Tom Aitken’s London Report

Three Wet, Cheering Days for Jubilee

By Tom Aitken in London

England enjoys what is technically called a ‘temperate’ climate. For some reason, however, that does not eliminate noisy intemperance in discussion. And this intemperance often takes the form of extreme self-righteousness.

Take the Jubilee. For some weeks now, the notion that an eighty-six year old woman who has successfully held down a demanding job (c. 430 engagements annually) might celebrate her sixty years in post has been subjected to daily abuse in the letters pages of the newspapers and elsewhere.

Those who are not republicans are, we are informed, fawning, sycophantic, kow-towing, forelock-tugging, immature, lacking in independence of judgement, anti-democratic, immured in the past, living in fantasy land, old-fashioned, backwoodsmen…

Our correspondent’s confession

But with the spectacular Jubilee celebrations still in my mind, I suppose I should confess to certain deeply shaming points from my past.

When I was ten, I was pretty much in love with the Queen, and this infatuation has never quite gone away. Secondly, in 1959 or thereabouts, in order to qualify for a ‘studentship’ (i.e. money) to attend university, I swore, before the then Mayor of Taumarunui, Mr Frank House, an oath of loyalty to her and her successors. (This is one reason why I hope she lives as long as I do.)

The letter writers believe that we could solve the problem they perceive by electing a head of state to serve a fixed term as cutter of ribbons, unlocker of doors, sender of congratulatory telegrams, visitor of hospitals, universities and other institutions, dignified presence at national events and so on.

Not only, the argument runs, would this be democratic, it would be cheaper.

Maori waka in Thames jubilee flotilla

I wonder how seriously this proposition has been tested. An elected head of state would have to be paid a substantial salary and all expenses. A grand house in central London and at least one country residence would have to be provided. A Head of State would probably need to have reliable, secure accommodation in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. Transport and security costs would be considerable.

Some candidates cause dismay

Some of the names suggested as possible candidates provoke the response ‘I do hope not!’

Another thought that reduces the attraction of an elected Head of State is that almost certainly such elections would become embroiled in party politics .

Another argument against the more ranting of the republicans is that fawning and lickspittle-ing are not wanted, let along imposed.

‘My wife meets the Queen’

As it happens, my wife met the Queen in 1995. Although she, my wife, didn’t know it at the time, she was about to go down with chicken pox, so the Queen had a most fortunate escape.

The occasion was the Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey in 1995. Ros was there with a group of girls from Tiffin Girls’ School, who had been invited after one of them had met and chatted with Sir something-or-other, one of the organisers, on a train.

Since Ros was not at her best, the thought of curtsying did not occur to her. The Queen asked about the school and talked to some of the girls before toddling off to her car to go home.

Was Ros arrested at once on a charge of failing to show proper respect? She was not.

If, under a new system, a Head of State was elected for a fixed period, there would be losses of another kind.

The current issue of The Spectator uses its cover to illustrate one of them. From behind the Queen’s head we see portraits of the twelve Prime Ministers Britain has had during her reign. They include Churchill, Macmillan, Wilson, Heath, Mrs Thatcher and Blair.

Given that, in addition to that impressive list of people who have explained their policies and tactics to her, she is also well acquainted with a large number of other Heads of State and has visited so many of their countries, it comes as no surprise that she can offer very sensible advice and ask very pertinent questions.

The press have tried to maintain a balanced coverage of these issues in its coverage of the last few days.

In some cases this has obviously led to difficulties. The Independent, for example, has begun to look disablingly cross-eyed. On the one hand, its writers have generally reported the success of the River Pageant and other events in fairly positive terms.

One, John Kampfner, for whom ‘deference is not my thing’, described an occasion when the Queen helped him recover from an embarrassing public blunder and went on to write a discussion of the issues which is justly headlined, ‘We need a Head of State. And the Queen can’t be bettered.’

Meanwhile the paper’s cartoonist is pedalling a much sourer line. Ten pound notes are washed down a drain on a London street; The Windsors strut in front of Buckingham Palace like music hall comedians, singing, ‘One’s hice, at the bottom of one’s Mall… Just proves we’re not all bloody equal.’

We ourselves did not leave the house to brave the rain. But we watched and enjoyed all the big events––even, heaven help us, the concert. Unsurprisingly there were moments in all events––the service in St Paul’s apart––when clockwork precision drifted towards shambles.

The overall impression, however, was absolutely in line with what the Buckingham Palace website offers as a kind of mission statement: the function of the Head of State is to act as a focus for national unity.

In a country as crowded, complicated, multiracial and multicultural as this one, national unity must remain an aspiration. But every now and then something makes it see less aspirational than usual. Quite often the Queen is in the offing.