I have a confession that has left me in a somewhat tricky situation over the last few days. I’m a patriotic kind of guy, I love a dabbling of Union Flags, and I’m rather sad we don’t see many great events, pagents and flyovers. I’m always up for a street party, any excuse to drink some gin or Pimms - I am, however, a Republican.
It’s not Elizabeth Windsor. It’s a matter of principle. It is a simply ludicrous assertion in this day and age that by birthright, or the grace of ‘God’, one can name others 'subject'. It flies in the face of social mobility, democracy and basic egalitarian principles that hereditary political power can exist without democratic consent or accountability.
Still. It’s not something I get worked up about most of the time. Despite the generally agreed principles that democracy and social mobility is a good thing unless, apparently, you want to be head of state, the current system mostly works in practice. Despite the monarchy and the appointed House of Lords, the business of politics and the exercise of executive, royal, prerogative, is left to elected politicians to wield. In practice the Queen is merely a figurehead whose role is to be the very definition of cordial.
But, principles are a pain. While I acknowledge 60 years of Elizabeth’s reign and that she’s had a decent stab at it I am loath to celebrate it, which is why I gave the street parties and pageants a miss and instead spent most of the Bank Holiday doing other things I enjoy.
After all, what is it, exactly, we were meant to be celebrating this Jubilee? I mean it was a bit self centred. There was no grand narrative, no exploration of what it means to the nation and Britain’s raison d’être. It was a celebration about the longevity of one person in one position, not a celebration of the country at large and consequently, whilst one or two million might have waved flags, most of the other 60 million were largely indifferent to the whole thing.
Some of the more unhinged monarchists seem to think that Britishness begins and ends with the monarchy, that we are somehow un-British without it. The thing is, being British is so much more than a state funded Royal Family and it certainly has little to do with a slavish devotion to an outmoded hereditary principal.
Britain has a great wealth in the arts, in sports, a rich culture and heritage, much of the world speaks our language, we founded a Commonwealth we neglect and we have a national prestige we all but ignore. We spread the concept of democracy, invented the sports the world plays, we crafted global trades and forged the modern world, in the process building the greatest capital city on the globe - a city that will be the first to host the Olympic Games for the third time this summer and is the world hub of capital, culture and community.
Our people come from all corners of the globe, from all backgrounds and faiths and who speak a multitude of languages yet are proud to call themselves British because of our freedoms and our culture. These are things to celebrate yet there is no national celebration of them. Instead we chose to solely celebrate a woman whose only meaningful role is to wave at public expense.
You see, I am never going to celebrate monarchy, although I did enjoy myself and I’m glad others did as well, but I am all for celebrating what being British is, and it means different things to different people. It’s time we had a regular national celebration that brings people of different backgrounds, faiths and races together and fosters a sense of national pride.
I took a walk rather early on Sunday morning along a rain sodden Southbank, Westminster, The Mall and Victoria, all of which were decked out in resplendent Union Flags. It was noticeable, however, how tired some of the flags looked, some of which were probably last hung at the Silver Jubilee. It’s rather disappointing how rare it is to see our national flag gracing our streets.
It’s a shame those flags stay in storage only to brought out to celebrate one family in millions and it is simply an embarrassment we don’t have national festivities where we can reflect and rejoice in how ‘great’ Britain truly is. Britain has an impressive, if not unique navel tradition yet it’s been 350 years since we saw a significant Thames Pageant. Street parties can be great community events but they happen so sparingly the benefits are diluted and forgotten.
A Jubilee might well be reason enough to hold such events, but then so too is our seafaring past and present as much as bringing communities together and having fun should be an endeavour in itself.
Other nations celebrate what it means to them to be who they are in annual public holidays allowing their peoples to forge the bonds of fellowship and sense of identity our politicians are forever saying we lack. Independence Day in America and India, Australia Day, Canada Day, even the French have Bastille Day, yet there is no day set aside for the British. The constituent nations celebrate their respective saints' days but there is no focal point of commemoration for the Union that made these Isles what they are today. The monarchy is only a very small part of that journey.
There should be a Celebration of Great Britain, every year; A Festival of Britain, if you will. There was one once upon a time, in 1951, to commemorate the Great Exhibition of 1851 and in that spirit we should regularly highlight Britain’s leadership in art, engineering, music, industry, science, sports and values. But these things shouldn’t be every 50 or 100 years, it’s something which should happen every year with a Bank Holiday afforded so that people can take part.
Britain’s place in the world, culture, legacy and population has changed beyond all recognition in the 115 years between this Diamond Jubilee and the last. We are no longer the greatest imperial power but being British was never embodied in the subjection of land and people or the physical presence of the reigning monarch. It’s in the struggles, talent, creativity, shared experience and story of all those who call, and have called, themselves British. Our celebrations need to keep pace with that change not hark to the past.
Being British isn’t about waiting 100 years for a Jubilee that gets rained off and we should not reserve flying the flag for the King or Queen of the day. A Festival of Britain, A celebration of what we as a people, as individuals, as nations and communities, friends and families, have achieved and will achieve is both needed and desirable.
I am proud to be British. Regardless of how popular the Queen might be today there is so much more, which, by not having a national day of celebration, we miss out on to our cost.