Gary Raymond considers the quintessentially British paradoxes of celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.
I have been interested, looking at the suffocating Diamond Jubilee coverage, to become aware of the constant insinuation that longevity has a direct association with success. By this measure Chairman Mao (31 years as head of state), General Francisco Franco (35 years) and Kaiser Wilhelm II (a measly 30 years) were roughly half as successful as Queen Elizabeth II. But of course we all know that longevity is proof of many things, and success is only one potential summation of a long term in a post.
Another could be ignorance of the environment that surrounds that post, and so the needs of change go largely untended. Longevity could be a result of the paucity and uninspiring nature of applicants in line for the position in question. It could be a result of a particular institution’s proverbial arse-cheeks being immovably planted into the laurels on which they rest. It could have something to do with the fact that barring a remarkable set of circumstances the incumbent of the position in question is required to stay in post until they die. In which case the longevity is rather less a sign of the success of the incumbent, and is rather down to the success of the medical treatment on offer (in the Queen’s case: the greatest available on Earth). Or failing that it is the indefatigable luck of biology. Of course that is not to say longevity should not be celebrated, and 60 years in a job truly is something to wonder at. (Although with retirement age being pushed back every year, it seems, this wonder will become more of a norm as eighty-year-old police officers investigate the frauds of 35-year-old millionaire retiree hedge fund investors in the coming decades).
It is not just the longevity of Elizabeth II’s reign that the Jubilists (as I’ve decided to call them) cite as proof positive of her success, however. There is much more to her than that. For instance, she has never once offered an opinion on a single topic of any importance to a single subject. She has never offered sympathy to the miners, to the students, or to aborigines. Her silence, apparently, gilded by the expectations of her ‘office’, is a thing of remarkable reserve and dignity. But silence is, really, just silence: a cowardly way of allowing other people to make arguments on your behalf so that your subsequent silence can serve to confirm or deny that proxy-position depending on what your public wish to believe of you.
The Queen’s greatest success, perhaps, is her ability to allow a nation to project whatever it is they would prefer her standpoint to be on to her. Playwright David Hare, in this weekend’s Guardian, states that it is clear to everybody that she finds the current members of the government irritating. Well, perhaps Sir David would prefer to think his Queen shares his views in this matter, but I have seen no such evidence, just as I have seen no evidence that she has particularly warmed to Cameron’s crew, either. Perhaps the world would be a more forgiving place for me personally if every time I looked at Elizabeth II I saw a glint in her bejewelled presence that suggested she supported Liverpool Football Club, esteemed Saul Bellow as a novelist above all others, and had a dangerous weakness for carrot cake. But I’m afraid I just don’t see that in her. Because there’s nothing to see. She is a blank canvas. That is her success – the old con trick of silence being taken as thoughtfulness, as blankness being offered as abundance rather than absence.
The unsteady ground here is to try and second-guess the motives of Jubilists. They are, I think quite different from Royalists, although they do overlap, obviously. Royalists are a particularly odd bunch. They are made up of a peculiar mixture of the privileged and the proud. The proud are sometimes those who grew up in houses of nationalist furore back in a part of the century when nationalism was not only more common but sometimes vital to the survival of the nation. I understand a working-class living room with a portrait of George VI on the wall in 1941 better than I could possibly comprehend a jubilee street party on a council estate in 2012. But the proud are also made up of the curiously ‘attached’, such as those two odd women filmed on Bucklebury Green in the aftermath of last year’s royal wedding who were screaming fervently at the coverage of the bride and groom. They would not have been so frighteningly enthusiastic had it been their own son or daughter’s wedding day. Their quasi-religious reaction to two strangers getting hitched was not too far short of the debauched exorcism scenes in Ken Russell’s The Devils. I have seen this myself; people driven to extraordinary fits of psychosis because The Queen has just been driven past in a car.
Perhaps this kind of reaction is right to provoke my worst rhythms of inverse snobbery. Or perhaps I’m on the button. Regardless, Royalism nowadays strikes me as almost entirely the preoccupation of someone with something missing in their lives, like the love they never received from their mother, or nostalgia for the nanny they weren’t allowed to keep when turning eighteen. You see this mother-fixation in the upper classes all the time. Jacob Rees-Smogg cannot stop himself from swooning as the words “Baroness Thatcher” leave his lips. He barely retains consciousness as the blood drains from his skull at the mere evocation of her icon. These same people talk about The Queen as if she is the God-appointed leader of their tribe. Which, of course, is exactly what she is.
But anyway, we all have our ways of getting through the day; it’s just that mine doesn’t involve confusing Julian Fellows for Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Back to this issue of the staggering success of Elizabeth II’s reign. The Jubillists seem to suggest that the success of a monarch is based almost entirely on the (perceived) relationship between monarch and subject. She is our Queen, the mother of the nation, someone we can all look up to. But this is relatively new interpretation of monarchical success.
Of course, some monarchs have been loved and some hated in the history of this Great Nation. But never has this been connected to their success to any great degree. Richard the Lionheart taxed his people into the dirt in order to fund his religious wars but is remembered for his courage and martial accomplishments. Elizabeth I spent a rule of 55 years in a state of constant controversy, political juggling and intrigue of the most dangerous kind. Their ‘successes’ were not in looking after their subjects, being close to them, being there for them, their ‘successes’ were much grander , headline-grabbing than that. Richard I defeated Satan in the Holy Land. Elizabeth I began the British domination of the globe. Compare this to the country that Elizabeth II has watched over in her silence; a country that has, under her watch, given up first its Empire, then its industrial power and now, as is becoming clear under the auspices of the Leveson Inquiry, has bit by bit been surrendering its moral and democratic culture.
So what, exactly, are the jubilists celebrating other than her longevity?