A Jubilee for the Commonwealth – and beyond
Recently I took a flight to my native Malaysia to celebrate my mum’s 79th birthday. I knew that, since I am currently living in London, a birthday present that screamed BRITAIN was in order — a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ notepaper set wrapped in tartan and placed in a Harrods shopping bag, say, or silver tea caddies in the shape of double-decker buses. At one of the tourist shops in Heathrow, my eyes fell on a shelf of bone china Diamond Jubilee plates all emblazoned in gold, many with HRH Elizabeth II’s visage beaming from the centre. I bought one.
On the flight, I fretted — was it really that clever, or diplomatic, to celebrate one elderly woman’s birthday by giving her an object commemorating another old lady’s anniversary? I needn’t have worried; my mother was elated. She beamed at the plate that beamed at her. ‘Oh, I didn’t know the Jubilee happened at the same time,’ she gushed, mistakenly thinking the royal event occurred on the day of her own birthday (a supposition I didn’t refute). She added, ‘Next time can you get me something with William and Kate on it?’
I contemplated my future visits, shuttling Windsor paraphernalia from London to Kuala Lumpur. I also contemplated something else — the fascination the Queen exerts over people who aren’t her subjects. My mother is unique in many ways (this topic would require another article), and doubtless there are many people around the world, especially in ex-colonies such as Malaysia, who feel that Her Majesty represents an era they’d rather forget. Yet I think my mum also taps into a universal feeling.
Last month, for instance, a Ugandan war orphan called Lydia Amito broke with protocol and gave Her Majesty a hug. She had been singing for the Queen as a member of the visiting Watoto children’s choir. ‘I was so excited about meeting the Queen,’ said the ten-year-old. When news of Lydia’s embrace spread back to her home in northern Uganda, the villagers were thrilled.
In the US — a land that can bring Windsor worship to almost alarming levels — a poll last year showed the Queen having an approval rating of 61 per cent, more than the 46 per cent President Obama was receiving in a separate survey. Then there are the islanders in the Pacific who literally worship the Queen and Prince Philip as gods.
Subliminally we seem to regard her as the world’s queen. You need only say ‘the Queen’ and people will assume you’re referring to Elizabeth II of Britain, rather than Sonja of Norway or Saleha of Brunei (though I’m sure they’re both wonderful in their own way). The citizens of nations with monarchies are of course loyal to their respective kings and queens, but when it comes to a royal planetary figurehead, ER seems to be it.
What accounts for her international popularity? So broad is its sweep that we often forget how remarkable it actually is. When the British empire crumbled, global opinion might just as well have swung the other way: ‘You’re no longer queen of us, so why should we feel any kind of goodwill toward you?’ could instead have been the general feeling. This has patently not been the case.
Perhaps it lies in Elizabeth’s poise and dignity during the years of decolonisation. As piece by piece the empire broke off, Elizabeth remained a binding symbol, a kind of centripetal force. People may point out that she didn’t actually do much, but that is precisely the point. She didn’t emote, she didn’t sentimentalise, she didn’t vulgarise. She just held herself together while everything else gave way. Forget the Lloyds bank spin-off or the possible exit of peripheral nations from the eurozone — during her reign Elizabeth II calmly oversaw the biggest break-up of an enterprise the world had ever seen.
Greatly aiding Elizabeth’s strength of personality is the British monarchy’s sense of public relations. By this I don’t so much mean PR (though there’s that) but just good ol’ relations with the public. And for the British royals, ‘the public’ can stretch to mean just about everybody in the whole world, which is why I suspect they get quite a lot of affection back. The Queen undoubtedly receives letters from all corners of the earth, and there’s an effort to send responses to as many of the correspondents as possible, no matter where they hail from — the UK, the Commonwealth or beyond. And this year, the members of the royal family are fanning out all over the globe in Jubilee goodwill missions.
There’s another reason why Elizabeth is a de facto global monarch. It’s because we need one. Nobody wants a return to the days of absolute rulers but — this is something we don’t like to admit in our practical, republican age — there’s always a place in our hearts for regality. Just as prosaic things such as a cup of tea or taking a walk to the shops can be uplifting for their sheer simplicity, so too do we need pomp and splendour. Indeed, they are two sides of the same pound coin.
We need to know that there are some things — and people — always above the fray. Nor would international female ‘icons’ such as Angelina Jolie, Madonna or Hillary Clinton do the trick — they’re too mired in our own vicarious, grasping existences. If Elizabeth didn’t exist, we’d have to invent her. We must not let in daylight upon magic, not just for the royals’ sake, but for ours.
I’ve sometimes wondered — what does it feel like to be queen of the world? It must be a terrifyingly lonely experience. At the centre of this huge Jubilee jamboree lies just a single, and singular, woman. Elizabeth must know she’s appreciated not only for the post she upholds, but also for her person. For, more important perhaps than being a queen, she strikes me as being a lady.