Next weekend, our fair queen is celebrating 60 years on the throne. The government is rewarding me and everyone else in the UK with an extra day off work. The Economist reckons this will depress second-quarter economic growth by half a percentage point, but no one is overly concerned. The extra bank holiday is scheduled for Tuesday, to align with the late-May bank holiday that was postponed to the first Monday of June. The resulting weekend is four days long.
Monarchists and traditionalists are excited about the prospect of a party the like of which this country hasn't seen since the queen's coronation in 1952. Even the Silver Jubilee wasn't much of an event, and today only the footbridges along Hungerford Bridge and the guided walk in Hyde Park remind of it. But this year, with the public as sick of doom and gloom, of austerity and economic demise as it must have been a short few years after the second world war, the craving for celebration is strong.
The Jubilee weekend will be defined by bunting in red, white and blue, street parties where entire neighborhoods will gather to share tea, biscuits and Britishness, and by a flotilla seven and a half miles in length going down the Thames, one boat carrying the queen and 1000 more with celebrators. There will be fireworks and even a flame-spitting dragon. Two million spectators are expected to line the river and watch the pageant, many flying in for the occasion.
The monarchy is riding high in public opinion, though it is a curious beast. The kingdom doesn't have a king, for one. This never fails to crack me up. The queen herself is dignified and elegant, but these two attributes suffice to define her reign. No actions of hers will be remembered, nor any speeches. Everyone loves the queen, but she's just a puppet, the free will that she might have never a match for the obligations she's under. I wonder how the queen feels about that.
At the beginning of each legislative session, Parliament is formally opened by the queen. She is the head of state of the UK and gives, among much pomp and ceremony, a speech outlining the policies that "my government", as she has to put it, will implement. It is a sad spectacle, an assertion of power that serves no one. For what the queen says has been written and handed to her by the government. She is just a parliamentary intern for the day, a voice without will. Though protocol forbids it, the government should introduce the speech with the honest words "My queen will read out our policies".
The spectacle looks miserable to me and rather demeaning. I wouldn't read anyone's words out but my own, but the queen has no say. She has duties to perform and expectations to rise to. She does it with dignity and elegance, but there can't possibly be any excitement or enthusiasm. Is there a person behind the facade at all?
A highly praised exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery assembles six decades worth of royal portraits. Given my reluctance to pay for art in London, the city of free museums, I haven't seen the exhibition and have to make do with reviews and examples published in newspapers and on the web. There's general agreement that one has never had such a good look at the queen, from all sides and through the times. All we see, however, is the queen as a concept.