Queen Elizabeth II is visiting the Royal Academy of Arts in London today – yet another stop on the road to the forthcoming Diamond Jubilee of her reign. It is now exactly two weeks before the apogee of the biggest royal event of the 21st century. The main focus will be during a specially extended Bank Holiday Weekend on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th of June.
To give all of Her Majesty’s good subjects ample time to express their feelings, the British Government (Labour was in power back in 2010) has done what is very much familiar to us in Russia – it extended the bank holiday week by an extra day to June the 5th . The Spring Bank Holiday – the last Monday in May – was moved back to June 4th, which is also the Queen’s official birthday. Some not-so-royalist British economists calculated that an extra day-off would reduce the country's GDP by 0.5% in the second quarter of the year. Not exactly polite, especially given that the Queen is sort of a British national treasure herself, but most probably true.
Sixty years ago, on February 6, Queen Elizabeth II was proclaimed sovereign of the Commonwealth following the death of her father King George VI.
Her Majesty is the oldest monarch in Europe, and in just three years she will surpass the reign of Queen Victoria, who ruled the British Empire for 63 years. Health permitting, in the spring of 2024 she could become the world’s longest reigning monarch, breaking the record set by Louis XIV, the Sun King, who occupied the French throne for over 72 years.
British royal traditions and customs are a curious thing. Official celebrations go by their own calendar. All British monarchs, no matter when they were born or acceded to the throne, celebrate their jubilees in early June. It is part of their royal prerogative.
Elizabeth became Queen in the winter of 1952, but her official coronation took place in the summer of 1953 after the end of the mourning period for her late father.
It was King Edward VII who introduced the tradition of celebrating royal birthdays on the first, second or third weekend of June in 1908. His Majesty was unlucky to be born in early November, when London is usually besieged by miserable rain and the cold. Realizing that his subjects were not going to be in an exultant mood standing in the mud on their King’s birthday, he made then what would now be called a great PR move.
Brits are great stewards of their history, monuments, culture and ancient customs. With few exceptions, the British abroad are genuine patriots who will not tolerate a bad word about their beloved islands, the monarchy, pubs, beer, football, Oxford, Cambridge, sausage, tea or democracy… But you can complain about the weather all you like.
Refusing to criticize your country abroad is an admirable quality. Yet Brits are very different at home. They lash out at everything that they would staunchly defend on the other side of the Channel, as if venting long-accumulated stress.
Royal jubilees – a couple of weeks before or after the celebrations – are especially good occasions for such release. Britain, and primarily England, gets excited and starts to judge the conduct of all royals, dividing into camps of advocates and opponents.
The more indifferent Brits want to keep the crown simply as a tourist attraction – like pubs, the Westminster Palace, the House of Lords, the black cabs, the Scots, the Tower, and the Lords….
Discussions about abolishing the monarchy are nothing new. They could be heard both before and after WWII, but became especially heated during the long reign of Elizabeth II.
The marriages of her sister and three of her children, with the exception of the fourth, Prince Edward, ended in divorces, scandal, or post-divorce scandal. This was the case with her sister Margaret, Prince Charles and Lady Diana, and Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Princess Ann divorced and remarried. It would be pointless to lay the blame on anyone, but there was infidelity, as well as sober and not-so-sober escapades of all sorts.
This is why in the 1970s and 1980s you heard the common refrain about “They behave badly, and we pay them for it.” All the same, the Queen herself has been a paragon of royal bearing – she has always been an ideal monarch both in character and conduct.
According to the Civil List (taxpayer funding for the Queen), Her Majesty receives 7.9 million pounds a year – the same sum since 2001.
In 2013, parliament is supposed to cancel the Civil List and pay a percentage of revenues from the Crown Estates. The portfolio of royal real estate, which is administered by the Treasury by law, includes enormous plots of land in different parts of Britain and the most expensive districts of London. The portfolio’s net worth is estimated at about eight billion pounds.
In 2010 (latest data) net revenues amounted to about 211 million pounds. From 2013 onwards the Queen (without her sons and grandchildren) will receive a portion of this sum for all official functions.
In reality, the overall cost of royal needs is much higher. Upkeep of official residencies, official trips, and security for the Queen and members of the royal family totals about 80 million pounds a year.
With a population of 62.7 million, this is about 1.3 pounds per subject a year, which is not much. Britain’s revenue from tourism is estimated at over 115 billion pounds annually.
If there is no Queen, court or other royal accessories, tourist revenue could drop by half – what else is there to see?
Decades of debate in the UK over keeping the monarchy have not changed anything, because the Queen is very much a part of national ideology.
One in five Brits wanted to abolish the monarchy on the eve of the Silver Jubilee. The ratio remained the same on the eve of the Gold Jubilee in 2002. And it is likely to remain unchanged well after the Diamond Jubilee. The most popular subject of pre-jubilee debate is how to make the monarchy the glue that holds Britain together in the 21st century, as it has in all previous centuries of its existence.
In effect, the monarchy is a kind of national idea for the Brits. George Bernard Shaw made a wry comment on the matter: “Kings are not born: they are made by artificial hallucination.” Yet this hallucination is part and parcel of British history and identity.