The main event

Buckingham Palace could teach the International Olympic Committee a thing or two about getting a whole country in the festive spirit

2 June 2012

The tickets have all been handed out fairly and efficiently. No one has grumbled about crashing websites or foreign tour operators snaffling the best seats. There are no snatch squads of lawyers and police ready to pounce on inappropriate signs and seal off London’s A-roads for a few VIPs. Yet the overall crowd figure will stretch into the millions, with billions more watching around the world. The promotional value is incalculable. And the cost of this global event? The taxpayer is being charged £1 million for administration bills plus whatever it costs to police the public. At worst, the entire thing might cost, say, half a beach volleyball arena.

Having bumbled along purposefully and quietly for the last few years, the Diamond Jubilee tortoise is suddenly overtaking the £9.3 billion Olympic hare. And the contrast between the two mindsets is startling. Is it too late for the grandees of the Olympic movement — and they don’t come much grander — to learn a few lessons from one who really knows about winning hearts and minds?

Long before the Diamond Jubilee trumpet had sounded, the Queen had already taken a few important decisions about her 60th anniversary on the throne. The Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which patrols use and abuse of the Royal Arms, declared an amnesty on merchandise, to the delight of hard-pressed retailers and manufacturers. Every mug and tea towel is welcome, not just the official stuff from the Royal Collection. Nor would the Palace plan any big set-piece events. Instead, it would work with any private organisations or charities which wanted to organise one, provided there was no prospect of the taxpayer being left with a hefty tab.

There would be no hype, no rigorously policed marketing strategy, no official mascots like that grotesque one-eyed Teletubby (yours for a tenner). If people felt minded to mark six decades of duty and service, then the Palace and the Queen’s network of Lord-Lieutenants would be happy to point them in the right direction. If people felt it was all a complete waste of time, then they could enjoy a four-day break without worrying about the cost.

The result has been a resurgence of grass-roots party planning reminiscent of the Coronation. Whichever indicator you choose, the enthusiasm for the Jubilee is remarkable.

Take the Queen’s very own torch relay. On the night of 4 June, a network of Jubilee beacons will be lit across the country by volunteers. Organiser Bruno Peek feared that he was being ambitious when he set a target of 2,012 beacons. There were half that number in honour of the 1977 Silver Jubilee and 1,800 for the Golden Jubilee in 2002. Given the increased clout of the health, safety and climate lobbies in the meantime, one might expect significantly fewer takers for a community bonfire in June 2012.

Peek need not have worried. There will now be 4,180 beacons on that evening. They will include braziers on the highest peaks in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, a chain of 60 beacons running the length of Hadrian’s Wall and a diamond-shaped cauldron which the Queen herself will light outside Buckingham Palace. Not a penny of public money is involved. Unlike its Olympic counterpart, this flame will not require a convoy of 47 vehicles and a back-up team of 350 people. Nor, for that matter, will it end up on eBay.

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Equally, we might have expected street parties to fall victim to the box-tickers, just like all those vanished summer fêtes. But many councils have heeded government pleas to go easy on the red tape. And tens of thousands of impromptu little committees, perhaps emboldened by the bonhomie surrounding last year’s royal wedding, have just decided to go for it.

The biggest party of the lot will take place in Battersea Park, south London, a giant family festival with a ringside view of the Queen and her fleet of a thousand little ships sailing by in the great Thames Jubilee pageant. With room for 70,000 guests, the park has a comparable capacity to the Olympic stadium. The tickets (a fiver for adults, free for children) went online on a first-come, first-served basis and were promptly devoured without a glitch. Another million or so people will be watching elsewhere along the river.

Now, it is clearly ridiculous to compare the demands of staging an Olympiad with the organisation of a Jubilee, even if the numbers are not dissimilar.

But comparisons between these two historic events are valid when it comes to tone and attitude. Much as it may irritate republicans, it is actually this celebration of monarchy which embodies those contemporary virtues of inclusivity and accessibility. It is the supposedly egalitarian Olympic movement which looks remote, outdated, arrogant.

Britain is only just waking up to the powers which the Olympic movement seeks to exert this summer. Planning a Schools Olympics? Think again. You could be in breach of the law if you use the word ‘Olympics’. Towns along the route of the torch relay are being scrutinised for any potential abuse of the sacred Olympic symbols.

Julie Swayne, of JJ’s Lingerie in Melton Mowbray, had decked out her shop for a torch relay dress rehearsal (not even the real thing) — five mannequins, each with a hula hoop in the colour of an Olympic ring. Suddenly, Leicestershire trading standards officers appeared and warned Mrs Swayne that she was in breach of Olympic laws. Elsewhere in the East Midlands, the University of Derby has removed banners which could have led to prosecution. Their incriminating message? ‘Supporting the London Olympics.’ It’s like clamping down on posters saying ‘God Save The Queen.’

Amid all the cartwheeling after London won these Games back in 2005, no one paid much attention to a small piece of legislation which followed. But it is thanks to the 2006 Olympic Games Act that any organisation risks a fine of up to £20,000 for using words like ‘London 2012’ — or even a suggestive blend of ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’.


We shouldn’t blame Lord Coe, the government or the mayor. Such laws come with the 33 volumes of rules imposed on all Olympic hosts by the International Olympic Committee. The IOC expects genuflection from any city lucky enough to receive its blessing. And it is extremely protective of the sponsors which keep the gravy train rolling. If ­Adidas and Coca-Cola are going to spend hundreds of millions on an association with the Olympic rings, then they must have exclusivity in return. Fair enough.

But the IOC is missing a crucial point. By far the biggest sponsors of this circus are British taxpayers, who are footing most of the £9.3 billion (and rising) bill. They include Mrs Swayne, you and me. Can we not even hang a ‘Welcome to the London Olympics’ sign without being hauled before the beak?

It is an invitation to dissent, as Bob ­Mackin points out in his new book about the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Red Mittens and Red Ink. Lululemon, a Vancouver-based sportswear chain, wanted to enter the Olympic spirit but was warned that any use of the O-word — or even ‘2010’ — meant prosecution. So it produced a new range called the ‘Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 and 2011 Edition’. It was a bestseller.

Others will do the same in London. And quite right, too. The city would look very dull otherwise. I have just walked past a flag-draped Marks & Spencer (‘On Your Marks…’ geddit?) and a branch of River Island decorated with London landmarks and Union flags. Were it not for a few toy corgis in the window, I might almost have imagined that there was some sort of big international sporting event coming up.

Fortunately, the Jubilee has given us all a genuine excuse to hang out the bunting. And besides, how would you rather remember 2012? With a pink cyclopic toy or a nice mug with the Queen on it?

Robert Hardman’s new edition of Our Queen is published by Arrow. He writes for the Daily Mail.

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