• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

A nation too timid to fly the flag

Five years ago, Britain’s then chancellor Gordon Brown announced plans to launch a British Day. It was intended to be “unifying, commemorative, dignified and an expression of British ideas of standing firm in the name of liberty”.

The idea was quietly dropped in October 2008 after Brown became prime minister. “Pack up the Union Jacks, cancel the street parties and tell the pet shop that you won’t be needing that bulldog after all,” wrote Roland White in The Sunday Times.

Not to be deterred, the Brown government commissioned the organisation Sing Up to publish a collection of 30 songs that every 11 year old should know. Sing Up’s Gareth Malone described it as a “hot potato culturally” and added that “you have to be realistic” and you “can’t be too culturally imperialist about it”. In the end officials chose to evade the controversy a common song book would have raised and opted for establishing a “song bank” of 600 songs. If a society is too embarrassed to publish a national song book, how can it expect its people to sing from the same sheet?

As a sociologist, next week’s royal wedding provides valuable insights into what makes British society tick and how far civic pride has been undermined by the culture wars. Throughout the 20th century, royal occasions served as a barometer of community opinion, and of the public’s identification with nation and crown.

In 1977, more than 10 million people took part in street parties to commemorate the Queen’s silver jubilee. A similar number celebrated the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in 1981.

Thirty years later it is the turn of their son Prince William to recapture some of the magic associated with such grand occasions but there is little magic in the air. The British public appears confused and uncertain about expressing cultural and national affiliations.

Some well-meaning folk tell me they don’t want to wave the flag in case it offends people who don’t feel British. When I talk to a local community activist in Canterbury, she says she feels more comfortable organising a routine public event for the community than for a state occasion.

My friend shows me a leaflet distributed by the Gondar Agamemnon Residents Association in northwest London. It advertises a street party to be held on the same day as the royal wedding. But it does not mention the wedding and there is not the slightest hint that the street party has anything to do with the celebration of Kate Middleton and Prince William’s marriage. Perhaps they are embarrassed about appearing to be enthusiastic about a royal wedding or maybe some of the organisers feel the celebration of a distinctly British event is inconsistent with the workings of a multicultural society.

The sense of “we are not sure what we should be doing” is widespread. That is one reason why, in contrast to previous occasions, there has been a marked drop in applications for street parties.

Only 4000 such applications have been made in England and Wales, which means a large number of communities have not bothered to apply.

Only one-third of councils have received a single application. Take the city of Bolton, in northwest England. In 1977, there were 427 Queen’s silver jubilee parties. In 1981 there were more than 100 such events to celebrate the wedding of Charles and Diana. A year later, 90 public events were held to commemorate the 50 years the Queen had spent on the throne. And now there are merely four applications to hold street parties to raise a toast to the soon-to-be-wed royal couple.

A similar pattern is evident elsewhere. Take the city of Oxford, the royal capital during the English Civil War. Last year 54 street parties were organised as part of ordinary civic celebrations but it has received only five applications for street parties for the wedding. So what’s going on?

Ardent royalists have embraced the occasion with relish and regard the union of Will and Kate as a welcome reminder that the institution of the monarchy is flourishing. But their response conveys more than a hint of defensiveness about their cause. One big difference between today and 30 years ago is that critics of the monarchy have become far more confident and prominent in the discussion of the event.

The representatives of an otherwise marginal republic campaign group have sought to make political capital out of the evident absence of enthusiasm for the wedding. Graham Smith, campaign manager for the group called Republic, gloated on its website: “This will come as terrible news for the palace press office who’ve been desperately trying to whip up enthusiasm for the wedding.” He added that only “a tiny minority of zealous monarchists” are interested.

In truth, neither friends nor foes of the monarchy resonate with the public imagination. The absence of public enthusiasm for organising street parties does not translate into support for Republic’s campaign.

In the shops, mugs of Will and Kate beaming at one another are clearly outselling the anti-monarchist cups that acclaim: “I couldn’t care less about the royal wedding.”

However, what is really fascinating about this event is how it exposes the fault lines that divide opposing sides in Britain’s not so silent culture war. Although those who are hostile to a public celebration of a royal wedding constitute a tiny minority of zealous anti-anything-British warriors, they enjoy a surprising degree of affirmation from sections of the media and from the chattering class.

Even the BBC has been in regular discussion with groups opposed to the monarchy to ensure they have an opportunity to express their views. Suddenly celebrity republicans are in demand by the media. Some newspapers have opted to treat the wedding as a target of derision and sarcasm. For example The Guardian decided that running the headline “The magic of the monarchy. The royal moment has come” would be a hilarious April fool’s joke.

On the other side of the cultural divide more tradition-minded journalists and politicians have sought to counter the cynicism by exhorting the public to show its support for the event.

The contrast of the British media’s handling of this wedding with that of Charles and Diana is striking. It is important to recall that even back in 1981 Diana was treated as a celebrity and the media was totally committed to framing the wedding as a feel-good, magical moment.

With the media behind her, she was destined to become the People’s Princess and her ascendancy was often hailed as representing a break from the stodgy, stiff-upper-lip caricature of Old Britain.

The British government has been taken aback by the relative absence of public enthusiasm for this event. Prime Minister David Cameron has urged the nation to “get on and have fun” and organise street parties. Some of his ministers have blamed local authorities for making it difficult for people to apply for permits necessary for closing down a street.

Red tape and the usual health and safety procedures have been criticised for undermining displays of public celebration. There is little doubt that numerous local authorities have done their best to complicate the task of organising street events.

One resident from Rochester told me she simply gave up applying after realising the cost in time and money that the whole process would involve.

But since when have local bureaucrats managed to stand in the way of a public demonstration of mass enthusiasm?

Others claim there was simply not enough time between the announcement of the wedding and Friday’s big event to organise street parties. Still others argue that by turning April 29 into a public holiday, people have four days off work, providing them with a perfect incentive to take a trip abroad.

Apparently hundreds of thousands of Brits have welcomed this unexpected break and have opted to take a holiday. But whatever the truth regarding these claims they cannot account for the relative absence of a sense of occasion behind the event.

What the confused public response to the wedding celebration shows is that people are not sure of their voice. The most significant influence that accounts for this confusion is the dramatic diminishing of the moral status of British identity within the nation itself. During the past decade numerous official attempts to celebrate British identity have failed to get off the ground.

What’s really at issue is not the number of applications for holding street parties but the difficulty that British society has in giving voice to a common purpose. The urgency of the regaining of civic pride is the key question that has emerged from discussion surrounding the royal wedding.

It is worth noting people can learn to find their voice and sometimes with surprising speed. It only takes a few confident leaders to remind people it is OK to celebrate your way of life. But for that sentiment to emerge, real leadership is needed.

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