‘God save our tolerant Queen…’

The Queen's much-praised Christmas message on tolerance and diversity was an attempt to re-crown the monarch as defender of a new faith

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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It was ‘exactly the right message for 2005’ said Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. ‘The message was very positive and should help promote understanding and social cohesion among different communities’, declared the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain. It was, according to liberal broadsheet the Observer, an ‘impassioned plea’, a ‘dramatic appeal for tolerance’, which came at a ‘crucial time in British racial and cultural relations’ (1).

The Queen’s Christmas message might have pulled in a measly 5.5million viewers – down a million on 2003 and four million on 2002 – but religious leaders and liberal commentators were falling over themselves to congratulate Her Majesty for talking up ‘tolerance’. The message was certainly a break from the norm. Usually the Queen tells us of her activities over the past year, complete with video shots of ‘my husband and I’ visiting some sub-Saharan tribe or opening a hospital in Peckham. This year she gave, according to the Sunday Express, ‘her most political and controversial Christmas Day speech’ yet, ditching the family snapshots in favour of calling upon the nation to ‘acknowledge and respect the ways of other cultures and religions’ (2).

(Over on Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message, Homer Simpson also paid respect to Britain’s diverse cultures, wishing a very merry Christmas to ‘all the mods, rockers, toffs, tossers, gits, twits, chimney sweeps, flocks of sheep, hooligans, 007s, and a smashing bird named Queen Elizabeth’.) (3)

‘I believe tolerance and fair play remain strong British values’ said Homer’s smashing bird, back on BBC 1. The Queen also said that ‘some are unhappy about unfamiliar cultures’ (like one’s husband, perhaps, famous for making gaffes about ‘slitty eyed’ Chinese and workshy Indians?), and warned that the British way of fair play could be ‘threatened at any moment by the actions of extremists at home or by events abroad’ (4).

Traditionally, Christmas is the one time of year when the Queen writes her speech with no advice from the government. Yet in this year’s ode to tolerance she seemed to sing from the same hymn sheet as Downing Street, and appeared to be influenced by her son and heir Prince Charles, who reads the Koran, dabbles in alternative medicine, talks to plants, and promises that when he ascends to the throne he will be ‘Defender of All Faiths’ as opposed to Defender of the Faith, one of the titles historically held by the monarch, who doubles up as head of the Church of England. As a result, the Queen’s shiny happy message of goodwill to warm the cockles of her subjects seemed even more unnatural than normal; it was as if she was reading the Queen’s Speech, the script written for her each year by the government on the opening of Parliament, rather than a personal Crimbo greeting.

The Queen may have done away with the family snapshots, but her message was its own snapshot – of an elite that doesn’t stand for very much. She spoke of ‘shared values’ and ‘strong British values’ but didn’t enlighten us as to what those values are. As Times columnist Tim Hames wrote: ‘What mattered, the head of state eloquently intoned, was our “shared values”. This is an entirely reasonable assertion, except that what these shared values might be was not identified.’ (5)

In focusing on values without talking about any actual values, the Queen’s message inadvertently highlighted the dearth of clear or shared values at the heart of British society. The monarchy, traditionally the figurehead family of what Britain stands for, feels this lack of values acutely. One thing that certainly isn’t a shared British value these days is respect for the royals. Back in 1992, when Windsor Castle caught fire, Andrew Morton published his Palace-rattling book about Princess Diana, and Charles and Diana’s separation was formally announced, the Queen famously said that it had been an Annus horribilis – not only because of the Windsor’s woes, but because, following the global shifts of the late 1980s and early 90s, ‘I suspect there are very few people or institutions unaffected by these last months of worldwide turmoil and uncertainty’.

For the royals, every year since has been a pain in the Annus (with a brief but shallow interlude in the shape of the Queen’s Jubilee party in 2002, which has since been largely forgotten). The Windsors are now better known for scuffles outside nightclubs (Harry) or for rumours about bed-hopping antics (Charles et al) than for inspiring the devotion of the masses. According to Tim Hames, this might explain the Queen’s newfound taste for tolerance: ‘After all that Her Majesty has had to put up with from her family and household over the past two decades, it is not surprising that she should regard tolerance as a virtue….’ (6)

It is the absence of any clear values, of any meaningful sense of what British society is for and against, that gives rise to all the fluffy talk of ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect for diversity’, everywhere from government departments to, now, the Queen’s annual address to the people. In elevating tolerance above all else – as an end in itself, the value to end all values, now sanctioned even by the monarch – the authorities are effectively making a virtue of a vacuum, and attempting to put a positive spin on the profound uncertainty about what Britain stands for today.

So the collapse of common values gets re-presented as ‘diversity’, and the inability to say what Britain is for as ‘tolerance’ of just about every other culture and way of life. The only value Britain is left with is that it values others’ values – hence all the talk of values in the Queen’s Christmas message.

If this, as Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain claims, is ‘exactly the right message for 2005’, then heaven help us. Surely 2005 would be better spent having a heated debate about the kind of values we should hold dear and wish to pass on to future generations, rather than turning to a clapped-out old Queen to whisper us some words of wisdom.

(1) Queen’s impassioned plea for diverse Britain, Observer, 26 December 2004

(2) The Queen’s Christmas broadcast to the Commonwealth 2004, Official Royal Website, 25 December 2004

(3) Marge Simpson’s Christmas message 2004, Channel 4

(4) The Queen’s Christmas broadcast to the Commonwealth 2004, Official Royal Website, 25 December 2004

(5) I’m as tolerant as the next man, ma’am. But stick to the holiday snaps next year, Tim Hames, The Times (London), 27 December 2004

(6) I’m as tolerant as the next man, ma’am. But stick to the holiday snaps next year, Tim Hames, The Times (London), 27 December 2004

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