When I was a child, everything would stop for the Queen’s Speech. No matter that Christmas Day lunch was running late. We would all get down from the table and sit dutifully around the television, glasses charged with something bubbly. Three o’clock was one of those markers in the day.
Afterwards, my Mum would comment extensively on the message and how lovely the Queen looked. I would grumble about how ridiculous it was to have a monarchy. And the argument, mostly good-natured, would return with us to the table and to the Christmas pudding. Truculent teenage republicanism was all very well in theory, but, according to my Mother, certainly not sufficient reason to absent oneself from the Queen’s Speech. Everybody watched it. When we were younger and squabbling, she even mooted the idea that presents should wait until after 3pm. That shut us up.
Last year, viewing figures dropped by a million. Still 6.3 million people watched it, narrowly beating Michael McIntyre’s Big Christmas Show and Strictly to the top spot. But when I watched the Queen’s Speech as a child, I had the impression that the whole country was sitting around the television. And when she spoke, she was speaking to us all — even bolshie Republicans like me. And back then, she pretty much was. Around 28 million people watched the Queen’s speech in 1987.
So when Jeremy Corbyn failed to remember the time of the Queen’s Speech in a recent interview, bumbling on that his family watches it — “It’s on in the morning, usually we have it on” — it wasn’t his bullshitting (a useful word meaning somewhere between a lie and a mistake), that bothered me, nor even his Republicanism.
What bothered me was his casual disdain for one of those moments of tradition in which the country comes together and feels as one.
Can Britain ever be united again?
My Mum was wrong. Not everyone watches it. But insofar as a nation is an imagined community, her good-natured Royalist propaganda is one of those little building blocks of our imagined togetherness. On this way of looking at things, royalty is a point of reference around which we all might rally, despite our many differences. It reminds us of our place in the historical run of things. And gives us a symbolic — and non-executive — expression of our basic loyalty to each other. There are other institutions of the establishment that are supposed to buttress this sense of communal solidarity: the Church of England, the Judiciary, and supremely, of course, Parliament itself.
Yet was there ever a time when the act of going to the polling station felt less like an act of communal solidarity and more like some angry and tribal denunciation of the evils of the ‘other side’? Divided in so many ways — Remain/Leave, North/South, young/old, city/country, Left/Right, even the Union itself is threatened — never before has the sense that we are all in it together seemed so weak, never before has the bonds of our imagined community felt important yet so ineffectual.
This election campaign has been just plain nasty, grubby, personal. So much malice has informed the way each side looks at the other. Perhaps it was ever thus. But before we had a much stronger sense of an ‘us’ to fall back upon, a sense that the political other might also be a part of some shared something that is called being British.
But even this has now been problematised. Since the Brexit wars, the very idea of the nation has come under suspicion as never before. What was once the basis of our sense of togetherness has been besmirched by accusations of racism and prejudice. What used to be the background thing we all had in common, notwithstanding other differences, has now become yet another point of contestation, another opportunity for division.
Brexit is going to drive us all mad
What is at stake here is something that is captured by the long-standing association of the nation and the family. Those who advocate open borders often argue that there is a moral problem with this metaphor because it produces a kind of unwarranted favouritism towards members of one’s own nation, just as one might have towards members of one’s own family.
But I see what is denigrated here as ‘unwarranted’ favouritism as being one of the most important aspects of the nation as family metaphor. Within an ideal family — and I emphasise ideal — each member is loved and valued irrespective of their achievements. The old and the young, the successful and the not so successful, the good, the bad and the ugly are all embraced.
My love for my children is absolutely partial, and not based, for example, upon how clever or even how good they are. It is entirely “unwarranted” — as Biblical story of the prodigal son illustrates. And the basis of all “unwarranted” favouritism is being a part of somebody irrespective of one’s deserving it. Since Aristotle, the nation-as-family metaphor has been an argument within political philosophy for considering each member of the nation to have a fraternal relationship with the other, a connection deeper than politics or religion or even whether you like someone or not.
What one might call “warranted” favouritism, on the other hand — otherwise known as meritocracy — is a much more dangerous thing. A part of the moral construction of capitalism, it believes that person should somehow deserve the advantages they have in life, that esteem should be distributed on the basis of talent or hard word or something like that. These are good things to have. But just as within a family, they are insufficiently inclusive to form the basis for membership.
Will our Brexit conflict ever be resolved?
But it is precisely this idea of having something in common — something we do not deserve, but something family-like that links us together despite our differences — that has been threatened by the Brexit culture wars. No, it is not race or religion that achieves this — though within a religion like Christianity our common inheritance of faith is able to hold together extraordinary political differences. It is a loyalty to each other, expressed in and through our common institutions, shared history and so on.
In dismantling or discrediting the institutions that have embodied this sense of Britishness, and in challenging the very idea that the nation is a moral project of togetherness, we have eroded the very connections that allowed us to fight with each other but still recognise in each other something like the membership of a common family.
Christmas is a time for family rows. But the problem is never the row. Rows are often good, air-clearing exercises — just as long as there are well-established ways of making up, saying sorry, admitting foolishness and so on. All of which requires a sense of common life, of some basic emotional solidarity. And if we lose this then the row never really stops, it just simmers on, sapping the life out of everything. The same is true with elections. If we cannot get past ‘Tory racist scum’ and ‘Hamas sympathiser’ to some deeper sense of “us” then we are lost indeed.