The Jubilee and British values

The last four days, the UK has seen a whole lot of events related to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (marking 60 years on the throne) and these included a flotilla on the Thames through London and a big concert outside Buckingham Palace, as well as street parties and public events throughout the country (there was at least one street party here in Kingston). I didn’t go to any of the events as I don’t like huge gatherings and crowds, the possibility of not being able to get where I’m going (like, across the river, important if you’re in central London), and displays of mass patriotism and conformity, regardless of what country they are in support of. I’ve also been doing work that involves a lot of long hours and was grateful for a long weekend, which I didn’t intend to spend standing in the rain watching a concert down the other end of a street.

As someone who has been watching the discussion on social media leading up to this, there seems to be two strands of opinion: one saying that it’s all a distraction from the sinking economy and from government spending cuts, the other saying that it’s a celebration that people are enjoying, many of whom are themselves struggling and affected by the economic situation, and that we shouldn’t spoil it. Yesterday I went down to Dorset to see a friend who is much more affected by the cuts than I am, who is facing the same changes to Incapacity Benefits as a lot of others and is under a lot of stress, yet was joining the festivities, putting on Union flag headscarves and joining the ceremony to light the jubilee beacon behind the mayor of her town. When I got back, the jubilee concert was on, and I sat on my laptop and watched all the comments on Twitter (“two songs in a row about knife crime”, referring to Tom Jones’s Delilah and Robbie Williams’s rendition of Mack the Knife). I finally left when all the speechifying started (Charlie doing the “Her Majesty … Mummy” routine for the second jubilee running).

However, this morning it was reported that the stewarding had been done by unpaid, unemployed people who had been bussed in from Bristol and Plymouth, dumped at 3am and told to sleep and change under London Bridge, not provided with toilets for a full day and told their benefits, or future work in security at the Olympics, would be under threat if they left the event. So, it wasn’t above politics after all — it wasn’t just a bit of fun, for all we were told it was churlish to spoil everyone’s fun and all the community spirit. The economy, the cuts, the war on benefits scroungers didn’t go away for the long weekend after all, and the charity that arranged it turns out to be run by a Tory baroness. For some people, it wasn’t fun, it was a miserable, cold, dirty, wet long weekend. There was a letter in today’s Guardian that noted that the Royal Box at the Jubilee concert contained several Tories (Cameron and his wife, John Major, John Patten and Seb Coe) but no representative of Labour, and thus the royal family have abandoned any pretence of political neutrality. I also do not buy the myth that the Queen is “above politics”; she is one of the country’s biggest landowners and a member of an extremely wealthy family at a time when we have a government principally composed of rich men who are redistributing wealth in favour of the rich.

Despite that, I’m not radically pro-republic or anti-monarchy; we do not have a particularly nationalist culture in this country (we do not have flags and pledges of allegiance in the classroom, for example), and the four-day jubilee is a rare moment of celebration of nationhood, even if it is focussed on the person of the Queen and a milestone in her reign rather than the nation. Republics often foster national myths, particularly about their foundation, such as whitewashing or otherwise re-writing the personal and political records of their founders (making them more pious or religious than they really were, for example) and altering the facts of why the old regime was overthrown in the first place (making it look like a rebellion against generic ‘tyranny’ rather than disliked taxes, for example). These myths are often used in the suppression of minority rights, as recently seen in the anti-Muslim laws passed in several European countries in the past decade, something the UK has remained free of.

I have become markedly more pro-British, and much more prepared to defend the British way of doing things, in the decade or so since 9/11, as this country is one of the few places in the developed world where racism and xenophobia have not become anything like as socially acceptable as in Europe or America, where they have entered into law and where the far-right has gone mainstream in some places. Perhaps the fact of having a monarchy has little to do with this, but it still makes me cautious about identifying republicanism with progress and demanding radical change for the sake of it, when there are better ways of bringing about progressive political change.

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