It has been a busy weekend for some here in the UK. The Queen has been on the throne for 60 years – a pretty amazing feat by any standard. There have been street parties, a pageant consisting of a thousand boats on the Thames, a concert, a special service in St Paul’s and a heck of a lot of flag waving!
I have to be upfront here: I am not a royalist. I have huge respect for someone who, through sheer accident of birth, has had to give up any pretense of a personal life and has done that with grace and patience. But I cannot willingly accept that accident of birth should give anyone the right to rule over me or my country. In the UK that makes me a republican I suppose – but not the kind of Republican that makes the news in the States!
I love my country, quirky and old fashioned though it may be. It has taken me a while to realise that I love this small and imperfect island, but I do. For me being English comes first – an even smaller and quirkier part of this island. But I am also British. And I am European too – and yes, I’m proud of that too.
I have watched the pageantry, knowing that the scenes will become a part of my nation’s history. I have been moved by some of it. I have also cringed at some of it – the awful Royal Barge that looked like it came straight out of a camp lap dancing club for example. Even the Queen, who at 86 must surely have really needed to sit at some point, refused to avail herself of the huge ugly red fluffy throne!
What has moved me to write today hasn’t been the rights or wrongs of the celebrations, but the news that I read yesterday evening.
One of the great songs from our history is the stirring Rule Britannia. There is a line that says “Britons never will be slaves”. A proud statement from a proud people. But this weekend we learned that some of the staff working at the event were unemployed people, made to work there for nothing or risk losing their unemployment benefits. Not only this, they were expected to sleep under a bridge in the open air and then change into uniforms in public – including the women. To me, slavery comes horrifyingly close to enforced, unpaid labour with no choice for the person concerned. On reading that news, my heart sank and I was ashamed that this could happen in my country. I might expect it of some countries where human rights remain in dark ages, but in Britain?
We, the tax payers, must have paid a fortune for the pageantry of the weekend. The gold on the Royal Barge wasn’t fake, for example. The consensus was that celebrating 60 years of service was a worthy cause and, despite my republicanism, I don’t begrudge that expenditure. But surely the few extra pounds required to pay staff the minimum wage, put them up at a hotel and find them somewhere half decent to change wouldn’t have made an appreciable difference to the final bill.
Another issue worth noting was that the police had approved a demonstration by republicans, who wanted to voice their opposition to the monarchy. In a nation proud of its history of free speech and democracy, allowing this protest was right and proper. But on the day, hundreds of the protesters weren’t allowed through to the agreed meeting place.
For me, these two things ruined the whole weekend. They reveal what seems to be a growing separation in the UK between the country we claim to be and the country that our government is making us become. Human rights and respect for all, regardless of class or status are fast becoming theory rather than fact. And as for democracy – we seem to be taking giant strides backwards to a time when the landed gentry and the wealthy do what they want at the expense of those at the bottom of the ladder – the poor, the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly. We had a glimpse this weekend of a side of Britain that is ugly, self-interested and anything but democratic. Small glimpses, granted – but vitally important.
We have seen a nation proud of its monarch this weekend. But I am more proud of the rights and equalities that our people have fought for and won – and democracy and protecting the vulnerable and poor are way up the list. This weekend my nation failed its people, because in allowing a small number of people to be treated so badly, we pave the way for many more to follow to them.