Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Diamond Jubilee puts British psyche under the microscope

I should say "English psyche" and not "British psyche", because most of the people who call the Diamond Jubilee a great example of "British" culture and tradition are, in fact, English.
To be more precise, the people who are most endeared to the monarchy are those who live on the "right" side of the North-South divide; the line roughly drawn between the source of the Severn and The Wash. And when I say "right" side, I of course mean the side including London.

This is the reality of the Diamond Jubilee: as reported in "The Guardian" here http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/05/bbc-jubilee-propagandising-failed-scotland of the almost 10,000 street parties in England and Wales, there were only 60 in Scotland. Of those, 20 were organised by The Orange Order, itself a right-wing unionist clique. I also wonder how many were held in Wales, and how many were held north of the north-south divide.

The point I'm making is this: the monarchy and the traditions of "Britain" are mostly celebrated by people who live within two hours drive of London. It's telling that the people who are most likely to call themselves "British" are the English. What does this tell us?

The UK, its dependencies and the Commonwealth are, looking at it from a neutral point of view, the leftovers of Empire: an Empire that was begun by the English.

It's worth comparing the UK to other contemporary "post-Imperial" states. France got rid of its monarchy in 1789, but continued to have a republican empire until the 1960s, like the UK. France has plenty of pomp and circumstance in its culture, but it has few obvious "imperial leftovers". For a start, it's one country, not four like the UK, which helps to define its identity much more clearly. Defining "Britishness" is difficult for the average Briton; a Scot or a Welsh person has a much easier task describing their own culture, leaving the average English person to fall back on out-of-date concepts that are more Imperial than English.

Compared to France, Spain has more "post-Imperial" similarities to the UK. Although it lost its empire quite a while ago (South and Central America in the early 19th century, and Cuba and the Philippines at the end of the 19th century), its Imperial legacy lives on in the many millions that speak its language, as does the Anglo-Saxon legacy. It still retains its monarchy, like ours (though it also flirted with republicanism for a while); and Spain is constitutionally like the UK in its fragmented make-up. Spain's devolved regions, Catalunya, the Basque Country, and Galicia, in some ways correspond the the UK's Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales respectively, in that they have a distinct sense of identity (and language) separate from the core.

There are other, smaller, European "post-imperial" states (the Netherlands being another similar example), but these two offer the most relevant comparisons.

Getting back to the Diamond Jubilee itself, it's also telling to look at how the different celebrations were organised.
The river pageant, designed to replicate the pageants that happened on the Thames hundreds of years ago, was not only a damp squib; it looked shoddy at times, and reeked of amateurish organisation. It was impressive in only its mediocrity. It was a testament to the scale at which Britain's one-time might has been  reduced: for example, having just a single aircraft carrier that doesn't even have any aircraft. I heard that when the pageant was shown in France, for example, the French cameras only showed close-up shots of the boats, so as not to embarrass the fact that the scale of the pageant was so under-whelming. Although there were meant to be thousands of boats, they seemed organised in a haphazard way, with large gaps between segments of the pageant.
And as for the official coverage of Britain's state-sponsored TV channel, the less said the better. It was even more embarrassing to watch the amateurish presentation offered by the BBC.
Then there was the Concert outside Buckingham Palace. This was organised better, but the choice of performers and presenters was also quite indicative of the second-rate quality that Britain too often displays to the world.

As a spectacle overall, the Jubilee revealed a more telling truth: that, more than ever, Britain is a world power in the twilight of her age. Like former empires that have fallen on hard times, shedding their colonies and their prestige along the way as their economies have declined, they have little more than their name to trade on.
Like Rome at the end of its empire, when it was populated as much as by immigrants as by natives, this empire is a shadow of its former self, its population living in denial. Like Byzantium at the end of its long years of empire, surrounded by enemies and indifference, shorn of its territories till there is just a bare rump state left, all that is postponing the final collapse is the goodwill and charity of its contemporaries.

Many English people have become complacent: they assume that Scots do not have the courage to break away by themselves. Perhaps this is true, but it is also true that Scots will only stay in the Union so that they can get what they want out of it: military protection, as long as Scots can conduct their own affairs unmolested from the old Imperial capital, London - what is called "devo-max". That will leave England with its surly neighbour Wales, and England itself is a heterogeneous cocktail of racial backgrounds, with some cities in having a majority non-white population.
This may all have a whiff of fatalism about it, but that is not my intention - I am just describing what the reality is without passing judgement. I feel no pity. All nations have their rise and fall: Greece is going through a traumatic period of its national history, but it has been through worse.

Britain has had a long and enviable history; an unlikely location for a world empire. Its legacy has been enormous, but witnessing its slow fading out of the limelight, with the inevitable demonstrations of that fading, as we have seen with the Diamond Jubilee, is oddly poetic.
Some say that the Queen embodies all that is true about British culture. It seems truer to say that she embodies everything that was true when she became monarch, sixty years ago; when the British Empire still existed, and those "values" seemed so clear. So to look at the Queen is to see a living embodiment of how Britain has changed since she came to power, and what Britain has lost.

From what I can see, what Britain has lost most of all is its identity, never to return.

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