Joyce McMillan: Clean for the Queen or vent our spleen?

Boris Johnson's support of the high-profile Clean for the Queen campaign has provoked quite a reaction. Picture: Contributed
Boris Johnson's support of the high-profile Clean for the Queen campaign has provoked quite a reaction. Picture: Contributed
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THE promotion of this weekend’s clean-up campaign shows a ruling elite that is out of touch, writes Joyce McMillan

For some, it’s the purple that does it; for others, it’s the personnel. Yet still, not since the battle of Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged silence at the Cenotaph has something so essentially foolish touched such a raw nerve, and caused such irritation.

The source of discord, of course, is this week’s Clean For The Queen weekend, set to begin this very evening, and designed to encourage people to scuttle around with binbags and pickers, tidying up their neighbourhoods in honour of the Queen’s approaching 90th birthday. Organised by that venerable organisation Keep Britain Tidy - and financially supported, hilariously enough, by a range of takeaway companies from Gregg’s to KFC - the campaign was launched last week with high-profile support from the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, and from the Justice Secretary Michael Gove, both of whom were pictured - to put things kindly - looking like complete buffoons, in purple campaign sweatshirts with matching bin-bags, in front of a poster that chirped “Vacuum Your Villages! Spruce Up Your Cities! Delitter The Land!”

And even leaving aside the question of Clean For The Queen’s apparent merger with the EU “leave” campaign, which both Gove and Johnson champion, something about those pictures seems to have released a wave of pent-up fury across the land, as citizens take to the airwaves and the social networks to declare that they have never seen anything more likely to make them want to kick over a litter-bin, and chuck banana-skins on the pavement. The Guardian columnist Michele Hanson said that she would rather swim through sewage than be told what to do by Gove and Johnson. Laurie Penny of the New Statesman said the whole campaign represented “Tory Britain at its worst”; and over at our sister paper the Evening News, Gerry Farrell declared that the people of Leith should not and would not Clean For The Queen, but might turn out, this very Saturday, to Clean For Leith.

What this hapless campaign seems to have exposed, in other words, is a profound cultural divide between those who think “Clean For The Queen” is a sweet and inspiring idea, and those who think it is a joke at best, and one with a subtext that is far from amusing. In the first place, as many have hastened to point out, if there is one person in the entire UK who does not need help with the cleaning, it is the Queen, who not only has a large domestic staff of her own, but also suffers the irritation of knowing that every place she visits has invariably been scrubbed and refurbished within an inch of its life, so as to protect her from any knowledge of the normal condition of her realm. Old, infirm people whose care visits have been slashed to a miserably rushed ten minutes morning and evening need help with the cleaning. English local authorities whose street cleaning budgets have typically fallen by 16 per cent in five years need help with the cleaning. People who used to work as cleaners in hospitals or on our streets, but have seen their jobs disappear or their pay decimated over the last two decades, need help to start cleaning again, at a decent living wage.

The Queen, though, needs none of this; indeed she is conspicuous for her irrelevance to the whole business - unless, of course, you come from that constitutional and political persuasion that hates “big government” (i.e. elected government with enough money to clean the steets properly), but absolutely adores the monarch as the one true, God-given representative of the nation. This is, of course, an extremely conservative, pre-democratic view; yet in this age of increasingly hysterical retro-politics both here and in the US - where half of our ruling party at Westminster is now lost in a dream of the UK regaining its ancient freedom and grandeur by leaving the European Union, and where Donald Trump can become a front-runner for the US presidency simply by bellowing that he will make America “great”again - it seems that a sizeable chunk of our ruling and managerial class, already well trained to defer to wealth no matter how acquired, has now given up on the idea of equal and dignified citizenship, and has concluded that the best way inspire humble British subjects to action, is to bamboozle them with the absurd idea that they are doing it not for themselves, but for the Queen.

What this increasingly weird echelon of bosses simply fail to realise, though, is that not everyone shares their world view. The other day, I heard a woman from Keep Britain Tidy debating with Michele Hanson why anyone would not want to Clean For the Queen; what was striking about the Clean For The Queen representative was that she had clearly never heard of republicanism, was not even marginally aware that some people are less than infatuated with the monarchy, and had never encountered any person sufficiently in touch with the whole range of British public opinion to say, “do not use this slogan, because a large minority of the population will find it infuriating and ridiculous”.

Along with all their other limitations, in other words - the greed, the complacency, the culture of impunity in which they luxuriate - we are now apparently dealing with a ruling elite that doesn’t get out enough, that spends too much time talking to itself, and that increasingly deals with opposing voices by simply trying to shut them up, as the Lobbying Bill currently on its way through parliament clearly does, in the case of publicly funded charities and scientific projects. This is, by any standards, bad government; government that calls itself democratic, but increasingly seems neither to know nor care what a democratic culture actually looks like.

And just occasionally, it does something that exposes the absurdity of its world view, for everyone to see. It marches towards one of society’s sorest points - the growing squalor of our public realm, in a time of vast private wealth - with a view to making it into a bit of jolly, royalist weekend fun; and it runs into a wall of anger and scorn which it may dismiss for now, but with which it will have to reckon, come one of these election days.