Golden Jubilee blues

The World Cup/Golden Jubilee/Bank Holiday combo will be good fun. But where's the Shared National Experience?

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

The four-day bank holiday weekend, from Saturday to Tuesday in the UK, is guaranteed to be a success.

Four days off work, with the World Cup on the big screens and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee on the portable telly is enough even to excite an anti-monarchist football-celibate like myself.

People will have a good time; and there will be big sighs of relief from all those who have organised what they feared would be a great big flop. But they shouldn’t get carried away. There is a world of difference between people having a good time and the UK population participating in a Shared National Experience that unites us in some kind of civic pride.

In the political and media discussion of the World Cup/Golden Jubilee/Go Large Bank Holiday combo, jubilants and sceptics have been united by a desire to see people’s liking of football/the Queen/public holidays translate into a public sense of belonging and an engagement with Britain’s institutions. There’s something quite desperate about all this, and more than a little bit funny. Because even if the sun shines all weekend, that sought-for SNE ain’t going to happen in the way they want it to.

The World Cup, of course, is a shared national experience. It will be watched by 28million people and talked about by many more. Even diehard football fans might have found the media-fuelled anguish over Beckham’s foot somewhat overblown, and they might wince at way it has become practically compulsory for everybody from corporations to politicians to wax lyrical about In-ger-land in Japan, but who cares? It’s football. From those who are passionate about the game to those attracted by the experience of a big-screen bar, the appeal of the World Cup is universal, and exciting.

The question is whether the World Cup is exciting enough to save the jubilee from itself. And this is where the football-philia of politicians and commentators is likely to come unstuck.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that the timing of the World Cup vis a vis the fiftieth anniversary of the Queen’s reign was a happy coincidence for the royals. Faced with the need for a celebration comparable to the street-parties-and-public-spirit Silver Jubilee of 1977, yet faced with palpable public indifference to all matters monarchical, right from the start the organisers feared a damp squib.

The Millennium Dome stands as a recent testament to the difficulties faced by the authorities today in pulling off a national party. The shock that greeted the fact that people turned out for the Queen Mother’s funeral in April 2002 – that the public was even interested in the first state funeral in almost 40 years – indicates the indifference with which people are expected to view the monarchy today. How fortunate, then, that Britons would be celebrating anyway, even if it was about football.

From that moment on, a concerted attempt was made to link World Cup-watching with celebrations of the jubilee, from proposals for big screens in Hyde Park to the Queen stopping off on her tour to confer her blessings upon Beckham’s foot (1). The Sun newspaper sums it up with a full-page pullout to stick in your window: ‘The King. We love ‘im’ over a picture of England captain David Beckham against a St George’s flag background; ‘The Queen. We love ‘er’, over a picture of Her Majesty against the backdrop of the Union Jack (2).

The trouble is, the official attempts to feed World Cup fever into the Golden Jubilee only highlight the irrelevance of the Royal Family today. When even the window-poster produced by the patriotic Sun puts Beckham on top of the Queen, you know just which institution the British revere. And while the Buckingham Palace PR team and their friends in the UK media talk up the rise in the number of planned street parties, wax lyrical about the crowds greeting the Queen on her jubilee tour, and issue big sighs of relief that the jubilee won’t be a flop at all, the jubilee celebrations continue to lack a certain oomph.

Clearly somebody realised that the highbrow Prom at the Palace on 1 June 2002 would do little to endear Queenie to the yoof. So on Monday 3 June, HM will host a Party at the Palace – with a dazzling performance from old predictables like Ozzy Osbourne, Paul McCartney, Phil Collins and the inimitable Elton John. The new blood that there is aimed at seven-year-olds – S Club 7, Will ‘Pop Idol’ Young, Emma ‘Spice Girls’ Bunton – or takes the form of cutesy little girlie bands like Atomic Kitten and The Corrs. With this party, claims one report, ‘the tempo will go up a notch’ (3). Hmmm.

With a week to go, the Musicians’ Union has complained that a 60-member orchestra of undergraduates, who will accompany Paul McCartney et al at Monday’s concert, are being unfairly exploited through not being paid (4). Heaven forbid that students should build up their CVs for free – let alone make a voluntary contribution to a major national festival.

The timidity of the jubilee celebrations, and the grubbiness of much of the discussion surrounding them, is an accurate reflection of the standing of the monarchy in contemporary Britain. People don’t love it, or hate it – they just don’t really care. Every attempt by those involved in organising the jubilee to bolster its significance brings that point home. The official self-delusion that the public reaction to the Queen Mother’s death in April 2002 showed a renewed affection for the monarchy, is exposed by the way in which the Queen continually thanks people for their interest, as if to remind them of a time when they thought it worth coming out on the streets.

The notion that the modern world will be celebrating the jubilee, but in a different way, smacks of wishful thinking. Bruno Peek, chair of the Golden Jubilee Summer Party, which is coordinating street activities across the country, admitted that street parties would be nowhere near 1977 levels, but argued: ‘A lot of people are choosing to organise events other than street parties – parties in pubs and gardens – many of which we know nothing about.’ (5) Can a family bank holiday barbecue really be classed as a jubilee festivity? It’s not shared, it’s not national, and it’s not even much of an experience.

While the public indicates its indifference to the monarchy, erstwhile anti-monarchists fall over each other in demonstrating their indifference to republican arguments. The Guardian newspaper argued in January 2002 that ‘the jubilee could be recast as a chance for the country to recover its sense of community’, counselling that ‘working together for a celebration, even with a royal theme, would certainly bring people together’. ‘Even for republicans’, its pious editorial continued, ‘it would be difficult to not welcome the chance to dance’ (6).

The self-styled radical think-tank Demos has this week published a pamphlet aptly titled What Are Kings and Queens For?, which comes up with the revolutionary proposal that the Queen should think about abdicating to Prince Charles in 2006. ‘At 76 there is something absurd about anyone declaring their intention to keep going forever’, states the pamphlet. ‘Charles is now 53 and as ready as he ever will be to run the family firm.’ (7)

John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols fame, now says of the Queen and her ‘fascist regime’: ‘You know, I was never pro or anti them. I just think if we’re going to have a monarchy it may as well work properly.’ (8) As Rotten sets himself up to do the Royal Family’s PR, one of the Queen’s official portraits, by trendy photographer Rankin, has been done in the style of the Sex Pistols’ infamous single of 1977, ‘God Save the Queen’.

From the original hype about the jubilee flopping to the talking up of what activities are now going on, from the self-conscious reminders of the Queen Mother’s funeral to the desperate attempt to latch on to the World Cup, the Golden Jubilee seems less to be a celebration of an institution than a spectacle of official insecurity. Conscious of their distance from the public, and at a loss about how to engage with people, the monarchy has turned parasitic upon anything they think people might be interested in.

And the self-proclaimed republicans, who could be pushing at an open door, are nervous of offending anybody by even daring to question the existence of the Royal Family. In a way, this is not surprising: without a strong pro-monarchist sentiment, there is little to spur a proper republican movement. But that is no excuse for the way in which republicans, terrified of proffering any alternative to the status quo, are doing their best to prop up this decrepit institution.

Meanwhile, back to the real celebrations. The Archbishop of Canterbury has given his blessing to clergy who want to switch their morning service to avoid clashing with England’s first World Cup match against Sweden (9). The Sun was right – Beckham is the new king, and football the new religion.

Read on:

Myth as history, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Royal blessing for Becks, Observer, 5 May 2002

(2) Sun, 29 May 2002

(3) Jubilee cultural events, Guardian, 13 May 2002

(4) Pay row over pop concert at palace, Guardian, 29 May 2002

(5) Nation finds its party spirit, BBC News, 27 May 2002

(6) Follow the party line, Guardian, 25 January 2002

(7) Queen urged to abdicate, Guardian, 28 May 2002

(8) ‘This is my Britain. Our Britain. Not some German tourist’s’, Guardian, 17 May 2002

(9) World Cup 2002 in brief, Guardian, 29 May 2002

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Topics Politics

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