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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

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.