There’s been a fair amount of guff talked over the past week about the monarchy and its relationship with Britain. It comes, of course, as the Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee and – to someone well-versed in the rhetoric of the 1977 Silver Jubilee – it sometimes seems that little has changed in the last thirty-five years.
I am not a monarchist. I long to be a citizen, rather than a subject. I long to be able, in this democracy, to vote for my head of state. And since for me, this is about principles rather than personalities, it has nothing to do with the qualities of the monarch in question. Some of the recent guff has come from my fellow-republicans, who have made personal attacks on the Queen which I consider irrelevant (and, as it happens, more than a little ungenerous). But a lot of it has come from monarchists, who will tell us that British identity is inextricably bound up with the monarchy, that the Queen represents the best of what we are.
So: what are we? Well, we are a country with diversity in our DNA, and it’s hard to see that adequately represented by the Windsors. Most of our greatest achievements have come about through the work and sacrifice of ordinary people. (In a recent Demos report, more people said they were proud of the NHS than of the Royals.) And I’d argue that our Britishness – our mildness, our self-deprecation, our astonishing levels of comfort with failure – lies not in the untouchable celebrity of a single ruling family, but in the joyful mundaneity of our daily lives together. That is something of what we are.
What we are emphatically not – and here I come to the worst bit of guff I’ve had to endure this past week – is ‘UK, plc’. In an effort to modernise the role of the Queen, she is posited as the CEO (or perhaps the PR department – no-one’s shown me the organisation chart) of a mythic enterprise which we all unwittingly work for. The thinking here, I believe, is that since everything is justifiable if money is made (q.v. ‘banks’), the existence of the monarchy is similarly shored up if the old girl can be seen to turn a profit.
The argument about monarchy is one I can conduct with a certain amount of decorum. Not so the notion of ‘UK, plc’. Let me make this clear: I am not an employee in a nation-sized company. My driving principle, living in this country I love, is not to maximise my productivity. You, my lovely fellow-subject, are not a co-worker. You might be a friend, or my kid’s teacher, or a neighbour, or the bloke from the allotments who sometimes slips me a bag of beetroot when there’s a glut, but our purpose is not to stay in the black. If we are lucky, we’ll be in work. If we’re very lucky we’ll love what we do, but the things which make us tick will, most likely, be the very things which show a stubborn refusal to be profitable: our kids, our friends, our communities, our hobbies.
You and I are, in our very ordinary and diverse lives, exactly what defines Britain. That honour does not belong to the Queen – it belongs to us.