June 2, 2022

There is no more poignant phrase among the posh and skint than the acronym FHB: “Family Hold Back”. It’s issued on social occasions, when some expensive delicacy has been procured for a celebration, but funds are short, the supply is limited, and family members are instructed not to guzzle it all. That way, guests can enjoy the sense of feasting abundantly, and the family isn’t shamed by a palpable lack of magnificence.

I dare say a fair few families will be instructed to hold back over the coming weekend, as Britain gears up for four days of Jubilee celebrations. My small Shires town is revving up: covered in bunting, with a marquee and events planned all weekend. But there’s an odd lacuna at the heart of the celebration — something brought into focus for me by an official Jubilee book my reception-age daughter brought home from school last week.

The book sets out to explain the Jubilee, the monarchy, and its history to primary-school pupils. It takes in the Queen’s duties, her family tree, royal residences and activities, and much besides. For anyone with a basic grasp of English history, though, the book has a striking narrative gap — one with considerable bearing on the form of bourgeois downward mobility that results in “FHB”.

The book devotes a double page to the Commonwealth, along with many other mentions in passing. But the question of how the Commonwealth came to exist is briskly despatched. “Its roots go back to the 16th century, when Britain began to expand its Empire,” we learn. The following sentence fast-forwards straight to the end of the story: “During the 20th century, countries that had been part of the British Empire began to gain independence”.

That’s all it has to say about the British Empire, directly at least. “Civil War” gets two mentions in the index; the Commonwealth gets 14; the British Empire doesn’t merit a single one. An immense narrative spanning four centuries, in the course of which Britain shaped the modern world, is relegated to prequel status for the Commonwealth.

Meanwhile, traces of empire are present throughout the book, not least in the framing device of a dialogue between a Jamaican great-grandmother and her dual-heritage great-granddaughter. And in reality, as in the book, empire is also everywhere — but like in the book, mostly indirectly. For there are few more awkward topics in modern Britain.

Much of Britain’s imposing architecture was built with the wealth of empire: the Royal Societies, the museums full of now-controversial exhibits taken (often forcibly) from conquered peoples around the world, and many of the royal residences themselves. Even the union with Scotland is a by-product of empire, a kind of pragmatic merger after Scotland’s failed attempt at founding its own colonies.

But perhaps the defining feature of Elizabeth’s reign has been the disintegration of the colossal empire held by her predecessors: a process that began in earnest a few years before her coronation, with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1948. Then 1956, four years after she was crowned, delivered the first brutal lesson in Britain’s enfeebled post-war condition: the Suez Crisis. After that the empire crumbled rapidly: the Caribbean colonies were mostly independent by the early Sixties, and Britain’s remaining African outposts were independent by the end of that decade. By 1981, the process of decolonisation that began after the Second World War was largely complete.

And this, in turn, triggered the decline of that old British bourgeoisie now sliding from grandeur toward bulk-buying at Costco, and hissing “FHB” at a greedy teenager behind the kitchen door. This is the class that once earned its wealth and status running that empire but lost such opportunities over the long slow decolonisation of the 20th century.

Subsequent changes in the world’s distribution of power and wealth can be seen in ongoing alterations to our imperial-era architecture. Many Regency and Victorian frontages now exist only as a facade on modern steel-and-glass structures that house the international media and financial services companies of the modern age. Something analogous has happened, too, to the old imperial bureaucratic class: its scions have pivoted to leveraging their cultural capital as refined concierges to modern international billionaires.

Further down the food chain, this class has either adapted by shoving its children into law, estate agency or finance, or else slumped back into suburbia, with only a few bone-handled knives to recall the past. In most such cases, this is borne in silence: for no one is permitted to mourn the passing of so ambivalent a thing as the former source of Britain’s wealth and glory.

Throughout this transformation, the Queen has carried on serenely as though the loss of the largest empire in history were a matter of no great concern. The grand pageantry has continued, within a little ring-fenced zone in which we all pretend not to notice Britain’s loss of stature. But despite being treated as ceremonially exempt from Britain’s collective post-imperial FHB, the Windsors are prime figureheads for this England: chief exponents of a class that would sooner die than cause the family to lose face by gorging a limited supply of some treat reserved for honoured guests.

My hunch is that, in reality, royal lifestyles are, behind the scenes, quite drab in places: all gilt and splendid rooms up front, but with bathrooms in need of updating and central heating that doesn’t always work. Many photos of the royal family’s private living spaces have the characteristic aesthetic of a once-ascendant British ruling class: good-quality chintz wearing in places, dark mahogany, dog hair on the carpet. (I privately suspect Meghan Markle disliked her new life as a princess not because of media pressure, but because being real English royalty turned out to be not nearly as swanky as being the figurative Hollywood kind.)

In this sense, Queen Elizabeth’s reign is profoundly representative of the collective British post-war condition: rattling around in draughty halls that are a source of pride, a disproportionate drain on resources, and sometimes also an embarrassment. For while there was beauty and grandeur, we can’t weigh the cumulative significance of the British imperial age without taking into account the violence, looting, displacement and sometimes staggering cruelty that also formed part of that story.

What’s less clear, though, is how to reconcile these facts while retaining a sense of ourselves as a whole nation. When Oxford professor Nigel Biggar argued that we should feel a measure of pride as well as shame in our imperial past, 60 Oxford academics wrote an open letter furiously dissociating “Oxford scholarship” from Biggar’s stance.

Given this acute sensitivity, it’s understandable that my daughter’s commemorative Jubilee book would swerve the whole messy business by simply leaving it out. Is this right, or a dishonest erasure? Does our monarchy even make sense if we can’t talk about the empire?

From a purely abstract point of view, I have some sympathy with those who argue we should wrestle openly with the complexities of our national past. But in this specific context, I try to imagine my daughter’s multi-ethnic class taking home either a rabidly jingoistic Jubilee book, or else a full-throatedly condemnatory one, and how they would respond. Whatever historiographers may argue, at ground level it’s not easy to see how we can build a shared story from fierce partisanship on such a contested and often still-painful past.

It’s also true that this doesn’t have to matter. Small schools, like small towns, push against the modern urge to balkanise on identity lines. It’s infinitely more difficult to be identitarian when you can’t muster the numbers. Small-town life relies, to a large extent, on ignoring disagreements in the interests of rubbing along together.

This is perhaps the particular gift and genius of our reigning Queen: she has served, for 70 years, as the ceremonial embodiment of this sometimes grim willingness to pretend everything is fine, and to focus on what we have in common even when everything is falling apart. And she may yet prevail: if Elizabeth II spent her reign presiding over a national feast that’s grown steadily sparser, her Platinum Jubilee has a chance to leave children of my daughter’s generation with a wholly different picture of Britain to the one my grandmother saw at her coronation in 1952.

My daughter, born into a different century to the one that saw the British Empire fall, has no understanding of the history and politics that attended its rise or collapse. She won’t grow up with her grandparents saying “Keen-ya” and her mum saying “Ken-ya”, and awkwardly piecing together the emotional and political payload of that single vowel change.

For her, and her classmates, the Dorling Kindersley book really is accurate in its representation of what the Queen stands for now. The DK Queen is all multi-ethnic pluralism, charities, and a neutered and heavily devolved Union. It’s a carefully pruned version of what past Kings and Queens have represented, and a willingness to look past the bloody and difficult bits, at least while children are little. We might read this as aggressive political correctness; or we might read it as taking a cue from the Queen. No Prince Harry-esque headline-generating controversy, no cringy efforts to “open up” with the attendant probability of riling someone up. Just sailing on as though the difficult bits aren’t there.

And there’s a case for this. It’s probably true for every family alive that some subjects are best not broached at big family gatherings. We don’t always resolve differences, feuds or ancient offences by talking about them. Sometimes the wiser course is to grow scar tissue around the wounds, and get on with needing one another.

I’ve argued before that, politically speaking, a constitutional monarch is something like the authoritarian grit in the political oyster, whose paradoxical result is not less but more democracy. Perhaps the contradictions and discomforts of our post-imperial condition are another impossible circle our monarchy can help us square — by determinedly representing the idea of a unified nation, in the hope that we might eventually manage to become such a thing.

I hope my daughter’s class grows up remembering the Jubilee as a moment where we set aside the uncomfortable stuff, so the celebrations could belong to everyone. And I hope this serves as at least one memory to hold, against the corrosive narratives of unshakeable moral taint and oppression that increasingly permeate at least the progressive account of our common life.

It’s probably too early to tell whether this is possible, or even wise, on a topic so immense and sensitive as a collapsed empire in whose ruins we now live. But among all the other things families can hold back is the temptation to stir up old quarrels.

And that’s the example Elizabeth has offered us for seven decades: an individual willing to hold back nearly all of herself, in order to serve as a sufficiently neutral figurehead for Britain’s rapidly changing national family. She has spent her 70-year reign as a living emblem for the hope that we might find a way of living together, with dignity, amid those ruins. I may be terminally idealistic, but watching my daughter and her classmates singing together at the school’s Jubilee picnic, I think it’s possible her effort has not been in vain.