Philip Collins (in The Times, Friday June 1 2012). Brought to you exclusively, from behind Murdoch’s paywall, by Shiraz Socialist*:
It was the Prime Minister who made me crack. “My weekly hour with the Queen is vital because I get to draw on all those qualities; her knowledge; her commitment; her time-tested wisdom,” he crawled, Uriah Heeping on the praise. “Above all she has an abundance of what I’d call great British common sense…” Oh come on, man, pull yourself together. You’re the Prime Minister, for goodness’ sake. There’s no need to abase yourself.
Mr Cameron has form in fawning. I still marvel that, in 1981, at the ripe old age of 14, he slept on the Mall waiting for Charles and Diana. At the age of 10 you might be there with your parents. At the age of 21 you might think it was a laugh with your mates. But to be, at 14, a voluntary parade attender? A man who shares the views of his parents at 14 is a man without so much as a thought in his head.
This is a thin week for a republican. It’s going to be all jelly and ice cream and pretending to like the neighbours. Where are the bureaucratic killjoys when you need them, banning fun on the grounds of health and safety? The newspapers will join in the festivities rather than report them. If you want a look at what papers might look like if they are neutered by Leveson, read the advertising sheets for monarchy that will publish over the Diamond Jubilee weekend. The BBC will become a state propaganda machine. I thought the BBC was meant to be a nest of lefties. Where are they all?
Maybe they leave the country. For lots of people, the second and third words of Jubilee Bank Holiday matter more than the first. Two and a half million people will flee Britain. A word needs to be said, too, for those who will pay no attention. It is amazing that 26 million people watched William and Kate get married, but that means half the country didn’t bother. More people watched the wedding in 1973 of Anne and Mark, as we didn’t call them, and 85 per cent of the nation watched the coronation in 1953.
And yet the happy throngs at the street parties will brook no republican argument. Neither does the Queen’s approval rating, +78 last time it was measured. And I don’t want to rain on the parade too much. It will be good for the country to take a day’s holiday from cynicism and the serious republican has a lot to learn from why people will be enjoying themselves.
Most of what people say about why they like the monarchy is misleadingly stupid. Otherwise sentient people will cheerfully inform you that the monarchy is good for tourism. They seriously think that people would stop coming to London and that we should devise our constitutional arrangements to suit Mr and Mrs Kawashima on a short trip from Japan. Please spare me, too, the rubbish about “don’t the British do pageantry well?” Lots of countries do their pageantry well, too. North Korea is brilliant at it, unfortunately. But when did good choreography become a political prinple?
At this point in the argument the defender of monarchy always accuses the republican of being too earnest. It’s all perfectly harmless, no need to get so aerated. This paradox is the first clue as to what this weekend will be about. It is a cause for celebration that the Queen, unlike the ministers at her command, has never let the people down. Our low expectations of the Queen are an important source of the high satisfaction we repose in her. She makes no decisions that affect our lives and therefore does nothing to irritate us. The reason it is so common to say that the Queen does a great job is that she hasn’t really got a job, unless you count watching Maori dancers with a fixed grin on your face. We might not be so forgiving if she was setting the top rate of income tax.
We are celebrating the silence of a Queen who has never given an interview. The Queen is a blank slate on to which we project a view of her as , underneath the royal veneer, somehow one of us. How else could the Prime Minister get away with the ludicrous statement that the Queen has an abundance of common sense?
This allows the Queen to float free of monarchy and this is vital. Two conclusions leap out of the academic literature on trust and both are relevant to the appeal of the Queen. The first is that people trust those whose motives they cannot impugn. It would be churlish not to recognise that the Queen embodies an idea of service with no need for financial reward (the churlish rider would be that she has quite enough money already, even before the tax cut she just got). The second point is that people find it easier to trust individuals than institutions.
The personal aspect of the monarchy may leave the door ajar for republicans. Not all monarchs have been popular. When in 1946 Gallup asked voters whom they most admired, only 3 per cent mentioned George VI who came equal with Stalin and behind George Bernard Shaw. Now, 90 per cent of Britons want to keep the hereditary principle but only 39 per cent want the Prince of Wales to be King. Almost half the country wants the crown to pass to Prince William, as if the hereditary principle allows a referendum. The only hope for the people to get what they want is if the Duke of Cambridge mounts a leadership bid.
But the likelihood is that the monarchy will survive an unpopular king in the future as it has in the past. That is because we will also be celebrating an ancestral connection that binds a country. Even more than we are celebrating the Queen, we are celebrating ourselves. The death of Diana was an occasion for buttoned-up people to find the words for unspoken grief. The Diamond Jubilee will be a statement thatn this is a good country and we like living here.
There is nothing trivial about this sentiment. Monarchy has managed to negotiate the transition from divine to secular by sublimating a longing to belong. This is about something more ancestral than the fickle flashbulbs of fame. These are deeply held intuitions that have become embodied in the dignified form of the Queen.
If republicanism is ever to stand against the tide that will engulf us this weekend it needs to satisfy these impulses too. Colourless, abstract republicanism needs its own patriotic street parties. It needs to tell its own national story, about why, in the end, this is a great country because of the liberties protected by parliamentary democracy, which rather than hereditory aristocracy, is the real bequest of the British to the world.
* I trust it goes without saying that we at Shiraz do not necessarily agree with everything in the article.
NB: another rare outbreak of republicanism in the bourgeois media from the excellent Catherine Bennett in the Observer.