x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

In celebrating its queen, Britain should aspire to her qualities

The greatest irony as Britain marks the Diamond Jubilee is that while the Queen's reign has been one of great self-respect, stateliness and decorum, these are the very qualities that are seeping away from our nation.

Diamond Jubilee mania is at fever pitch this weekend in the UK. Our celebrations include street parties, a four day weekend, and of course, shopping. There are British-branded mugs, furniture and dresses. I've even seen Union Jack nappies.

Reviews of the Queen's reign occur daily, flitting through imagery that starts with a beautiful woman in a black and white film, already showing glimpses of the dignity and gravitas that have characterised her time on the throne.

As footage shows time passing, her stature remains constant even as the crowds with whom she is pictured change slowly, as the buildings, skyline and the intangibles of the social setting slowly chart the evolution of a nation.

I am intrigued by the changes during Queen Elizabeth's 60-year reign, the transformation from a stuttering colonial power to a diverse, vibrant and still influential nation struggling to define its identity and role in a new world order.

The journey through the nation's social and political changes feels personal to me. My ancestors are from India, once the jewel of the British Empire. Before the current Queen's coronation they had already migrated and settled in Tanzania on the east coast of Africa. The country secured independence in the 1960s during the dying days of colonialism.

But even then we saw a portent of Britain's continuing international role on the global stage, as Tanzania's first prime minister, Julius Kambarage Nyerere, asked the departing power to step in and help resolve the chaos that Tanzania was facing. Today my ancestral home remains part of the Commonwealth.

While the grand drama of politics and nationhood was running its course, my parents continued to be British citizens - as they had been for decades under the Empire and as they remained post-independence.

And like many waves of economic migrants that began in the 1950s and continue to today, they chose to exercise their rights as Britons to settle in London.

What they found was far from the land of plenty: racism was rife, accommodation horrible, and they still talk in shocked tones about the shared outside toilet. Yet they also speak of it as a magical time. In some ways this reflects Britain today: an idea of what we ought to be, facing a reality that is quite different.

My own sense of what it means to be British is quite different from theirs, since I was born and raised here. My childhood in the 1980s was filled with positive memories (but it was during a time when others were ignorant of the heritage and cultures of minorities.)

The '90s were a decade of wealth and revived pride about being British. The UK was one of the most diverse and socially mobile societies anywhere. In my view, London was one of the most exciting places on the planet.

But post-9/11, Britishness has come increasingly under scrutiny as a concept. We've turned against many who helped to build this great nation. The far right has hijacked our tolerance, and used immigration as a hollow symbol to be shaken at others to create exclusion and fear, rather than expressing the values that we'd like to espouse.

In fact, the greatest irony as we mark the Diamond Jubilee is that while the Queen's reign has been one of great self-respect, stateliness and decorum, these are the very qualities that are seeping away from our nation, domestically and internationally. The best way to honour the Queen's last 60 years would be to spend the next 60 emulating these very same qualities that she has stood for.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk