Ten years ago I was outside Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebration. There’s a picture: I’m huddled with my parents and sibling amongst the heaving crowd outside the palace gates, looking pretty cold but mostly confused about why everyone was so happy.
And why wouldn’t I? The crowd erupted when the Queen came out onto the palace balcony (where, you’ll probably remember, Prince William and Kate Middleton kissed after their wedding last year), and she waved back for a few minutes. That’s it.
Compared to the Red Arrows flyover a few minutes earlier it wasn’t that cool, especially for a 12 year-old boy.
Sandwiched between those two thunderous moments, though, was a lot of sitting and standing—outside the palace, in the car, on the train, in the pub. Given the occasion, we passed the time mostly telling Queen stories, the same way weight loss storms back to relevance after New Year’s, or a celebrity everyone had forgotten about gets glorified after they die.
We didn’t have many stories. My dad, an officer in the Royal Navy, took the cake with an etiquette crisis during his lunch with the Queen while serving on the Royal Yacht.
That’s how the British tend to think of monarchy, myself included. Instead of thinking about how one person comes to be one of the wealthiest in the world by virtue of the hereditary ownership of roughly $600 million of land and other assets (still less than J.K. Rowling), we think, “Oh bollocks, should I swallow these cherry seeds or spit them out onto my plate in front of the Queen?”
The fact is, the Queen – and the monarchy as a whole – just sort of exist in Britain. Especially since the recession, they’ve kept a low profile while the rest of the country has struggled along, surfacing to throw the occasional huge party and long weekend distractions Britons are needing more and more of lately.
Because “jubilee” isn’t compatible with “austerity” – and both were on display in Britain for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee last weekend.
As we saw with the royal wedding last year, this latest pricey royal spectacle clashes head-on with the austerity agenda of British Prime Minister David Cameron, an agenda that faces mounting criticism with each day the British economy worsens.
While it may take an appearance from the Queen for the U.K. to make international headlines, protests against austerity are not new. In the intervening periods between royal celebrations, Britain has seen an ongoing campaign against cuts to health and social services, protests against – oh, hi Quebec – increasing tuition fees, and even recent Casseroles protests.
Austerity is now being called to question, even in the economic fortress of Britain. While the rest of Europe has fared far worse, the British economy has seen little improvement despite Cameron’s strict budget cutting, and cuts are being blamed for not only exacerbating existing issues like social inequality, but creating new ones, including (some have argued) last summer’s riots:
The Diamond Jubilee was marked by another significant moment, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman attacking austerity’s effectiveness—from London no less.
Despite all these alarming signals, a disturbing cognitive dissonance seems to persist in Britian, and around the world, with international viewers fawning over the spectacles while their own countries experience similar cutbacks.
Indeed the Britain the rest of the world sees has migrated inside the Palace, visible in recent Academy Award successes like The Queen and The King’s Speech. While these films don’t always show monarchy in the most favourable light, they’re also a far cry from the harsh portrayals of Britain’s desperate and destitute underbelly in preceding works like This is England and Trainspotting (or my personal favourite The Full Monty).
The Queen returned to the balcony for another Jubilee last weekend. Apparently, the choice of having only six members of the royal family with her at the time “sent a message demonstrating both continuity and restraint at a time of austerity.”
If she’s going to push the austerity line (because she doesn’t have to), the Queen might want to try a little harder. She could just as easily point to the big tourism boost stimulated by the royal wedding last year to support Krugman’s recession-busting public spending theory. She remains mired in timid hypocrisy, however. With an international spotlight and a chance to be the kind of leader a monarch used to be, she came up mute.
While I can honestly say that, if I were in England last weekend, I would probably be drunk in the middle of the road with everyone else, this week everyone will wake up with the same hangover.
Nowhere is that more visible than in Scotland, whose slowly-advancing independence referendum will be a thorough test of whether last weekend’s party-fuelled display of national unity was real or imagined (I’m leaning towards imagined).
As far as Queen stories go, a popular one is her service as a mechanic during World War Two. This time, however, with a stagnant economy casting an ever-darker pall over festivities like the Jubilee, it will be the Queen keeping calm and carrying on, with the fixing up left to the rest of us.