The real meaning of the Jubilee

It’s a celebration of people who celebrate the Queen, which is why I find the occasion so sinister.

Everybody agrees that the Queen is essential to life in modern Britain. Without the Queen stamps would be empty, and we’d have endless arguments about what to put on them. Without the Queen hospitals could not be opened, a politician would be head of state, and nobody would know the meaning of the phrase annus horribilis. As the only sexually-mature Briton the Queen is responsible for producing all our young, and once the ravages of the Coalition have done for the last worker-Brit, she will sprout majestic wings and fly away to populate a new island.

The Queen isn’t cheap, but then there’s no point having a great civilization if you’re not going to waste a bit of money on something fanciful, and our folly is both better value and a lot less hassle than pyramids, or the Bieber child. If there’s any argument at all for abolishing the monarchy, it’s that it’s unfair on the Windsors. Arranged marriages are bad enough, but baby Windsors have arranged lives, every decision and occasion meticulously plotted from cradle to grave. Yes, they’re rich, but what’s the point being a millionaire if you can’t bunk off work, have parties, or build a metal costume and fight crime?

The Queen is brilliant then, but celebrations typically suck. It doesn’t help that I don’t like parties to begin with – events filled with social pressure where ‘fun’ is compulsory and everybody’s too distracted by loud music or cheap food or other people to talk to you. My idea of a party is four people, a bottle of whiskey and perhaps a game of Scrabble if there’s a lull in the conversation.

Nothing, however, is as horrible as national occasions. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Jubilees; they punctuate our calendar with the tedious inevitability of a regular fire-drill, except that at least you’re allowed to complain about fire drills. Nobody likes Christmas - I’ve never met a single person who, upon reaching November, said: “Yay, it’s nearly Christmas! God it feels like ages since the last one!” But liking Christmas is obligatory, and the society forces you to take a day off work to join in the compulsory ‘fun’, enforcing such traditions as “interacting with people you successfully manage to avoid for the rest of the year.”  Valentine’s Day remains the single least romantic day on the calendar for much the same reason, because true romance should be spontaneous and unpredictable, and ‘Compulsory Romance Day’ is anything but.

Worse than this though, is that these days are a way for an in-group to say a big ‘fuck you’ to the rest of society. It’s no coincidence that suicides peak around Christmas, a celebration designed to reward those with big happy families and brutally exclude those without. Either you find someone to have Christmas dinner with, or sit in your pants all alone wondering why everyone else seems to be having fun. Of course secretly everybody else is miserable too, but that’s not much comfort when you’re staring into the luke-warm bottom of a Marks and Spencer turkey meal for one.

The Jubilee is, in theory, a celebration of the Queen. In practice, it’s a celebration of people who celebrate the Queen, which is why I find the occasion so sinister. Like one of those tragic couples who only go out to dinner on Valentine’s day, if people really loved the Queen then they’d show it all the time. Justin Bieber can’t walk into a window without ten thousand screaming tweens rushing in to lick the greasy imprint he leaves behind on the glass, and supposedly-Royalist papers like the Daily Mail devote similar levels of coverage to the Kardashians from Star Trek.

Like the Royal Wedding, the Jubilee is a convenient excuse for a certain type of people to try to impose their version of ‘tradition’ or ‘Britishness’ on the rest of us. Those who don’t feel the need to take part are cast as ‘unpatriotic’, or ‘anti-monarchist’, or simply ignored. The right-wing press have inevitably seized on the opportunity to tell us how much better everything with be if we just went back to 1952, but the worst offender has been the BBC. Never has Auntie felt more like a biased, state-controlled broadcaster than in the last few weeks, with its near-complete suppression of any dissenting voices.

The result has been a weird sort of competitive patriotism. Nobody actually likes bunting, but every high street in the land seems to be competing to see how many haphazardly-hung Union Jacks they can cram along the shop-fronts. Flags march in rows down Oxford in a scene uncomfortably reminiscent of something you might see in North Korea. I’ve nothing against flying flags, but there’s a limit: one flag – like The Star Spangled Banner standing sentinel over the Apollo 11 landing site - is patriotic and respectful. A thousand flags in formation is typically the start of a something very bad, like an invasion or an Olympic opening ceremony. Marks and Spencer have taken flag-worship to such absurd, vomit-inducing levels, I can only assume an invasion of Waitrose is imminent.

Beyond a certain point all this flag-waving stops being a quiet expression of pride, and becomes a symbol of fear and insecurity. When I look at the Jubilee celebrations, and particularly the overblown press reaction to them, I don’t see them as the sort of quietly-confident display of Britishness that our nation used to be good at. Instead it reeks of the fearful insecurity the right-wing press have spent the last few decades trying to cultivate; an attempt to reassert a traditional vision of Britain that never existed and ignores all the brilliant things we’ve achieved in the 60 years since the Queen took to the throne.

Britain has its problems, but we remain one of the greatest nations on the planet, punching spectacularly above our weight at the forefront of global science, technology and trade, with one of the best healthcare and welfare systems on the planet. Maybe if the press spent more time mentioning these things, instead of constantly telling everyone how terrible everything is, we wouldn’t need this tedious compulsory party-weekend.  

Martin Robbins is a writer and researcher. Find him at The Lay Scientist or on Twitter: @mjrobbins 

Life without the Queen: A cleaner on the Buckingham Palace balcony. Photo: Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.