Jubil-ent.

Sunday National, 5th June 2022.

The occasion had a strange kind of pathos to it. Last month, Prince Charles presided over the state opening of the Westminster parliament. His mum was otherwise detained – and so the heir to the throne did the turn on her behalf, delivering the Queen’s speech perched beside the diamante bunnet representing his missing mammy’s authority. (The hat was solemnly chaperoned through central London in its own limousine, and we’re meant to believe this represents a modernised and scaled down approach to the transit of royal headgear. Go figure.)

In 1867, Walter Bagehot famously suggested the English constitution had two parts – “one to excite and preserve the reverence of the population” and the other to “employ that homage in the work of government.” Like many of the royal events which have groaned relentlessly on over the airwaves over the last four days, the state opening of parliament is neither efficient nor particularly dignified – unless you’re easily impressed by ostrich feathers, walking backwards, hats on sticks, and military uniforms designed by Liberace. I don’t know about you – but four days of god, guns, and bad hats doesn’t do it for me.

It goes without saying the speech Charles was constitutionally obliged to read to the Lords and Commons was a terrible dirge – it’s difficult for any speechwriter to add verve to a roll call of “Her Majesty’s Government will introduce a Bill to modernise the regulation of the Thames estuary, Her Majesty’s Government will introduce a Bill to level up Britain” – but somehow the parliamentary occasion fell even flatter than usual, as a hangdog Prince of Wales contemplated the jazzy cloche from the throne he is going to inherit.

For a guy who seems to have spent 120 years waiting for the nation to shout “the Queen is dead, long live the King” – this was a curious sight to see. The ceremony had all the familiar spells and bells. There were the wafting clerics, the toy soldiers, the wiggy peers, the usual crowd of bumsuckers and toadies cooing about pomp and circumstance – but the magic fizzled. Without the leading lady, the institution was left in the care of an unloved understudy who couldn’t quite carry off the role.

This seemed like a significant moment – because it was the first major foreshadowing of what the British monarchy is going to look like when all the QCs become KCs and George the Umpteenth is finally installed to replace his mother as the first new head of state since 1952. Uneasy lies the head that will imminently wear the crown, I thought.

Elizabeth II has benefited from a sense of indestructability and permanence in the national consciousness for decades. She acceded to the throne 34 years before I was born. Having lived through fourteen prime ministers and serving as a living link back to the Second World War, she has become an icon for every kind of British nostalgia you can think of. This mystique doesn’t flow from the office she holds – not mainly. It is personal, biographical, and eminently non-transferable.

So what happens when a fixture comes unfixed? This question, I think, is one reason for the underlying sense of hysteria running through the media coverage this jubilee weekend, as advocates and apologists for the monarchy try to persuade you that the United Kingdom really is a nation united in celebration, and persuade themselves that the institution and state’s future is secure.

But cold winds are ruffling the bunting. Britain seems to be in denial about the personal and political mortality of the Queen this weekend. This platinum jubilee hasn’t been a confident re-statement of continuity – so much as an inflection point coloured by not very well-repressed anxieties about who will keep the show on the road for the longue durée. Because the reality is – the British monarchy is shrinking rather than expanding in its influence at home and abroad. The end of Elizabeth II’s reign will be cast as the end of an era – but seems guaranteed to lead to unprecedented contraction in the British monarchy’s sway over its historic imperial possessions.

In recent years, six Caribbean countries – Belize, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, and St Kitts and Nevis – have signalled their intention to cut the old colonial bonds and recognise one of their own as head of state. In 2020, Barbados took down the royal standard for the last time and became a parliamentary republic. In the recent Australian federal election, voters sent Anthony Albanese to the Lodge in Canberra as the new Prime Minister. The Labor party platform commits the new government to establishing “an Australian republic with an Australian head of state”.

To that end, this week Alabese appointed a minister for the republic, Matt Thistlethwaite. As the Queen “comes to the twilight of her reign,” Thistlethwaite said, “it’s a good opportunity for a serious discussion about what comes next for Australia,” making the point that “literally hundreds of Australians could perform the role, so why wouldn’t we appoint an Australian as our pinnacle position under the constitution?” Other democratic states are asking themselves the same question – and rightly so.

I’m reminded of what another Australian Labor PM said about why a republic was important for the pacific nation in the 1990s, as it reappraising its historic connections to the colonial power and its economic and political orientations in Asia. Paul Keating was famously branded the “lizard of Oz” by the British tabloids for putting an arm around the sovereign during a state visit. The red tops were even more incensed by his vigorous support for an Australian head of state.  

For Keating, the backwards-looking royalism of the Tories was part and parcel of what he dubbed the “cultural cringe,” “these xenophobes running around about Britain and bootstraps” who essentially saw modern Australia as a “derivative society” – harking back to the mother country rather than making their own way, on their own terms, on the other side of the world.  Embracing a republic was part and parcel of giving Australia “a different idea of itself.”

It is a sentiment I know many independence supporters will be able to identify with. Scotland would benefit from one too. And we still have our own cultural cringe to reckon with. The British monarchy is an institution which has done so much to valorise mediocrity, snobbery and social hierarchy in this country. It stands between Britain and a realistic reckoning with its global standing. It a prop for nostalgia, xenophobia, militarism and religious hypocrisy.

The wholesale absence of scenes of jubilation across Scotland this weekend has warmed this jaded republican’s heart. I’m gratified to see others are similarly unmoved. In Perth, the service of thanksgiving was broadcast from St Paul’s Cathedral to an empty square. In Stonehaven, two Tory MSPs held what looked like an impromptu witch burning to celebrate the Queen’s 70 years on the throne. Loyal swains and loyalists apart – Scotland has shrugged.

So the more breathless the coverage, the more exaggerated the tributes – the less and less any of it impinges on my consciousness, the less and less I recognise it in the people I meet, the streets I walk on or the world I live in. Turn off the telly, turn off the radio – and the vision of Britain our broadcasters are determined to foist on us vaporises in the early summer sunshine.

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