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Why I’m celebrating the Jubilee
Celebrating the Jubilee is like supporting Britain at the Olympics or Eurovision; liberals misunderstand the nature and functions of British patriotism
I have not always been a fan of the monarchy, yet this weekend I shall celebrate Her Majesty’s long reign, toasting the Queen at events with friends and family. Whilst many of my compatriots will celebrate, smaller proportions of academics will do so. Almost a century ago, Orwell wrote that English intellectuals would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save the King’ than stealing from a poor box. Hyperbole aside, this remains true. And given that I am at odds with my peers, I should justify my reasons for celebrating.
Celebration of one’s culture is a healthy element of political citizenship. Liberals recognize this. Though liberals recoil at Western patriotism, associating this with football hooliganism or Trumpism, attitudes towards developing countries are revealing. Indulgence of straightforward chauvinism aside – liberals seldom condemn misogyny and homophobia in the global south – liberals tend to look benignly on quotidian displays of cultural affiliation, such as religious observation. As liberals grasp, this is because esteem for one’s culture fulfils functions; such regard promotes confidence in fellow citizens and shared institutions, bolstering the social capital which scholars link with wellbeing. The insights of self-help are often misapplied to politics, yet this literature recognizes that respect for oneself is an important part of emotional health, those with poor self-image being inclined towards negative behaviour. This seems politically true. Burke wrote that love of our platoon was the first principle of public affections, perceiving scorn for these attachments to be the root of disorder. In concrete terms, I doubt that poor national self-image predicts socioeconomic wellbeing, though I have not seen relevant research (let me know if you know of any).
And this is relevant to those who are concerned with class politics. Poorer citizens tend to have greater need for their platoon, reflecting economic precarity and less formal education. In these conditions, esteem for one’s culture provides consolation. Whatever the West’s historic sins, lower-class patriots are scarcely responsible for these. More practically, this attitude handicaps liberals in elections. In the last British election, the Labour Party learned an object lesson.
Of course, mindless love of one’s culture leads down dark alleys. In recent years, right populists have embraced unthinking nationalism, often achieving destructive results. A famous Polish Eurovision entry, sympathetic to the PiS government, put this most succinctly: Co nasze jest, najlepsze jest, bo nasze jest [What’s ours is the best, because it’s ours]. Yet reasonable patriots reject this. Burke advocated conserving the best parts of the past, negative aspects being disregarded. Clearly, this approach is inconsistent with unthinking nationalism.
Now those elements of one’s culture that should be disregarded depend upon subjective criteria and must be agreed democratically. Admittedly, the positive aspects of the British monarchy are scarcely prominent. Some argue that constitutional monarchies promote liberal democracy and social trust, but I am unconvinced; a causal relationship is difficult to establish. And whilst I admire the Queen, one can scarcely say that her work is politically crucial. On the other hand, the monarchy is a near harmless institution. Liberals have long tried to indict it, yet their arguments seem tenuous. The monarchy has no serious political power; links with colonialism are weak; other alleged wrongdoings are trite. If I were to design a political system from scratch, I would not include a monarchy. But abolishing the institution would create more problems, constitutional ruptures plunging countries into uncertainty and discord; in recent years, Brexit has demonstrated this. Resultingly, one is left with a monarchy which embodies the multiple platoons which form this country; waving the flag for the Queen is like cheering for the English (or Welsh!) football team. Indeed, the Jubilee will be more savoury than the Qatari World Cup.
And liberal shame in the monarchy is revealing. At root, the notion that one’s country is uniquely bad is another form of exceptionalism: the belief that one’s country is different to others. This may not be as noxious as its jingoistic cousin, but still reflects a curious obsession with these isles. Having lived in several European countries, I prefer to see Britain as a typical country. Some of its institutions are good, some are bad, some are ugly; this is just like other countries. And given that most countries celebrate their culture, it seems odd to deny this to Britain. Finally, let us not overlook the woman at the heart of the celebrations. For seventy years, the Queen has ruled with good sense and decency, bolstering the image of Britain and avoiding political interference; aside from preserving the monarchy, she has helped conserve liberal democracy. I think that this is worth celebrating.
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