British unity and the cult of the Queen

By Barry Biddulph

Not even the pub could provide refuge from the monarchist spectacle

The cult of the Queen as a symbol of British unity is the illusion that she is somehow above and beyond corrupt and dishonest parliamentary politicians, and profit obsessed capitalists;(1) To make Britain proud, she is jolly good at her job and has devoted her self to sixty years of selflessness in the stultifying boredom of public service.(2) Royal pageantry is not historical, but in the history of pageants the diamond jubilee, in the words of the Guardian, is important if not remarkable, but its only important because its rare.(3) As panic spreads throughout the world’s stock markets she is a useful symbol, keeping up the appearances of continuity and stability to stave off growing lack of confidence in the government’s austerity programme.

There is no real or rational meaning in the state orchestrated worship of the Queen,(4) but that’s not the point. It’s a state religion bringing magic and glamour to transform the harsh reality of job cuts, benefit cuts, pension cuts and wage cuts into an emotional communal feeling of togetherness. However, there is a negativity or fearfulness in all this spirituality. What is the alternative to the carefully crafted tradition of the Windsor Family? It could be something worse.(5) Although the worship of state leaders was historically similar in Russia, China and in the present, North Korea; that is seen as state propaganda, whereas in Britain it’s the Queen’s assumed decency and general niceness which is venerated. It’s for a person not the state. This is mystical, she is obviously at the apex of the state.

Appearances notwithstanding, the crown estates are not above shameless profiteering, far from it. Sir Stuart Hampson, chairman of the crown estates, has put the spectacular rise in property revenues from the estate down to entrepreneurial flair in the neo liberal market place. Rents have soared in Regent Street and other lucrative property. This has substantially boosted the Queens private Fortune.(6) She personally owns Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Balmoral estate. The unemployed from Bristol who were bussed into London to work for nothing, to steward the Royal Pageant, some of whom were left to sleep under London Bridge, own nothing but their ability to work.(7)

Andrew Marr claims he was a republican, but from observing the hard work of the Queen, he is no longer a republican.(8) But what work is this? She has an army of servants and the nature of the work is never specified. How would she know she was on holiday? The royal yacht Britannia was an ocean going liner, which took the queen all over the world, especially in winter. Well, she had to get away from all that hard boring work, don’t we all? She could be one of us if you don’t think about it. But do think about it, having to wine and dine with all those important dignitaries in all those grand places? Nice work if you can get it. The most those unpaid Bristol stewards can hope for is some paid temporary employment at the Olympics. Another state event to help make us feel great as the great economic depression deepens. But why spoil the jubilee party? Why be a communist kill joy? Let’s celebrate. But it is not simply a party or a celebration. It’s celebrating the Queen: Sixty years personifying the state as the head of the British imperialist army and their barbaric wars. It was difficult to escape from the Royal pantomime, even when I went into my local pub where there is no TV. The pump clips on the real ale carried the union flag, the crown or an image of the queen. Except one obviously brewed by a republican, which had what looked like a toad in royal gowns getting soaked in the rain, with the words “A long reign”. And a good beer it was-but then again, I was celebrating being off work.


1 David Hare, Guardian 2/06/12

2 Max Hastings, Financial Times 2/06/12

3 The Guardian Editorial 02/06/12

4 Polly Toynbee on the Andrew Marr show 3/06/12

5 Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass, 1988, Picador London.

6 The Financial Times 02/06/12

7 The Guardian 04/06/12

8 Andrew Marr, The Andrew Marr Show 03/06/12

2 thoughts on “British unity and the cult of the Queen

  1. Actually the Salamander beer name is better than I thought. Having returned to the local the Name is- let it reign. And so it did.


  2. It’s not all bad news about the Jubilee. I walked the length of Edinburgh today, and saw not one house with a union jack or bunting. There were hardly any shops with these either, although the larger British stores have attempted Jubilee promotions – spectacularly unsuccessfully, if all the unsold stuff in Tescos is anything to go by. I did see five tourists near Waverley station with union jack hats. What is interesting is that even some sections of the British media have picked up on the underwhelming support for the jubilee here (see below), with one significant exception – Alex Salmond! (see

    The BBC’s Queen’s jubilee propaganda failed in Scotland

    Broadcasting a summer bonanza of Britishness may reinforce rather than break down cultural difference in Scotland

    A jubilee street party in Edinburgh – one of only 60 organised in Scotland. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

    The jubilee feels very different depending where you are in Britain. Ian Bell, Scotland’s most articulate republican, wrote last week: “The monarch we are supposed to celebrate this odd weekend has no claim to the throne of Scotland. She is not, and has never been, my queen.” Many feel the same. There’s a problem with the story we are being told about Britain. The jubilee is meant more as a unifier than a pacifier, and the national broadcaster is entrusted with gushing appropriately, often when nothing is happening but a bout of rain-washed punting. But the project of British propagandising looks like falling apart under examination.

    Who was celebrating? Officially, there were 9,500 street parties in England and Wales. But there were just 60 street parties in Scotland, and 20 of these were organised by the Orange Order, with funding from the Labour-controlled Glasgow city council. Given that these are people not wholly unfamiliar with the union flag, this leaves you with 40 in Scotland. This presents a real problem for the narrative of national unity. Setting aside the question of using public funds for such events, or the good judgment of the Labour party in supporting such a group, it does look as if mass disinterest has swept Scotland.

    The problem for the BBC is there’s less and less of a unifying British culture to broadcast. In place of mass deference they are increasingly asked to make it up, and it comes across as a Ceausescu-like state broadcasting. Reevel Alderson’s radio report from Balmoral on Monday morning, replete with Corgi-nostalgia-stories was an execrable voice of make-believe. Here we were sent back to the 1950s, complete with a brain-wipe of any intervening embarrassments. In this world the Queen loves Scotland and Scotland loves the Queen. In this world Princess Margaret was still a glamour icon and Prince Philip, a young naval cadet. The whole raft of marital disasters and infidelities was quietly swept aside for Charles’s home-movies.

    In this world there’s no need for a news programme to reflect – or reflect on – what’s happening in the actual world, in contemporary Scotland. The monarchy is simply something we unquestioningly love, is completely apolitical and is as much a fact of life as the air we breathe. In BBC world they simply are, and to suggest otherwise is to be petty and churlish.

    But this story of Britain and Britishness is unravelling and will continue to do so over the summer, when the Olympics, Wimbledon and Euro 2012 present further problems for Broadcasting Britain. Three-quarters of tickets for Team GB’s “Olympic football” at Hampden remain unsold. At £20 a head it seems an unlikely sell-out at the national stadium. As one elderly caller from Glasgow put it on a radio phone-in this week: “Twenty quid to watch some American women play fitba? You’re having me on!”

    What’s difficult to locate is exactly why this all feels so dreadful and embarrassing. The whole torch tour has such a surreal feel about it, you half imagine it’s a Brass Eye special.

    Part of this isn’t about republicanism or nationalism but geography and economics. Olympic tickets are difficult to get hold of whether you are in Tyneside or Deeside. It’s an expensive trip to London to watch a barge at a distance in fine London drizzle. The problem is that of remoteness. It’s standing by the side of the river. Maybe it’s this feeling of passivity that’s at odds with Scots involved in major constitutional debate. Patrick Harvie, a Green MSP said last week: “Sticking to the hereditary principle in the 21st century is bound to seem bizarre to many Scots.”

    As the blog Lenin’s Tomb put it: “The monarchy still functions as the guarantor of a caste within the ruling class, which any good bourgeois wants admittance to – give an old chief executive an OBE, and he will consider himself to have truly lived. Its systems of ranking still structure hierarchies within the state, notably the police, the navy, the air force, and the army. It is still the major patron of ‘Britishness’, the myth of a temporally continuous and organically whole national culture.”

    But it’s important to realise how much that “whole national culture” is dependent on the myths of Balmoral, the Castle of Mey, the “Prince of Wales” and all of the associated trappings to present the Queen of England as an icon of Britishness. Without a UK, there won’t be anarchy, but democracy, and many feel there’s no place for a monarch in a new Scottish democracy.

    In this, its core task of fostering a sense of nationhood, the jubilee is failing and the BBC struggling.

    A YouGov poll in May suggested 44% of Scots interviewed associated the union flag with “racism and extremism”. So the cumulative impact of unnuanced broadcasting of a summer bonanza of Britishness may be to reinforce rather than break down cultural difference.

    This crisis of the core concept for the BBC is reaching a head. This Thursday the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Question Time is from Inverness. No representative from the SNP will be on the panel, but Melanie Philips will be lecturing us from her podium at the Daily Mail that us Scots suffer from “unlimited public subsidy (which) invariably produces a dependency culture of irresponsibility and infantilism – the assumption of entitlement without obligation …”. To many it will sound like a perfect description of the House of Windsor.

    What is behind this dismal celebration?

    Glen Newy at the London Review of Books suggests it’s a reaction against political failure: “As politicians sink ever deeper in public esteem, so the queen rises. Over the weekend the country’s usually scabrous public sphere will turn, as it did when Diana croaked, as deferential as Zimbabwe’s.”

    But turning to the epitome of anti-democracy as a response to the failure or a failed political elite isn’t worthy of celebration. And broadcasting it with unbridled fealty is becoming untenable.

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