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Monarchy in the UK

Rachel Cooke winces and blubs her way through the royal celebrations.

Diamond Jubilee programming

People say that the age of deference has passed. When you see Alan Titchmarsh performing his latest and most cherished role as royal television courtier-in-chief, not only do you know that they are right, but a tiny, shameful part of you mourns its passing. Do shut up, Alan! Oh, he’s polite, all right; the words “Your Royal Highness” tumble from his mouth with the greatest of ease. But the toadying – I’ve seen tubs of Vaseline less oleaginous – is now slicked with a repulsive dollop of amour propre. When he refers to “ordinary folk”, as he is prone nauseatingly to do, you know in your bones he doesn’t mean himself. His new-found grandeur – the potting shed and the daffodil bulbs having made way quite delightfully for royal palaces – gleams as brightly as the gold buttons on his blazer.

Naturally, it was Titchmarsh who presented ITV1’s flagship Diamond Jubilee documentary, Elizabeth: Queen, Wife, Mother (1 June, 9pm) and I watched it so you don’t have to (for this week, and this week alone, I’m doing duty as your royal TV correspondent). It had its moments. It is pleasing to know that the Queen once had a corgi called Susan. The mind boggles at the news that Granny enjoys hearing about Princess Eugenie’s “Newcastle life” – and I only hope that this is what it sounds like (in other words, that she is given to wandering the Bigg Market with one hand on the hem of her skirt and the other clutching a bottle of WKD).

But Titchmarsh did rather get in the way and not even Princess Anne dared to swat him. We reached the gruesome nadir when he read out a letter from the young Princess Elizabeth to her mother, written during her honeymoon. It was a very sweet letter, assuming you’re prepared to believe that Prince Philip is “an angel and having him around all the time is perfect”. But I hardly think it merited Titchmarsh’s response, which clearly drew on his long years of experience in amateur dramatics (I’m not making this up; he once had his home extended to include a private theatre).

The Yorkshire vowels quavered. The froggy eyes filled with tears. It was as if he was reading the letters of his own dear mother – though possibly this is how he has come to think of the Queen, what with spending so much time round her gaff. So, perhaps he was also feeling a weird sort of sibling rivalry, because his programme was scheduled to run straight after A Jubilee Tribute to the Queen by the Prince of Wales on BBC1 (1 June, 8pm).

Hard to compete with the real thing, ratings-wise (for this documentary, Charles, or someone, had dusted down family photographs and old cine films; the BBC wouldn’t let me see a preview but I gather it included – wait for it! – a shot of the young Charles and Anne rolling down a grassy bank).

I wish I could tell you that I found myself immune to all things jubilee. But that would be a lie. I enjoyed The Queen and I (ITV1, 4 June, 8pm), in which members of the public were invited to share their home movies of the monarch, rather more than I should have done. For a start, in the 1950s, the Queen really rocked the New Look and I’m sucker for a good swing coat. There was something irresistibly touching about her subjects, too, their awe always undercut by their attention to the humdrum.

“I couldn’t get over her complexion,” said Enid Gowthorpe, whose sister had hosted the Queen at her Hull council house in the 1950s. At the Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield, three brothers saw film of their now dead father, Billy Ibberson, entertaining the Queen at a grand “do” (this is what we call parties, or any other kind of gathering, in Sheffield). Half a century later, his delight was still so palpable that the cheeks of his grown sons flushed as they watched.

Which brings me, finally, to Gary Barlow: On Her Majesty’s Service (BBC1, 3 June, 7.40pm), which followed the singer as he travelled the Commonwealth, recording music for the jubi­lee song he had written with Andrew Lloyd Webber. I know. It sounds embarrassing, doesn’t it? It was. But I kept blubbing, all the same. The sound of Kenyan schoolgirls does tear at the heart, even if what they’re singing is by Barlow (his jubilee lyrics are cheesier than a Gorgon­zola sandwich). Throw in Gareth Malone and his choir of military wives (on guest vocals) and what you’ve got is a total Kleenex-fest.

What did the Queen make of the song? “We’re excited to tell you what we’ve been up to,” Barlow told her Maj, at Windsor Castle. She responded with that careful smile of hers, the one that is almost a wince. Alas, the camera did not linger on her face as Barlow’s record was played; nor did we see her Minnie Mouse toes tapping. Apparently, the Queen does not want to “sing it loud”. Nor does she want to “sing it proud”. Poor thing. I expect she still misses the Ink Spots.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture