One year on from the wedding of William & Kate, another royal event is already upon us, as Britain unites for a vapid exercise in fervent plastic-flag waving. This time the occasion is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, although the worthier cause for celebration, besides the ability of the grotesquely privileged to stay alive, is once again lost on me.
As is always the case with royal events, the enthusiasm of the national media and huddled masses is as baffling as it is predictable. Of course, royal appearances have always been accompanied by a sea of blinkered supporters, but among them can now be found many would-be anti-monarchists, whose attitudes appear to have veered from unwavering disapproval towards jolly acceptance. Have formerly staunch opposers of the royal family simply grown tired of Windsor-bashing? (Admittedly it’s a thankless and ultimately pointless task, and one that their European cousins are mostly spared.) Or has a rampant form of political correctness reached a point in which even the once overripe monarchy is today exempt from criticism?
In the late nineties Tony Blair’s New Labour government worked hard to enliven the country after almost two decades of bleak conservatism, but in doing so caused many heretofore disillusioned Britons to reassess the state of their own nation. One consequence was a swift reappraisal of British culture by liberal left-wing voters, and a general softening towards overt Englishness (something that had previously rarely been seen outside a sporting context). Likewise, as it limped into the twenty-first century, the royal family adopted shrewdly-timed PR savvy to smooth over the public (and private) cracks which appeared following the death of the Princess of Wales.
This genuinely shocking event had all but been forgotten by the occasion of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, a mere ten years ago. The bloated celebrations culminated with a concert (inaccurately dubbed “The Party in the Park”) held in the gardens of Buckingham Palace and involving the usual cast of pro-establishment musical legends (and S Club 7). In a stunt as preposterous as it was spectacular, the show opened with Brian May performing “God Save The Queen” as a guitar solo atop the Palace roof, his rock god hairdo windswept by an overhead jetstream provided on cue by the Royal Air Force. This was at the height of “Cool Britannia”, a government-generated and media-endorsed movement whose manifesto was the instant approval of all things British that matched a young person’s criteria of credibility.
Credibility is not something often associated with the royal family, but some still cling to the hope. A year ago, the wedding of William and Kate again foisted the foolish expectation on the nation that the good-looking newlyweds would haul the monarchy out of whatever bygone century it wallowed in and somehow lend it relevance. Yet shortly thereafter the happy couple faded into the usual royal state of general invisibility, ceding the tabloid spotlight to Kate’s sister Pippa and her ample derriere (which undoubtedly sells more newspapers).
“It’s a great day to be British.” So we’re told repeatedly on occasions like these by those who enjoy empty displays of pageantry. But what about the next day? What happens on Monday morning, after the last commemorative paper plate has been thrown away? Similarly, royal supporters’ insistence that events like today’s help “unify the nation” is equally bewildering. As far as I’m aware, the only thing that unifies the English (besides tea) is an insatiable appetite for mediocre television. That the “telly” holds such sway over the country is less alarming than the extent to which otherwise smart individuals choose to adhere without question to its monoculture with such mindless obedience.
Perhaps the most cringe-worthy aspect of modern royal events is the mystifying encouragement of so-called “street parties”, in which the notoriously reserved English, supposedly overcome with a sudden passion and fervor for the monarchy, emerge from behind net curtains to revel with neighbors in a painfully forced ritual of false community — one that is no doubt made easier by the combined pleasures of Union Jack serviettes and Tesco Finest Swiss rolls. But beyond suburban boredom or a deeply-rooted complex of inferiority, just what is it that causes the English to harbour a hysterical desire to project the UK as a bunting-strewn utopia of national pride? At the heart of it surely lies a desperate need to cling to a cherished yet fading sense of national identity — a tenuous concept at best, and one that is almost impossible to define, let alone maintain, in a reality of multi-cultural digital globalization.
Today thousands of the Queen’s tax-paying subjects will line the Thames to cheer with blissful ignorance for a family whose defining attributes are ineptitude and immorality. Meanwhile, a once active fight to abolish the monarchy appears to have mellowed against a wall of cultural oppression (a case of “if you can’t beat ’em — join ’em”). More than ever, the UK comes off as a nation not only under the thumb, but in a state of deluded fantasy or, worse, faux-naiveté — far more serious than the real thing because everyone ought to know better. Which begs the question of which is worse: not knowing your history or choosing to ignore it?