Sunday, 3 June 2012

Hold the Party! Why the British should wait to celebrate.

by Rowena Hammal
Magna Carta, 1215
Image source Daily Mail
When Roman emperors needed to keep the populace in line, they dished out bread and circuses. Free food and exciting entertainment were enough to keep the plebs satiated while the patricians got on with politics.
We can see history repeating itself this weekend as the government lays on an extra Bank Holiday to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee. A day’s pay buys an awful lot of free food, and the BBC will provide continuous coverage of events to keep everyone entertained, if people aren’t busy at one of the many street parties. This follows the mass hysteria which surrounded last year’s free entertainment: the Royal Wedding.
All this monarchism is a handy way to distract the public from the massive cuts which the government is having to make. True, it’s tough on small businesses, who have to pay for the cost of a lost day in the middle of an economic downturn, but at least it will cheer folk up. We’ve also got the Olympics to look forward to: the ultimate circus, with a price tag of £2.4bn. And you don’t have to go as far back as the Romans to find a precedent. Attlee’s Labour government tried something similar with the 1951 Festival of Britain, a national exhibition designed to strike a positive note amidst post-war austerity.
So, if bread and circuses are nothing new, what’s wrong with a good old knees-up in honour of Her Majesty? First of all, it promises to be a rather undignified spectacle, with A&E departments all over the country drafting in extra staff  to cope with drunken revellers, and St Thomas’ Hospital in central London putting itself on ‘semi internal major incident’ alert. ‘Booze’ buses will be stationed in city centres to help the inebriated sober up, and, in Portsmouth, police will be handing out free flip-flops to ladies who can no longer co-ordinate their limbs sufficiently to totter home on their high heels.
Secondly, there’s the much bigger question of what is actually being celebrated. It seems that there is genuine support for the monarchy, and not just for additional bank holidays and the thrill of icing union flags onto fairy cakes. A recent Guardian/ICM poll showed that 69% of the population think Britain would be worse off without the monarchy, while only 22% thought the country would be better off. Republican sentiment is so thinly spread across society that none of the major political parties support the abolition of the monarchy; indeed, even the Scottish Nationalist Party is keen to keep the Queen if Scotland wins its independence.
It’s much less clear why people support the monarchy. Are they motivated by respect for the Queen as an individual, by a commitment to the institution itself, or by a more general love of country and history?
British woman voting, 1918
The Queen is undoubtedly well-liked. Indeed, opinion polls showed that, within the Royal Family, only Diana, Princess of Wales, rivalled her popularity. Elizabeth II has worked hard throughout her reign, attending tens of thousands of events, and has managed to keep her personal opinions private as befits a constitutional monarch. As a girl, she carried out war service during the Second World War before marrying her childhood crush, and she is now a very personable, elderly lady with a penchant for corgis and horses. So far, so good. However, does all this justify rampant monarchism and sentimentalism? The country is full of women who do their jobs well, many of whom make considerable personal sacrifices to do so, with a much lower rate of remuneration. The Queen may well be very nice, but, as an individual, she is not inherently special.
Will the anthem-bawling this weekend represent our interest in the institution of the monarchy? It seems unlikely.
Many royalists admit that the monarchy seems anachronistic in the twenty first century. As politicians of all parties claim to be working to create a meritocracy and increase social mobility, it seems bizarre to have a hereditary monarch. However, those same supporters argue that, whilst outdated, it is better than the alternatives. Apparently the spectre of an elected head of state is too terrifying to contemplate seriously, even if most other countries manage quite happily with one. This may change. The greatest threat to the institution of the monarchy is the death of the incumbent, as her heir does not enjoy the same popular support. Only 39% of poll respondents think that Prince Charles should succeed his mother, while 48% would like the crown to go straight to Prince William. The public’s lack of commitment to the hereditary principle suggests a failure to understand the fundamental basis of the monarchical system.
Battle of Britain pilot, 1940
(image source:
I suspect that most of the people whose freezers are currently groaning with Jubilee sausages are most looking forward to celebrating being British. Royal fetishists love this country, and our uniqueness as an island people with a long and fascinating history. Good for them. British history is full of episodes which are spine-tingling: Boudicca’s uprising, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Civil War and the Battle of Britain, to name just a few. But is the monarch really the best vehicle for patriotism? Surely national pride should be focused not on our allegiance to an archaic institution, but rather Britain’s ability to remake itself into a modern society via a process of gradual, non-revolutionary change. The monarchy represents the past --- true --- but a past in which the vast majority of our ancestors were disenfranchised and subject to taxation without representation. Most of them lived in back-breaking poverty, providing cheap labour to fuel the Industrial Revolution, which, in turn, allowed the monarch and the elite to amass the Empire.
Britain is a country to be proud of, but not because of the monarchy. We are infinitely fortunate to live in a country where the rule of law predominates and where we can vote to choose our leaders. These are not small things. We take them for granted at our peril. They are the product of generations’ worth of struggle, often against the monarchy, sometimes against foreign dictators. From the 1215 signing of Magna Carta, which first protected the rights of individuals, through to the 1928 Representation of the People Act, which gave women the vote on the same terms as men, the story to be proud of is the story of ordinary people getting their voices heard.
So, if bread and circuses are required, let’s celebrate something worthwhile. It’s a shame the government can’t put the money towards paying off the deficit and wait for 2018, the centenary of the enlargement of our democracy to include working class men and women over thirty.

Read the article which inspired this piece:

See the opinion poll results:

Read James Wood on how Britain became a totalitarian state for the long weekend Jubilee weekend:

Read Max Jewell's argument that we need the monarchy now more than ever:

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