Friday, 1 June 2012

Two Cheers for The Queen

Well, it's quite literally a once in sixty-year event this weekend as it is the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Needless to say, the establishment and its friends in the media have been encouraging us to "celebrate", "have a party", "show how patriotic and British we are". In my part of the world, East Ham, the odd house has bunting but the overwhelming majority don't.

To be fair, the East Ham of 2012 is a world, or rather a universe removed from the East Ham of 1952. The old cockney families and their traditional tribal lyalties are long gone and the Tamils and other migrants who now call this place "home" have a different perspective on what it is to be British.

Yet through this whirlwind of technological, social and cultural change, the Queen has remained a figure of stability and continuity. She has comported herself with dignity, grace and discretion and for that alone I'm more than prepared to thank her and salute her.

And yet...she has the kind of personal support network most of us would envy. The bete noire of the Establishment, Peter Tatchell, quite rightly points out that the Queen fronts an enormnously-bloated organisation which, if it were any other public body, would be castigated endlessly by Matthew Elliott and the other right-wing cretins at the Taxpayers' Alliance. Why does the Queen "need" Sandringham, Balmoral, Windsor AND Buckingham Palace? Most people have one main house - some have two. I don't know many who have four.

It's time to look at the "trappings" of the Monarchy - the houses, the staff, the vast land holdings and ask ourselves if such institutions and privilege still have a choice in 21st Century Britain.

Yet it is almost impossible for there to be any kind of rational or reasonable debate about this. Any criticism of the Monarchy, however veiled, is considered unpatriotic and shouted down by primarily (but not exclusively) the Right. This is ludicrous - an integral part of British history, of the British character, is the radical, anti-establishment, non-conformist aspect. This created Magna Carta and the Industrial Revolution, executed a King and created a successful (if imperfect) democratic model of Government. It has shaped the country as much if not more than the Royal Family.

This is not to denigrate Queen Elizabeth II who, unlike her illustrious predecessors Victoria and Elizabeth I, has never really faced a strong Republican threat from within. Save perhaps in the immediate aftermath of the tragic death of Diana in September 1997, the Queen has always retained a strong place in the nation's affection and while that may not be true of Charles, he has every right to take his place on the throne and reign as George VII.

The argument FOR Monarchy is weak and is aided by the argument AGAINST a Republic. You either have the Irish or German versions - a non-political figurehead, someone dull and worthy, hopefully uncontroversial - or you have the French or American versions where the Head of State is the Head of Government. Neither option makes huge appeal at this time. We have been hugely fortunate in having two excellent Monarchs consecutively but history shows we can't always assume that. One day, we will have a "bad" King or Queen and we will have to deal with that.

The institution of Monarchy needs to adapt further to the modern age - it was profoundly disappointing to see both William and Harry head to the Armed Forces. It would have been so much better for one or both of them to go into the world of commerce and gain a different perspective on life and the world. I can't help but feel that the attitudes and mores of the military, which are so far removed from most people's day-to-day lives and experiences, will make Diana's children unhealthily removed in attitude and experience from ordinary people. No amount of boozing at Boujis will make Harry a "normal guy". The Army life creates political and cultural attitudes which don't conform with the majority of society.

As for Catherine, if her two roles are to wear clothes made by British designers and be a baby factory to ensure the succession, that sounds a pretty bleak existence but that's just my view.

So it's two or perhaps one and a half cheers from me this weekend. I don't go in for this uncritical adulation and nor am I impressed with "bread and circuses". Yes, times are tough and a party's probably a good thing as a diversion but part of the whole jamboree is to reinforce the status of the Monarchy as an institution and part of that process is to close down discussion and debate. Peter Tatchell is ridiculed for saying the unremarkable and perhaps once the bunting has been taken down and the last of the interminable Victoria Sponge eaten, we may allow ourselves a moment to consider what it meant and whether it was all worth it.

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