Melanie Phillips

4 June 2012

This was the Britain we fear we've lost

Published in: Daily Mail

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What a fantastic, glorious, emotional, quite overwhelming spectacle. It wasn’t just that it was flawlessly executed. It wasn’t just that, as billed in advance, it would provide a sight that people would never have seen before.

It was also a triumphant restatement and reaffirmation of a Britain that people love so deeply but which so many fear may have been lost forever.

Well, here it was still, in all its touching magnificence.

Once again, the monarchy allowed people to connect through powerful symbolism to their collective history and their identity as a nation. And what a stroke of genius it was to use the river to make that visceral connection.

An estimated one million people packed onto the banks of the Thames to cheer the Queen as the pageant of some 1,000 boats proceeded in perfect formation past the great landmarks of the city.

The monarch being rowed in pomp and grandeur up the river is an image which goes straight back to the Middle Ages. 

The Thames, etched into England’s consciousness with engravings, drawings and paintings showing its central role in the life of the nation, was historically used for coronations, processions and pageants of great splendour.

Yesterday’s pageant was not just magnificent but deliberately conjured up images which connected the Queen to sources of pride for both the monarchy and the nation, as well as to the Queen’s own history.

The grand row-barge that led the procession was called Gloriana, the name given to the first great Queen Elizabeth who presided over a triumphant period in English history.

The barge which carried the present Queen was called the Spirit of Chartwell, conjuring up the home of Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister who saved Britain from tyranny and who welcomed back the new Queen from Kenya after the death of her father, King George Vl — and whose own body after his death was borne in state on the very same river.

The bells of the churches lining the route of the pageant rang out as the Queen passed by, just as they had done in medieval times — and also when World War II, in which the then Princess Elizabeth had played her own role in defending the nation, came to an end.

Putting this pageant onto river boats touched yet further deep and emotional chords. The great artery of the Thames is a symbol of the now too-often overlooked fact that this island kingdom was always a maritime nation.

How poignant and moving, therefore, to see the vast flotilla of row-boats, with their oars dipping and their flags from the Commonwealth fluttering, passing the Queen’s barge as the bells started to peal.

This beautiful and majestic river, so dearly loved by so many, was now transformed into an exquisite spectacle.

Behind the royal barge, the 50-strong contingent of ‘little ships’ which had come to the rescue of the nation in its darkest hour at Dunkirk were, in addition, a powerful reminder of the period when the very best of the British character had been on such epic display.

And so was it not incidentally rather sad — if not emphasised in an intentionally pointed gesture — that the Royal Yacht Britannia, which the Queen loved so much and whose launch yesterday conveyed her to the Spirit of Chartwell with yachtsmen from Britannia standing to attention on board, was so cavalierly decommissioned?

For Britannia was not some kind of extravagance, as was so vulgarly assumed in philistine political circles.

It was a symbol of Britain’s maritime identity, which helped cement that identity through such symbolism — like the monarchy itself.

That’s why yesterday’s pageant was far more than just a tremendous spectacle. It’s why this whole four-day Jubilee celebration is more than just an excuse for an enormous national party. It’s why it’s more even than just a celebration of having achieved six decades on the throne.

Its real value lies in the wonderful transformative effect upon the nation of the monarchy itself, which through such events brings out once again the best in people.

It does so by bringing the nation together in what unites rather than divides. As people said yesterday over and over again, it’s the coming together that’s so joyous. They suddenly find that they all have something that they share and want to celebrate together.

As a result, the nation’s distinctive identity reasserts itself in all its idiosyncrasy.

How very British, after all, that the whole thing was carried off with such aplomb yesterday in the pouring rain, with the stoical British — in their macs, cagoules and even camping out overnight under their umbrellas — refusing to allow the weather to dampen their enjoyment and determination to celebrate.

And what they are celebrating, they say, is their Queen and their country. For through such an opportunity to express their pride in their monarch, they are able to express their pride in their country.

And how! Everywhere you look there’s red, white and blue bunting, red white and blue balloons — and, of course, everywhere the Union flag.

If the emotional resonance of the spectacle tightened the throat yesterday, it was surely this unaffected pride of the people in their Queen and their straightforward but no less deep love of their country that really brought tears to the eye.

This is because there is such an enormous, latent, pent-up feeling of patriotism — that most decent and inspiring of emotions which, in our degraded public discourse, has now become all but forbidden to express for fear of being damned as a racist  or xenophobe.

Patriotism is thus sneered at by the kind of people who unfortunately tend to dominate our culture and who lose no opportunity to be sour and mean-spirited about the monarchy and the people it so invaluably serves.

The fact is, however, that the monarchy is immensely popular. Having been through an extremely rough patch in the days after Princess Diana’s death, it is now supported by some 80 per cent of the people.

Indeed, the Queen is far more popular than any elected politician. A recent poll suggests that four times as many think she is more concerned than politicians about their own problems and three times as many believe she is more in touch with ordinary folk.

This is really quite astonishing, since she is the grandest person in the country — and, in addition, says virtually nothing in public, with her views remaining a mystery.

Yet the reason is surely obvious. Through a number of ways — such as her Christmas broadcasts, and what she says and does on her numerous walkabouts and at her garden parties and the like — she shows over and over again how deeply she feels for and cares for the people.

Politicians don’t care for the people. They merely want something from them — their vote. The Queen wants nothing from anyone. Her life really is devoted to serving the public.

In addition, people feel that the Queen is grounded. She is a country woman, rooted in the unchanging landscape of Britain and its natural rhythms.

Look at what she wears — practical clothes that never change. She demonstrably does not, and would never, bow to fashion.

She is therefore utterly, totally, eternally reliable.  She embodies authenticity in an age of charlatanry and spin. Which all goes to show how all the talk of ‘toffs’ being out of touch is so very wide of the mark.

The deeper reason people love her — and they do love her — is that she represents a steadfast point in a tumultuously changing, often disturbing or terrifying world. People feel that so much of Britain’s identity and culture is being lost or trampled underfoot.

For example, the country seems to have lost to Europe much of its ability to govern itself. Its economic outlook is dire. It appears to be steadily destroying its ability to defend itself by military means. The fundamentals of education, faith and family have splintered. It no longer seems to know what its role in the world should be.

The Queen stands above all of that. She embodies characteristics that never change and that the people deeply admire.

She stands for steadfast Christian belief, duty and self-discipline. And as the embodiment of the nation, she reflects these virtues back to the nation and makes it feel better about itself.

In an era of deepening flux and chaos, to have such a ‘rock in a stormy sea’ becomes ever more important to people.  So the notion that in an inexorably changing society the monarchy becomes ever more irrelevant is the exact opposite of the truth.

The popularity of the monarchy is thus very largely centred on the personality on the Queen herself. She is simply a royal superstar.

Listen to those who have occasion to speak to her on a regular basis — Prime Ministers, the Archbishop of Canterbury — and you hear them all testify to her remarkable wisdom, keen observation and kindness.

The people see other virtues in her with which they closely identify. She is stoical, she never makes a fuss, but just gets on with it. That’s the spirit of Britain: just getting on with it.

Through her iron sense of duty and service, she is also selfless. The nation feels loved and supported by someone who so demonstrably cares for it. This is an unconditional commitment. Unlike politicians, the Queen has never, would never, let her people down.

This is why elected presidents simply can’t compete with a constitutional monarch.

The first duty of the embodiment of a nation is to unite that nation. Anyone who is elected is necessarily partisan and divides a nation.

Of course, the popularity of the monarchy can never be taken for granted. Prince Charles and Prince William, if they ascend to the throne, will themselves have to work hard to maintain it.

People often say — only half whimsically — that they hope the Queen will never die. While she is on the throne, they feel safe. After that, they fear, the Britain they know and cherish really will disappear.

The Queen is a person of cast-iron faith — not just religious faith, but faith in her people and her country. She therefore stands for hope in the future.

It is perhaps that characteristic most of all that not just her heirs but all who aspire to rule us should learn from her majestic example.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie