Every time I see the flag-waving crowds lining the streets, the flypasts and the curtsies, I can’t help wondering how they view our approach to our Royal Family in Pyongyang. “Oh wad some po’er the giftie gie us,” and all that.
The British, and indeed western, approach to North Korea is one of thinly-disguised contempt as we mock the “spontaneity” of their pro-leadership demonstrations and raise eyebrows at the wailing and tears that follow the death of a national leader.
As the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee comes to end, surely the North Koreans have every right to look at us in the same patronising way as we look at them.
Is there really much difference between the displays of affection for our Queen and the pro-leadership demonstrations of North Korea? After all, we can hardly lecture anybody about a ruling elite that passes down the leadership from one generation of the same family to the next.
But we are different from North Korea and in one absolutely fundamental aspect. Our Queen has no power, not really anyway. She is symbolic, she embodies an unidentifiable sense of country and culture and, as such she is both extremely important and utterly meaningless at the same time.
By celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee we are not lauding an omnipotent leader with the power to condemn any citizen to death, we are celebrating a sense of patriotism, a bond of common heritage and a feeling of place.
Alex Salmond said over the weekend that there were not a lot of street parties in Scotland because “we do things a little differently in Scotland”. And he was right. There is something uncomfortably ostentatious of the bunting, the cheers, the flag-waving and the overt Royalism that makes most of us squirm.
There might have been a few Scottish families where a short toast was raised to the Queen’s longevity on Saturday night, but not much more than that. Most Scots are ambivalent about the Royals, with some being outright hostile, but it would be very wrong to underestimate the important role she plays in national life, and not just in England.
Indeed, there is a danger that, with such a difference in overt displays of Royalism north and south of the Border, that Scots become alienated from the Royal Family, that they see it as a purely English institution. That would be a shame because it is Britishness that the Queen embodies, not Englishness and nobody should have to take part in a street party, wave a flag or adorn their house with bunting to appreciate it.
The jubilee has, quite rightly, sparked a debate in Scotland – should we get rid of the Royals? But like many others, every time I consider the question, I ask myself what system would we choose to replace it.
Most countries have presidencies, or some version of that system. Some, like the United States, have presidents with real power. Others, like Germany or Ireland, have largely ceremonial heads of state, but they are elected nonetheless. Do we want one of these? Do we want a president with power, even though that goes against our political traditions, or a president without power, in which case why elect them in the first place?
Denmark is the country de jour for the political classes at Holyrood at the moment. But what do the Danes have? A Royal Family and a democratic parliament. They manage to be both modern and traditional, liberal and undemocratic all at the same time.
We have a Queen who is hugely important in national terms but has very little real power, someone who is seen to embody the history and heritage of the country without expressing any views on anything political whatsoever.
The system is unfair, no one is going to argue with that. It is hereditary, it is patently not demographic or open to anyone else. But, and here is the odd thing, it works.
It is hard to defend something that appears unfair and outdated, undemocratic and privileged, but – and this is the real reason so many were on the streets of London last weekend – the monarchy works.
Somehow the Queen has managed to rise through the rush to political, economic and cultural modernity over the past six decades with her reputation and image enhanced, not tarnished.
Sure, we could replace the Queen with a President. Scotland may indeed decide to replace the Royal Family with an elected head of state if we opt for independence. That would probably be fine, but would it work as well as the current system? Probably not. Would tens of thousands of people crowd on to the streets of London – or Edinburgh – to celebrate the service of President Salmond, or even President Connery? Or, and this more likely, someone who is seen as a slightly grandiose version of a Lord Provost?
Like most north of the Border, the jubilee generally passed me by over the weekend. I flicked on to the concert on the television on Monday night but that was it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand what all those people were celebrating by turning out in their tens of thousands in the rain to watch the pageant down the Thames.
They were celebrating an ideal and a symbol of national community. They were not lauding an all-powerful ruler of an undemocratic country or expressing their love for a monarch they believe is the nearest thing to God.
That’s what makes us different and, however they look at us from Pyongyang, there is much of the rest of the world that realises – and is jealous – of what we have.
Our monarchy is anachronistic, it doesn’t fit modern political models, it is privileged and unfair but it works: and sometimes, that is more important than anything else.