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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  • Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    I do not like the institution of monarchy at all. The idea of having to curtsey to someone appals me.

    However, I’m aware that I’m in a minority and I think we don’t often have national celebrations in this country, I just wished we could’ve celebrated something other then being someone’s subject. I completely agree with the becoming more pro-British, for very similar reasons.

  • I think that one of the critical reasons why xenophobia is relatively weak in the UK is precisely because the UK is not a nation-state, but is a multinational state composed of four nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Ulster).  I think Osama Saeed and other Muslims favouring the break-up of the UK may be playing with fire, as it could very well make it easier for racist nationalism to gain traction (admittedly more probably in England than in Scotland or Wales).

  • Democracy is about admitting minority views into the mainstream where they are evidence of profound divisions within society. And anti-monarchism throws up one such divide - between the very rich and the overwhelming majority, with the Queen being figurehead for the former. That people can be conned into thinking monarchy is something to be celebrated, and not linked to a status quo that serves the interests of a wealthy few is nothing new, and evidence that the opinion forming media is largely in the hands of the elite. We need to jettison royalty, along with public schools and the old boys network, and make this a country where the people running it and speaking on its behalf are not members of what is effectively a seperate nation. 

  • M Risbrook

    I laughed my arse off at this one! You must have a vivid imagination to make up stuff like this. Have you noticed that historically most of the ‘hardline’ and racially nationalist outfits headquartered in England are staunchly pro-Union? Can you name me any active and prominent English racist outfit that is opposed to the Union?

  • M Risbrook

    I had many gripes and grievances with the self appointed Nationalist who isn’t Gregory Lauder Frost when he speaks out in defence of public schools and how the aristocracy are rock solid patriots. He is totally out of touch with financially ordinary Nationalists. However, the reality is that old boys networks are almost impossible to dismantle, and shutting down public schools is almost impossible unless one shuts down ALL forms of independent educational institutions which will harm the lower classes more than the elite. I mean little Johnny from Low Hill can’t get extra help with maths because tutors are now illegal!

  • M Risbrook

    but no representative of Labour

    Even if there was a representative of Labour then it wouldn’t imply political neutrality. What about representatives of the Greens, UKIP, BNP, Respect, DUP, SNP, and Plaid? They all have MPs or MEPs so why should they be left out unless you subscribe to the Lib-Lab-Con three card trick?

    we do not have flags and pledges of allegiance in the classroom, for example

    That’s because the liberal left hijacked and subverted the education system decades ago. Something that I am aware of is that Britain has a permanent left wing government in that millions of people will remain in power in the public sector for many years who hold liberal left views even if we get a BNP government in Westminster.

    as recently seen in the anti-Muslim laws passed in several European countries in the past decade, something the UK has remained free of

    If you look carefully you will find that a hideously anti-Muslim law was passed by Labour BEFORE 9/11 took place. It is insidious because it can be used to prosecute a Muslim for almost anything on account of the law being so vague and grey. Even smart Nationalists are concerned that they may be caught out under this law if a police officer or judge just doesn’t like something.