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If it wasn't already clear that the age of deference is back, the 'Clean for the Queen"' campaign should drive that point home. Last week we learnt that Britain's fate in Europe will boil down to a personal spat between two Old Etonians. If this wasn't enough, you will soon be admonished to pick up litter on behalf of the most privileged family in Britain.
Organised by Keep Britain Tidy, the Clean for the Queen campaign is calling on Britons to volunteer to handle garbage to mark Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday coming up in April. Tory politicians have kicked off the PR for the campaign, with Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Rory Stewart all posing in Parliament with Clean for the Queen t-shirts and litter-pickers.
At the risk of being called a killjoy, I reserve the right to be grouchy at what amounts to yet another cringeworthy PR exercise for a family we really ought to have grown out of. But it is also an attempt to rehabilitate the dying embers of David Cameron's so-called 'Big Society' project.
Back in 2010, the Big Society was the Coalition government's raison d'etre for a time. As a primer for the swingeing austerity programme to come, we were told by Tory politicians that state provision of public services was out and public-spirited charity was in. Of course, anyone acquainted with 'compassionate conservatism' knew what to expect: in practice the Big Society was another way of telling the public "do it yourself, because we don't care". Almost six years later, the proliferation of food banks and wretched rough-sleepers mooching around England's cities attest to that.
But the Clean for the Queen campaign does summon memories of these halcyon days when it appeared for a nanosecond that liberal conservatism was interested in something other than privatisation and cuts. Back in 2010, we were supposedly "all in it together". Today we can be all in it together again – the great unwaged picking up rubbish for free because the people who used to do it have all been laid off.
Indeed, there are good practical reasons for the government's attempt to engender enthusiasm for litter picking: in many instances the salaried council workers who used to do it for a wage no longer exist. The Daily Mail, which will soon undoubtedly be among the first to admonish us to clean up for our betters, reported last year that in some local authorities street-cleaning budgets had been cut by 80%. Since 2010, there has been a 16% real terms cut in spending on cleaning up rubbish across the country.
I said that I reserved the right to be crotchety about Clean for the Queen, and here's why. While litter has been piling up in Britain's most impecunious local authorities, the royal household has been sating itself on the public purse. This year – the sixth one of the age of austerity – the Queen will receive a bumper 7% pay rise – from £37.9m ($52.4m, €48.2m) to £40.1m for the year ending March 2016.
While many households have struggled in recent years, since 2010 David Cameron's governments have been exceedingly generous to the Windsors. The Sovereign Grant – the annual payment made to the Royal family – was £36.1m for the 2013/14 financial year and increased to £37.89m for 2014/15.
At the risk of sounding like a Bolshevik, could that money not have been used to pay for clean streets? Or, for that matter, couldn't some of it also have been used to pay a living wage to Queen Elizabeth's own hard-up housekeepers?
So that I don't sound too ill-tempered, I will say this: the attempt by the Clean for the Queen campaign to summon community spirit is in many respects admirable. Were the Big Society not a big con, there were things the Left might have learnt from it back when Nick Clegg and David Cameron were still grinning in the garden at 10 Downing Street.
Ideally, Britain should be a country where people do civilised things like throw their litter in bins without needing the state to hold their hands through the process. If the Left wants to portray genuine community spirit (rather than the manufactured version of the Clean for the Queen campaign) as 'right-wing' then it is in more trouble than many of us imagine.
Yet rather than engaging in a cringeworthy bout of extreme deference, might we not engage our collective 'community spirit' for something a bit more urgent than this? Instead of doffing our fedoras for the Queen, could we not make a more significant gesture of togetherness by, I don't know, taking to the streets to feed Britain's burgeoning homeless population?
We know of course that this won't happen. Despite rough-sleeping increasing exponentially under this government (and under the previous Coalition government) it is hard to imagine politicians like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove summoning as much enthusiasm for the genuinely needy as they seem able to for the ultra-privileged who, ultimately, were simply born into the right family. Clean for the Queen is the Big Society redux. And it is just as devoid of substance.