Rudyard Kipling wrote his poem Recessional for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Not his original choice – that was The White Man’s Burden – but Recessional was something altogether less celebratory; a warning against hubris, a reminder of the transitoriness of pomp and ceremonial whose repeated refrain of “lest we forget” has become more readily associated with the mass slaughter of two world wars than with the emptiness of Jubilee celebrations.
It’s a thought that has never been far from my mind, as the three days of national rejoicing comes to an end. At the centrepiece, a Thames flotilla, a pop concert and a Service of Thanksgiving in St Paul’s; around the country, street parties (perhaps fewer than the mainstream media led us to believe), bunting, flag-waving, beacons, drinking; in the media, celebratory fawning; elsewhere, the slightly different pomp and circumstance of this Summer’s other main event, the Olympics, suspended for a day or two while the Queen’s sixty years on the throne are celebrated in the appropriate fashion.
Looking at the events, I have found it a strange and detached affair – a strange sense that this was not the Britain I know and live in from day to day (a feeling I had during the Falklands War, or after the death of Princess Diana). What does it tell us about Britain today? What are we celebrating – is it the longevity of an old lady, head of state through accident of birth and abdication, who has served inscrutably for so many years? Or is it an institution, or a society? As a nation (or at least some of it) waves bunting and Union flags, eats cup-cakes, Keeps Calm and Carries On, and unites around the television set to watch Elton John sing forty-year-old pop standards, how does this connect to the daily reality of people in Britain today?
Glimpses of reality
A number of vignettes show how the Jubilee celebrations connect with the darker side of modern Britain.
First, the growing scandal of the Thames Pageant stewards – a painful and poignant reminder of what life is like for millions in Coalition Britain. Long term unemployed people made to work for their benefits – despite, of course, the fact that they will have paid their National Insurance – bussed in from Bristol in the night, forced to sleep rough under London Bridge and change into their uniforms in public, denied use of toilets and shipped out to a sodden campsite in Essex. People who replaced paid workers who had been sacked shortly beforehand; apparently some were told they would be paid. A potent reminder that the grandeur celebrated on the Thames largely derives from an empire based on forced labour; a reminder that, for all the rhetoric of national inclusiveness, there are people who our political and media class either forget or actively demonise.
A second vignette; a campaigner for disability rights being told on Twitter that he had no right to campaign, and that he should be grateful for even the much-diminshed largesse that the taxpayer showers on him. It’s all too common a trope of modern Britain; the coalition’s attack on the most vulnerable in society, a Government of bankers and landowners gleefully stigmatising them as scroungers, is perhaps the most repellent of the many mandate-less behaviours of the current Government
And finally a third vignette – the unknown but I suspect large number of employees who have no contractual right to a paid holiday on 5 June, and who are being forced to lose a day’s pay as their employer closes. I have spent some time trying to find numbers, which I guess must run into many thousands of people in our increasingly casualised economy – people who I’d guess would be on low hourly rates, living marginally in a society where pay is falling in real terms. I know of cases where this is happening but I cannot find any general numbers, or even any suggestion that some of the lowest-paid in Britain subsidising the Royal celebrations with a day’s pay is a problem. It reminds me of those sad, poignant memorials one sometimes sees in historic houses, salvers or other gifts presented to the landlord by loyal tenants on the occasion of their marriage or other such rite of passage, the contributions no doubt extracted with the menace of ostracism.
They are reminders – poignant and powerful – that the pageantry and pomp are the gilded carapace of a society that is becoming more divided, poorer and crueller than for decades. And since the Coalition took power two years ago, the constant implementation of measures for which it has no electoral mandate has turned that slide into a rout. We wave flags and eat cupcakes, but an institution that has done more to improve the daily lives of Britons than any other – the NHS – is quietly dismantled by coalition parties awash with donations from businesses determined to milk its remains for profit.
Adulation and democracy
This has not been a good few days for those who believe that a democracy is a society that can look at itself critically and objectively. The myth of royalty has been poured forth from the media; most notably through the constant distortion of history, through the narrative that seeks both to emphasise the ancient ritual of monarchy and to claim that it is an institution that has refreshed and modernise itself. The latter is probably closer to the truth, but as an expression of its survival instinct rather than a desire to be forward-looking. And if there is one emotion that has dominated this Jubilee it is nostalgia. The cup-cakes, the invocation of wartime unities in the face of the common enemy (now beyond the memories of all but our most senior citizens); all looking to the past. It constrasts powerfully with the 1897 affair, a celebration of imperial power by the establishment, confident and expansive – but with, it appears, rather less interest among the general public than we might expect today (and anti-Jubilee protests in the Empire). In 1897, the British establishment could be confident in its power, even though events were stirring that would utterly change the way in which Britain was owned and run.
Between then and now lies the twentieth century, one in which so many of the certainties of 1897 were brutally swept away. In less than twenty years Britain would be embroiled in the First World War; the surprising thing is not the scale of the carnage but, how in Britain, young men fresh out of public schools, the defining 1897 narratives of Empire, leadership and patriotism and service ringing in their ears, were sent away to a slaughter that, proportionately-speaking, far outweighed that of the conscripted cannon-fodder of a war that was in many ways a family dispute among the crowned heads of Europe. The colonies found their voices and their eventual political liberation. The coming of democracy, the welfare state, the social ferments of which led to Labour’s 1945 victory and the popular culture of the sixties; all of these should have made the events of the past three days impossible. But, here we are, celebrating a Diamond Jubilee again, if anything more passively than ever before. Where did it all go wrong?
The vast Ruritanian ritual we have seen over the past few days, it seems to me, is not the act of a confident, empowered democracy. It looks to me like a desperate act of refuge, a flight from unpalatable truths of political and social life. And to me it is impossible to understand the Jubilee, and the reaction of social and political elites to it, without acknowledging that we are mired in a deep political crisis; a fundamental crisis of political legitimacy. It is a crisis in which the narratives of the politcal elites – regardless of party – are becoming increasingly disconnected from the reality of life of Her Majesty’s subjects; one in which faith in democracy is increasingly being undermined.
I have written before about the neoliberal consensus across Westminster, in which three main political parties (not to mention the governing party in Scotland) embrace fundamentally the same economic ideology – one which is both flawed and deeply unpopular, resulting in both failure and an inherent culture of dishonesty. Parliamentary expenses scandals, the deep corruption at the heart of the political elite’s connection with Rupert Murdoch – above all the enactment of measures like the effective privatisation of the NHS or higher education without any political mandate; all of these are symptoms of a crisis of democracy, exemplified above all by the fact that mainstream politics has become about the expression of a series of narratives unsupported by reality. The narratives of Westminster politics become more dysfunctional by the day, simply unable to represent the realities of life for millions.
And this is perhaps where Kipling’s vision is so telling. Kipling wrote that the appearence of pomp and pageantry was chimerical, and would fade away, but at the core was an inner set of values that would endure – in his case the values of Christianity. More than a century later, our contemporary Diamond Jubilee has shown that it is the central core of values that has failed, while the puffery of monarchy and power remains. There is of course a central core; it is the feral politics and economics of an elite that has brutally and knowingly turned back the progress – economic, social and political – of a century; which, in an age of mass media and ungrounded celebrity politics, needs the monarchy to preserve the illusion of a single, happy, united nation. Coalition policies are needlessly, viciously destroying lives; but for a day or two a population weary of dealing with the day-to-day consequences of an ideologically-mandated cut in their living standards, in a society that pays lip-service to popular democracy while denying the reality, can get time off from the realities of life. They can wave flags, cheer fly-pasts, party in the streets and look back to a time when things appeared more secure – when we still looked to an enabling state to orchestrate the collective provision of things like healthcare or decent social housing or university education, and when it was still possible to buy a suburban semi on the national average wage.
And constitutionally, of course, the monarchy stands as a powerful symbol of democratic failure. It is through the royal perogrative – and the mystery and deference that continues to surround the institution – that the political elite can conduct its business away from public scrutiny, whether that business be fighting illegal wars without Parliamentary approval, letting big corporations off their tax obligations or even using Government press officers covertly to spread malicious lies about the poorest and most vulnerable in society. There is no more powerful or obdurate enemy of democracy in Britain than the institution of monarchy, because it is the very institution that allows political elites to subvert democracy.
The three days of Jubilee celebration, then, seem to me to have been a festival of national failure. In 1897 the Jubilee celebrated imperial power; it preceded ferments that, for a while at least, appeared likely to shift the balance of wealth and power in the direction of the majority; but since 1979 that balance seems to me to have shifted decisively back. We live in a society in which, over the medium to long term, people have become poorer and have less control over their lives, despite all the appearance of glossy prosperity. Their environment is being degraded and there is less security in the real sense of the word. People have saved for their old age only to find themselves in near-destitution. Public space is shrinking and we live increasingly in a state of exception. We have more toys and live less. Even many of those whose material well-being has improved find themselves racked by insecurity and fear, and as a society we continue to self-medicate through drugs and alcohol to an extent that isn’t the case in our more equal European neighbours.
Against all that, monarchy is about generating the illusion of unity. “All in it together” is the mantra of Britain’s neoliberal coalition and monarchy is one way of convincing people to believe that. Monarchy in Britain is both an anti-democratic outrage and a particularly manipulative and somatic branch of the global entertainment industry. It’s a toxic combination and one that we as a society need to grow out of.