Coming from a country where everything historical and cultural is deeply divisive and contested, one cannot help being impressed at the ambiance in the United Kingdom as Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee celebrations take place. Here, now, there is a sense of oneness — façade or not.
The role of the monarchy is no longer clear-cut for the Brits, and yet there is still something almost magical about the pomp and ceremony I have seen in the streets and homes of fierce republicans and devoted royalists this week.
There is indeed, for most people, a great pride at the tradition and heritage that embodies Britishness and the country that has had a profound effect on global affairs over centuries, be that good or bad.
The country, its remaining territories — which mostly make up a web of money-laundering tax haven islands — and the Commonwealth nations who still submit to “rule” by the Crown, have been given a long weekend to mark the queen’s 70 years on the throne.
A celebratory weekend in glorious sunny weather was a welcome reprieve for the Brits, who have been weighed down by Covid-19, royal scandals, inflation, food price increases, the Russian war in Ukraine and Partygate.
On Thursday evening, to mark the start of celebrations, beacons were lit across the country. Bagpipers were present at many of the lightings, playing Diu Regnare (Long to Reign), a tune composed for the jubilee.
At Hadrian’s Wall, near Scotland, which once marked the border of the Roman Empire, the main beacon was lit by Roman-style archers firing flaming arrows into a giant bonfire.
Earlier on Thursday, in London, more than 1 450 army personnel took part in a military band pageantry parade dedicated to the queen. At the same time, at least 70 aircraft, including attack helicopters, fighter jets, the iconic Spitfire and the Red Arrows flying squadron, displayed their talents during a 10-minute flight near Buckingham Palace.
The queen and the royal family watched from the palace balcony, waving at the tens of thousands of Britons and travellers who broke out into uncoordinated singing of God Save the Queen and Happy Birthday.
The cost of the festivities has been absorbed by the taxpayer — an estimated £28-million (R544.5-million).
My 13-year-old niece, who lives on social media platform TikTok, questioned the expense, saying that the money would have been better spent helping thousands of UK families instead of celebrating just one — born into or married into an immense privilege that even the ordinarily privileged would not understand. She was visibly angry at the “injustice”.
My 16-year-old nephew, a keen gamer like most boys his age, asked why the money couldn’t be used to assist Ukraine, or even to prop up Turkey’s ailing economy. I am in awe of their understanding of global affairs but, besides that, their views have been reflected in polling data.
According to UK media reports, polling by the UK-based market research firm YouGov has found that there is a change of opinion concerning the monarchy in recent years among the age group 18 to 24.
In 2019, 46% of that age group was in favour of having a king or queen, while 31% wanted to have an elected figurehead. By 2021, 31% supported the monarchy, while 41% wanted to be able to vote for a head of state.
There has long been public debate about what will happen to the monarchy when the queen dies. Will Prince Charles be the last monarch, or will it be Prince William? Will young Prince George, now just eight, ever be crowned? And does any of this matter anymore.
A republican movement, while still small and known as “Republic”, managed to raise £43 000 (R850 000) ahead of the jubilee to erect a number of anti-royalist posters in the leading city centres of Aberdeen, Glasgow, Newcastle, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Bristol and Birmingham. The posters encourage citizens to “Make Elizabeth the last #AbolishTheMonarchy”.
The future of the monarchy is a political question but, for these festivities, money is talking.
The jubilee, like the monarchy, is considered a net-gain for the UK economy. The official tourist board of England, VisitEngland, estimates that £400-million (R7.7-billion) would have been spent over the long weekend alone, with a total of £1.2-billion (R23-billion) being injected into the economy because of the jubilee.
The queen is still revered by many here. Her face adorns walls and windows, scenes you would only otherwise see in dictatorships or places with single-party rule. Think China, Russia, North Korea. But, unlike the horrors of fascist leaders both past and present, the 96-year-old monarch projects an image of motherhood, of a gogo who is calm, modest, compassionate and, yes, frugal.
Her personal wealth is estimated to be about £365-million (R7-billion) but she is perceived to have a genuine heart for the “common people” and not “flashy”.
Another of my relatives, who has dedicated his life to the UK workers union movement and is a firm opponent of privatisation — a Brexiteer who speaks about the need for worker-controlled industries and proudly wears the Economic Freedom Fighters beret we once bought for him — even likes the queen. But only the queen.
I come from a country with a bruised and fractured history, where race, language, class and location dictate what is celebrated and what is not. Thus watching much of British society rally around a single symbol made me slightly envious, but also proud of the Brits. It also provided valuable insight into the issues we face.
In South Africa, we have no real single galvanising symbol. From the flag to the national anthem to the legacies of figures such as Nelson Mandela, Shaka Zulu, Jan van Riebeeck and Hendrik Verwoerd, everything is contested, nothing is settled.
This is both our charm and our handicap. A vibrancy in debate and the need to convince others is pivotal to who we are. Cultural symbols are important, and how we move forward with them will dictate our future.
The UK’s monarchy is centuries old, and its existence is at the apex of that society. Removing it from British life will not be easy. It is a deeply embedded part of British character and identity. Renouncing the institution will create a void, and those pushing for such must decide whether to accept the devil they know, or the one they do not.
The end of apartheid was among the greatest societal changes in the world in the last half century. It was an unequivocal necessity of which we should all be proud.
We removed our devil, but even in removing an oppressive government and being on the right side of history, as we are now, we have witnessed tectonic shifts in how our society lives.
Some societal structures have been marginalised and destroyed, others have simply disappeared, and into that void, vultures have crept, and thrived — be they in the guise of a former president, sociopathic politicians or businesses oozing greed.
Change, as the saying goes, can be good, but it will never be easy.
Jonathan Erasmus is a former investigative journalist who works as a researcher. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.