This Tuesday sees the last of many celebrations, marking our monarch’s 60th year on the throne. Reams of bunting, mountains of barbequed meat, oceans of pimms and enough cake to sink a royal yacht have been devoured in honour of Queen Liz – and a merry time was had by all.
Except on Twitter and Facebook, where legions of those I follow have expressed their overwrought frustration about the entire affair. Plenty of people I know have avoided built-up areas because of the doubtlessly thronging crowds; still more have kept their televisions switched off in order to avoid the BBC’s shambolic and obsessive commentary of the whole thing.
My mum and dad have been away for most of the weekend – going out to a jubilee party on Sunday and a beacon-lighting ceremony last night. I couldn’t attend the former because I had a friend staying over, nor the latter because I had two blogs to write. But whenever they’ve been in, my mum and to a lesser extent my dad have spent a good couple of hours watching the celebrations in London.
Now, I’m not an ardent republican. I have quite a lot of respect for the Queen as an individual, so I think the degree of violent bile certain anti-monarchists tend to vomit in her direction – wishing her dead, that sort of thing – is just horrible. Personally, I feel that when the real power-brokers in our society – large corporations and the big political parties – do great evil on a daily basis; it seems rather odd to get more annoyed about a little appendix of a power-structure like the royal family. There are far bigger fish to fry.
But I’ve nonetheless found the jubilee celebrations irritating. For me, the main thing is not who is being celebrated, but what – sure, it’s about Britishness, but what vision of Britishness has the jubilee been used to express? What values flow from it, and underpin it? And where might those values take us as a society?
It’s pretty clear that what’s being invoked with all the funny hats and partying in the rain is the sort of obstinate zeitgeist that characterized the Britain throughout and between the two World Wars – a blitz spirit of pulling together as one nation in the face of adversity. The sheer amount of wanky emoting about how everyone was doing so very well at partying despite the recession and despite the rain was being eagerly pumped straight from the rhetoric of a 1940s public service announcement. Of course, nobody seemed to feel that equating standing out in the wet for a couple of hours and or buying some (reduced in price, numerous in quantity) foodstuffs, to an entire nation fighting for its life, to be poor taste.
Despite Wilfrid Owen’s dire warning about the attitude of dulce et decorum est, pro patriae mori in the First War, the British sense of national pride never quite broke under the weight of mass mortality and destruction of the two wars; instead, the heat of battle reforged the tattered remnants of our 1900s swagger into a sort of quieter dignity; gone was the Empire, in its place was a Commonwealth, with a mawkishly nostalgic former colonizer at its heart. Nostalgic not for the glory days of the Raj and British hegemony though, but for a “Finest Hour” that happened immediately afterwards. Instead of believing, as the rest of Europe does, that the Wars were a terrifying part of a collective history that must never repeated, we Brits seem obsessed with them; or at least, who we were whilst under their influence. We still talk of those dark days reverently, even fondly, and have been busily elevating them to the position of a national foundation myth for the past eighty years. It seemed to me that a wartime, Edwardian tone stalked behind the jubilee celebrations; which, combined with the constant obsessing over what Britishness is, Euroscepticism, the continued popularity of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, stands as grim testament to our collective sense of awe at our grandparents and great grandparents who fought for us – a sense of awe that sits at the heart of how we think about our national identity.
All this is completely understandable, of course. It is only natural that after the transformative experience of two world wars and losing an empire, that Britain should become a very different nation. The nation it has become doesn’t represent what I most love about this place – the magic and the fire and the rustic mysteries of the Isle of the Mighty – but instead this sort of pseudish ironic mashup of the 1950s, the 1890s and the present. But I also note with concern how easily this hero-worship has been used by those in power to silence dissent and to demonize rebellion. Legitimate protest and popular revolt, such profound mainstays of British folk culture since Boudicca, have become almost blasphemous, held up against the sterling example of our (genuinely) brave boys and girls who went off to fight and die without complaint. The spiritual (and sometimes physical) descendants of the very over-privileged dolts who sent our young men to die by the thousands at Ypres and Passiondale are now elevated as the respectable voice of necessity. And yes, they still send our brave soldiers to die in foreign fields – just look at Iraq. While those of us who cry foul at the injustice of it all are decried by those same elites as weasley malcontents. The social justice campaigner is the new “conchie”.
Of course, they will be those who say that the jubilee isn’t about these sort of divisions. But that’s precisely the problem – such events as the jubilee are fully part of the spectacular pageantry of statecraft; serving the explicit purpose of masking the differences between the many echelons of British society, merging us into a single political body – with the head of that body being the Head of State herself. Bathed in the reflected glow of Her Majesty – as we saw during the service of celebration at St Pauls – are the rich and powerful. And the City of London Corporation; the very organization which was instrumental in clearing St Pauls of Occupy; hosted a sumptuous reception after the service. At a time where we more than ever need to hold the wealthy and priviledged to account, we’re being encouraged to wave the flag and proclaim our solidarity, regardless of income. This is as a perversion of the genuine heroism of our forebears; a cunning confidence trick, that makes a mockery of what they stood for.