Not all are jubilant about the Queen’s Jubilee
The last few days of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebration have prompted the outpouring of patriotism and affection. But it did not faze Britain’s most determined protester. Peter Tatchell generally campaigns against homophobia and for gay rights: In one of his many (and one of his best) public projects, he tried to make a citizen’s arrest of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe when the latter came shopping in London in 1999, drawing attention to the president having called gays “pigs and dogs”. (London’s finest arrested Tatchell, not the dictator, for that episode.)
He was out again this weekend, on a wet, cool and blustery day as a flotilla of boats sailed down the Thames to salute the monarch. Just by Westminster Bridge, he and fellow leaders of the British republican party rallied a crowd of like-minded folk and some hecklers, who heard him say that though he thought the queen was personally quite nice, she was at the pinnacle of a pernicious class system, possessed hundreds of flunkeys and hundreds of millions of pounds, and must now stand aside to let the British people elect their head of state, as people should in a democratic country.
This wasn’t popular, but my respect for Tatchell, already high, went up. It’s a cliché but also a truth that a democracy is tested by its tolerance for those people and things that majorities can’t stand, and certainly the majority can’t stand the message that the republicans were shouting as they stood across the river from the Mother of Parliaments and the Mother of the Nation passed by in her specially prepared barge. The majority, in varying degrees, love the queen.
Everyone knows the queen is rich, richer than the bankers and corporate bosses who are presently hated for their wealth. But few care, even as we grow more anxious about our own more meager prosperity. Recently, swords have leapt from the scabbards of her legion of defenders to proclaim that she deserves every penny, and more – in part because of the tourist money she pulls in, and in part because she, more than any other figure, has come to epitomize the essence of the state. That’s an essence we can define as we wish, since her steady refusal to be controversial or in any way betray a view allows her to be the passive receptacle of every self-serving myth about Great Britain.
She stamped herself on the country at the very beginning of her reign. She insisted her coronation, in 1953, be televised to a country in which there were few sets. I went with my mother and grandmother to the one TV set in our village, borrowed from its owner, to sit in the packed hall of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute. As the blurry, tiny figures moved in mysterious ways across a little screen, its crackling sound was turned to full volume. The tensions and jealousies of our small community dissolved. The adults were drawn together to hear her promise, as if in a marriage vow, to serve her country.
As Simon Schama wrote last week, “the simplicity and sincerity of that promise of 1953 – handing over her life to the odd but indispensably comforting role of national matriarch so that a nation in all its stupendous peculiarity will endure – has never deserted her. That is why … no one should begrudge her a sigh and a smile.”
Well, some, like Peter Tatchell, will. A recent poll showed that less than 20 percent of contemporary Britons thought the monarchy should be abolished and Britain should become a republic: That appears to represent some 12 million people, not negligible even if dwarfed by the 48 million who think otherwise.
The republicans have a few voices in the media: the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee and the Observer commentator Nick Cohen among them, both of whom have written strongly phrased denunciations of the royal family. But they are drowned by the masses. Even the literati, usually left-leaning, are on the queen’s side, ironically or otherwise.
Indeed, almost everyone who puts pen to public paper finds something nice to say. The novelist William Boyd, introduced three times to the queen, recalls that on each occasion her one line of conversation was “so – you’re the writer” – but recalls fondly her unaffected guffaws at a colleague’s joke. The rebarbative Marina Hyde, who does gossip and show business in the Guardian, calls her “the last silent celebrity.” The waspish writer Simon Jenkins, to whom the queen gave a knighthood for services to journalism, wrote that in her reign, Britain had become “a better place” for almost all.
The British dramatist David Hare, whose prolific work has expressed continuous despair over successive British administrations, celebrated the queen as “one citizen not at the mercy of the market” (she isn’t a citizen), and admires the fact that “her irritation with the present crop of seedy parliamentarians seems obvious … [she is] floating some way above the stink”. This isn’t exactly adoration, but it’s a creative use of the unelected monarch to beat the (“seedy”) elected politician.
That crosses the political divide. Commentators of the right regularly draw the comparison between the monarch and the minister to the former’s advantage. In a piece in the weekly of the right, the Spectator, last week, biographer of the queen Robert Hardman pointed out that the Jubilee celebrations this past weekend cost the public purse £1 million, while the London Olympics, beloved by politicians, will cost the British taxpayers most of the £9.3 billion bill. “Much as it may irritate republicans, it is actually this celebration of monarchy which embodies these contemporary virtues of inclusivity and accessibility. It is the supposedly egalitarian Olympic movement which looks remote, outdated, arrogant”.
A danger lurks in all of this, which should give heart to republicans. Such is the veneration of the queen that no successor can match her – certainly not her eldest son. Now in his sixties, Prince Charles has habits, hesitations and hubris Britons well know (or think we know, from the tabloids who helped destroy his marriage to Princess Diana – though he did more). Prince Charles has certainly softened, and had made a bid for affection by doing things like the weather forecast on the BBC. But as the older generations remember the slight woman who said “I will” when called to reign, so do they remember Charles, who, when asked on television if he were in love with his first wife-to-be, followed Diana’s shy “of course” with “whatever ‘in love’ means.” Elizabeth the Second may be the last monarch of these islands who knew what being enthroned meant in the 20th, and into the 21st, century. Uneasy will lie whatever head inherits her much more uncertain throne.
Peter Tatchell may win yet.
PHOTO: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth leaves St. Paul’s Cathedral after a thanksgiving service to mark her Diamond Jubilee in central London, June 5, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Winning