The Diamond Jubilee culture clash

Last weekend, London was brought to a damp and inebriated standstill in celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne. On Sunday, the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant saw Her Majesty’s Royal Barge Gloriana take pride of place amongst over 1,000 boats, cruising eastwards along the capital’s aorta in a spectacular, if rain-sodden display. On Monday, crowds of revellers assembled outside Buckingham Palace under more generous skies for the Diamond Jubilee Concert, organised by the BBC and Take That second fiddle Gary Barlow, and featuring musical luminaries such as Elton John, Cliff Richard, Kylie, and Paul McCartney. The nation (well, sort of) rejoiced.

In many ways, this was a thumbnail sketch of the cultural problems facing the United Kingdom in the 21st century; writ large over several days and beamed across the world as current affairs fairy floss. There were only very hushed critical murmurings around the traps in London, mostly inaudible amongst all the flag-waving and Pimms swigging, but the divisions were plain to see for those not blinkered enough to overlook them. Polly Toynbee cut a lonely, party-pooping figure in The Guardian, daring to criticise a spectacle which for many or even most, was a celebration of the family residing untouchably on the pedestal of the British national identity:

There at the heart, in the dead centre of all this pomp and circumstance, is the great emptiness, the nothingness, the Wizard of Oz in emperor’s clothes. The louder the bells, the more gaping the grand vacuity. What are we celebrating? A singularly undistinguished family’s hold on the nation, a mirage of nationhood, a majestic delusion.

Let’s be clear: this is not a kingdom united in fervent celebration of their Head of State. Although most people would never speak ill of that grand old dame still perched upon her throne after over half a century, this is a “United Kingdom” cut carefully into three or four distinctive but becalmed camps. There are of course the loyal royalists, those from conservative backgrounds and predominantly from middle England who still adore the magic and the tradition of the monarchy. They occupy influential positions, are large in numbers and are represented strongly in the media by the Daily Mail and The Sun, the wildly popular tabloid newspapers that no sane or thinking person would describe as papers of record. For the royalists, to attack, criticise or even question the legitimacy of the Queen or the Royal Family is akin to an act of treason; an attack on the country at large and all it stands for.

Firmly on the other side of the fence are the republicans, tiny in number, and represented somewhat feebly during the Diamond Jubilee by a protest organised by Republic outside City Hall last Sunday. Intellectually they are of course in the right space, but there is a cavernous emotional disconnect between British republicans and mainstream British public opinion. The British republican movement, in terms of political influence, make the somewhat quiescent Australian republican movement look like the Bolsheviks circa mid-1917. Demographically, with a popular and respected Queen still on the throne and a widely popular Prince William waiting in the wings after his father, republicans in Britain could hardly be more “up against it”. It seems certain that there is not a British republican alive today who will live to see an English republic emerge triumphant from the populist grandeur of the Windsor family.

Thirdly, there is a group we might call the “patriotic cynics”. There are many throughout the United Kingdom who have heartfelt grievances regarding the monarchy, but are just a little too nationalistic, fun-loving, and/or proud to firmly side with the radical republican camp. First generation Britons and many in Northern Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland feel disconnected from the England-centric wealth of the monarchy; they like the Queen as a person, but they feel that she and her upper class ilk cannot possibly understand them and how they live their lives today. In this age of austerity, the cost of supporting the monarchy is starting to stick a little in the craw, particularly as public sector jobs are being abolished, benefits for the disabled and pensioners are cut, and venerable institutions such as the NHS are being sliced and diced under fiscal duress. Some sticklers still hold a grudge against the Queen and the royal family for the way Diana, the people’s princess, was treated in the aftermath of her marriage breakup with Charles. There is quite a tangible bit to grieve about for these folk, to be sure, but ditching the Queen still feels too radical an idea, too heretical a step for such people.

Lastly, there are those who quite frankly don’t really give a shit. Whether the Queen is there or not there really doesn’t make any damn difference to their lives, so why in hell should they care? It is this group, in my entirely unscientific estimation, who together with the “patriotic cynics” represent a majority of the British population. For these people, the Queen is just there. She has always been there, hasn’t she? The Queen is kind of cool. Occasionally she has parties and public holidays in her honour, which is sweet. There are lots of nice photos of her and her family in the colourful magazines every week. Look, Will’s balding more. Look what Kate’s wearing this week! Ah, Charles is such an ass isn’t he?

Needless to say, the warm pall of froth and flippancy that the monarchy provides to Great Britain’s national life is set to suffocate its bodypolitik for many years to come. Only the languorous pushes towards independence by the UK’s constituent nations seriously threaten its position.