Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, gave a highly personal and moving tribute to the Queen on Radio 4′s Thought for the Day last week. Among other things, he said “Jews are intensely loyal to the Queen”, adding that they pray for her weekly in the synagogue and say a special blessing whenever they see her in person.
It seems his father was a refugee from Poland and his mother from Lithuania. Were it not for our country’s welcome they would have died in the Holocaust. Lord Sacks reminded his listeners that “For us, Britain’s tolerance and traditions of fairness aren’t something we take for granted. They are the very things that allow us to live without fear. And they are embodied… in Her Majesty the Queen.”
He went on to say that the Queen “is the unifying presence at the heart of British life, to whom we feel loyalty whichever way we vote and regardless of class, colour, culture or creed”. He also spoke of her “quiet heroism of service” and “the dignity of [her] dedication to the common good.”
All this was heartfelt and coming as it did at the start of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, it was heartwarming to hear. But it did provoke some questions in my mind. Lord Sacks began his short reflection by saying that when he was aged four his father bought a television set so the family could watch the Coronation; and when he first went to primary school he was taught the national anthem; amusingly, he thought “reign” meant “rain” and that as it rained rather a lot it was obvious Her Majesty was doing an effective job.
It made me wonder if primary school children today, particularly in schools where there are a large number of immigrants, are still taught the national anthem. Young children are very impressionable; learning this stately hymn to the concept of monarchy would leave an indelible mark on the mind and the memory. It would help to inculcate an indefinable sense of British identity more subtle and many-layered than Lord Tebbit’s famous “cricket test” (and I don’t mean to disparage our passion for team games in saying this).
Again, is the Queen prayed for in mosques (especially the more radical ones) with the same patriotic fervour as in synagogues? Will our immigrant communities be watching the Jubilee on TV with the same sense of national pride and loyalty as the Sacks family, and their Jewish community, watched the Coronation in 1953?
I don’t raise these questions in a spirit of cynicism but I do raise them with some curiosity. Of course it can be argued that the Jews of Europe were subject to intolerable pressures before and during the last War and so were glad to fit in; that there is a particular bond for those of the Judaeo-Christian religions, not shared by other faiths; also, that as a peoples they are uniquely disciplined, law abiding and, because of their tragic history, keen to be assimilated as far as possible in whatever country offers them refuge. This combination of features does not hold for later waves of immigrants.
Yet if it is the case that we no longer know how to sell our island story to those who want to come and live here, we have lost something vital. Our “tolerance and traditions of fairness”, singled out as words of praise by Sacks, should not, as the notion of multiculturalism has tried to do, mean we surrender our sense of national identity and pride. On Monday night at the Palace pop concert, the Prince of Wales spoke of “pride in being British” in just the same way as Lord Sacks. Why has this phrase fallen out of fashion in recent decades?
God Save the Queen.