Magazine

A Point of View: I'm not toasting [insert head-of-state here]

Champagne glasses

If class hierarchies have flattened, why do we persist with the Loyal Toast, asks Will Self, who has never risen to drink to the health of the Queen or any other head of state.

A few years ago I went to a formal dinner. It was one of those huge corporate events held in one of those huge corporate ballrooms ranged along Park Lane.

What struck me anew as I trudged from the Tube was the gathering density of men wearing black tie and women in formal gowns thronging the pavements. How strange, I ruminated, that whereas once these grand houses were tenanted by a few hundred members of the upper classes for whom formally dressing for dinner was a daily enactment of exclusivity, now every night a few thousand members of the middle classes dress up specially to ape these mores in grand hotels.

Ours has become a society in which the pantomimes expressive of hierarchy comprise crowd scenes almost exclusively now.

Before dinner, one of these crowd scenes was played out. There were the massed tables, replete with white napery and glinting cutlery swirling away into the gloomy margins of the ballroom. There were the paying guests in their rented clothes, buttering rolls and glugging indifferent Beaujolais. Up on the podium there was a toastmaster in a tight red jacket with gold-embroidered facings, who tapped his mallet and invited us all to stand for the Loyal Toast.

With a certain amount of harrumphing, the company got to its feet and raised its glasses. The toastmaster cried out: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Queen!" and, as one multi-headed supplicant, all present replied "The Queen!" then knocked back another thousand-odd swigs of bin-end Beaujolais.

I say all present, but there was one exception. Me.

I had never risen for the Loyal Toast in my life - and I wasn't about to start then.

The Toast is, of course, by no means exclusive to the Queen - it is drunk for any relevant head of state, whether or not they happen to be present - but in all instances it is an important ritual designed to emphasise the true form of power relations. If you like, it is the rather spooky moment when, from beneath the seemingly level and egalitarian plain of society, there slowly arises the steep-sided and hegemonic pyramid.

No, I have never risen for the Loyal Toast, and unless some apoplectic patriot holds a gun to my head, I doubt I ever will.

Some people, quite reasonably, might observe that my dissent is a bit puerile. This, such folk would argue, is not a medieval act of abasement, the paying of homage to a monarchical despot with a divine right, but merely another of those collective acts that, taken in sum, ensure a degree of social cohesion.

It is not the Queen in her corporeal self that is being toasted - the grand-mumsy Liz Windsor, with her tweed skirts, her corgis and her horse racing card - but the Queen in her symbolic guise. The libation is thus for the figurehead of the nation, and inasmuch as this personifies the entire Commonwealth, the Loyal Toast is in fact to everyone, and thus is an act of simple patriotism that affirms us all as Britons.

Well, that's fair enough - I could go with that, if it was what's really intended.

Image caption The toast is a symbolic gesture to a woman who herself is symbolic

When Dr Johnson said that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel", he meant by this no indictment of patriotism - far from it. As a Tory in the days when to be one meant an unswerving commitment to the monarchical principle, the great lexicographer was actually indicting those frauds who cloak themselves in patriotism as glibly as they might in sanctity or charity or any other convenient moral disguise.

Despite having rather different politics, I too can see a virtue in a genuine and Johnsonian patriotism that places a value on altruism over self-interest, on co-operation over competition, and which exalts the idea that there should be institutions - and attendant customs - that transcend the particular interests not simply of existent social groups, but also present generations.

For, in expressing our loyalty to the nation, we recognise that we hold the land and all that it comprises in trust for those who come after us, and that this stewardship should powerfully restrain our inclinations towards quick fixes and short-term gains.

Nor is my problem with symbolic acts - indeed, I like a symbolic act as much as the next woman or man who seeks a form of words and movement to mediate between feeling and expression, between one's subjective intimation and our social confirmation.

Indeed, I feel quite strongly ambivalent about the Church of England for this very reason. That while it may seem the very essence of anachronism to have one small Christian sect placed at the centre of national life - when that nation comprises many different believers, semi-believers and indeed outright unbelievers - nonetheless, there is something properly spiritual about a priesthood whose remit is to minister to all irrespective of class or creed.

Image caption To wet the baby's head

Births, marriages, interments - the Anglicans have a simple way with ritual on these occasions that creates meaning and cohesion, and, if the communion Beaujolais is viewed as a sort of Loyal Toast, then that the Monarch-on-High is present, absent, or indeed doesn't exist at all, can be seen as of secondary importance.

Put this way, the problem with the Queen becomes as clear as a crystal orb.

She is very much present. A real, living woman, who, in the absence of a constitutional role beyond being a fleshly stamp for legislation, is reduced to a tedious go-round of functions that are symbolic only of this: that while our society may pay lip service to equality of opportunity, our fundamental values remain those of inherited wealth and privilege; and that while we may slap on a "call-me-Dave" democratising topcoat, beneath this lies a thick distemper of deference.

Yes, deference is the key - and with each bent knee, each ma'am and sir and Your Majesty, we reaffirm that this is the way things are meant to be.

Image caption Jubilee well-wishers in position

The difficulty for the monarchy is thus not that they are symbolic - but that unlike the transcendent God of the great monotheisms, they are not symbolic enough.

The Queen's subjects understand that she is a real person confined to an unreal world, and so, as she is shepherded from one perturbation of union jacks to the next, despite all the careful choreography, a credibility gap inexorably yawns wider and wider.

Supporters of status quo are always keen to emphasise the role of the Queen - and other members of the Royal Family - as public servants, and establish their hand-shaking and curtain-swishing is a vital function.

However, this is manifestly untrue. The octogenarian Queen, accompanied by her nonagenarian consort, surrounded by her respectful family, and attended to by her deferential servants is an idol of our own wish fulfilment to which we make obeisance by raising a glass. After all, most of us face old age in a so-called care home, being tended to by migrant workers on minimum wage.

The Queen's immediate heir isn't buffing up well as an idol. Poor Charles's messy and public misalliances are compounded by his fruitless attempts to engage - so that with each stab at reality, he rips still more the symbolic cloth.

For those committed to the monarchy, the only solution is to hand the crown down to the next generation, who hopefully can still prove they are sufficiently inauthentic for the role of head of state.

Alternatively, we, the people, could come up with candidates of our own.

I know of a woman who fulfils all the right criteria:

  • she's worked for decades in the public service
  • for very little financial reward
  • and is loved and admired by all who come into contact with her.

She used to deliver my post, and when I realised she had stopped, I was most upset.

I saw her in the street shortly after this and asked what had happened and she explained that since she'd had cancer treatment, she needed a shorter round. She was devoid of self-pity - and I have never heard her complain about anything at all. She hails from the west of Ireland - and some might think this disqualifies her from being our head of state, but as a citizen of the republic of letters, I think I know where my deference is properly due.

Rest assured, were the toastmaster at a formal dinner to announce, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Postwoman", I'd be on my hind legs before you could scream "Treason!"

Image caption Will Self's nomination comes from the ranks of postal workers

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites