So how is the Diamond Jubilee going for you? Is it a sparkling jewel or a flagrant waste of money? Are you thrilled at sixty-years of her majesty reigning or is it just . . . raining? In case you think I am a Bolshie-Cromwellian-republican-socialist-anti-royalist; let me surprise you by revealing that we ambled up to Beacon Hill last night to witness, well, a beacon being lit on a hill, to commemorate the Jubilee. The place was teeming with people of all ages; the car-park was jammed; and there was a right royal queue for the burger van.
Just after 10pm a brief countdown heralded a rather unattractive gas-fired beacon being unceremoniously ignited. Looking down across the panoramic view of Loughborough we picked out three other burning beacons. A stuttering communal rendition of God Save the Queen broke out. A single firework shot up somewhere in the valley. And that was about it. We weren’t sure what to do next. It wasn’t exactly bonfire night. I guess that would have been inappropriate in the circumstances, celebrating as we were our post-Fawkes constitutional democracy. So we walked home. Thus ended our brief concession to the Jubilee co-called celebrations. All rather vacuous and anti-climactic. But it kept fine and we met some friends.
I have vacillated between quite acceptance of the whole show, borderline nausea and dire dismay. But I feel I am in a rather silent minority. Most people have been determined to enjoy weekend. Most people seem to like the Queen and think she has done a sterling job. Many go soft and starry-eyed over Kate and William and a few even have a grudging affection for the awkward Charles and Camilla. I am certain a referendum on the monarchy would result in it being kept.
Personally I can take or leave the so-called Royal Family. They have no power and very little influence. They are poor role-models; a dysfunctional privileged family is the last thing we should or could emulate. I had to laugh when a normally-intelligent commentator wrote that we can “all identify with the Queen”. No we can’t.
Do they bring in tourists? I think that is debatable. Our history and culture is sufficient to attract the Americans and Japanese to our shores without the royal family having to be alive today. Especially as it is unlikely any of the foreign tourists actually see her. Buckingham Palace is out of bounds. It would work equally well if we consigned them to history.
I have met or seen quite a few of the Windsor family. As a teenager in the Boys Brigade I stood in line on an airport runway for hours so that some Duke and Duchess could walk past and smile with patronising inanity. I remember some boys fainted with heat and lack of movement. I have met Prince Philip twice in more privileged locations – once inside Buckingham Palace to receive my worthy Duke of Edinburgh’s award and once when he visited my worthy college in Cambridge. I sat in the balcony behind Charles when he addressed the Cambridge Union – I could see his typed notes and his mother’s scribbled alterations. And I have seen mother twice – on a ceremonial visit to Boots in Nottingham and then much later we spotted her in a carriage at Ascot. None of these meetings support the wild assertions that she and her family are “of the people”.
I was singularly unimpressed on all occasions. They all seemed to go through the motions. It must be tedious having to meet so many of your subjects. It’s hard to tell whether they were bored, aloof or simply tired of doing a job they didn’t sign up to nor qualify for. To say the queen has done an “amazing job” is nonsense. She has performed reasonably well – but I am sure there are thousands of people who could do it just as well with the right training and a smaller package.
The Windsors cost a small fortune to run. You can access their family accounts online – a turnover of about £40m. But this excludes the huge cost of security and policing. Their full annual cost in a “normal” year has been estimated at £200m. Not to mention the extraordinary additional cost this year of pageants, flotillas and concerts. Not to mention the 0.5% trimmed off our GDP in a time of austerity by the stealing of a day work from businesses without their consent.
The queen’s personal fortune is estimated as £310m. And the value of the royal art, property and land collection is a staggering £18bn. However, nobody is sure of the true value and costs, as the royal family are shockingly exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
I am not one to abolish the royal family. Nor to assassinate them. But I do believe we should bring them to account for their finances and performance. £150,000 for new silk walls and gold gilding in one of the palaces feels excessive in the post-MPs expenses era. As does £275,000 for a Caribbean cruise on a chartered yacht in an age of austerity. Or a mere £18,916 for Charles Windsor to visit a pub Cumbria. Or £700,000 on garden parties. Not much belt-tightening and identification with the people going on there.
And yet people like them – or more correctly – they like the idea of them. They are a soap-opera; celebrities par excellence. The public (whoever they are) enjoy the nostalgia, the pageantry and the shows of wealth. When they say they love the Queen, they mean they love the ostentatious paraphernalia, the poshness and the plushness. They seem to like the fact it is all very expensive and profligate. It is the nation’s little luxury.
Which would be fine if they paid their own way. But they don’t. We pay for them. Are they really an institution worth spending so much money on in such an unaccountable way? We have paid and are paying a very high price for it. Our Kings and Queens have stolen our money from us throughout history and made their subjects’ lives miserable. And now we (apparently) revere them for the very fact. A sleight of hand of the highest audacity and arrogance. And we think it is magic.
If we are to keep them and even “modernise them”, let’s go easy on the unconditional sycophancy.
Nobody enjoys a bladder infection. Millions across the world suffering far worse ailments – many of whom won’t live to 26, never mind 86. The world news headline on the BBC website as I type is “Illness forces Prince Philip to miss concert after being taken to hospital with a bladder infection”. Then we have “Reaction to prince missing the Jubilee concert” followed by “Q&A: Bladder infections”. Lovely. Click the last one to discover that one in 10 men in their 80s have one. Not all of them have a private physician. How about Q&A: Elitism & Privilege?
So the headline news is that an elderly man in Britain has a bladder infection. Half way down the page we have the trivial news that Syrian rebels abandon ceasefire. It really is farcical.
There are positives of course. The institution – as do all institutions – provides a semblance of stability and continuity. The monarchy promotes our patriotism and feeling of nationhood. We all have them in common – for better or for worse.
So we may create and give ourselves to the fairy tale. But let’s not fool ourselves. The reality is privilege and elitism at a huge cost. By all means have a royal family, but lets make them accountable, and let’s go easy on the fawning obsequiousness. There are more important things in the world.