The Meaning of the Platinum Jubilee

Scene from video showing Queen and paddington bear at table in ornate room
The Queen shares tea with an undocumented migrant. (Photo:  Buckingham Palace/Studio Canal/BBC Studios/Heyday Films via YouTube)

In 1953, Sociological Review published a paper by two distinguished sociologists, Edward Shils and Michael Young, reviewing the ritual aspects of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. They argued that these enacted and celebrated the fundamental moral values that restrained egotism and held societies together: ‘generosity, charity, loyalty, justice in the distribution of opportunities and rewards, reasonable respect for authority, the dignity of the individual and his right to freedom.’ These values were so deeply embedded as to seem to be beyond dispute, part of the sacred rather than the profane. Quoting Emile Durkheim, they point to the importance of the periodic reaffirmation of this moral order. Constitutional monarchy is an institutional device for articulating values beyond the transient concerns of everyday politics.

Shils and Young examined the details of the Coronation Service and the associated communal celebrations. They noted, in particular, the orgiastic elements of popular response, as a reaction to the years of privation and drabness during World War II and the post-war economic crises. In this respect, there are many analogies with post-pandemic sentiment and the Platinum Jubilee. Despite the censorious pronouncements from some biomedical and public health figures, the British people seem to have been determined to enjoy to the full a four-day public holiday. Some of the detail, however, deserves closer scrutiny for the way in which the celebrations also pushed back against the sub-Ayn Rand selfishness and narcissism that has marked UK politics in recent years. The monarch cannot directly criticize the government of the day. Ceremonials of this kind are, however, meticulously planned and offer opportunities to create signifiers of fundamental values.

We might actually begin a week ago, with the State Opening of Parliament. This is the occasion when the sovereign travels to Parliament to initiate a new legislative session. The monarch is required to read without emotion a speech written by the government which sets out its planned programme of new laws. Traditionally, this was little more than a list of titles but, in recent years, has been drafted in more polemical ways. In 2022, the Queen excused herself from attending and the speech was read by the Prince of Wales. On the following day, she allowed herself to be filmed at a horse show, clearly having a very jolly time – she has a great, and well-informed, passion for horses and horse racing.

She chose not to attend the military parade of Trooping the Colour on June 2 but appeared afterwards on the balcony of Buckingham Palace next to her great-grandchildren. The theme of family was much stressed throughout. On June 4, Prince George and Princess Charlotte had their first walkabout with their parents in Cardiff – George might expect to inherit the title of Prince of Wales when his father becomes king. They were also highly visible at the concert of popular entertainment that evening. The black sheep – the Sussexes – were only seen at the Service of Thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral on June 3. Celebrity was notably absent – it was reported that a Kardashian had flown in, asked for a ticket to the concert and been refused!

Of particular interest might be the treatment of the Prime Minister. He was roundly booed on arrival and departure by the crowd outside St Paul’s Cathedral, as noted by the live commentator and international news organizations. The BBC, in its role as state broadcaster, chose, however, to use a different soundtrack for subsequent clips in its main news bulletins and to claim that cheers could also be heard. A number of columnists pointed out that this was not likely to be the result of political opponents camping out overnight to get the best view of the royal family. Johnson was also assigned a Bible reading from Phillipians 4:8 about the importance of honour and integrity in life, qualities that many observers have suggested that he does not possess in abundance. We could also remark on the fact that he, and his third wife, were seated immediately behind the Cambridge family at the concert as a very clear visual contrast.

While the Queen was absent from both the Thanksgiving Service and the Saturday evening concert, she made a conspicuous contribution to the latter in a pre-recorded sketch with the cartoon figure of Paddington Bear. As many, including his creator, have noted, Paddington is an undocumented migrant from Peru. While the stories are cosy and comic, they are also about the decency of the British family who welcome him, contrasted with a hostile neighbor, and about the ways in which the bear tries to navigate a different culture. The sketch begins with Paddington thanking the Queen for having him to tea – lines later clipped out by the BBC, which he then proceeds to disrupt while she smiles benignly, and culminates in them bonding over marmalade sandwiches and tapping out the introduction to the band Queen’s ‘We will rock you’ as the opening of the concert. The contrast with a government actively seeking to make migrants unwelcome is very apparent. It continued throughout the concert, which notably represented the diversity of UK society. Diana Ross as the closing act may not be the most militant symbol of Black participation but its significance should not be overlooked.

Shils and Young’s analysis of the Coronation has not gone uncontested and there have been dissident voices around the Jubilee, from a handful of republicans and from reparations activists. Nevertheless, the Platinum Jubilee celebrations are an occasion to recall their criticism of the intellectual snobbery of some elements of the intelligentsia. Michael Young, in particular, was deep in his study of the traditional working-class communities of East London and the paper has a number of vivid anecdotes of what the Coronation meant there.

“To the doctrinaire, to the ideological intellectual,’ the ordinary sociable man is a poor thing – narrow, unprincipled, unmoral. The ordinary man, is, of course, by no means as poor a thing as his educated detractors pretend.”

While the language may have dated – we might now prefer to think of the ‘ordinary person’ – the argument has not. The moral order matters and we would all be poorer without its periodic reaffirmation. As Shils and Young concluded, the very powerlessness of the Crown created an important constitutional check on the sectarian ambitions of politicians. In a very literal sense, the Crown could speak truth to power on behalf of the nation.

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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