JUBILEE: What’s It All About?

‘Jubilee’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘Yovel’, meaning an outburst of joy, or a trumpet blast of liberty. From the Hebrew scriptures, it refers to a year of rest to be observed every 50th year, during which slaves were to be set free. ‘Concentrate the 50th year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you.’ (Leviticus 25) For African Americans in the ante-bellum south during the long years of slavery, the concept of a jubilee came to have an almost mystical significance. The ‘year of jubilee’ was one of the expressions slaves used to refer to a time when their enslavement would come to an end. Then came Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1st 1863, during the civil war. It was ‘the great day of Jubilee’ for the emancipated slaves and for all freedom-lovers. Thus, in its biblical and historical context, ‘jubilee’ is a celebration of liberation.

The celebration of Elizabeth II‘s diamond jubilee during the first days of June was entirely devoid of any such associations. Most nations have founding myths, which are just that – myths. But when US citizens celebrate The Fourth of July (Independence Day) and French citizens celebrate The Fourteenth of July (Bastille Day), we may assume that most of them associate those dates with historical events leading to the foundation of the independent national states to which they belong. Terms such as ‘conceived in liberty’ and ‘liberty, fraternity, equality’, are part of their national identity. In Latin America, despite cynical exploitation by generations of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes, concepts of anti-colonial liberation, social justice and revolution, associated with ‘Libertadores’ such as Bolivar, Marti and Zapata, live on in the memories and aspirations of the people. National anthems are supposed to capture this spirit. Whatever divisions and conflicts may afflict the nation (and one doesn’t have to look far to see plenty of evidence of divided and conflict-ridden nations), the anthems are national and they proclaim a mythical unity which can be a powerful ideological force. National anthems do not pre-date the formation of nation states. The nationalism they proclaim is still a relatively new phenomenon, in most cases dating from the 19th and 20th centuries. The British ‘national’ anthem is not national in the sense of most of the others. In fact it is not a national anthem at all. It is a monarchist hymn – a paean to the monarch. It is astonishing that the sheer idiocy of the words of the monarchist anthem do not seem to trouble either the monarch to whom they are addressed or those of her subjects who are still prepared, or required, on occasion to intone them. The first verse, imploring the Almighty to ‘save’ the Queen and to ‘set her victorious, long to reign over us’ are well known. It is doubtful whether more than one in thousands knows the second and subsequent verses. The second alone will suffice to get a sense of what follows it:

‘O Lord God arise
Scatter our enemies
And make them fall!
Confound their knavish tricks
Confuse their politics
On you our hopes we fix
God save the Queen!

This antiquated, embarrassing nonsense must be unique amongst anthems for being so totally out of touch with anything relating to this or any other country during the past 250 years. Actually it relates to events that occurred more than 250 years ago. It was first sung in support of the Hanoverian George II at the time of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and it contained a verse imploring the Almighty to crush ‘rebellious Scots’. Needless to say, that verse has been abandoned.

The diamond jubilee was a very big event in Britain, though more particularly in England. The news media covered it unsparingly and effusively. It is tempting to compare the obsequies of the BBC and the national press, and the cheering throngs of flag-waving fans, to the stage-managed public adulation accorded 20th century dictators and those still surviving into the 21st century. But such comparison is not quite accurate. In most of the latter cases it is fair to say that the crowds would not have turned out to cheer had they not been compelled to do so. The hundreds of thousands who lined London’s streets and riverside for the processions and the flotilla, and the millions who attended street parties throughout the land, were not compelled to do so. They did so willingly and for the most part apparently enthusiastically, despite persistent rainfall on Sunday, 3 June, which dampened the monarch’s passage along the river. Anyone watching the event on television could be in no doubt that the enthusiasm was entirely spontaneous.

The only other occasion in recent times when crowds of this size have turned out for a ‘royal’ event was the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. But this was in some respects an ‘anti-royal’ event. Then, the complex motivations (including reaction to high-octane, emotional media coverage) that brought so many onto the streets in a conspicuous show of public grief, expressed serious criticism of the monarch and the heir to the throne. The queen and other members of the royal family were seen as cold and aloof and largely responsible for ostracizing Diana. Prime Minister Blair’s brainwave, describing her as the ‘People’s Princess’, was very effective PR. The ‘outpouring of grief’, largely media-induced, had the possibly unintended consequence of further damaging the standing of the monarch in the eyes of the public. How then can we explain the dramatic turn-around in her public image since then? From a cold, distant, uncaring elderly figure she has been miraculously transformed into everybody’s aged aunt, presiding somewhat inscrutably, but with quiet dignity over her grateful subjects. The Duke of Edinburgh, widely regarded as a tiresome buffoon, has now become the old, but still upright uncle about whose ailing health we are all apparently concerned.

The transformation is, in part at least, the result of a carefully planned and thoroughly executed public relations rebranding exercise. In a New Statesman article (Queen of Spinners. 4.June 2012), George Pascoe-Watson, a partner at the PR firm Portland Communications, reveals how this was accomplished. Public disenchantment with the royal family began before the death of the Princess of Wales. The break-up of Charles and Diana’s marriage, the exemption of the Queen and the Duke from payment of income tax and, despite their fabulous wealth, their refusal to meet the cost of the refurbishment of Windsor Castle, led to deep public resentment. The Queen’s popularity reached an all-time low after the death of Diana. According to Pascoe-Watson, she personally initiated the rebranding exercise. It has been carried through with almost military precision, which is not surprising given that the PR teams engaged to manage it include a former Ministry of Defence communications professional - wife of an ex Royal Navy officer, an ex-army former UN adviser in the Balkans, an ex-SAS officer and a former Foreign Office and MoD press officer. The PR teams are responsible for the public presentation of the Queen and the Duke, Prince Charles, the princes William and Harry and Kate Middleton. ‘The only sources of stories ‘, writes Pascoe-Watson, ‘are official ones – or the royals themselves when they are on public display.’ …’Nowadays, nothing is published that the royal family doesn’t wish to see in broadcast.’ Interestingly, he claims that ‘An operation has begun, it seems, to bolster Prince Charles among the British public in preparation for his accession to the throne.’

For months the PR exercise has been in overdrive building up to the Jubilee. It has been very successful. At a time of increasingly painful austerity, with the economy in a double-dip recession and the international situation growing grimmer by the day, this extravaganza seems to have diverted very large numbers of people of all classes. Even though it may be largely forgotten by most of them in a week or so, it is nevertheless a phenomenon that cannot be ignored by the minority of republicans in Britain whose voices were drowned out by media hype and celebrants’ cheers. Even The Guardian, a paper which many years ago nailed its colours to the republican mast, devoted a full five pages to the jubilee on 4 June. The peculiarity of all this is striking if one tries to imagine any other liberal democracy where a head of state, elected or not and however old, could be feted so fulsomely and for so long in this way. The Scandinavian countries? Belgium? Holland? Spain? Germany? France? Why then, Britain?

Even allowing for a skillful PR exercise orchestrated from Buckingham Palace, and for the power of the media to march in lock-step with it, it is still extraordinary – and extraordinarily depressing – that the rational voice of republicanism could be effectively laughed out of court as irrational, drowned out by the royalist ballyhoo. It can be partly explained by the present public contempt for establishment politicians and also by the fact that there is no really effective opposition to the disastrous policies of the Con-Lib Dem government. In this situation, the story that the monarch is ‘above politics’ and a stabilizing force, or a calm, steady presence in an uncertain world, is one that many are prepared to listen to.

But the truth is that this monarch, like her forbears is actually a mediocrity. She belongs to an undistinguished aristocratic line whose connection with and understanding of ordinary people is minimal to say the least. Her overriding interest seems to be horse-racing. The institution itself is an anachronism; a long past its sell-by date vestige of an undemocratic past .The very notion that a democracy could possibly entertain as its head of state someone, whoever it may be, whose claim to office rests on the hereditary principle, essentially on some version of ‘divine right’, should be regarded by all rational people as preposterous.

But, there is a glimmer of hope that before too long the public mood may change so that such an absurdity is no longer acceptable. The Queen’s mother lived to be 101. There is a good chance that heredity, aided by the best medicine that money can buy, may allow the Queen to live as long, or longer. Should she do so, the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, will be 77 and his spouse, Camilla will be 79. Imagine the coronation! So, here’s wishing Her Majesty a long, long life. Long may she reign!