Logging On

3 05 2009

[You can listen to this episode here. Alternatively, search for ‘James Townsend’ on iTunes Store and you can subscribe!]

Her Majesty the Queen has, we are told, sent an e-mail to a number of young people in the commonwealth congratulating them on the blogs they wrote to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of that institution. Well, where do we start on this one?

We could begin a conversation about the reliability of the media. It was reported inlogging-on several publications that this was the Queen’s first ever e-mail – not true! Astonishingly, it was actually pointed out in the relevant press release that this was not the case. In fact, the Queen sent her first e-mail in 1976, long before most of her subjects had even contemplated using a computer.

So, we could discuss the Her Majesty’s proud, if somewhat unexpected, record on embracing technology. It was, after all, the Queen herself, who insisted in 1953 that cameras were allowed to film her coronation at Westminster Abbey. This was despite opposition from the Cabinet. She gave the first ever televised Christmas Broadcast in 1957, and more recently was the first monarch in the world to communicate with a podcast. The Royal Channel is one of the most viewed on YouTube.

Indeed, our Head of State seems to have managed in the cut throat world of the internet rather better than our Head of Government. I suspect that the Prime Minister will find it difficult ever to shake off the cringingly awful YouTube message he posted on the subject of MPs’ expenses. Equally he no doubt regrets the Number 10 petition idea now that the most popular petition is the one calling on him to resign.

All this, though, would be to miss the point of the Queen’s e-mail which was to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Commonwealth. The British Empire often gets a bit of a drubbing in modern popular culture. There are so many regrettable aspects to it – the initial success which was based on slavery, or the gross abuses of power that came later. Even worse was the too-hastily-beaten retreat from some countries, which left them with nothing but a political vacuum at their core.

But of the empires we have seen in history I cannot think of any which has ended so benevolently, so peacefully, productively as the British. The Commonwealth is a testament to the good character not just of the British themselves, but of all the member countries that were associated with the Empire. Today the Commonwealth holds a population of two billion people. They are all joined in a harmonious and prosperous community based on trade, common heritage and co-operation. There is, quite simply, no organisation like it in the world.

Sixty years ago, as the globe was dusting itself down after the Second World War, the British Empire underwent a process of deconstruction. Independent republics were established, power was handed over and the vast population of British diplomats, bureaucrats, officials and their wives and families boarded ships and sailed home to Portsmouth.

That is where the story of the Empire could have ended – with everybody going their separate ways. But instead, the former colonies and Britain herself came together in partnership, and as equals, to work together towards a shared future.

One incongruous, but nevertheless important aspect of the Commonwealth is the role of the Queen as its Head. One might have thought that to keep the British monarch as head of a supposedly equal partnership would have been both counterproductive and unacceptable to the member nations.

Well, as it turns out it was the member nations themselves that were pushing for, at that time King George VI, to take on the role. However, the title of Head of the Commonwealth is one of the very few of the Queen’s collection that is not hereditary. The throne will of course be passed on to her son, the Prince of Wales. We is also destined to inherit the titles of Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Duke of Lancaster, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Duke of Normandy, Lord of Mann, Paramount Chief of Fiji and a great number of other roles.

But when the late King George died, the Commonwealth headship did not automatically pass to our Queen. Rather, it was decided by universal acclaim, from all the member nations that Elizabeth, the new Queen would, indeed, be just the ticket. So it may well be passed to Prince Charles, but if it is, it will be on account of his merit for the job not simply by right of birth.

And what a record Prince Charles has to follow. The Queen takes the Commonwealth very seriously, and as a result is loved and adored across the world. She has visited every one of the organisation’s fifty-three states, most of them several times. Though I suppose this achievement is less remarkable when we remember that she is Head of State to sixteen of those countries.

Every other year the Commonwealth Heads of Government meet to discuss their work, and the Queen is the star turn. She grants every Head of Government a private audience, for which she is fully briefed – not an unremarkable achievement for a woman of eighty-three.

Of course it might be worth asking what it is that the Heads of Government talk about at these meetings – known as CHOGM. But I’m afraid that would stray just a little too far into politics, and consequently breach my vow to avoid such matters. Nevertheless, I can commend their work to you, and suggest that google the Commonwealth Institute.

Instead we can return to the internet, and another lady who has made some success from YouTube. I rather feel that I have missed the boat in not talking here about Susan Boyle until now. It would seem that journalists have said everything there is to say about the matter, and then said something more.

However, the story does give me some amusement – not at the expense of Miss Boyle herself, the modest church voluntary worker who found herself on stage in front of Simon Cowell at auditions for Britain’s Got Talent. Rather, I find some humour in the way that it was Susan Boyle rather than any of the other characters on the show who has shown it for what it is.

Many people knock Britain’s Got Talent – the glorified television talent contest – as an lightweight embarrassment to the broadcasting industry. How wrong they can be. Decent broadcasting is all about holding up a mirror to our society, and reflecting our true nature.

Susan Boyle, in her humility, good humour and Scottish perkiness, not to mention her remarkable vocal ability, has demonstrated the best of what it means to be British. Piers Morgan, Amanda Holden, Simon Cowell and the rest of us, who assumed that this forty-seven year old rather plain virgin couldn’t possibly possess any discernible talent, have demonstrated the least attractive part of our national character.

I do hope that the Queen will keep up her e-mailing habit. Not only will she be treated to spam e-mails offering her a myriad ways to improve her life, she will also be exposed to that great generator of topical wit, the viral e-mail. All the recent fuss about Swine Flu has prompted a number of corkers.

I have become increasingly worried about the issue, and last night telephoned the dedicated Flu Line. Unfortunately I couldn’t get through – all I could hear was crackling.

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