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8 June 2022

Patriotism is an emotional language I’m not fluent in but I loved my Jubilee street party

It is true that the festivities cost millions, but the celebrations were a moving way to unify a diverse, multicultural society.

By Louise Perry

I decided, in the end, to go for cucumber sandwiches. Street party food and drink is never centrally managed, at least not on my road. You guess at what will go down well and, if you’re lucky, everyone’s choices will knit together to produce a well-stocked festive spread. As long as enough people contribute something, then the quantities of cakes, scones, lemonade, and so forth will accumulate to create a feast greater than the sum of its parts. 

So it is with the Jubilee street party as a whole. There are neighbours who liaise with the council, and man the roadblock, and erect the picnic tables – they make it happen, in a practical sense. But the many more neighbours who just show up with their modest offerings make the event what it is: a collective experience.

The patriot’s traditional defence of herself is derived from the specialness of her abstract relationship with her country. It is not that she believes her country to be objectively better than any other (although on some counts she might). Rather, she loves her country because it is hers, just as she loves her children because they are hers. Are they the sweetest, brightest and most obedient children in the world? Probably not. But they still deserve to be loved.

I confess that patriotism is an emotional language that I’m not fluent in. I’ve studied the grammar and picked up most of the vocabulary, but it doesn’t come easily to me. That may partly be because my family isn’t English. Although many of my ancestors were from the British Isles, none of my grandparents was born in this country, and my parents migrated here as adults shortly before I was born. More than 30 years on, my dad still fails the Tebbit test in an extraordinarily shameless manner, since he uses his tri-national status to justify supporting whichever team seems most likely to win: Australia for cricket, New Zealand for rugby, England for football.

[See also: Platinum Jubilee is the last hurrah for Britain’s easy relationship with its monarchy]

My parents are among the 37 per cent of Londoners who were born outside the UK, in comparison with 14 per cent of the UK population as a whole. The phrase “mongrel nation” is often bandied around to describe Britain’s multiculturalism, and it is true that historically people have immigrated from all over the world to make their home in this country, usually in London and other port cities. Occasionally, larger influxes of people have tipped the demographic scales – substantial numbers of Irish arrivals in the 19th century, for instance, or French Huguenots in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

Yet the arrival of thousands of people to the UK in previous centuries simply does not compare to the millions of arrivals we have seen in the past few generations – initially from former British colonies (“we’re here because you were there” as the writer Ambalavaner Sivanandan once put it), and more recently from the EU. Annual net migration over the past decade has been roughly equivalent to adding a new city the size of Plymouth every year. This is historically unprecedented. 

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There are all sorts of benefits of immigration, particularly economic ones. But the risk with rapid and large-scale migration is its effect on political stability and social trust. Robert Putnam, a US political scientist and academic, claimed that greater cultural diversity leads people to “hunker down” like turtles and withdraw into their shells – isolating themselves from their neighbours and participating less in civic life. As a progressive, Putnam was alarmed by his own findings. But he ran the numbers again and again and could find no other explanation for the correlation between cultural heterogeneity and poor social cohesion. “Diversity, at least in the short run,” he concludes, “seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.”

Where does patriotism fit in here? As Britain faces a cost-of-living crisis, commemorating the Queen has become yet another political battleground. Someone put up a sign on my high street that read: “Stuff the Jubilee, feed the poor.” It is a sentiment that has been expressed by many commentators in recent weeks. Liam Gilliver wrote in the Mirror that the celebrations were a “slap in the face to struggling Brits who are barely getting by”. It is true that the festivities were pricey – the Platinum Jubilee Pageant alone is expected to have cost around £15m.

And, predictably, curmudgeonly republicans were out in force in the lead-up to the Platinum Jubilee weekend, complaining about the crocheted Queens that decorated postboxes. This is not a new phenomenon. George Orwell wrote in 1945 that “within the intelligentsia, a derisive and mildly hostile attitude towards Britain is more or less compulsory”.

But the challenge for progressive republicans is that there are three political goals in play that are wildly incompatible with one another. As Putnam’s work has shown, it’s inherently difficult to sustain both high levels of immigration and high levels of public support for a generous welfare state, since the latter requires social trust, and the former tends to erode it. This already challenging endeavour becomes close to impossible if you also foreswear the kind of unifying public events that involve Victoria sponge cake and bunting and other naff expressions of Middle ­England. In other words, it may not be possible both to “stuff the Jubilee” and “feed the poor” – not if you want to celebrate a diverse, multicultural society at the same time.

Perhaps it’s fortunate, then, that the curmudgeons have been so very unpersuasive – in our diverse corner of London, there are still Union Jacks to be seen on every street.

[See also: The making of Prince William]

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This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man