Friday June 03, 2022

I’ve changed my mind about jubilee celebrations

I’ve changed my mind about jubilee celebrations

People gathered in The Mall watch a flypast by the British Royal Air Force’s Eurofighter Typhoon jets forming the number ‘70’ during the celebration of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, in London. Reuters

They’ve tied red, white and blue bunting between the beech trees all the way up the street. Half the windows have got Union Jacks in and giant posters of the Queen. It’s a definite upgrade. The only face that normally gets put up in the windows round here belongs to Nigel Farage.

I presume my street is having a street party, but I couldn’t tell you when. It will all have been organised via the WhatAapp group, but I left that when someone asked me to sign a Free Tommy Robinson petition.

Can it really be 10 years since we last did all this? Back then, at the request of my employer — this newspaper — I had to stand on a platform outside Buckingham Palace for about five hours, waiting for Her Majesty to emerge and do a little wave. I can still picture the little white hand now, in its little white glove, the metronomic undulation of the wrist seeming to conduct a crowd of thousands whooping with delight for reasons that I couldn’t possibly fathom.

Two days before, I’d been told I couldn’t come in to the jubilee concert as I hadn’t been accredited, but a rather officious security guard then accidentally shunted me toward the direction of the entrance (not the exit) and within minutes, there I was, gazing up in wonderment at Rolf Harris singing “Two Little Boys” in a Union Jack waistcoat as the Queen looked on. London 2012 remained a glint in the nation’s eye. Three months later, I’d be back here watching the parade of Olympic athletes, and listening to crowds chanting “We Love You Boris... We Do!” It might still feel like yesterday but it really wasn’t.

I find it both baffling and slightly embarrassing to recall that the whole spectacle rather irritated me. What was wrong with these people? They’d waited around all day for this. That part of their identity, part of their actual happiness, was drawn from being lucky enough to be there to take part in a show of mass public deference to a collection all chosen by birthright. I had aggressive opinions on the royal family back then, which was, as far as I was concerned, an obscene anti-democratic, anti-meritocratic advert at the top of our society.

I’ve mellowed in the last decade, but I don’t think it’s age that’s done it. Somewhat bizarrely, Brexit has turned a lot of people extremely conservative, it being the least conservative thing the country’s done in centuries. Having witnessed radical change first-hand, I have a newfound reverence just for keeping things the way they are.

A sense of national identity really does matter. Of course there are no shortage of left wing thinkers from the darker times in the recent past, who have liked to argue that flags and anthems and all the rest of it are a con through which the little man will gladly die fighting against his brother in his master’s cause.

Those arguments are sound but there are more mundane realities to consider. With no national myth, there is also precious little reason for a person in Hemel Hempstead to pay in to a grand pot of money for someone in Hartlepool to take from should they require a quadruple heart bypass.

The myth of the conquered conquistador, of empire thrown off, might have more visceral appeal, but it is not our myth. Our one is of power politely tamed and kept in place as a decorative ornament that people by and large like looking at. It’s flawed, but it’s the best we’ve got and it will have to do.

There are also a whole load of difficult arguments that republicans never really want to face. First of all, there’s the clear fact that constitutional monarchy is not a terrible system of government. Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain — these are not badly run countries. If anything, the last few dismal years have highlighted the fact that the British system generally works rather well. We have the worst government we have ever had, precisely because they have no respect for it. To take but one example, they lied to both the people and the monarch to try and shut down parliament and then force legislation through it against its will. It also didn’t work.

Next — and this one really sticks in the craw — the royal family isn’t especially anti-democratic.

In an interview about 20 years ago, Prince Philip was once asked how long he thought he and his family would carry on doing what they do. He gave an excellent answer: “For as long as people want us to.”

They are not sitting there in their happy position of immense privilege entirely by accident.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the never-ending Meghan Markle nonsense is that it peeled back the wizard’s curtain to reveal an institution far more ruthless than people probably imagine. I didn’t know, for example, that senior royals refer to the family as “the firm”. They know they’re there at the people’s pleasure, and they know that if they want to carry on they have to give the people want.

That reality, of course, leads to quite staggering levels of dysfunction, unrivalled quite possibly anywhere else on earth. Prince Harry spoke of his brother and his father as being “trapped” in a mutually parasitic relationship between their family and the tabloids, the obvious consequences of which are so absurd that they rarely manage to enter the public conscience.

For example, celebrities regularly sue newspapers if they publish pictures of their children, and the balance of public opinion is on their side. Famous people go bananas when strangers with smartphones snap them on the street and inadvertently snap their children too. The public sympathises with their rage. It is a grotesque intrusion, and nor is it fair on the child.

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