Our political writers can pretend they know what makes us tick: a response to Matthew d’Ancona

by Stephen Tall on June 6, 2012

Here’s how Matthew d’Ancona could’ve started his article for today’s London Evening Standard, ‘Our political class can now work out what makes us tick’. But he didn’t.

So what was all that about? As the waves of media fervour subside to reveal the bleak promontories of Austerity Commentariat, let us pause and ask what this extraordinary four-day Jubilee told us about journalists, and their obsession with extrapolating about our national life and character.

There then follows some delicious cognitive dissonance. First, an acknowledgement of what is to follow:

The lazy reflex for political observers is to extract the lessons that suit them.

There then follows Said Lazy Reflex:

What [lessons] did we learn? That the British are a splendidly oxymoronic, joyously contradictory people: querulous in their stoicism, sentimentally attached to the stiff upper lip, nostalgic and yet addicted to modernity, impatient for change as they queue politely for a taste of history. We love Madness playing on the roof of Buckingham Palace, and Heston Blumenthal picnics in its gardens. We understand that pop music, one of the greatest forces of dissent ever invented, is now part of our heritage. We love traditional values in a modern setting — and the reverse. We contain multitudes.

I don’t think I actually disagree with a word of that. I’m just not sure that any of these contradictory traits are peculiarly British, so much as globally ubiquitous. It’s a typically insularly British trait, however, to assume that we Brits are special, unique in craving a trad/mod fusion of our values and settings.

Yet this exemplum of hype is as nothing compared to the encomium with which the article concludes:

No public figure on the planet understands her people as well as the Queen. … the politician who neglects the nuance of this beautiful tapestry will struggle to last a year — let alone 60.

As it happens I’ve a lot of time and respect for Matthew d’Ancona, so I hope in years to come (or even weeks) he’ll reflect on that line with a rueful shrug, and admit, “Sorry, I just got a bit carried away by the moment.”

HM The Queen (or HRH The Queen, if you’re the BBC) has done a fine job as a constitutional monarch, I’d be the first to recognise… albeit through ever-so-slightly-gritted republican teeth.

But to argue from the basis of remaining firmly neutral as a fixed point of continuity in our constitution — however regally and gracefully — that she can therefore intuit the wants and needs of her people better than any other public figure is not only fanciful but entirely beside the point. As a constitutional monarch the Queen has no real power (as monarchists are quick to rebuke we impudent republicans); and without power there can be no accountability. It is a lot easier to be popular when you’re in no position to make decisions. Just ask Nick Clegg.

So to sum up Matthew d’Ancona’s panegyric: people want lots of different things simultaneously, and it’s easier to be liked if you’re an impotent figurehead. Who’d have thunk?

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.