The weather may not be cooperating, but the Jubilee weekend ploughs on. So far I have attended a Jubilee parade at the local primary school where I am Chair of Governors, and a barbecue hosted by a north London friend. We are on our way to a damp riverside party in Docklands, where we may see some ships passing by on their way to and from the Thames pageant. The are street parties in neighbouring streets, and the Tube lines are full. There is a party mood about.
I have stood up to the National Anthem and toasted the Queen. But amongst my fellow party-goers almost everybody is sceptical about the monarchy as a system, though respectful of the Queen herself. We are definitely not a representative group, though to call us part of the “elite”, as many do of anybody who shares our liberal outlook, is a stretch. None of us runs anything bigger than a primary school.
Meanwhile, much nonsense id being pumped out in the newspapers and on the radio (I’m avoiding the television, as usual). The Queen has not let us down, claimed an article in the Evening Standard, unlike all those prime ministers – something that says everything about our expectations of the respective roles, and nothing about the competence and intent of those holding them. The Queen is a human presence amongst all the stiffness and pomp that surrounds her says Matthew Parris. Like Napoleon wearing a plain hat and coat amongst the splendour of his aides. One of the worst features of the monarchy is pompousness and obsequiousness that it attracts.
The truth is that the Queen is something of a blank canvass, upon which we project our prejudices. Right now these prejudices are all positive, but it has not always been so (remember Diana?). We know very little about her – which is something of an achievement on her part, it has to be said.
What do I project onto this blank canvass? To me the Queen represents the meaning of privilege, in all its good and some of its bad senses. In modern usage, privilege has come to mean exclusive rights acquired purely through your status, and, implicitly, undeserved. This one-sided meaning has taken hold in post-class society (and people who say that class is as rampant in current British society as ever have no idea what class is). It may have originated from classless America, where Harry Truman railed against the “Republican gluttons of privilege” – which would have been back in the 1940s.
My late mother (who was the same age as the Queen to within a month) always hated this usage of the word. She was by no means aristocratic, voted Labour at the first opportunity in 1945 and hated Toryism. But her upbringing, as the daughter of a senior churchman and professor, and being brought up on a cathedral close, was certainly privileged. To her privilege was a two-sided thing. It implied responsibilities. You would hesitate to accept it. We have caught a sugar-coated version of this on the popular TV series Downton Abbey. And I don’t think I am stretching my imagination too far to suggest that the Queen embodies this understanding of privilege. She puts duty first. She maintains a busy schedule of state commitments (somewhat in contrast to her one diamond predecessor, Victoria), and is never undiplomatic. People I know who have glimpsed the royals in the flesh are struck with the, well, professionalism, with which they carry out their role. And if the Queen despises some of the lesser of her subjects (which I doubt), she never, ever lets it show. That would not be within the meaning of privilege.
The Monarchy, at least in England, will survive a long, long time provided that its incumbents remember that this is what privilege means.