As the monarch of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth celebrates her 60th year on the throne, the significance of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations is discussed, against a historical backdrop of controversy and intrigue.
Although it may be recipient of the most press coverage and commemorative china sets, Britain is not the only European country to have retained its monarchy. The Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Norway and Spain still have theirs – so what has given HRH a leg-up in the global popularity stakes? Well, significantly, Her Majesty is Queen of 16 countries in total, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Barbados and Papua New Guinea. 60 years since Elizabeth II ascended the throne, Britain is amidst preparations for its next major national royal event. Last April saw the country unite with street parties and official engagements for the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Now the attention is turning back to the head of the family, the symbol of the monarchy writ large, and her lengthy reign.
Perhaps making Elizabeth’s reign all the more significant is the fact that she was third in line to the throne at her birth, and had her uncle Edward VIII not abdicated in favour of a controversial marriage to the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, she may never have been queen. Nevertheless, on Wednesday June 3rd 1953, the then 25 year old, having one year previously learnt of her father’s death whilst on a trip to Kenya, was coronated. The headlines of the day read: “LET US CHERISH OUR OWN WAY OF LIFE”. Elizabeth addressed her hopes for the future, and paid tribute to the wealth of commonwealth states which also lay behind her, “lands and races different in history and origins but all, by God’s will, united in spirit and aim.” It is fair to say the “our own way of life”, what we may call a certain “Britishness”, has been upheld, and perhaps fortified by the especially long durée of the Queen’s reign. Only Queen Victoria has reigned longer, with 63 years on the throne.
We are celebrating it with a year of royal visits and events, and a central weekend of celebration from Saturday 2nd June to Tuesday 5th June. In the UK, an extra bank holiday has been appointed in commemoration of the Jubilee, and the late May bank holiday has been moved a week later, making it a four day weekend. This comes as good news to Britons, who lack a national holiday. The festivities of the royal wedding last year and the Jubilee this year add a more jubilant twist to the calendar, which is especially welcome at a time when national morale is not at its highest. Celebratory activities will take place across the UK and the Commonwealth. A unifying aspect will be heavily promoted through the festivities, with activities such as “The Big Jubilee Lunch” on the 3rd, with the population encouraged to come together and share a meal with their neighbours. A pageant on the Thames is due to take place on the same day, expected to draw in thousands of spectators. The 4th will entail a televised BBC concert at Buckingham Palace, featuring British and Commonwealth musicians. Following this is the lighting of 2,012 beacons across the UK, Channel Islands and Commonwealth, led by the Queen’s National Beacon. Festivities wrap up with a day of celebrations, a Flypast and balcony appearance on the 5th.
Whether or not the public avidly follow the schedule, or simply makes use of a longer weekend, as June approaches the hype is building. In London, few can claim ignorance to the occasion with festive bunting erected in such central locations as Piccadilly Circus. The commemorative activity is by no means limited to the central weekend and the royal calendar. Significantly, MPs including Jack Straw have called for Big Ben (the name given to the tower’s bell, though commonly used to indicate the general structure) to be renamed from “Clock Tower” to “Elizabeth Tower”. Whether this is received as a mark of excess or a good symbolic gesture remains to be seen.
Why is the Jubilee relevant?
How the public respond to the hype of the Diamond Jubilee is framed largely by public opinion of the Queen and the monarchy in general. And regarding this we have long been a nation – and a Commonwealth – divided. The classic criticisms of the royal family can be grouped under the overarching themes of cost, royal “hangers-on” and controversy. However, these disparagements are no longer an infallible way to criticise the royals. Andrew Marr’s recent delve into the life, work and habits of the Queen, via BBC One’s “The Diamond Queen”, revealed what the monarchy costs the British taxpayer: the equivalent of a cup of takeaway coffee annually. This undermines the cost argument slightly. Regarding the “hangers-on”, demand has come from MPs over the years to make the spending of tax-payers’ money more transparent about costs such as the apparent rent-free luxury accommodation of members and friends of the royal family. Figures such as the Queen’s late sister Margaret and Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson, ex-wife of Prince Andrew, particularly came under fire for being some of the least “productive” members of the family, whilst racking up hefty living expenses. The younger generations of the family have gone some way toward proving their worth, with military training, university attendance, and world champion sportsmanship under their belts.
Regarding controversy, it is true to say the House of Windsor has had its fair share. Elizabeth’s own marriage to her husband Phillip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, was contentious in the sense of his lack of financial standing and foreign birth. Yet the plight of her children has attracted far more media attention. 1992 is regarded as the Queen’s annus horriblis, in which both her sons Andrew and Charles were separated from their spouses and her daughter Anne divorced hers. It was Charles’s high profile marriage to Lady Diana Spencer that stole the limelight. Significantly both the introduction and demise of Princess Diana divided fans of the royals. Some heralded her entry to the family as bringing it fresh life (and fresh looks), donning the clan with a new darling: the “peoples’ princess”. Some simply recognised that her heart wasn’t in the job from the get-go. Married into the family at the ripe age of 21, it is fair to say that Diana favoured her role as an international charity ambassador over the everyday trials and tribulations of being a royal. After the divorce, speculations of affairs abounded and formed popular public discourse. Diana’s untimely death in a car accident in Paris in 1997 then fuelled much controversy. Conspiracy theorists ranged in their conclusions, some blaming the Queen herself for plotting to kill a figure so loved that she still held the title “Princess of Wales” after her divorce from the family.
Aside from these criticisms and justifications for an anti-monarchic stance, in some cases, which nevertheless behove to be born in mind, opposing the royals may simply be seen as du jour. The controversies and pitfalls are in themselves part of the identity of Queen Elizabeth. We can choose to observe her stance as the head of the family at these times of crisis in a positive or negative light. Either we can chose to believe some example was not "set" in how to be a commendable royal, or revel in her ability to smooth over these occasions with calm appearances and skilful speeches. Expectations are far greater for Queen Elizabeth than for the average 86 year old woman. Her lifestyle is entirely governed by an occupation she was born into, involving ample travel, long public engagements and the utmost attention to detail in matters of state. Perhaps when bearing in mind this “job” that she must carry out, at a time when any other citizen would be well into retirement, we can better appreciate the magnitude of the occasion.
There is no doubt that the Diamond Jubilee celebrations will dominate London, at least for the central weekend. Whether people chose to follow them or actively ignore them, it is undeniably an important occasion in national life. Security will be at an all-time high and national awareness at a peak. Forsaking royalist and anti-royalist debates, it will be a good warm-up for the international attention London will receive at the Olympics this summer, and an opportunity to unite in national and global celebration.