Brexit buggered Britain celebrates the Queen

Andrew Donaldson says that nostalgia is a fascinating narcotic


NOSTALGIA, it is so often said, is not what it used to be. But after the Platinum Jubilee weekend, it certainly seems a bit weirder. This was a deep wallow in yesteryear that demanded the suspension of critical faculties. Reality itself appeared to suffocate under the weight of purple cushions, bunting, new-fangled trifle, corgi orgies, crocheted crowns, star-studded variety concerts and, to top it all, that bear, Paddington.

The Guardian’s sketch writer, John Crace, nailed it when he suggested this wasn’t a country celebrating its monarch “so much as one making a virtue of its own collective psychosis”. Commenting on the TV coverage of Sunday’s events, Crace said: “We were repeatedly told that everyone in the Commonwealth loved Britain and the Queen. At no time did anyone attempt to address Britain’s difficult history of empire. This was a white-washed island story. One for the biscuit tins.”

As a republican, I should add, I have spent the past week resolutely unbunted—no Union Jacks fluttering here—but this is not to suggest indifference on my part to that “collective psychosis”; nostalgia, after all, is a fascinating narcotic.

As it happened, it was Brenda, as Private Eye first referred to the Queen more than 50 years ago, who appeared to offer an invitation for a retrospective trawl through her 70-year reign. As the weekend approached, we’d hear Ma’am on several occasions on the telly recalling advice she’d received from Winston Churchill, her first prime minister: “The further backward you look, the further forward you can see.” ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

In HM’s case, there is a lot to look back on. Thirteen prime ministers followed Churchill: Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. There may even be another one quite soon. But that is a matter for another day; this is about the old stuff.

At the time of her coronation, in June 1953, there was a suggestion that the young queen was about to lead Britain into the sort of gilded era associated with an illustrious predecessor with the same name. Clement Attlee, the Labour leader and Churchill’s predecessor as PM, put it thus: “It is our hope that Her Majesty may live long and happily and that her reign may be as glorious as that of her great predecessor Queen Elizabeth I. Let us hope we are witnessing the beginning of a new Elizabethan Age no less renowned than the first.”

The big difference here is that the first laid the foundations of an empire, while the second presided over its swift dismantling four centuries later. There was much that would be let go. Mark Twain’s account of HM’s great-great-grandmother’s diamond jubilee celebrations (Following the Equator, 1897) includes this pithy summation of the Victorian era’s imperial acquisitiveness:

“Great Britain has added to her real estate an average of 165 miles of territory per day for the past sixty years, which is to say she has added more than the bulk of an England proper each year, or an aggregate of seventy Englands in the sixty years.”

Twain was so bowled over by the scale of the pageantry of the jubilee parade that passed before dumpy Victoria in the Strand that he “gave up the idea” of describing it in words. “It was to be a spectacle,” the American wrote, “for the Kodak, not the pen.” Still, he had a bash at it. Representatives of all the world’s nations, he said, seemed to be represented: Africans, Indians, Chinese, Pacific islanders … “they were all there, and with them samples of all the whites that inhabit the wide reach of the Queen’s dominions”.

There were notable exceptions, Twain felt. “…Cecil Rhodes was not in the procession; the chartered company was absent from it. Nobody was there to collect their share of the glory due for their formidable contributions to the Imperial estate. Even Dr Jameson was out, and yet he tried so hard to accumulate territory … That immense new industry, speculative expansion, was not represented, unless the pathetic shade of Barnato rode invisible in the pageant.” 

It’s worth noting that the mining magnate Barney Barnato had perished at sea on June 14, 1897, eight days before Victoria’s jubilee parade. Twain, who had visited South Africa in 1896, declaring its politics as an “inextricable tangle”, was scathing in his assessment of Rhodes: 

“He raids and robs and slays and enslaves the Matabele and gets worlds of Charter-Christian applause for it … there he stands, to this day, upon his dizzy summit under the dome of the sky, an apparent permanency, the marvel of the time, the mystery of the age, an Archangel with wings to half the world, Satan with a tail to the other half. I admire him, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake.”

Between 1945 and 1965, the number of those who lived under colonial rule as a result of the actions of men like Rhodes fell from 700 million to just five million. However, as empire crumbled, the Commonwealth flourished. As the head of the 54-nation body, comprising of mostly former British colonies, the Queen has been tireless in promoting the organisation and its relevance in international affairs.

This has not been easy, and over the years she’s hosted some proper dirtbags, whether from the Commonwealth or further afield: Robert Mugabe, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Xi Jinping, Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, Donald Trump, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Indonesia’s General Suharto, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev … the list is a long one.

One favoured anecdote concerns the state visit by the Nigerian military leader Yakubu Gowon shortly before the 1975 coup that toppled him. It seems that, as HM and her guest shared an open coach ride in the Mall, one of the horses broke wind, engulfing the coach in a malodorous stench. Sensing Gowon’s discomfort, the Queen apologised profusely. “That’s perfectly all right, Your Majesty,” Gowon replied. “I thought it was one of the horses.”

There were the visits by South Africans. When Thabo Mbeki led a delegation to the UK in May 2000, I blithely suggested to colleagues in the media that they approach the Palace with inquiries about missing teaspoons and other items of silverware. However, I was assured that the then health minister, the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, was not travelling with the president.

I was genuinely baffled when Jacob Zuma cracked the nod in March 2010, and wondered whether Accused Number One had been invited to Buckingham Palace solely at the behest of Prince Philip, the Queen’s late husband. After all, the Duke of Edinburgh’s amused fascination with the exotic is legendary.

The ANC was apparently enraged that the British press were not suitably deferential in reporting on the visit. Butternut, described by one newspaper as a “sex-obsessed bigot” and a “vile buffoon”, complained to the Star that he was fed up with being judged and sneered at by a country with a hypocritical attitude towards its former colonies.

It was different, of course, with Nelson Mandela. The Queen and Madiba wound up on first-name terms. “She calls me Nelson so I call her Elizabeth,” he said of their relationship. But their first meeting was reportedly quite awkward. Mandela had apparently gatecrashed a Commonwealth meeting hosted by HM in Zimbabwe in 1991, at a time when the British government still viewed the ANC as a terrorist organisation. The Queen made light of the situation, thereby avoiding what could have been a “diplomatic disaster”, according to a Channel 5 documentary.

Nostalgia is by definition a fundamentally anti-progressive phenomenon, one that has been on the rise in recent years. The belief that the past was a better place is profoundly nationalistic, and is the very stuff of populism. It was the force behind the invasion of Ukraine, a yearning for the past glories of the Soviet Union.

It drove Trump’s campaign to make America great again. In South Africa, we see it in claims of those who insist life was better under apartheid, and we see it in those “revolutionaries” who yearn for a return to the “Struggle”, that fabled era that was betrayed and disappeared with the drawing up of the Constitution. 

The survival of the monarchy depends on such nostalgia. Brexit-buggered Britain, now a plucky island nation facing extraordinary odds once more, thrives on it. But, elsewhere, the schtick is wearing thin. As Elizabeth II’s reign draws to a close, questions on the Commonwealth’s future arise. 

Wealthier members, like Canada and New Zealand, still retain the Queen as their head of state. However, the new Australian PM, Anthony Albanese, has announced that he intends severing ties with the Crown and making his country a republic. This follows indications by at least six Caribbean member states that they plan on removing the Queen as their sovereign after Barbados became a republic last year. 

Removing Brenda from your postage stamps and currency does not however amount to a departure from the Commonwealth, which is after all an organisation in which the world’s smaller countries can make their presence felt. In 2018, Prince Charles was appointed his mother’s designated successor as the head of the organisation. It’s not going to be easy, following in her footsteps, and there may be a yearning for the good old days when Ma’am was at the helm.

Travel bugs

There is chaos at the airports, and British holiday plans are in disarray. Simply put, there are more flights than short-staffed control centres can handle. Government here has blamed the aviation industry for failing to replace the jobs they shed during lockdown. The industry, in turn, blames government for refusing to loosen Brexit-related immigration rules to allow the transfer of European workers to deal with UK shortages. It’s a mess, with flights being cancelled even after passengers have taken their seats now almost a daily occurrence.

One take-off, however, the authorities hope will proceed as planned and without incident is next Tuesday’s 7 000-kilometre haul from the UK to Rwanda — the first flight in the government’s controversial plan to relocate asylum seekers to the central African nation where, according to the Home Office, “they will be able to rebuild their lives in safety”.

There is some disagreement about this, and charities that support asylum seekers are reportedly documenting a number of suicide attempts among those threatened with deportation. As an Iranian due to be “off-shored” on Tuesday told The Guardian: “This is not what we ever expected of Britain. We all fled our home countries for one reason only – because our lives were in danger. We hoped that coming to the UK would save us but it looks like we were wrong about this.”

Those ingrates who have escaped the horrors of Yemen or Syria or wherever only to be relocated in Rwanda should understand they are participating in a “world-leading” project. Following in the footsteps of Speke and Burton (to the source of denial, so to speak), they will not only “overhaul the broken asylum system and break the evil people smugglers’ business model” but are likely to generate further discussion on home secretary Priti Patel’s disdain for refugees and her penchant for smirking at the less fortunate. 

More turbulence

There is justifiable anger at the cack-handed questionnaire that Ryanair has been handing out to South African passengers to prove their nationality before allowing them to board aircraft in the UK and Europe. 

According to reports, the budget airline has been telling SA passport holders they will be turned away unless they complete the test, which is only available in Afrikaans. Travellers who spoke to the Financial Times said they were “humiliated” by the exam, which Ryanair said had been prompted by an increase in cases of fake South African passports.

The questions are indeed troubling. Passengers were asked, among other things, to name the current president, list three of the country’s official languages and to identify the country’s largest city. Little wonder, then, that in her hard-hitting “analysis” of the controversy, the BBC’s Southern Africa correspondent, Nomsa Maseko, admitted that she could only answer five of the test’s 15 questions. (That’s a pass—more than 30 per cent correct!)

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), the regulars were easily able to come up with more relevant posers: When a Metro cop is thirsty, how much money does he or she want? How many times have Carl Niehaus’s parents died? What is the Zulu word for “elbow”? Any South African not knowing the answers shouldn’t be allowed to leave the village, let alone be jetting around Europe.