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.