They’ve tied red, white and blue bunting between the beech trees all the way up the street. Half the windows have got Union Jacks in and giant posters of the Queen. It’s a definite upgrade. The only face that normally gets put up in the windows round here belongs to Nigel Farage.
I presume my street is having a street party, but I couldn’t tell you when. It will all have been organised via the WhatAapp group, but I left that when someone asked me to sign a Free Tommy Robinson petition.
Can it really be 10 years since we last did all this? Back then, at the request of my employer – this newspaper – I had to stand on a platform outside Buckingham Palace for about five hours, waiting for Her Majesty to emerge and do a little wave. I can still picture the little white hand now, in its little white glove, the metronomic undulation of the wrist seeming to conduct a crowd of thousands whooping with delight for reasons that I couldn’t possibly fathom.
Two days before, I’d been told I couldn’t come in to the jubilee concert as I hadn’t been accredited, but a rather officious security guard then accidentally shunted me toward the direction of the entrance (not the exit) and within minutes, there I was, gazing up in wonderment at Rolf Harris singing “Two Little Boys” in a Union Jack waistcoat as the Queen looked on. London 2012 remained a glint in the nation’s eye. Three months later, I’d be back here watching the parade of Olympic athletes, and listening to crowds chanting “We Love You Boris... We Do!” It might still feel like yesterday but it really wasn’t.
I find it both baffling and slightly embarrassing to recall that the whole spectacle rather irritated me.
What was wrong with these people? They’d waited around all day for this. That part of their identity, part of their actual happiness, was drawn from being lucky enough to be there to take part in a show of mass public deference to a collection of demonstrable idiots all chosen by birthright. I had aggressive opinions on the royal family back then, which was, as far as I was concerned, an obscene anti-democratic, anti-meritocratic advert at the top of our society.
Only five per cent of the world’s population live under a monarchy. A very large number of national anthems lionise the moment of great national glory at which this preposterous system of government was aggressively brought to an end – “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “La Marseillaise”, to name but two. “God Save the Queen” is a terrible song and an even worse sentiment.
I’ve mellowed in the last decade, but I don’t think it’s age that’s done it. When everything else has gone so utterly to s***, who has the bandwidth left to care about the royals? Once upon a time, I’d have abolished them in a flash. Somewhat bizarrely, Brexit has turned a lot of people extremely conservative, it being the least conservative thing the country’s done in centuries. Having witnessed radical change first-hand, I have a newfound reverence just for keeping things the way they are.
A sense of national identity really does matter. Countries must have their myths or they are not countries at all. Of course there are no shortage of left wing thinkers from the darker times in the recent past, who have liked to argue that flags and anthems and all the rest of it are a con through which the little man will gladly die fighting against his brother in his master’s cause.
Those arguments are sound but there are more mundane realities to consider. With no national myth, there is also precious little reason for a person in Hemel Hempstead to pay in to a grand pot of money for someone in Hartlepool to take from should they require a quadruple heart bypass.
The myth of the conquered conquistador, of empire thrown off, might have more visceral appeal, but it is not our myth. Our one is of power politely tamed and kept in place as a decorative ornament that people by and large like looking at. It’s flawed, but it’s the best we’ve got and it will have to do.
There are also a whole load of difficult arguments that republicans never really want to face. First of all, there’s the clear fact that constitutional monarchy is not a terrible system of government. Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain – these are not badly run countries. If anything, the last few dismal years have highlighted the fact that the British system generally works rather well. We have the worst government we have ever had, precisely because they have no respect for it. To take but one example, they lied to both the people and the monarch to try and shut down parliament and then force legislation through it against its will. It also didn’t work.
Next – and this one really sticks in the craw – the royal family isn’t especially anti-democratic. Alright, so no one’s ever voted for the Queen but good lord, if you ever gave them the chance, the results would embarrass the various African dictators who never manage to score above a measly 98 per cent.
In an interview about 20 years ago, Prince Philip was once asked how long he thought he and his family would carry on doing what they do. He gave an excellent answer: “For as long as people want us to.”
Should there ever come to be widespread sentiment of sustained public disapproval of the monarchy, one suspects they’d be gone overnight.
They know it too of course. They are not sitting there in their happy position of immense privilege entirely by accident.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the neverending Meghan Markle nonsense is that it peeled back the wizard’s curtain to reveal an institution far more ruthless than people probably imagine. I didn’t know, for example, that senior royals refer to the family as “the firm”. They know they’re there at the people’s pleasure, and they know that if they want to carry on they have to give the people want.
That reality, of course, leads to quite staggering levels of dysfunction, unrivalled quite possibly anywhere else on earth. Prince Harry spoke of his brother and his father as being “trapped” in a mutually parasitic relationship between their family and the tabloids, the obvious consequences of which are so absurd that they rarely manage to enter the public conscience.
For example, celebrities regularly sue newspapers if they publish pictures of their children, and the balance of public opinion is on their side. Famous people go bananas when strangers with smartphones snap them on the street and inadvertently snap their children too. The public sympathises with their rage. It is a grotesque intrusion, and nor is it fair on the child.
Our future king, by contrast, was 15 years old when his mother died a horrific death at the age of 36, because she was pursued through the streets by photographers on motorbikes who wouldn’t have been doing it if there was no market for the snaps it would produce.
And yet, by the time he was 36 himself, Prince William had already realised he has little choice but to syndicate pictures of his own tiny children to the newspapers, to be cooed over by a gawking public who, for whatever reason, can’t grasp that their fascination is downright weird and totally obscene.
As a young boy, William would say to journalists and photographers “why can’t you just let me be normal?” It is monarchists, not republicans, that render these people’s lives an unlivable misery. It is a life which Ms Markle, a woman who might not be to everyone’s immediate taste but who at least entered the game with her own career and her own money, took one look and said “absolutely no way”. And you’d have to be suffering from very high levels of delusion to blame her.
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It is said that the Queen is herself aware of the great peril her family is in after a series of very serious scandals. It could hardly be more damaging that an institution sustained by public money has used some of that public money to pay an out of court settlement to a woman who has accused the Queen’s son of sexually assaulting her when she was a teenager. These remain mere accusations, allegations. They will never be proven because they will never be tested in court, and Her Majesty herself has paid a seven-figure sum to ensure that doesn’t happen. It is the most tawdry stuff.
But the greatest national delusion is a direct consequence of the Queen’s mindbending longevity; and 70 years is an extremely long time. In those seven decades, new national values have come along and are here to stay. Almost everybody agrees that money, power and status are prizes that should be earned – not merely inherited. It is 25 years since hereditary peerages were abolished in the House of Lords, though large numbers still remain, and they are regularly written about as some kind of bizarre joke. But the Queen has been around for so unimaginably long, cut so many ribbons and waved at so many passing crowds, that there is a general sense that she has got what she deserves. That she is almost – almost – self-made.
She surely knows that that happy delusion will not sustain itself long after she is gone. And that is a problem too. So we might as well do as Sir Keir Starmer has told us, and do our “patriotic duty” this weekend and have a nice time. It is not too mawkish to suggest we may not have this time again. Once we have played our Queen, there might only be jokers left.