Our political writers can pretend they know what makes us tick: a response to Matthew d’Ancona

Here’s how Matthew d’Ancona could’ve started his article for today’s London Evening Standard, ‘Our political class can now work out what makes us tick’. But he didn’t.

So what was all that about? As the waves of media fervour subside to reveal the bleak promontories of Austerity Commentariat, let us pause and ask what this extraordinary four-day Jubilee told us about journalists, and their obsession with extrapolating about our national life and character.

There then follows some delicious cognitive dissonance. First, an acknowledgement of what is to follow:

The lazy reflex for political observers is to extract the lessons that suit them.

There then follows Said Lazy Reflex:

What [lessons] did we learn? That the British are a splendidly oxymoronic, joyously contradictory people: querulous in their stoicism, sentimentally attached to the stiff upper lip, nostalgic and yet addicted to modernity, impatient for change as they queue politely for a taste of history. We love Madness playing on the roof of Buckingham Palace, and Heston Blumenthal picnics in its gardens. We understand that pop music, one of the greatest forces of dissent ever invented, is now part of our heritage. We love traditional values in a modern setting — and the reverse. We contain multitudes.

I don’t think I actually disagree with a word of that. I’m just not sure that any of these contradictory traits are peculiarly British, so much as globally ubiquitous. It’s a typically insularly British trait, however, to assume that we Brits are special, unique in craving a trad/mod fusion of our values and settings.

Yet this exemplum of hype is as nothing compared to the encomium with which the article concludes:

No public figure on the planet understands her people as well as the Queen. … the politician who neglects the nuance of this beautiful tapestry will struggle to last a year — let alone 60.

As it happens I’ve a lot of time and respect for Matthew d’Ancona, so I hope in years to come (or even weeks) he’ll reflect on that line with a rueful shrug, and admit, “Sorry, I just got a bit carried away by the moment.”

HM The Queen (or HRH The Queen, if you’re the BBC) has done a fine job as a constitutional monarch, I’d be the first to recognise… albeit through ever-so-slightly-gritted republican teeth.

But to argue from the basis of remaining firmly neutral as a fixed point of continuity in our constitution — however regally and gracefully — that she can therefore intuit the wants and needs of her people better than any other public figure is not only fanciful but entirely beside the point. As a constitutional monarch the Queen has no real power (as monarchists are quick to rebuke we impudent republicans); and without power there can be no accountability. It is a lot easier to be popular when you’re in no position to make decisions. Just ask Nick Clegg.

So to sum up Matthew d’Ancona’s panegyric: people want lots of different things simultaneously, and it’s easier to be liked if you’re an impotent figurehead. Who’d have thunk?

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Hear, hear. I thought the same thing reading the article this evening. D’Ancona is as much an ‘ideologue’ as those he decries.

  • “It’s a typically insularly British trait, however, to assume that we Brits are special, unique in craving a trad/mod fusion of our values and settings”

    No, no, no. Everyone does that. Although, ironically, you are exhibiting the insular exceptionalist attitude in assuming that the British are uniquely insular and exceptionalist.

  • Stephen Tall 6th Jun '12 - 9:58pm

    Touche, T-J, except I didn’t say it was an exceptionalist British trait, just a typically insular one.

  • The idea that the jubilee and monarchy was universally popular needs to be challenged. Sure there were lots of people in London, but there were lots in London on 15 Feb 2003, weren’t there? Many people I know avoided the jubilee altogether; the majority of those who didn’t were over 60, or Conservative or both. Or ex-pats, harking after something of the homeland. I would say roughly a third of folk are monarchists, while another third are indifferent, and the rest are fairly skeptical, once you get them talking. Their voice is however rather sidelined by the impression given in the media that the monarch is above reproach, when in reality her record is questionable. Stephen is right to question Ancona’s view that she understands her people better than politicians – she has shown a number of lapses, the most serious being over the death of her daugter-in-law, when Blair arguably rescued the monarchy. She has resisted scrutiny of her role, and it took a political campaign to get her to pay income tax. I suspect that Republic.org.uk, which has only been going for 6 years, and was effectively illegal before the 1998 HRA, will become increasingly effective, and the monarchy may well be in serious trouble within a generation.

  • Like many, I suspect, I watched it because it was there, and living as close by to the Mall as i do, I thought it stupid not to go out and sample the mood at the end of the concert, as the fireworks went bang. The mood was strange; lots of foreign visitors, a few mad folks from ‘the provinces’, but when the national anthem stated lots of people looked lost, and very few seemed able to sing; I don’t: its’ not really my anthem, its all about saving the Queen, I suspect from some of my ancestors.

    I had a couple of recollections as the four days went by. It was spectacle, and as Ceasars know, spectacles are always good for diverting the crowds. All the video footage of her meeting ‘admired people’ could not remove the stain of her meeting, and riding in a carriage, with Ceauşescu. And my final one, is of a scene in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ when Jacques takes the country man to see the spectacle of the King and his court, knowing that it will take only a little push to turn admiration into blood thirsty vengeance.

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