Queen’s diamond jubilee: a vapid family and a mirage of nationhood. What’s to celebrate?
If the very idea of monarchy diminishes us, the living reality is much more humiliating and damaging to our country
Illustration by Joe Magee
The Guardian, Thu 31 May 2012 21.00 BST
The mighty royal jubilee bells will toll their way down the Thames on Sunday on a floating belfry leading a thousand boats, echoed by pealing church bells all down the riverside. Who could miss the spectacle of a hundred tall ships serenaded with Handel’s Water Music played by a floating orchestra?
The more outrageously glorious the performance, the more preposterous its purpose. There at the heart, in the dead centre of all this pomp and circumstance, is the great emptiness, the nothingness, the Wizard of Oz in emperor’s clothes. The louder the bells, the more gaping the grand vacuity. What are we celebrating? A singularly undistinguished family’s hold on the nation, a mirage of nationhood, a majestic delusion.
How close to religion it is, with all the same feudal imagery, God as Lord and sovereign, sovereign anointed by God, knelt before in a divine hierarchy of power ordained by laws too ineffable to explain. The tyranny of the monarchy lies not in its residual temporal power but in its spiritual power. It subjugates the national imagination, infantilising us with false imaginings and a bogus heritage of our island story. For as long as they rule over us, we are obedient servants, worshipping an ermine-wrapped fantasy of Englishness. (Despite the kilts, the monarchy was never really British.)
Every country needs its founding myths, its binding identity rooted in a valiant story that rarely stands up to historical scrutiny. What matters is the nature of that story, and ours is as pitiful as our embarrassingly shoddy national anthem: no US “land of the free”, just “long to reign over us”.
But if the very idea of monarchy diminishes us, the living reality is even more humiliating. What are we doing paying homage to the unimpressive personages invested with this awe? They are the apogee of celebrity culture, because there is nothing there but empty celebrity. Ah, say the royalists, it’s their very “ordinariness” that is their mystique. But they are not ordinary like next-door neighbours, only ordinary like all the other dull and talentless plutocrats with nothing remarkable about them but their bank balance. That the very rich are mostly very dull, lacking enterprise, initiative or inspiration is small solace.
The long line of royal nonentity is the ultimate lesson in the damage that inherited money and privilege does, the reason why inheritance tax – which the monarchy doesn’t pay – is a way not just to collect funds for the Treasury but to stop the stultifying social effects of inherited wealth. How well the royal family illustrate the aristocratic phenomenon where those who have had the very best education and the greatest opportunity for intellectual enrichment emerge with so little to show for it, generation after generation. Hunting, shooting, horses, nightclubbing, none of the long royal line since time immemorial has exhibited much spark of intellectual curiosity or originality.
It is a joyful confirmation of the wonder of the human gene pool that talent, brains and charm spring up at random. These faculties are no more bred out of a fictional “underclass” than they are bred into a fictional “royal blood”, though social circumstance conspires to knock it out of some at a young age, while promoting others with no attributes to heights they would never reach on merit. If royals have any value, they are the living, breathing negation of the myth of genetic superiority.
The most enjoyable reminder was theQueen’s diamond jubilee “informal” lunch for 20 crowned heads, when the theatre of majesty descended into farce. If she thought collecting them together would add legitimacy to the bloodline idea, what a mistake. The display of dictatorship and delusion surely must have been devised by some secret palace republican, complete with group photo of the torturers of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland and Qatar, alongside dethroned fantasists from Romania and Greece, a showcase of royalty from horror to hilarity, from ruthless to Ruritanian.
With its usual thundering ineptitude, the government chose jubilee week to publish a report on Britain’s social immobility. Alan Milburn offers a snapshot of a country where birth is destiny more surely than virtually every other OECD nation except the US. With 83% of new jobs in the next eight years in higher management and the professions, on the present trajectory the odds that many more children from blue collar backgrounds will shoot up the ladder to take them are vanishingly remote.
New opportunities, like the last decade’s extra university places, are taken by dimmer, better-crammed children of a middle class more adept at cementing their children into the upper echelons than ever. The privileged are not about to let them slip down the ladder to make room for others any time soon, and Michael Gove’s selective education policies will help prevent it. Income gaps stretch wider, as the bottom half has stagnated for a decade. Nick Clegg’s claim that income difference is unlinked to opportunity defies every international comparison: only more equal countries produce more equal opportunities. But here we are, in a deeper depression than the 1930s, with austerity imposed hardest on the weakest, lavishly celebrating our figurehead of British class rigidity.
The cost of the monarchy, though a hundred times the price of the modestly likeable Irish presidency, is counted not in palaces and royal trains, but in the fantasy of imperial power the crown bestows on British politics. Punching above our weight, we have just ordered a new Trident to cling to an undeserved UN security council seat from which to hector the world about a democratic idea so weakly applied at home.
Meanwhile, defrauding ourselves and the world’s treasuries, the sun never sets on the Queen’s dominion over more tax havens than any other country, an archipelago of shame from the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, Gibraltar, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands – and the City itself. Beneath the splendour, the squalor.
The Republic protest takes place at City Hall at 1.30pm on Sunday