That was the jubilee, that was. Well, almost. The celebration is not over yet. Lots of people had a good time and their enthusiasm overflowed. Lots of others were less bothered but enjoyed the show all the same. For a minority, it was historic and glorious; for a different minority, infantilizing and awful. But the official revelations now are almost ended. On Monday, it will be back to war in Ukraine, the cost of living and Tory MPs’ letters.
How much, if at all, has Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee mattered in the larger scheme of things British? It’s easy to wax pompous about this on both sides. Enduring monarchical splendor? Merely bread and circuses? It doesn’t help that jubilees are such odd events, contingent and ephemeral. They follow no defined pattern, and have no constitutional significance. Those of us with gray hair are now enjoying, if that’s the right word, our fourth royal jubilee in 45 years. But our children and grandchildren may never see another one.
There are, however, three chewable things to say about royal jubilees. They have all been on display again this week. The first, whether you like it or not, is that jubilees are memorable, shared events for very large numbers of our fellow citizens. The second is that the content and resonance of jubilees have changed in significant ways over the years, and each has a particular character, including this platinum one. Finally, and without necessarily meaning to, jubilees also tell us something about the current state of our country, its institutions and its culture, especially but not solely as reflected in its relationship with the monarchy.
The first of these points has been clear to me since childhood. Although raised in a defiantly non-monarchist household, I never forgot my grandmother’s vivid 1960s account of being taken, aged 10, to watch Queen Victoria pass through London on her diamond jubilee in 1897. She said she had never been in so noisy a crowd . She was surprised to see the Queen was so small, which is something that people also say about Elizabeth II today. She remembered being very disappointed that Victoria was not wearing a crown. Most strikingly of all, she claimed that the Queen looked her in her eye as her carriage passed.
Who knows if that last bit was really true? But it is a haunting image – the Empress Queen, riding through London a distant century and a quarter ago, looking straight at a close relative whom I remember extremely well. It feels almost as if I saw the Queen myself. It’s hardly surprising that it all made such an impression on my grandmother. For she was not alone in feeling involved. Victoria’s jubilees in 1887 and 1897 were genuinely national events, though probably not in Ireland. They also set templates that survive in some respects today, including the lighting of beacons across the country and the central role of the outdoor tea party, often provided free by thousands of local parishes.
Where the jubilees of Victoria differed from today was that the British empire was absolutely front and centre. The 1887 jubilee was Britain’s first great imperial celebration of itself. Imperial might was again the leading note in 1897, although in a more uneasy guise for some. The historian Robert Ensor, who witnessed both jubilees and who later became a Manchester Guardian leader writer, says that in 1897, with the South African war just around the corner, the imperialism “no longer commanded universal assent, compromised as it now seemed to many by a rising passion for aggression and conquest”.
The empire was still at the center of George V’s silver jubilee of 1935, in which the present Queen, then aged nine, also played a part. According to Ben Pimlott’s biography of her, the 1935 jubilee was “an imperial celebration whose splendor presaged that of the 1953 coronation of her, with which it was often compared”. As in the Victorian jubilees, vast military and naval reviews played central roles in the proceedings. This week’s flypasts were as nothing by comparison. “Here the Empire was a great family, the gathering a family reunion, the King a paternal head,” wrote the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald.
Imperial legacies still lingered in Elizabeth’s silver jubilee in 1977, when the Queen made extensive tours of the Commonwealth as part of the celebrations. But in 2022 the imperial connection is vestigial, as is any attempted parade of British military might. Prince William’s ill-starred tour of the Caribbean this spring showed how much has changed. It ought to prompt Prince Charles, if he is smart, to make clear he would be happy to give up being head of any state other than this one.
This jubilee has been a celebration not of the Queen’s possessions and dominions, nor of her own dysfunctional family or any supposed family of nations, but simply of herself and her long life as monarch. If all jubilees are to an extent one-offs, this first and possibly only platinum jubilee in British history is even more of a one-off than the others. It is proving to be a very peculiar experience. Unlike its predecessors, even the diamond jubilee of 2012, this one is suffused with the knowledge of the passing of the old order. Everyone, the Queen included, knows it will be the last of her reign de ella, even if she lives to 100.
Tom Nairn wrote in the 1980s that the monarchy allows the British to look into an enchanted glass and imagine that we all still live in the imperial past, even though of course we do not. In much the same way, the 2022 jubilee has been a magic mirror in which we can allow ourselves, if we wish, to imagine the world after Elizabeth, even while Elizabeth still lives. This jubilee has been a kind of soft-focus funeral for an era.
What does it tell us about Britain today? If you read accounts of earlier jubilees, the impression is always of a unified and flag-waving country enthusiastically honoring the long-reigning monarch and the institution of monarchy. There are some who have seen nothing more than that again this week. But it isn’t true, is it? Goodwill towards the Queen may be near universal, but it does not extend to her her heirs in the same way. Monarchy is less popular now than a decade ago. More people told YouGov last month that they were not interested in the jubilee than said that they were. Increasingly, the flags we wave – if we wave them at all – are not just those of the union but of its component, straining parts, not to mention those of Ireland and Europe.
That doesn’t make us an incipiently republican people, although there’s more of it around than some imagine. But it does make us a divided one, and the booing of Boris Johnson outside St Paul’s yesterday is one small sign of that. It has been a happy jubilee in all kinds of ways, but the inhabitants of this island are struggling more than ever to find a larger and more shareable idea of Britain that we can all embrace.
Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism