There was little surprise at Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, but that's probably the point. Dutifully present were the Queen, the rain, the warm beer and the National Health Service glasses and teeth (I can say this, I’m British) and, surreally, hundreds of photographic Queen masks handed out for free. Parts of the crowd looked like a monarchist V for Vendetta; R for Regina?
There were some other traditions wheeled out for the occasion. The campaign group Republic, with some disdain for the 1.2 million lining the Thames to cheer the Queen (or ‘sausage’, as her husband calls her), had a spirited and—for them—historic turn out of about 1200. There were chants and moderate, reasonable speeches. This precluded any Greenpeace-style stunt: a lost opportunity, some might say, as in a nod to another British tradition, they were undermined by a bored Metropolitan Police force. The Met divided the protest into two, with most protestors corralled some way from the riverside. Those allowed to gather next to City Hall, the seat of London’s Mayor, had no chance of getting near enough to the river bank to be featured in photography of the main event.
So the case against the monarchy was laid out a few yards back from the crowds, with no PA, to huddled protestors. The wealth (nineteen royal ‘residences’, the royal Duchies, the newly-sanctioned share of profits from the Crown Estates, the hundreds of millions in personal wealth, the seven hundred servants for the family), such power as she has, the power wielded in her name (through the ‘royal prerogative’ to declare war without recourse to parliament, for example, as fomer Prime Minister Tony Blair most recently did), the secrecy (a recent amendment to Britain's Freedom of Information Act made the royal family’s correspondence uniquely protected from disclosure) and above all the unprincipled outrage that is, for republicans, the hereditary title, were all roundly declaimed.
1977 was the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee, a far more enthusiastic affair with bunting and union jack posters seemingly ubiquitous on the one hand, and Irish republicans branding her ‘Queen of Death’ on the other. The Sex Pistols' God Save The Queeninfamously reached number 2 in the UK singles chart, largely because of hysterical outrage directed at it. There were no histrionics this time around, though a few demonstrators shouted the Pistols' lyrics at the drunken, lairy, plastic-Union-Jack-hatted mass, which did its best to enjoy a very wet day.
“They made you a moron!”, shouted one protestor. Private security moved in.
“Glad to be a peasant!” one shouted back.
“End the reign! Democracy Now!”, chanted demonstrators. Geddit? It was raining.
“They’re not bad people, they just don’t want a Queen”, another explained carefully to his son. Then the security guard stepped in, to prevent the reconciliatory handshake offered by the protestor to the man he’d called a moron.
‘Votes not boats’, sang the crowd.
One among the throng, who wouldn’t let it lie, tried to explain to the demonstrators that The Great Rock n Roll Swindle“was taking the piss out of you lot as well”. He too was moved back, perhaps for being too esoteric.
More merry royalists sang ‘we love our history’ to the tune of Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ayat the republicans as Peter Tatchell spoke. A radical activist in an appeasing mood, Tatchell offered his own version of a tolerant, Nationally Healthy, multi-cultural, anti-racist, Hitler-vanquishing Britannia—with an elected head of state. Evoking the Nazis, it must be said, is a bizarre strategy, because the Queen and her family are closely associated with victory over them. The Windsors' role—selling an otherwise unpalatable reality in ways politicians couldn’t—came into its own in World War II. And it's not just the proverbial King's Speech. The Queen's mother, stepping in to placate the pulverized East End when Churchill had been met with anger and resentment, cemented a basic reality which is their main pull now: that they are not politicians.
60 years on, current Prime Minister David Cameron confidently proclaims “She hasn’t put a foot wrong.” He wouldn’t make the same claim for his own last 6 months. The Queen is an adaptable monarch, noted for stoicisim and yet willing to be led by public sentiment when it matters (such after the death of Diana, when she unstiffened her British upper lip in favour of the confessional TV broadcast).
She is now led, however, by the requirements of a highly sophisticated PR machine, which is determined to exploit her non-political status in a time when for many, all politics in Britain is tainted with cynicism and empty of content. In misty, myth-making mood, Cameron referred to the Queen as a guiding light “who has never shut the door on the future; instead, she has lead the way through it.”
If only this were so. The celebrity status of the Windsors is what keeps them aloft, apart from their people. There is nothing pageant and ‘tradition’ can do about this, but by the same token, there is nothing an alternative ‘tradition’ can do to shake it.
“What do we want? Democracy!”, chanted the demonstrators.
“When do we want it?”
“You’ve already got it,” shouted one informed member of the rain-soaked crowd.
An argument about representative parliamentary democracy with an unelected but ‘constitutional’ head of state began over the head of a steward. It is still going on.
The Queen, who eats out of Tupperware and has only been seen running once, sailed past. She was majestically oblivious in the drizzling rain, the day’s uncontested excuse for a good piss-up.