The celebration of the Queen’s 60 years on the throne could have an impact on the independence debate, writes Peter Jones
The Queen, as you may have noticed, has been on the throne for 60 years. This June, there will be all sorts of pageants, processions and parties to celebrate this fact.
I daresay that I will be out there, entirely hypocritically, enjoying the pomp and the partying with everyone else. And I will be wondering whether there will be a political effect of this which will impact on the Scottish independence debate.
I confess I am not a monarchist. Given a free hand to design a constitution, there would be no place in my blueprint for a constitutional monarchy. I much prefer the democracy of a republic. I dislike the notion of class – that someone is superior to me just by accident of birth – that is epitomised by the Royal Family.
So would I join a campaign to abolish the monarchy? No, and not because I do have respect for the way the Queen does her job carrying out an enormous programme of public engagements. Simply, it would be a complete waste of time because the monarchy is just not going to go away.
It has long been something of a mystery to me why the great British public, whether they count themselves Scottish, English, Welsh or Northern Irish first and British second or not at all, have such affection for the Queen and her family.
My own, and very brief, encounters with royalty have not inspired loyalty or even liking for them, with the exception of Prince Philip, who struck me as a lot sharper and wittier than his portrayal in the public prints. Indeed, he seemed to be the sort of guy you could enjoy a pint and a chat with down in the local.
But the rest of them I found to be haughty and arrogant. Indeed, it occurred to me after one quite absurd conversation with Prince Charles that the best thing a republican campaign could do would be to get every voter to meet them and watch the scales slipping from their eyes.
Perhaps because that isn’t possible, the eyes of the majority of the public remain scaled and their spectacles rose-tinted.
This becomes most obvious when you are abroad. Last summer, I was in France when Prince William married Kate Middleton. Expatriates living in the French village where we were staying threw an enormous party.
We went along in our best smart casuals to find women in high fashion and huge hats and men who had dragged out morning suits from somewhere. Oh dear. Remembering similar high pomp from Charles and Diana’s wedding, and the low EastEnders-style scandals and tragedy that followed, I was completely cynical about the whole thing. But I was pretty much on my own. Everyone else found it marvellous, thrilling, glorious, uplifting, etc.
What struck me was how the event seemed to generate pride in the assembled expats. A lot of them live in France not just because of the weather, but because they think Britain has gone to the dogs. And yet the wedding somehow seemed to reaffirm their basic belief that Britain does deserve the word “Great” in front of it, and that to be British (although a lot of them irritatingly conflate that with “English”) is a wonderful thing.
This self-generated pride is mirrored by admiration from foreigners. French newspapers gushed with accounts of the wedding and the French news magazines were filled cover-to-cover with photographs and interminable (adulatory) detail about Kate’s dress. France may be a republic, but it swoons when faced with the British monarchy.
The same seems to be true in that other great republic, the United States. Last year, I was in Boston, a city intensely proud to be where the flame of American revolt against British colonial rule was lit. On State Street (which replaced the previous name of King Street for obvious reasons) I noticed a plaque screwed to a low wall. It recorded that on a particular date in 1976, “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and His Royal Highness Prince Philip passed by this spot” on their way to some event in the bicentennial celebrations of American independence. What? Passed by this spot? Didn’t even stop to shake a few hands or plant a tree? And these staunch Bostonian republicans put up a plaque to commemorate this royal passing by?
The lesson I draw from these and other such instances is that the Queen and the Royal Family have a place in people’s imaginations which defies rational analysis. Their’s is an emotional appeal which over-rides questions of cost, efficiency and modernity and somehow manages to make people feel good about themselves.
I don’t quite understand how this works, but it seems to me that an essential aspect of this is the way the Queen conducts herself with complete dignity, impeccable behaviour, and with admirable energy to quite a heavy programme of civic engagements which is in complete contrast to the activities of political leaders.
This, plus the undoubted romance of royalty (has there ever been a little boy or girl who didn’t want to be a prince or a princess) makes royal people (despite other evidence to the contrary) special. And because the Queen is the British head of state, it makes being British special too.
That, I think, is the essential emotional link between the Queen and the people – that she and the people (though many readers will disagree) can share their Britishness, and because the Queen and the monarchy are believed to be special and better, people can transfer that to themselves by association to enhance their pride in their Britishness.
All nations like to think of themselves as exceptional – unique in some blessed way – and to other nations, this aspect of British exceptionalism is both an object of curiosity because it is an ancient anachronism and an object of affection because it is romantic and harmless.
This may yet have profound implications for the Scottish political debate. Just as Alex Salmond and the SNP are telling Scots that Britain is a clapped-out political relic to be left behind, along comes the diamond jubilee which, at a subliminal level at least, is saying the exact opposite.
While the Queen is studiously and correctly non-political, this year she cannot avoid being political, just by being the Queen.
Join the debate. A Question of Independence: How will the referendum work?, 9th March, Edinburgh.