Today is an auspicious and historic anniversary in the cultural history of the UK. Sixty years ago – 5 October 1962 – saw the release of the first single by the Beatles, Love Me Do,
and the opening of the first ever James Bond film, Dr No
. They were products of a very different time and age – harbingers of a decade of imagination, risk and experimentation; of Britain as a place of opportunity, hope and expanding horizons for millions of working people.
Cue the miserablist state of the place now with a UK Government headed by a Prime Minister four weeks into office with no popular mandate. A PM attempting to pose as a maverick and disrupter but whose government has been called 'mad, bad and dangerous' by the Financial Times
Once the story of Britain – mainstream version – was meant to be simple, widely understood and uplifting. No longer can this be seriously claimed by anyone. Despite this, it was a bit of a shock to finally get a copy of the Queen Elizabeth Platinum Jubilee book. This is the book distributed free to English school pupils at a reported cost of £12m which the Scottish and Welsh governments blocked, much to the chagrin of Tory Westminster ministers, with the Welsh authorities apparently shocked by its 'Anglocentric' content and tone.
The book – Queen Elizabeth: A Platinum Jubilee Celebration
– purports to tell the story of the UK through the decades of Elizabeth's 70-year reign across the spectrum of post-war Britain. It does so through the lens of one family with its different generations, Great Granny Joyce and young Isabella, giving different voices and reminiscences.
We get accounts of UK PMs; the changing nature of society, inventions and innovations; pen portraits of prominent citizens; a history of the four nations; and explanations of constitutional changes and the wider international context, such as devolution and the Commonwealth. Much of this begs so many questions. For example, the whole of popular music over these decades is represented by three pen portraits of Elton John, Shirley Bassey and Olivia Newton-John, missing the obvious musical pioneers and trailblazers.
There are numerous timelines including one spanning the Queen's entire life: In Her Majesty's Lifetime
. This is a strange mixture with nearly half (13) of the 27 entries about royal developments: the Queen taking the throne in 1952, her Coronation in 1953, the Prince of Wales investiture in 1969, and various royal weddings such as the Queen and Philip in 1947, Charles and Diana in 1981 and William and Kate in 2011, alongside royal deaths: the Queen Mother in 2002 and Prince Philip in 2021.
These are given equal billing with genuine events of political and social significance such as women being enfranchised on the same basis as men in 1928, the start of the Second World War in 1939 and its official end with VE and VJ Day in 1945, formation of the United Nations the same year, creation of the NHS in 1948, the moon landing in 1969, and Margaret Thatcher becoming the first female PM in 1979.
Herein lies a problem with such a book. Are we really saying that there is any kind of equivalence between these numerous royal milestones and genuine moments of history? And there is even the fascinating example of what has been included and excluded royally: hence the marriage of Charles and Diana is an entry, but not the marriage of Charles and Camilla in 2005.
There are four separate timelines for the UK nations. The English one is a little haphazard, underlining the confusion and crossover between what is 'English' and what is 'British'. Hence the second last entry is for 1649 and the execution of Charles I, and the only post-1707 is for 1863 and the opening of the London Underground. It is as if the 1707 union ended the idea of England, subsuming it in the wider idea of Britain.
Scotland, on the other hand, gets the 1707 union with England mentioned, followed by 1890 and the Forth Bridge, with the next and most up-to-date entry more than a century later for 1999 and the opening of the Scottish Parliament. There is no room for the 2014 independence referendum and the decision of the people of Scotland to stay in the union for now – a decision which we know, thanks to David Cameron's indiscretion, greatly pleased the Queen.
The Welsh entry mentions 1284 and Edward I conquering much of Wales, but passes over the 1536 union with England which in effect subsumed Wales in the larger entity. Its more recent entries include the 1999 opening of the National Assembly for Wales and its renaming in 2000 as the Welsh Parliament and Senedd.
Northern Ireland includes the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, 1801 Act of Union which incorporates the whole of Ireland in the United Kingdom, 1921 creation of the separate province, 1969 'troubles' and 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
There are entries for the Union Flag, explaining that Scotland, England and Ireland (representing now Northern Ireland) are all reflected on the flag, but not Wales 'because the flag was created when Wales was, at that time, part of the kingdom of England'.
The explanation of 'devolution' does not appear in the section on the four nations in which the above quotes appear but the part entitled Inspiration and Innovation,
which is one way of describing it. Devolution, it explains, 'means that decisions can be taken in places that are closer to the people they effect', referencing that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have 'devolved governments'. It then offers the closing caveat: 'England does not have a separate government and is run by the UK Government, but some decisions are now made by city mayors'.
Brexit, the British Empire and other difficult things
Many things are not mentioned, or referenced in the most passing way, which only hints at their significance and consequences. Take Brexit. It is mentioned in a short A-Z section at the end in the 'European Union' entry saying dryly 'The UK left the EU in 2020'. There is one reference to Brexit in the text on UK passports which explains that: 'in 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU. This decision was called Brexit
, which is short for Britain's Exit
. When the UK left in 2020, UK passports went back to being blue again'. It all sounds so smooth and simple and harmonious.
Then there is the British Empire which can hardly be portrayed as uncontentious. In the A-Z section, it is presented as the name for 'the group of countries and territories that were once ruled by Britain'. Its rise and fall is explained as: 'The British Empire began in the 16th century and over time, Britain took over many nations. By the 20th century, many countries in the Empire wished to be independent'.
Tellingly, beyond a reference to the NHS, there is no acknowledgement of the forward march of economic and social rights, the creation of the welfare state and obviously none on its retreat and attrition at the hands of successive Tory and Labour governments. The changing contours of post-war Britain – of rising prosperity shared by all in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by entrenchment and extension of inequality and return of widespread poverty and hardship in a country of unimaginable wealth to previous generations – is not even hinted at.
Rather, we get maps on the amount of significant royal properties the House of Windsor have (with 19 across the UK identified) and the size of the royal family – with one of the characters commenting: 'Wow! The Royal Family tree is much bigger than ours!'
What is this official and selective story of the UK meant to achieve?
Queen Elizabeth: A Platinum Jubilee Celebration
is fascinating and revealing. It is a text presenting an idealised, simplified, stripped down version of the UK: an official account and set of stories of a union, kingdom and society in harmony.
It is no accident that this substantial text, in terms of its status and print-run, which made news stories when it was announced, has received not one substantial review. It is perhaps that, in line with its world of smoke and mirrors, partial truths are somehow not seen as important enough to engage with and debunk because this has been packaged as a children's book.
If the intention of this book is really to paint a Panglossian, upbeat, optimistic account of Britain over the course of Elizabeth's reign and life, then it has to be seen as a questionable exercise because of the sizeable amount of public monies spent. Children today do not grow up in isolation. They have access to other materials and resources, most notably the internet, and will be able to make up their own minds and decide what kind of UK and society they live in.
What really was the rationale and hope for this book? Was it for government ministers, civil servants and officials of the royal household to continue the pretence that all is right and fine in the kingdom? In that case, as a project and text it is inadvertently revealing: what it says and does not say, its glossing over facts and its silences, revealing underneath the cheery tone a degree of doubt and anxiety – which is hardly surprising.
This enterprise was published at the end of the 70-year reign of Queen Elizabeth at the fag end of Boris Johnson's discredited and shambolic Premiership. We then had the very brief two-day era of the two Elizabeths: the Queen and Prime Minister Liz Truss. Never in the history of the UK had the positions of monarch and PM changed in the same week.
No doubt we will never see the production of such a book for a very long time taking into account the ages of Charles III and William. But there has to be a point where we stop telling fairy tales and fantastical accounts of the kingdom known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And if people and institutions do create such accounts as this, they have to be called out for the deliberate deception they are.
As writers from Bagehot to Tom Nairn have pointed out, monarchy has been based on a conscious, planned deception about what the UK is, the idea of it sold back to us as its non-citizens, including about where power sits and such fundamentals as hereditary privilege, tradition and deference.
These are not, as we are continually told, merely decorative add-ons that do not matter. Rather they are central to the UK not being a modern, democratic country, but one still shaped by feudal codes, rites, status and privileges. At some point, the light and scrutiny of democracy, accountability and scrutiny will call time on this and this version of the UK, but doing so will have to involve calling time on the continuation of the UK as we currently know it.
'Queen Elizabeth: A Platinum Jubilee Celebration' is published by DK Books and is available commercially at £12.99