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
Show Hide image

Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

0800 7318496