by Laura Clancy
Despite appearing to be a sycophantic fantasy, Clean for the Queen is actually a real thing. Launched by (aristocratic-loving) Country Life magazine and Keep Britain Tidy, ‘Clean for the Queen’ is billed as ‘a campaign to clear up Britain in time for Her Majesty the Queen’s 90th birthday’ in June. Britons are encouraged to volunteer their time on the weekend of 4th-6th March to go out and clean the streets, ‘in honour’ of our Queen. Thousands of volunteers have signed up, but the Twitter hashtag #cleanforthequeen has since been hijacked by those who don’t appreciate the campaign’s sentiment.
‘Clean for the Queen’ is everything that’s wrong with Cameron’s Britain. It is elitist, it perpetuates working class stereotypes, and it limits the boundaries of national belonging. It is even sponsored – hilariously – by capitalist monsters such as McDonalds, Costa, Greggs and Wrigley, who are presumably some of the top brands you’ll find in a rubbish pile; evidencing another area of social politics where big corporations are allowed to run wild under the Tories.
In this article, I want to explore how ‘Clean for the Queen’ works as a tool for the reification of inequalities in contemporary Britain. Although often omitted from a classed analysis, the British royal family is the pinnacle of extreme wealth inequality, and needs to be critically examined as part of academic research on contemporary inequalities. In ‘Clean for the Queen’ the Queen is politicized as part of Cameron’s Big Society, acting as a powerful symbol through which discourses around austerity, and classed/national belonging are conveyed.
The biggest irony of the campaign is its introduction amidst George Osborne’s announcement of further cuts to public spending to ‘boost the economy’ under the Conservative’s austerity programme: cuts which will no doubt further detriment local councils, who have seen 40% decreases in funding in two years. As a result, those who were actually employed to clean the streets have often been fired, thus leaving ‘grot spots’ around the country, as the ‘Clean for the Queen’ Twitter account so insidiously captions images of waste. Birmingham, one of the places shamed on social media as a ‘grot spot’, saw 16,000 people visit food banks in the 6 months between April – September 2015. ‘Clean for the Queen’ is another example of the Tory party’s incessant attempts to define poverty as a moral deficiency, as opposed to the result of punitive party politics and aggressive neoliberalism. As Dowling and Harvie suggest, as part of the political economy of the Big Society the state retreats away from social reproduction, ‘placing the associated costs onto the unpaid realms of the home and the community’ (2014:870). The same people who are reliant on food banks are now being called upon to do the council’s work for free, volunteering their time to “help the local community” when the government have done everything in their power to decimate that community. The state can shirk responsibility for the social crisis they have inspired, while reaping the rewards from the “community spirit” that they want to take its place.
The framing of the ‘Clean for the Queen’ campaign chimes with the popular recourse to post-war austerity as a cultural, as well as an economic, model. In The Cultural Politics of Austerity (2013), Rebecca Bramall outlines how vintage and nostalgic iconographies have undergone a contemporary reworking, where ‘austerity chic’ becomes a source of cultural capital in modern day “austerity Britain”. The branding of ‘Clean for the Queen’ directly reproduces perhaps the best example of ‘austerity chic’: the ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster, which has been reproduced so many times with such a range of ironically reassuring messages its become a national institution. Its message – hardiness in the face of adversity – perfectly encapsulates all of the contradictions of Toryism: individualizing responsibility and masking state culpability. ‘Clean for the Queen’s’ appropriation of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ emblem exploits its historical affiliations (even if these meanings might not be historically accurate), and works to present the campaign as part of the fashionable shift to thrift culture and community spirit.
This appeal to national sentiment is further achieved through the image of the Queen. Her 90th birthday is being hailed as an historical national event, with a variety of “celebrations” planned around the country. The construction of the Head of State as a national figurehead is not a new phenomenon, but the extraordinary popularity of Elizabeth II, particularly as she gets older, is somewhat harder to account for. Although she has weathered some criticism (the “annus horribilis” of 1992, for example), in recent years particularly she has arisen to somehow above condemnation, and widespread analysis of the monarchy in terms of increasing wealth inequality is virtually non-existent. The implication that the Queen is a worthy recipient of voluntary cleaning work makes assumptions about national sentiment towards her, and the campaign can only mobilize this discourse because of the lack of general critique of the Queen as figurehead. ‘Clean for David Cameron’, for instance, would not work in the same way, but would achieve the same end goal. The construction of Queen Elizabeth II as the embodiment of Britain allows her to be manipulated as an ideological tool for Big Society aspirations.
The particular representations of the Queen within the campaign attempt to draw on commonsense understandings of “Britishness”. In the following passage from the ‘Clean for the Queen’ website, the Queen’s coronation is reproduced as a key moment of national history to exemplify the oft-cited Toryism that “society is breaking down”:
When she came to the throne litter was not the problem that it is today. Food packaging, plastic bottles, takeaway meals and cigarette butts have all contributed to a growing menace that affects our wildlife, streets, countryside and sense of pride. What better way could we show our gratitude to Her Majesty than to clean up our country?
Litter is positioned as a modern phenomenon: the direct result of contemporary lifestyles reliant on consumerism and material goods (ironic, when this text is sponsored by McDonalds). Wildlife and countryside – some of the key emblems of traditional Britishness, which we are “proud” of – are under threat from this modern day menace. In order to return to the better life Britons experienced when Elizabeth II was crowned, we must clean the streets. The framing of the excerpt implicitly positions cleaning as a moral choice, which is to be undertaken for the good of the country and the environment. “We” have caused this problem with our consumerist obsessions, so “we” must tidy it up. Furthermore, this excerpt implicitly references working-class stereotypes in its indications towards ‘takeaway meals and cigarette butts’. Unhealthy lifestyle choices have long been coded as evidence of the deficiencies of the “undeserving poor”, and these references work to construct the littering as a moralistic problem perpetuated primarily by the working-class. This framing also, I would suggest, works towards the persistent Tory objectives of social cleansing against these working-class “scroungers”, as the “good” (middle/upper-class) Britons are encouraged to come together to cleanse the country of the working-class “threat” to respectable society.
‘Clean for the Queen’ explicitly attempts to appeal to a nationalist sentiment, but the framing of the campaign leads to questions around who is allowed to “belong” to this national discourse. Its endorsement by a white, upper-class, heterosexual woman limits the ability for many to identify with British nationalism, and indeed the problems with seeing Britain as a “national family” headed by the royals has been the subject of much historical scholarship. Furthermore, the images of politicians like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove clutching litter-picking equipment has done little to make the campaign more accessible for those outside of the Establishment. As British institutions become increasingly dominated by a small, privileged elite class, campaigns like ‘Clean for the Queen’ can be seen as part of continued efforts to normalize and reproduce this authority, and reinscribe the values of Toryism on the populace.
Laura Clancy is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University.
Categories: Rethinking The World