God help the Queen

She's reigned over us for 50 years, and soon she has to start celebrating the fact. But is it still possible to party like it's 1952? Or is the mystique of the monarchy now damaged beyond repair? Thomas Sutcliffe reports on the PR challenge from hell
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Visit the Golden Jubilee website and you will find a link to something called the Celebrations Toolkit. This sounds paradoxically utilitarian – a selection box, perhaps, containing fifty yards of bunting, a crate of champagne and four dozen assorted party novelties – but, when you click on it, it turns out to be a detailed logistical plan for communal revelry, complete with organisational flow-charts and a countdown checklist.

What it is, in other words, is a mechanism designed to convert an unrefined upsurge of feeling into an ordered expression of joy – to take the crude oil of monarchical sentiment and catalyse it into street parties, open-air concerts and children's fun days. And it begs a large question. Just how sizeable are the reserves? What's actually down there, under the overlying strata of media griping and constitutional debate, beneath the rubble of "drug shock" headlines, jowly royal portraits and disobliging biographies? Is this, as they say in the oil industry, a "dry hole" – one that won't cover its costs – or is there a pay zone down there, an untapped reservoir of popular gratitude that will explode at the start of June when a four-day weekend will mark the official celebrations of the Queen's Golden Jubilee?

Her Majesty has hit a gusher before: at the time of the Silver Jubilee celebrations, held in the high summer of punk in 1977, she is reported to have murmured wonderingly, after a particularly successful walkabout: "They really do like me." But the terrain she's drilling into now is surely less promising. There have already been rocky patches – noses put out of joint over who exactly will receive the medal traditionally minted on these occasions, a certain amount of nervous to and fro over a commemorative garden at Windsor, even a hint that Her Majesty might have to foot the bill for her own service of thanksgiving at St Paul's. None were signs of a promising yield from this particular field. The Celebrations Toolkit ends with a pertinent piece of advice: "Don't let the party fizzle out." Wise words, but there must be some anxiety, among those tasked to nudge the country gently towards a spontaneous show of affection, that the party might not fizzle in in the first place.

Things must have been easier in 1887. When Tennyson wrote his dreadful laureate poem, "On the Jubilee of Queen Victoria", he was able to take a robustly peremptory tone with Her Majesty's subjects: "You then joyfully, all of you,/ Set the mountain aflame tonight,/Shoot your stars to the firmament,/Deck your houses, illuminate/All your towns for a festival..." Perhaps that odd supplementary phrase "all of you" acknowledged that some might drag their feet and grumble, but even so Tennyson must have known that he could tap into a patriotic mood of confidence in describing the period of Victoria's reign: "Fifty years of ever-broadening Commerce!" he exclaimed, "Fifty years of ever-brightening Science!/Fifty years of ever-widening Empire!" How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen.

These days, in what Andrew Motion, the current laureate, calls our "complicated, cross-hatched" society, that kind of bell-ringing verse simply isn't an option. "It would be bonkers in this day and age," he says bluntly, "to write poems that are simply servile." Instead he has elected to concentrate his own Jubilee effort on a hymn in 10 verses, each of which offers a snapshot from the monarch's life. Its theme, he explains, is constancy through change: a traditional virtue of sovereignty but one that is not immune to change itself: when even The Daily Telegraph can publish pieces that frown critically at the Queen's conservatism, it's clear that there can be no casual certainties about what she represents to her people.

So it's hardly surprising that those involved in plans for the Jubilee – both at the Palace and at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – have been advancing with some circumspection. "If people don't want to celebrate, that's entirely up to them," said one Buckingham Palace spokesman, while going on to insist that their own geological surveys were very promising: 1,400 proposals for Jubilee events have been received at the Golden Jubilee office, and already there are plans for 410 beacons to be lit to mark the special day – a huge increase on bonfire output when compared to 1977, when the total was just 102. Absolutely no compulsion, you understand, but when it comes to mountains aflame we may yet see Tennysonian levels of fervour.

You will have to pay for the fuel yourself, though. Money is a sensitive issue, and the Queen herself had made it plain that there should be no "undue expenditure from public funds". There will be no expensive naval review, for example; early plans for one were reportedly torpedoed in the interests of fiscal modesty. There will be a procession to St Paul's Cathedral, but don't expect the capital to be a sea of red, white and blue. And while there is money available for Jubilee celebrations from the Awards for All lottery fund, which dispenses sums of between £500 and £5,000, the early signs do not exactly suggest a stampede of loyal jubilation. In its December allocations, for example, the fund gave out just 56 grants for Jubilee projects; among others, Walmer parish council secured £5,000 to organise a narrative mosaic to cover 42 square yards of local wall, and the Kirkby Malzeard Mechanics Institution got £4,103 for a series of celebratory events, including a street party and a play.

On the other hand, the Awards for All office confidently predicts that there are many more such schemes in the pipeline – and they're almost certainly right. Zeal, however beleaguered, will always conquer indifference. A News of the World poll last year might well have shown that three out of five people were planning no special celebration for the Queen's Jubilee – but then two out of five people can look very much like an overwhelming vote of confidence if the other three simply sit quietly at home.

What may be more interesting about the Awards for All scheme is that it illustrates a significant shift in the traditional flow of money during a royal jubilee. In the past such events have been the occasion for major charitable exercises – in 1935 George V's Jubilee raised £1m from the general populace, creating a fund that still disburses about £1m a year. The Queen's own Silver Jubilee fund raised about £15m, giving away £7m immediately and, to this day, granting between £2.5m and £3m a year.

Both efforts put a clear price-tag on the popular response to a monarch's call to duty, but it isn't an exercise that any sensible monarchist would carry out today. For one thing, the Lottery has in effect raised the bar in terms of fundraising success – it can afford to pay for celebrations rather than hope to benefit from them, and it is prone to making almost any other tin-rattling exercise look disappointing. So, although the Queen has nominated five charities to which Jubilee gifts can be made, there is no single central fund that might provide a measurable sense of public affection – or disaffection. After a decade in which it has become clear that Her Majesty's subjects are prepared to count the cost of their constitutional arrangements, it probably seemed wiser to steer clear of figures altogether.

But if the Jubilee isn't for charity, then what exactly is it for? Historical reflection, suggests the Frequently Asked Questions section of the Jubilee website; a period of meditation on the past and the future. And if there is to be popular thanksgiving it will be more in the nature of a national pat on the back – the Queen having sagely expressed the wish that the Jubilee should be an occasion on which she can thank us, rather than the other way round.

There is something admirably fuzzy about these descriptions, entirely in keeping with the general hands-off, it's-your-show approach being taken by those inside and outside Buckingham Palace. As Tom Shebbeare, who is organising two televised pop concerts for the weekend of the Jubilee, puts it: "The best things are often spontaneous. The approach to this Jubilee is rather, 'If it takes off, let it take off.'" The suppression of expectation isn't a republican virtue right now; in other words, it's an act of loyalty to the Crown, leaving open the possibility that whatever happens can be taken as completely unforced and unsynthetic emotion. Handily, it also makes it difficult to say what would count as an embarrassing failure – if you never filed a flight plan in the first place, who can really say that you crashed?

After a whole box of servile fireworks, Tennyson's Jubilee poem ended with a very brief acknowledgement that every silver cloud has a dark lining. "Are there thunders moaning in the distance?" he asked. "Are there spectres moving in the darkness?" These days such question marks over the monarchy would be as obsolete as his exclamations – the spectres are out in the daylight. Which is why the stealth Jubilee makes such sense, a carefully muted fanfare that alerts the faithful without waking up the republican guard dogs. The Palace may not yet have perfected the art of generating good publicity, but it's clearly getting better at avoiding the bad. Whatever else it is, this is not to be a referendum on the monarchy itself.

Interestingly, the term Jubilee derives from the Hebrew yobel, meaning a ram's-horn trumpet. All the signs are that the Queen isn't going to blow her own – so if you want to hear it blast in June, you're going to have to do something about it yourself.