the middle of May onwards, media in Britain have been
completely obsessed with the celebrations of the diamond
jubilee of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. By the first
week of June, when the formal festivities took place,
the obsession had transmitted to the public, such that
even otherwise sensible people seemed to talk of little
else. While not quite commanding the same cachet as
a royal wedding, this particular landmark has also been
milked for all it is worth by the government as a ''once
in a lifetime party'' to celebrate sixty years of rule,
even if only titular in nature.
Much of the media coverage has been fawning and adulatory,
with attempts to whip up royalist fervour and popular
enthusiasm that can be cringe-making to an outsider.
Of course, this is a nation that apparently still sees
the monarchy as one of its cherished institutions –
a remarkable recovery from two decades ago when its
image was at an all time low. The Queen herself described
1992 as an ''annus horribilis'', when tax problems, messy
family divorces and other scandals plagued the Royal
Thereafter, a combination of astute media management
(including not just through official channels like the
BBC but even commercial movies depicting real life personalities
like the Queen herself) and the growing lack of trust
in other British institutions led to a recovery of the
fortunes of the Windsors in public perception. According
to opinion surveys, support for the monarchy is now
at its highest level for three decades, and the Queen's
personal popularity ratings are close to an astonishing
80 per cent.
This particular anniversary has been seized on as an
opportunity for Britons to forget, at least temporarily,
the decline in the economy, the rising unemployment
and the swingeing fiscal cuts that are soon going to
undo many aspects of life that they have taken for granted.
It is of course also an attempt to re-establish Britain's
image and ''soft power'' abroad, with the monarchy seen
as one of the more significant cultural exports of Britain,
responsible for encouraging a lot of tourism. As one
government Minister put it ''pageantry is what we do,
what we are good at''. The events surrounding the Diamond
Jubilee have been seen as a way of showing to the rest
of the world that the United Kingdom can put up an impressive
show, not just in this case but as a forerunner of the
London Olympics to be held a few months later.
So the celebrations have been multiple and prolonged,
with people being encouraged to hold street parties
everywhere, public areas festooned with banners for
weeks, several events like road and river processions
held in open areas for the public to watch, and so on.
Royal carriages and royal barges, some of them not used
for decades, were taken out of storage, cleaned and
painted and generally smartened up for the show, while
media ran riot speculating on what the relevant ladies
of the Royal Family might wear and what they finally
Yet in this choreographed display of national pride,
there were already some disquieting undercurrents. Even
before the Jubilee celebrations started, the Culture
Secretary Jeremy Hunt (who is in charge of managing
this event as well as the London Olympics) has been
under fire for his close links to the media empire of
Rupert Murdoch, which are alleged to have affected his
declared impartiality in assessing a takeover bid by
one of their companies that would have given them near
monopoly cable television rights in the UK. As the official
enquiry into the matter proceeds, his fate is still
Even worse, just after one of the most trumpeted events,
some sordid details emerged of the way that a private
company dealing with the security cover had dealt with
their labour. This brought out how superficial the display
of glorification had been, in a content of dramatically
eroded material conditions and fragile social cohesion.
One of the highlights of the anniversary celebrations
was supposed to be the procession of the Royal Barge
down the river Thames, flanked by various other decorated
boats and watched by tens of thousands of spectators
on the banks. As is common nowadays in Britain, much
of the security for the events was not handled directly
by the metropolitan Police, but parcelled out to different
private security agencies, several of whom are also
bidding for or already contracted to provide security
for the London Olympics.
The day after that event, it emerged that one of the
security companies, ''Close Protection UK'', had been
using unpaid wage labour working in terrible conditions
to provide the actual security. A report in the Guardian
newspaper on 4 June 2012 noted that ''A group of long-term
unemployed jobseekers were bussed into London to work
as unpaid stewards during the diamond jubilee celebrations
and told to sleep under London Bridge before working
on the river pageant. Up to 30 jobseekers and another
50 people on apprentice wages were taken to London by
coach from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth as part of the
government's Work Programme.''
The group of young people from Bristol were picked up
at 11 pm the previous night and brought into the city
by coach. They reached in the middle of the night, at
3 am. Because of the concrete, no tents could be put
up. So they were told that they would have to sleep
in the open through the wind and rain, huddling under
the London Bridge for some protection from the elements.
They were woken at 5.30 am and given their ''uniforms'':
boots, combat trousers and polo shirts.
The young men simply changed under the bridge, and after
a fruitless wait for some place to change in (even the
coach, which turned out to be locked) the young women
also had to undress and get into their uniforms in public.
They had to wait a long time to get some food before
work started. They were then ''on duty'' until nightfall,
around 16 hours. After the river pageant was finally
over and all the people had left, they had to travel
to a campsite in Essex where they had to pitch their
tent in the dark, before leaving for home in the morning.
For this ''valuable work experience'', the company concerned
confirmed that those on apprentice wages received GBP
2.80 per hour (which is less than half of the official
minimum wage for workers above 21 years) while the 30
or so unemployed people received nothing. Several of
them reported that they were originally told they would
be paid, but when they reported for the work and got
into the coach to London, they were told that the work
would be unpaid and that if they did not accept it they
would not be considered for well-paid work at the Olympics.
A spokesperson for the private security company had
a different take on the matter: "The only ones
that won't be paid are because they don't want to be
paid. They want to do this voluntarily, [to] get the
work experience." This was apparently because they
would no longer be able to claim jobseeker benefits
if they accepted a wage for the work.
There has since been an outcry on the matter, with the
former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott writing to
the Home Secretary to demand an enquiry into whether
the company concerned has broken the security industry's
own standards and action against the company if this
is found to be the case. But this particular case, which
has been publicly exposed by committed reportage, may
well be the tip of the iceberg of the rapidly declining
employment standards in Britain.
Indeed, such employment practices are precisely what
all the official moves towards ''labour market flexibility''
are all about, in the United Kingdom as well as in other
parts of Europe. It is interesting that the same officials
who cry themselves hoarse about sweatshops in the developing
world are eagerly promoting such aggressively exploitative
practices by private employers using state funds.
The worst affected are the youth, who experience historically
high rates of unemployment and few prospects of any
improvement in the near future. They are increasingly
forced into this kind of underpaid or unpaid work in
the forlorn hope to getting something even slightly
better in the form of paid work in the future.
The irony of the situation is compounded by the fact
that this was for security work to cover an event celebrating
the uniquely long-lived nature of British royalty, and
by extension, all things British. They are clearly ''changing
guard at Buckingham Palace''…
This article was originally published in the Frontline
Volume 29 - Issue 12 :: Jun. 16-29, 2012.