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.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue