I have a confession to make. Despite voting for an Australian Republic in 1999, and despite making an ad arguing for an Australian head of state only a few weeks ago, I can’t help wishing I’d arranged to be in Blighty for the Platinum Jubilee. But who knew it would be such an unqualified blast? That most poms approve of Her Maj was never in doubt. But five years ago few would have predicted the happy inclusivity of last week’s celebrations. Because five years ago the UK looked like a country on the brink of civil war, the enmity of Leavers and Remainers as fierce as that of any Roundhead or Royalist. And since then, the failure of the Chief Leaver to deliver on Brexit promises, the pandemic’s wrecking ball effect on the UK economy and Boris’s cavalier attitude to his own lockdown laws have hardly united the nation. But for those few days at least all political differences were magically suspended and even Covid caution was thrown to the wind to facilitate Britain’s biggest group hug since England beat Germany in the final of the 1966 FIFA World Cup. Even the union’s most vocal public enemy, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, expressed her ‘deep respect’ for the Queen, rightly calculating that the approval with which even such a transparently disingenuous gesture would be received by most Scots would more than offset the Twitter backlash it duly triggered amongst hard-core party-pooping secessionists.
It would be nice to think that this spirit of national reconciliation will persist after the commemorative glasses have been washed and the bunting packed away. But given the number of economic and ideological issues on which the UK, like all Western democracies, remains irreconcilably divided, I fear it will be no more enduring than the Christmas Day truce observed by German and Allied troops in 1914, when, after meeting in no-man’s land for a smoko and a game of footy (Germany won that time) they went back to shooting, gassing and bayonetting each other for another three years. I also fear that the culture wars, which are being fought on so many more fronts by troops who are so much more deeply entrenched, may last a lot longer.
Watching the coverage of the celebrations I got the impression, from their lavish scale as much as the sentimentality of everyone involved, that in addition to being the mother-of-all parties for the mother-of- all mothers this was also a last hurrah. Not just because the Queen’s failing health suggests she’s on the finishing straight of her marathon reign, but also because there is a growing feeling, even in Britain, that the days of the monarchy itself – or at least the version of it she embodies – are also numbered. It is tempting to compare this Queen with her almost equally long-reigning great-great-grandmother. But Victoria’s role was different in one massive respect. She wasn’t just the queen of a commonwealth (whatever that means), she was an empress presiding over the aggressive expansion of the world’s first superpower. If there has been a defining purpose to the reign of the current queen it has been to preside over the disappearance of that empire and, most importantly, to do so without a word of complaint or comment, even when it threatens her personally, as happened with the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. Indeed the key to her enduring popularity has been her refusal to let her subjects know how she feels about anything which doesn’t involve dogs and horses. Her successor, by contrast, has had nothing to do for his entire adult life except form opinions, many of them ill-informed, naive or just bonkers, and on all too many occasions he has publicly expressed them. It is difficult to imagine him assuming his mother’s mantle of self-censorship when he is in a position where everybody else is obliged to listen to him.
Australia’s affection for the Queen is real enough, but even her staunchest supporters now wince when reminded of Robert Menzies toe-curling appropriation of 17th century Hallmark doggerel to mark her second visit to this country. And it is proof that as a nation we are no longer in cultural thrall to Britain that our mainstream media can no longer be bothered to get its UK facts right. At one point during Sky News’ jubilee coverage, when foreign correspondent Annelise Nielsen delivered her report from the banks of the Thames, Laura Jayes, in the Sydney studio, identified the world-famous landmark behind her as London Bridge, mentioning as she did that people often confuse it with Tower Bridge. I like to think that it was professional courtesy and not ignorance which prevented her colleague from pointing out that the bridge behind her was in fact Tower Bridge, London Bridge being now a tourist attraction in Arizona having been sold 50 years ago to an American industrialist who made the same mistake.
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