February marks a truly historic moment in Britain: the 60th anniversary of the accession to the throne of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It’s only the second diamond jubilee in the millennium-long story of the monarchy, the other being that of Queen Victoria in June 1897. (Even that great and much-lamented sovereign King George III managed only 59 years, 96 days.)
The vagaries — or should that be the certainties? — of the English weather mean that the occasion will be officially celebrated on the first weekend in June. The queen will go down the River Thames on a barge at the head of a thousand boats, in the largest river pageant since the reign of Charles II in the 17th century; beacons will be lit right across the country; there will be hundreds of street parties and a huge aerial fly-past over Buckingham Palace, culminating in a grand procession for a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral that will allow the capital, country, and commonwealth to show their love and their thanks for her six decades of duty and service. There will be hardly a dry eye in the land (and certainly not mine).
The government has announced that it will be spending £1 million ($1.58 million) on the Jubilee celebrations, which when added to the amounts local councils will be spending will bring the total cost to the taxpayer up to £2.3 million ($3.63 million), for a celebration that will be open to everyone. The rest of the cost is being picked up by private sponsors. Now, compare that with the 2012 Olympics, which will take place in the same city the next month, a ticketed-only event for which Jack Lemley, the former chairman of London’s Olympic Delivery Authority, predicts the cost to the British taxpayer will total £20 billion ($31.6 billion). The stadium alone is costing over half a billion pounds, and as the royal historian Robert Hardman, author of the forthcoming book Her Majesty, pointed out on the BBC recently, with “the Jubilee at the moment, the bill is going to be roughly 1 percent of the Olympic swimming pool.”
It’s a tale of two celebrations, one in which an 85-year-old lady will be feted with some grandeur, drawing on centuries of tradition — William Cecil (Lord Salisbury), who is organizing the river pageant, is the direct descendant of Robert Cecil (Lord Burghley) who advised Queen Elizabeth I at the time of the Spanish Armada — the other a massive global jamboree in which 23,000 athletes and officials, 41,000 security guards, and 20,000 journalists will be descending on London. All the five-star hotels have been booked out by the unaccountable Olympic-bigwig bureaucrats who also have special traffic lanes reserved for them, while the sale of online tickets to Britons was such a fiasco that few Londoners will get to see the first Games to be held in their city since 1948.
Apart from the admittedly magnificent stadium and swimming pool, all Britain will be left with afterwards is the massive twisted-steel emblem of the Games, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, which the architectural commentator Edwin Heathcote has described as “the biggest, ugliest work of public art the city has ever seen.” The equestrian events, costing £42 million ($66 million), for example, are going to leave just a churned-up park, so how much better if the British government had adopted the suggestion of its respected education secretary Michael Gove for the nation to donate a new royal yacht to the queen, arguing — in a letter that was subsequently leaked by his political opponents — that “the Diamond Jubilee must not be overshadowed by the Olympic Games, but form an integral part of this great year for our country”?
The fact that the queen would have hated having £20 billion spent on her, especially when her people are experiencing such pinched times, is one of the reasons she is so admired. She personally recalls the post-war austerity of the Attlee government, when the silk for her wedding dress in 1947 had to be purchased with clothing-ration coupons. It was rumored that she privately opposed Margaret Thatcher’s public-spending cuts; the fact that she appointed Thatcher to the two most senior orders of chivalry in her personal gift — the Order of the Garter and the Order of Merit — can lay the canard that she felt any serious disapproval to rest. It would have been a splendid gesture to give the queen a yacht, but one wonders whether she would have even have accepted it.
This tale of two celebrations, the Diamond Jubilee and the 2012 Olympics that are set to cost 85 times as much, displays yet another contrast between the cost-conscious, private-public partnership that is the modern monarchy and the bloated global spendathon that afflicts so many multinational bodies in today’s world, from the United Nations down. Britons will cheer their national team for every medal it wins, but they will be telling their grandchildren about the day that they saw Queen Elizabeth II sail down the Thames in the heart of her capital, and the hearts of her people.
In the end, all human governance comes down to character, and in the queen’s simple Christian faith and commitment to honor and duty, Britons have been fortunate enough to be reigned over by as fine and moral a character as it is possible to have in a monarch. By its genetically accidental nature, monarchy must always be something of a lottery, but in Elizabeth II they know they have won that lottery, and in June it will be time to celebrate.
– Mr. Roberts is the author of The Royal House of Windsor.