As Jubilee weekend approaches I am conflicted. Many on Sunday will be celebrating their affection for our nation, and I should make it clear that this is something I am not at all opposed to. I think our country has many excellent qualities that deserve to be celebrated, and, by and large, I think Elizabeth has done a reasonably good job as a modern monarch: remaining (largely, but not totally) impartial in matters of politics and providing a great deal of constitutional stability to the state throughout her long reign. This much should be recognised, particularly through the past decade or so of national and international turmoil.
My problem with the narrative around events like the Jubilee – and with displays of patriotism more generally – is their lack of critical reflection on what it genuinely means to love one’s nation (to say nothing of the brutish jingoism they sometimes also induce). There will be all the normal trappings of street parties, flag waving, and singing of the national anthem. I begrudge none of this if it appeals to you. But please note that none of these behaviours are behaviours of love: they are simply demonstrations of affection.
At the same time as these parties occur, countless citizens will be living in a state of anxiety. They will be worried about whether they have enough money to make it to the end of yet another week of increasing food and energy prices. Others will be worried about the yet unfinished turmoil of Brexit and the pandemic – not to mention the wars in Europe and our ongoing climate crisis. Patriotic celebrations may provide a brief escape to some from these concerns, if only for a day, but nothing of any tangible significance will come of it. “Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt”, Juvenal wrote; what is so egregious about this upcoming circus is that, at the same time, the government can’t even give us bread.
What could be more patriotic then – if patriotism really means love of one’s nation, of one’s fellow countrymen – than to address the suffering felt in so many communities at this time? Our treasury of patriotic imagination is full of examples of service which we rightly celebrate, from those who gave their lives in past wars against fascist atrocities to the tireless work of those in the NHS, yet when we come to a period of national celebration we so quickly forget that love in its most sincere form means service, sacrifice and compassion. If you want to celebrate the Jubilee, please do by all means, but do not let this jubilation allow you to slip uncritically into the fantasy that all is well in our country. Pick up the flag, but do not put down the duty of charity, or the banner of protest against a society that continually privileges the few at the expense of the suffering of so many.