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Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The best thing about the Diamond Jubilee celebrations

I am not a monarchist.

I fail to see how a monarchy, even a constitutional one, should have a role to play in a democratic society.  I find the hereditary principle to be insulting to all those who believe either in democracy or meritocracy.  I struggle to identify with a sense of Britishness in which the monarchy and the Royal family are central to our identity as a nation.  I also don't grasp why having the same head of state for a continuous sixty years is something to be proud of.

I dislike privilege in all its forms, and you don't get much more privileged than the Royal family.  That said, I far from dislike them as people and actually feel a great sense of empathy for them.  As a liberal I am loathe to make value judgments about people on the basis of background or status, or to discriminate against them on the basis of something they cannot change.  None of the royals asked to be born into a life of privilege and responsibility and if some of them seem less than suited to it they should not be judged.  I personally knew a member of the Royal family once; a nephew of Prince Philip who hated the trappings of royalty to the point that he trained as a teacher and lived incognito in the Hebrides under a pseudonym. He was an inspiring physics teacher, but also a friend to my brother who he encouraged to take up a career in the army.  Tragically he was killed in a car accident in 1994 after which his secrets were revealed (he was heir but one to the throne of newly-created Serbia, which was considering a return to the monarchy).  I'm not sure why this came as such a surprise - he was the spitting image of his uncle, but with a more refined sense of humour.

This is my real objection to the monarchy - as an institution it stifles the personal and social development of its members, subjecting them unfairly to pressures and denying them basic rights.  I suspect Prince Charles has suffered psychologically due to such expectations and pressures, as did his great uncles George VI and the Duke of Kent.  Even the queen, after sixty years of faithful service, isn't afforded the same right to a retirement as any other woman of her age.  She really should join the union. 

Arguments against the monarchy aside, the Diamond Jubilee has not been a bad thing.  I was born on the day of the Silver Jubilee in 1977 and still have the various souvenirs to prove it (stranger gifts no baby has received since three wise men visited a Bethlehem stable).  I am told that the celebrations then were quite spectacular; there is no shortage of nostalgic people eager to play up the way in which the celebrations unified the country and acted as a focal point for community activity.  There is an equally large number of people who would claim that such community togetherness is a thing of the past; that neighbourhoods simply don't function in the same way, that we are all more individualistic now then ever and that community celebrations on the scale of 1977 are confined firmly to the history books.

While I did not got out of my way to participate in any celebrations I can understand why others did and there was much in last few days' festivities we should be positive about.  On the Royals themselves, the personal and sometimes intimate moments shared on screen suggest a closeness that was absent during the turbulent years of the early-mid 1990s as well as a more modern, media savvy and image-conscious Royal family, more in touch with modern realities and public opinion than some had given them credit for.  That is no bad thing.

Of course, there were the principal events: the Thames pageant and the Jubilee concert outside Buckingham Palace were spectacular and incredibly well stage-managed.  I must confess to only watching the latter, which confirmed the legendary status of Madness and Sir Tom Jones while suggesting that the Archbishop of Canterbury has rather more interesting tastes in music than I'd imagined.  But, for me, they were not what the Jubilee was about.  They were spectacles, sensational in their scale, but a sideshow to the real event.  And no, I'm not talking about the 22 Orange marches that took place in Glasgow.  

Neither am I talking about the seriously misguided attempt from Republic (of which I am a member) to protest the Jubilee celebrations.  The nation wants to have a party and we send out a few killjoys with placards  - you don't have to be a genius to see what the public and media reaction to that might be.  Republic should rethink its strategy, recognising that until a consensus is formed there is no hope of achieving constitutional change.  And such a consensus will not be won using these kinds of foolish tactics.  

The Jubilee was not the London-centric celebration the media claimed.  Rather, people up and down the country - in street parties, village halls, churches - decided that they were going to celebrate in their own ways.  (I went to church on Sunday and received a special edition Diamond Jubilee New Testament - now, what to do with it?)   The national event was, in reality, a culmination of thousands of local and community events.  And while not everyone will have been necessarily celebrating the monarchy as an institution, they were looking back over 60 years of history, commemorating advances and achievements, celebrating the life of the queen and her commitment to the nation or simply enjoying being part of something historic.  Perhaps they were simply embracing a community, family-friendly social occasion.  Some perhaps just like wearing items of clothing in the likeness of the Union flag (a most unfortunate affliction), or maybe they just wanted an excuse to drink champagne (as one facebook friend commented).  

And this was the best thing about the Jubilee.  It gave the nation and its people the opportunity to feel good about themselves again and that is priceless.  But it did this through enabling and empowering communities to come together to commemorate the occasion and for that we should be grateful, if only because such events are increasingly rare.  

So, while I'll never be waving a Union flag or singing God Save the Queen, I think that anything that causes neighbourhoods and communities to come together is a broadly positive thing.  That for me was the real spirit of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee - and something even a republican can celebrate.

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