LONDON — If anyone had doubts about the public mood in Britain, a few days last week would have dispelled them beyond all argument.
The British love their country and they love their queen. They showed it in the millions, not just by jamming the streets of London and waving millions of Union Jack flags (most of them made in China) but by turning every street, every town square and every village green into a prolonged weekend party.
The immediate excuse for this amazing demonstration of national unity and emotion was to celebrate the Golden Jubilee, or 50th year, of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. But one would have to be very cynical, or very supercilious, not to perceive deeper sentiments at work. This was not just another large London crowd looking for an entertaining day and night out — although they certainly got that, thanks to brilliantly organized events and parades that made superb television and brought the queen and her family to the center of cheering, flag-waving multitudes on a scale never before seen in living memory, not even at her coronation 50 years ago.
Nor would it be right to judge the celebrations by the two undoubtedly dazzling concerts staged in the vast gardens of Buckingham Palace and relayed by huge screens to millions round the globe. The first of these was in classical mode and the second, two nights later, a fiesta of rock and pop music — the latter marred by some really dreary performances that pass for art in the pop world and some truly pathetic jokes and compere efforts, but saved and uplifted by a few true masters and professionals such as the great ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, the aging but still superb star Sir Cliff Richards and the wonderful Barry Humphries in his role as everybody’s favorite Australian aunt, Dame Edna Everidge.
But forget all the showbiz — the real message was something much more subtle, less TV-dominated and more profound. It is best understood by turning away from all the metropolitan glitter and stardom and seeing what was happening in the real heart of Britain, which lies in its little back streets and lanes, in its scattered villages and hamlets, in its meadows and byways, in its ancient boroughs and modern housing estates, and, of course, down at the local pub.
Here the visitor would have found less hysteria, less hype, less rose-tinted verbiage, fewer dreary cliches by self-important media types and more, much more, robust common sense and realism about the whole occasion.
Here, amid the tea tents, in the village halls, on the sports grounds and under the umbrellas (for, of course, you cannot have Britain without the occasional shower) he or she would have found a true and sober expression of modern Britishness — which is not the same as flag-waving nationalism, not the same as inward-lookingness, not the same as stuck-in-the-past isolationism, certainly not the same as any kind of racism or xenophobia or anti-Europeanism, but something quite different.
Perhaps a Japanese phrase is needed to begin describing what this grass-roots feeling really is. The expression “shimo-guni konjo” — island-nation mentality — may capture it.
The British deeply respect their queen, both personally and as the embodiment of an institution. They recognize that the British royal family is not without tarnishes and that the whole idea of a hereditary monarchy may seem a bit odd in today’s egalitarian world. But, looking around at that world, they conclude that most other systems are much worse and they would much prefer the present arrangements, with a calm and experienced monarch set well above the politicians, if only symbolically.
At this particular moment in history they like and value the crown and the national unity and identity it represents with a reinvigorated intensity. Why? Because so many forces in today’s world seem to be pulling the other way, undermining, weakening, devaluing the warm sense of identity that every society must have to survive.
While the queen pulls every corner of Britain together, loudmouthed separatists seem to want to pull it apart.
While the queen, by her example, proves that monarchy goes with democracy and stability, shallow theorists and constitutional reformers want to drag her down, end all the pageantry and replace it all — with what?
While the queen and her subjects speak of the Commonwealth and the duties of richer nations to help the poor, the politicians go on and on about being transplanted to the heart of the European Union — a rich man’s club if ever there was one.
(The grass-roots British know all about Europe — their forbears fought and died for it to stay free. To call them anti-European is an insult. But that means they want a Europe of democracies, not a Europe of overbearing bureaucrats).
While the queen and Commonwealth embrace a huge global network of independent nations with common values, impulsive and “trendy” politicians seem to want to disown these caring ties and submerge everything in much narrower, and dubiously centralized, regional dream.
While the queen, by her very stance and attitudes, creates a sense of national identity that is open to every race and creed but is quintessentially British, noisy and hostile lobbies clamor for an end to the very idea of Britishness and its replacement with vague multiculturalism that repels everybody, not least the ethnic minorities themselves.
All this is bad news for those who want to write off the nation state, and particular the British nation state. Far from going under, it is more alive and in better and more robust form than almost at any time in the past 50 years. It wants to be open; it wants to be global and interdependent; it wants to fulfill all its world responsibilities; it wants to be democratic, inclusive, nonracial and thoroughly community-spirited.
But at the grass roots it does not need to be lectured by the political classes and metropolitan elites about these things. It knows them instinctively. And if ever they slip the national mind, the queen is there to remind her people of where they ought to stand and what their duties are every day. That is why they love her.
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