Matthew Norman: Diamond Jubilee: At last, our country seems at ease with itself

Most gratifying of all was the weekend's dearth of smugness and triumphalism


Had Amy Winehouse lived, Gary Barlow would surely have asked her to perform at that concert in the Mall alongside the embalmed knights and well preserved dames of the musical realm. Yet even in her absence, the distant strains I hear striking up at the back of the mind belong to "Back To Black". These sporadic eruptions of national optimism, like the fireworks that illuminate them, do not retain their incandescence for long, and soon enough the gloom re-exerts its grip.

Already a few impertinent aide-mémoires that life plugs on as depressingly as ever have presented themselves, with the attention switching from our most creditable sovereign back to the sovereign debt crises still menacing the continent.

Meanwhile, one newspaper's front page yesterday recorded how several dozen long-term unemployed people were imported from the South-west to steward the pageant on the Thames. They were allegedly forced to sleep under London Bridge in the open air, and to work 14-hour shifts for no pay in accord with the Government's enchanting Workfare Programme, before being bussed home, On Monday morning, Radio 4's Today programme had run a feature about others not in work making the journey in reverse, these poor sods having been removed from their homes, families, friends and roots in a London borough, and relocated to lives of dislocation and misery in the West Midlands to save a few bob on the housing bill.

Without wishing to audition as a Polly Toynbee tribute act, these repulsive instances of social engineering made a paradox bludgeoningly apparent. While certain members of the long-term unemployed remain widely seen as a superior breed – the Prince of Wales, for example, who spoke about his mummy rather brilliantly on Monday night – this Government would have us regard others as lower forms of human life, whose ill fortune in the accident of their births deservedly robs them of what we regard as fundamental human rights.

Every lovingly constructed façade of national pride will seek to occlude some form of festering underbelly, of course, just as the most erect and handsome of nonagenarian bodies will more than likely be hiding nasty bacteria. If the Duke's stoic refusal to void his bladder for those four rainy hours on the river caused the infection, that may give him empathy for the slave labourers patrolling the Thames while the royal barge sailed, who reportedly went an entire day without access to a toilet.

Yet without wishing to lessen by an iota the grotesque social problems and horrendous economic and political uncertainties, I cannot lie by denying the unwontedly warm feeling about Britain which the four-day weekend leaves, for today at least, in its wake. Much of this rediscovered, doubtless transient, affection inevitably depends on fondness for the splendid Queen herself, but it goes a little deeper than that. From the tone to the celebrations, nebulous to the point of meaningless though this must sound, there was a sense of a country finally learning to live with the truth about itself.

God knows it isn't easy being a fading post-imperial power, and Britain has struggled dementedly with the diminishment for the Queen's entire reign. The roots of the psychological disorder lie, needless to say, in the war. Winning that rarest of things, an unarguably just war, induced an understandable sense of moral superiority that would later curdle into distasteful arrogance.

Being effectively bankrupted by the victory – having to watch Germany and Japan became rich while food was still rationed here – encoded not just confusion but profound defeatism into the national DNA. Victory made the US and the USSR superpowers, and reduced Britain to an absurdity, feigning great power status long after Eisenhower's peremptory order to Eden to get the hell out of Suez clarified the truth about that.

Perhaps this is too optimistic a reading, but the lack of wartime braggadocio this long weekend hinted to me that we may be over it; that we have at last come to an accommodation with reduced status, and that, in some significant ways, though far from all, we are impressively at ease with ourselves.

I spent Monday in a Dorset village where we rent a little cottage, and superficially it has changed startlingly little since 1952. Nestling between the church service of thanks for the Queen's life and the lighting of a beacon at the day's end was a cream tea on the green, and there nursing their six-month-old daughter were two gay women. Behind all the cooing over the baby, their presence excited not the faintest curiosity, let alone censoriousness, in this family.

In this Jurassic redoubt of unimpeachable traditionalism, where they screened the Coronation in the village hall before our neighbour donned a Churchill face mask to re-enact welcoming home the new Queen from Kenya, a lesbian couple with a child seemed the most natural thing in the world (as indeed it is). Imagining how such a scene might play out in provincial France or Italy, let alone in the Appalachians or rural Alabama, induced more patriotic pride than the loyal toast. Modern values in a traditional setting, to reverse John Prescott, make a seductive package which perhaps goes some way to explaining the allure of the monarchy itself.

Most gratifying of all was the dearth of smugness and triumphalism. There wasn't so much as a whisper, heaven be praised, about "the greatest country in the world". It was as if the belated realism that limits expectations of the England football team's Euro 2012 chances (technically zero) has settled over a wider appreciation of national status. A country that for six decades has been marooned in a schizoid nightmare of rampant self-regard tempered by neurotic self-doubt seemed to have come to peaceful terms with itself.

Of course, it won't last. Normal service will be resumed on the governmental idiocy front, the drive to stigmatise the unemployed, unfortunate and dispossessed will only intensify, one flukey win against Sweden would reignite the embers of delusory conceit, and life in general will revert to the sapping trial of nerve of the status quo ante as we await the progression of the phony war for economic survival into a full-blown blitz. Even so, for a few oddly cheering days, Britain gave every impression of not simply adoring its Queen, but of actively following her example by learning how to become senescent with a dash of dignity and grace.

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