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The Great Golden Jubilee Swindle

Resist peer pressure and buy a copy of Paine's Common Sense argues Andrew Stevens in answer the jubilee fest.

As mathematics alone suggests, 25 years on from her Silver Jubilee in 1977 and the Queen's Golden Jubilee is upon us. However, the Queen Mother's death was something we all anticipated and it is typical of the hazards of modern journalism that events can often overtake the composition of a piece such as this, as they did. Still on the back of almost two decades worth of press scandal, the monarchy's PR machine has grown both in size and necessity and its well-rehearsed plans were put into action for real on the 30th March.

The nation was duly treated to scenes of sycophancy from the previously indifferent who now considered themselves to be loyal subjects, uttering "She was like a mother to me" to any passing news team that happened to be on the South Bank while her body lay in state for what seemed like an eternity. The previously hostile Sun (which had by now succumbed to its proprietor's well-known republicanism) went reverential for all things monarchist as columnist Chris Rycroft-Davis attacked "the modernisers who despise our past and rewrite our history to make it politically correct."

A few months ago it was all so different and in a few months time it probably will be again. In February there were dire predictions of Jubilee Apathy possibly lending itself to being a non-event of minor proportions, with no 1977-style street parties. Of course the Tories, who rely on the few remaining Lord Lieutenants and other such relics as their membership base, duly chided the Labour government and the socialist red tape (planning permission, liability insurance etc) that will prevent Her Maj's loyal subjects from throwing street parties in her honour.

Predictably, in a series of banal gestures, on-message Ministers were dispatched to the Today programme to rebut the very suggestion and the Whips Office urged Labour MPs to write to the local press in their constituencies to proclaim their unwavering affection for the decaying institution that is the British monarchy. Peter Mandelson didn't parade around with a Bulldog in 1997 for nothing you know. The prime beneficiaries of this are not the monarchist lobby, an increasingly dwindling cause, but the same beneficiaries of low turnouts in General Elections - the great morass of insouciant people too lazy or busy to even be cynical about these things. Despite the presence of archaic, crumbling and remote political institutions such as the monarchy and what passes for a Parliament these days, 2002 will not see a surge in republicanism.

It is a truism of modern politics that those under 35 won't vote for a political party at an election, yet will make the effort to evict a member of the Big Brother household after a raging discussion of each contestant's merits, demerits and behaviour down the boozer. This situation can only bode ill for the unreformed monarchy, for as Burke argued, an institution without the means of reform is without the means of its conservation.

Similarly, why buy mugs and tea towels of the Windsors when you can consume the latest goings on of the Beckham family? Both republicanism and monarchism are destined to battle it out on the political stage in an almost empty theatre. There are those of course who claim that being pro-monarchy is the 'new' radical and that in these trendy republican times, being anti-monarchy is, like, so predictable. For all the cogent arguments of rationalism and democracy against the existence of the monarchy and its reliance on the hereditary principle, when push comes to shove the committed monarchists in an alliance with the 'Why bothers?' and the multitude of advocates for the tourist-led economy myth will continue to triumph in the debate.

Gone are the days when an eye could produce a solitary tear at the mention of a soldier slain on a foreign field in defence of King and country. Those who polish their medals on VE Day may continue to act as ardent advocates of the institution of monarchy on sentimental grounds but they are as numerous as the advocates of monarchy on more political grounds. Those who used to be content to receive the lesser British Empire Medal for selfless conduct in the frontline public services saw no irony as those born to rule become Commanders of the British Empire for mere pen-pushing in Whitehall.

Those who associate new Labour's fervour for modernisation with any kind of threat to the monarchy should look no further than Tony Blair's self-proclaimed love affair with the monarchy, which manifests itself in lukewarm proposals for Lords reform and the refusal to create a more egalitarian Honours System.

The Parliamentary Labour Party is packed with those who view the monarchy as the dignified element of our unwritten constitution, whereas republicans largely keep their views to themselves for the sake of their careers. Continuing the time-honoured tradition of stamping out anything remotely radical for fear of appearing anything but patriotic, a recent All-Party Parliamentary Republican Group had to hold its meetings in secret for fear of falling foul of the whips.

For some reason, the local Labour Parties that submit republican resolutions to Labour Conference year on year, never get to see their Delegate step up to the platform and utter the words "Conference, the British monarchy is an outdated institution." Even supposed leftwing maverick MP Austin Mitchell was led to add his name to the shameless recent EDM that called on the BBC to bring back the national anthem at the close of programming every evening, despite the fact that it is now a 24/7 channel. Following the Queen Mum's death, it has become fashionable to espouse 'Republicanism Lite' (see Michael Jacobs's numerous opinion pieces in The Guardian and Independent advocating the Scandanavianisation of the monarchy), which allows progressive sorts to appear in touch with the public mood on the monarchy but acknowledge that change is overdue.

The monarchy's hold on Fleet Street has been on the wane since it succumbed to the temptation to write up the troubled marriages of Princes Charles and Andrew, or report on the peccadilloes of the minor royals, in the 1980s. The red top tabloids vacillate between republican condescension of royal behaviour and the cost to the nation of their upkeep, and the promotion of rabble-rousing royalism such as Jubilee street parties in the name of winding up "lefty councils" (The Sun, 23/1/02). Other representatives of the fourth estate such as the Mail and Express are firmly wedded to monarchism and the spewing of its propaganda and find it their duty to sniff out the "Republican tendency" in the Labour Party, despite an occasional rebuff of the odd royal for their lack of dignity. Following the furore that surrounded the BBC's perceived lack of respect for the Queen Mother upon her death (the absence of a black tie around Peter Sissons's neck), the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts even went so far as to argue that the socialist influence of those renowned revolutionaries Gavin Davies and Greg Dyke was at hand. And where would we be without the Telegraph and its Court Circular of royal engagements, read daily with toast and marmalade by retired Colonels in Bagshot and Esher?

The monarchist lobby has been reduced to a rump of organisations gathered around the Right - the Monarchist League and Teresa Gorman's Freedom Association. Without a base in Britain's political parties, Britain's republicans congregate around organisations such as Republic, the campaign founded in the 1980s when proclaiming the virtues of a republic could get you a broken nose in any East End boozer, and find solace in Guardian editorials. The Guardian's campaign to repeal the Act of Settlement, surely a measure favourable to the touchy-feely multi-faith leanings of new Labour, is viewed by the government as not being worthy of priority legislation, lest it open the Pandora's Box that is the absurd nature of the monarchy and everything it represents.

Pub bores the nation over can point to examples of obsolete legislation that permits husbands to dunk their wives in the Thames for adultery or bear arms in the City of York, yet no legislation is as patently absurd as some of the Acts designed to prohibit republicanism in Britain. Admittedly the bulk of this was conceived in the Middle Ages during the era of absolute monarchy when far worse things were on the statute books, but even in post-Enlightenment Victorian Britain the armed forces were given the privilege to kill in order to quell republican assemblies and in fact still hold that privilege.

New Labour's love affair with the monarchy isn't about patriotism or loyalty to the Crown but simply a tap that can be turned on and off to suit the popular mood in order to reflect in glory or dole out criticism. The arguments against monarchy are not predicated in modernity but an enduring belief in government of the people, for the people and by the people, rather than the fairytale notion of any divine right to rule. Like atheism, republicanism is something growing in adherence, but whose adherents (unlike Christians) find no reason to belong to any kind of collective body. Doubtless, many a republican parent will feel obligated to allow their children to participate in an episode of involuntary monarchism this summer.

My advice is to resist the peer pressure of more impressionable parents, avoid the deference fest and buy the child a copy of Tom Paine's Common Sense instead - the lack of embarrassing photos will be appreciated immensely a few years down the line.

May/June 2002