In case you’ve been without human contact for the past few months, I’ll remind you that last weekend marked Her Majesty’s sixtieth year on the throne, an occasion of great national celebration and pride, which should inspire in us patriotic fervour and solidarity with our fellow Britons. Or is it? If it is, why is it that it’s the monarchy, an archaic and privileged institution, which provides artificial solidarity that we should find naturally among our fellow human beings and in our communities? And, if it isn’t, who’s been left out of all the celebrations and why?
I’ll admit that, before this week, I was rather cynical myself about the apparent relevance of the monarchy and the passive acceptance of it as a source for a misguided and declining sense of British national identity. Similarly, with socialist inclinations, my general opinion was that of the incompatibility of a commitment to equality with the endorsement of an institution which clearly indicates that some are more equal than others. Yet I couldn’t quite bring myself to regard our ageing monarch and her family as ‘parasitical’, and nor did I feel the abolition of the monarchy was worth the effort.
So it was with these mixed feelings that I attended last week’s lunch at Westminster Hall, to which I had been invited to represent an independent organisation whose aim it is to facilitate social mobility in central London. Being there, and representing such an organisation, allowed me to understand exactly what it was about the Diamond Jubilee that was so important. What the individuals at the lunch were most excited about was not celebrating the Queen’s achievements, but actually celebrating their own. An invitation to dine with the royal family was a particular marker of success and recognition, one which would be shared with friends and family and would be retold with great pride for years to come.
In the twenty-first century, then, the monarchy means whatever we ourselves project on to it: the archaic grandeur and pageantry are not significant because they are old, but rather because the British continue to find a sense of pride in such anachronisms that they cannot find anywhere else. In this way, the monarchy is as much a substitute as it is a valued institution. We hold on to the tradition as we feel we have nothing else in common with one another. The typical historical explanation of this is one of a process of ‘decline’: of empire, of industry, even of population, as immigration – and, with it, cultural diversity – continues. The monarchy is then understood as a solitary bulwark against such modernising influences that have seen Britain as a political, cultural and economic superpower wiped off the map.
Yet such a conclusion does not necessarily undermine the importance of the monarchy in daily life. Royal occasions, whether births, deaths, marriages or jubilees, serve as a sort of marker of time, by which we can measure developments and change. In fast-paced modern life, occasions of reflection, which are usually of national significance, whether celebrated or reviled, are few and far between and therefore all the more important. This year, the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee has also served as a realisation of how far this country has come since 1952: the crowds that lined the Mall yesterday were multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith, and yet united in their celebrations. Similarly the guests at the Westminster Hall lunch were evidence of the fruits that come with improved education and opportunities for social mobility.
So how do we reconcile a commitment to equality with an acknowledgement of the monarchy’s continuing validity? It’s important to begin by appreciating that, as ever, Britain is an exception. It is one of the few constitutional monarchies that continues to serve some sort of role in modern-day life; yet its luxury, splendour and even manner of speaking are pretty much seen as alien and outdated to us all. Perhaps, then, a shared acknowledgement of its anachronisms, rather than revelry in its arcane traditions, is what unites us.
Secondly, if we’re looking for vestiges of privilege, it’s far more relevant to look to Westminster than to Windsor. That our most senior elected representatives were overwhelmingly educated at independent schools and Oxbridge best demonstrates that change has its limits: in general, it seems we still feel those best qualified to represent us are white, male, dressed in expensive suits and speaking with received pronunciation. From this perspective, the aristocratic nature of the monarchy is actually just a comparatively insignificant symptom of a much broader problem.
And perhaps there is something in the celebration of the Queen’s sense of integrity and public service that remains relevant. Could an elected official who has to climb the ‘greasy pole’ to success ever be revered as much as one who inherits an overwhelming, if archaic, sense of public duty and honour? Put simply, Wills and Kate are a bigger part of our contemporary sense of Britishness than Dave and Sam Cam could ever be: the sense of a continued realm of privacy respected by the media of the former pair allows the monarchy to retain a certain gravity the latter pair could never achieve. Unfortunately, then, if we’re looking for a demystified source of authority and an old-fashioned sense of duty and service, it can only really be found within the monarchy.
Before we get too teary-eyed about the ‘huge outpouring of adoration’, however, perhaps we might bear in mind the many who haven’t been included in these celebrations. We continue to live in a nation that seems unable to embrace openly the fruits of immigration where elites struggle artificially to construct a British national identity through citizenship tests, bringing to mind Norman Tebbit’s suggestions of a ‘cricket test’ for immigrants to examine their fundamental loyalties. Understandably, then, not everyone shared the euphoric mood of the many, and many continue to be excluded from an increasingly exclusive sense of national identity.
So, does the monarchy still matter? The answer is, surprisingly, an overwhelming yes. While certainly not uniting us all, last weekend’s celebrations provided a united opportunity to reflect both on the quaintness of the pageantry as well as how far we have come as a nation since 1952. Having said this, the monarchy itself, as a symptom of our inability to substitute traditions for modern and long-lasting unifiers (in the form of pride in a wide-serving welfare state or state education system, to name but a few), indicates how far we still have to go. And, this being the DULC column, it is fitting to end with a few of the lesser-known lines from our national anthem that indicate the validity of the currently ambitious social democratic aim: ‘make the nations see / That men should brothers be / And form one family / The wide world over’.