen herself was demeaning and often dishonest, spoiling the spontaneity of the occasion. Television news presenters were perhaps the worst offenders. Even people I respect joined in. For theToday programme’s favourite rabbi, Her Majesty personified the tolerance of a nation that had accepted Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi persecution – an idea that is only partially true, and obviously odd since she became queen in 1952. Rowan Williams spoke – with a twinkle in his eye – of a woman who is “very funny”, and likes to tease and be teased.
I have a sense that Queen Elizabeth was praised so extravagantly because top people, so to speak, wanted to cultivate a mood of national solidarity, perhaps with an eye on impending financial catastrophe and further austerity. Maybe so, maybe not. But if we are to create a mood of solidarity, it cannot be done around the institution of the monarchy, which is the queen-pin of intolerable class, social and economic inequality – by summoning up the respect and admiration most people feel for the elderly and dutiful woman who happens to be the current queen. She is of course herself an exemplar of unjustifiable privilege and riches. But she is also a consummate actor and follows a broadly Bagehotian reticence that allows commentators and the general public alike to believe that she is “just like us” and to read any number of qualities and attributes into her conduct.
I believe that she does possess some of the attributes that are ascribed to her: diligence and stamina and a sense of duty. But what really sticks in my craw is the dominant refrain that she represents an ethical and almost natural stability. In 1981 I wrote an article on the eve of the marriage of Charles and Diana proposing that we replace the hereditary monarchy with an annual national lottery in which everyone could enter and become king or queen for a year, taking up residence with their family. I was interviewed on the Today programme by a man who laughed with me over the idea but who, once on air, assailed me for my disrespect. What if a madman won the lottery? he demanded. I replied something like, “Well, he would only be king for a year. If he was hereditary we would have him for a life-time.”
What I should have said was that Britain very nearly had a fascist king, Edward VIII, who was willing to do a deal with Hitler – and who would have ruled until 1972 had he not fallen for Wallis Simpson. George VI, the queen’s father, had leanings towards appeasement. Sooner or later, the queen will die and Charles is likely to become king. What price stability then, under a blighter who constantly interferes in affairs of state, ignoring the basic rules of conduct that make constitutional monarchy possible in a semi-democracy?
What was your experience of the Jubilee? Send your account (200-400 words) to Niki Seth-Smith at [email protected]