Mind the Jubilee gap

As I write this the Jubilee reaches its orgasmic apotheosis with the Queen and her immediate family on the Buckingham Palace balcony, ancient planes thundering above them, and thousands of my fellow citizens roaring their approval and singing their hearts out in Union Jack-enveloped patriotism.

What to make of these last four days of rain-soaked, pop-music-drenched, religion-infused enthusiasm? It is nothing other than a mass exercise in wishful thinking. The Jubilee has been a powerful, not to say moving, symbol of how we wish we were – as a nation, as a community, as a culture.

I am no republican. There is no part of this public display of make-believe that would be more true, or less hopeless, if we had some quasi-democratic despot instead of an hereditary totem who is not in fact a despot. It’s easy to poke fun at the parts of this celebration that symbolise the fantasy that we are benignly ruled by a group of people put there by God for our betterment. This is the bit that tends to fire up the righteous indignation of republicans and levellers of all kinds, who like to castigate its mediaeval roots and its blatant elitism. But this is wasted outrage. It’s the bit that no-one seriously believes in any case – up to and probably including Her Majesty herself.

Ironically, it’s our collective embarrassment with this aspect of royalty that leads us to all those excruciating attempts at democratising the irredeemably undemocratic. A constitutional monarchy is not a democratic institution, and it’s not supposed to be. So from street parties to tacky pop concerts, from asinine vox-pops to patronising glimpses of black commonwealth dancers, a much more insidious lie is being weaved. And this lie is one we are supposed to believe, unlike the divine right of kings, queens and sundry monarchical bloodstock.

A few fabulously rich members of a royal family don’t matter a fig. It’s probably cheap at the price. All that pomp and circumstance almost certainly brings in more tourist cash than it costs. Either way, it’s irrelevant.

No, that’s not the problem. The problem is that whilst we all wallow in patriotic fantasy about the kind of society in which we live, the reality of that society continues unabated. I could happily live with a far-too-rich-queen if I lived in a society in which there were no homeless and impoverished families. In which there was true racial equality. In which we were not attempting to right the wrongs of fiscal incompetence on the backs of the poorest in our midst.

The Jubilee’s most profound message is also its most untrue. It tempts us to believe that, as Mr Cameron loves to re-assure us, we are all in this society together, all equal subjects under a benign and apolitical monarch. Getting rid of the monarchy would do nothing to correct this imaginary view of our society: there is no obvious advantage to be gained by replacing our current pretence with another pretence that we are all equal citizens under a political presidency. And here is perhaps the profoundest irony of all. The Jubilee brings into sharper focus the gap between reality and imagination in a way that, for example, an American presidential campaign does not, and cannot.

So on balance I’ve enjoyed the Jubilee in its own way. And to be honest I’ve most enjoyed those bits that haven’t pretended that an undemocratic institution has any need to be so. I preferred St Paul’s to Sirs Elton, Paul and Tom. But just as we’re warned to mind the gap on the Jubilee Line, so we should mind, and mind about, the gap the Queen’s Jubilee so powerfully symbolises.


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