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Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2010

It is a great pleasure, Mrs. Dean, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Minister for taking time out of his busy diary to respond to this debate. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) here, as he has done so much on this matter with his private Member’s Bill.

It is very much within the context of the Government’s planning for Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee that I believe we should have a festival of Britain, and I am keen to push the idea to the Minister. Indeed, I have raised the subject before in the main Chamber, and I was most grateful for his response; the idea of that happening in conjunction with Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee was something that he welcomed as having an excellent socialist genus.

I believe that we have the opportunity to hold a year-long festival of Britain, with the Olympic games being a dramatic crescendo. I would like particularly to thank Mr. Malcolm Felberg, who took the effort to lobby me on the idea; he is a constituent of the right hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks). It would give us the opportunity, in line with the Government’s approach, to have activities taking place in villages, towns and cities across the country, perhaps avoiding some of the pitfalls of the grand projets that sometimes come with such occasions.

It has been the style and approach of the Government to give good notice of the jubilee week. It is testament to the way in which the Government are listening to proposals that nothing is cast in stone at this stage. However, a good deal of planning would be necessary. I believe that it would be right to have some activity on the south bank, and I am grateful for the local and regional media’s interest today in the idea of having a 1951-style festival. It would be most apposite, given the First Secretary of State’s antecedents and his grandfather’s involvement in the 1951 festival.

It would be good to have some activity on the original south bank site; that would cheer the nation and promote British technology. Indeed, although there might be a danger of there being some Wilsonian white-heat-of-technology ideas, it would nevertheless be useful to celebrate manufacturing excellence, given that the Government are trying to manage the economy in such a way as to reduce slightly our dependence on financial services.

Most importantly, however, it will give us the chance to celebrate these glorious Elizabethan years. It will also give us a chance to capture the attention of visitors to the United Kingdom during the Olympic year and, in line with the Labour Government’s slogan of 1946, to show that “Britain can make it”. These are challenging times—times of austerity, perhaps—and to be able to say that we have excellence in manufacturing and that Britain can thrive and recover would be a good theme between now and 2012, as the economy recovers.

The year 2012 should be a festival of Britain that celebrates British talent in art, culture and sport as well as in industry. However, there is clearly an important royal process for it. Only Queen Victoria has celebrated a diamond jubilee. That was pushed for by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who really wanted to celebrate the British empire.

Now is our chance, with such a celebration, to reflect positively on our Commonwealth ties, and to consider the changing nature of British society in the context of our imperial history. It is regrettable that our children do not learn as much about our imperial past as they could, particularly as its history has made our country what it is today. Such teaching would go a long way towards redefining the nature of migration in the minds of the young. I hope that I do not offend too many colleagues in the Chamber by saying this, but it would also provide many salutary examples of how foolhardy military engagements in far-off places can be a great trap for our nation.

Beyond schools, I believe that a 2012 festival of Britain would bring the chance for scholarships and apprenticeships to assist the disadvantaged, to show that their talents are most applicable as Britain rebuilds her economy and as we move away from services—particularly financial services—to manufacturing, technology, innovation and science. Perhaps we could have diamond jubilee scholarships, open to students from Commonwealth countries, that could foster British values overseas.

It is right that we should have a physical presence. I am aware of the danger of being accused of saying that significant public sector finances should be made available for such an initiative, but we would clearly want to catch the spirit of the silver jubilee. I remember attending street parties in 1977—I am sure that other Members remember it too—and I believe that that is the community approach that the Government would like to adopt.

It might be appropriate, with many people going to the Olympic site, for them also to have the opportunity to go to a site here in the centre of London, behind the London Eye. It might be apt to have a new Skylon. I know that Winston Churchill took the original down very snappily after he was re-elected. That emblem of the original festival of Britain was the subject of teasing; it was said that, like the economy, it had no visible means of support. Perhaps that approach could be pursued now.

I am attracted by the idea of a permanent legacy for the festival of Britain jubilee year. In some ways, that is a criticism of what is going on with the Olympics. Some of the legacy prospects for the Olympics are less ambitious than they were at the start, and some of the ambitions for a cultural Olympiad have unfortunately had to be put to one side. Perhaps that is something that could be dealt with as part of a diamond jubilee for Her Majesty. After all, when we look around our country, we see in many towns and villages that a great many of our commemorations of Queen Victoria are the result of her diamond jubilee.

Hardly ever does a debate go by without my mentioning Croydon; I have mentioned Croydon 42 times during this Session of Parliament. A permanent legacy could be found in the neighbourhood of the London borough of Croydon in a rebuilt crystal palace. Another Minister described me as living on another planet for suggesting the idea, but there would be some value to it. Situated in the demographically dynamic south of London, a new palace could embody all the elements of art, culture, sport and industry that the festival would promote.

A crowning glory in jubilee year would be for a British museum extension to be built in south London—a testimony to south London and to Britain’s global reach. After all, it was after the 1851 exhibition that the original palace was exported to Crystal Palace. In many ways, one can see a continuity in the prospects for any general exhibitions that we might have. The 1851 exhibition was clearly industrial and technological, and the 1951 exhibition was about post-war reconstruction.

A 2012 jubilee commemoration and exhibition could be based on green jobs and technology, perhaps emphasising LED technology. In Croydon, a green energy technology exhibition could rejuvenate the failed Skyline project, which I am sad to report to the House went into administration this week. It would also brighten up our lives in this time of economic downturn, perhaps with a project to light up London. That would be a very bright way in which to celebrate.

I feel that Her Majesty commands our respect and allegiance as our monarch, but she has earned our love by the manner of her reign. As in previous jubilee years, we can look to our sovereign lady as a symbol of unity in difficult times.

Moreover, there is much to celebrate from the original festival of Britain. I am pleased to have a facsimile of the official festival of Britain book, which was produced by HMSO and written by Mr. Ian Cox. Many of the themes mentioned are similar to those of today. Tolerance, for example, was one such theme, although ethnicity was somewhat different. The book said that the British nation was one of the most mixed people in the world, and it emphasised the importance of tolerance. Moreover, it tried to define—this was one of the difficult challenges—what it is to be British.

When I was on the Education and Skills Committee, we asked our witnesses, “How do you treat Britishness?” They had the temerity to reply, “How do we define that?” It is a very difficult thing to do. The HMSO book defined Britishness as a mixture of the lion and the unicorn, the lion being about realism and strength and the unicorn about fantasy, independence—something that I very much appreciate—and imagination.

Colleagues will be most amused to hear that reference is also made to a new initiative in west London—the new London airport sited 15 miles west of London. The HMSO book said that the terminal would be grouped on a 50 acre site in the centre of nine main runways, and that the facilities would enable the airport to handle “4,000 passengers”. That shows how modest the ambitions were, and how easy it is for a project to grow and grow—no talk there of third runways.

I feel that the jubilee festival of 2012 provides us with an excellent opportunity to celebrate our cultural diversity and helps us to crystallise a sense of national identity.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on proposing this debate. He has extensively referred to the Commonwealth and the importance of involving countries with strong historical ties to Britain. Does he agree that this is also an opportunity to involve those countries and territories that still remain part of the United Kingdom? We have 16 British overseas territories and five Crown dependencies. Does he feel that they should be included in this great celebration of Britain? May I also say that the idea of a festival of Britain is something that I wholeheartedly endorse?

I feel especially honoured that the hon. Gentleman has spared the time to attend this debate, particularly bearing in mind his prominent role in emphasising the importance of our nation’s continuing to celebrate its links with the overseas territories. It was very notable how the original festival of Britain emphasised our link with overseas nations, the Commonwealth and the remaining empire. It strikes me that it would be entirely within that tradition to do so again. It is a great loss that we should no longer celebrate either those links or our sense of responsibility to those nations. We all pay credit to the hon. Member for Romford for the way in which he has so successfully flown those 16 flags over the duration of this Parliament.

In any exhibition, it should be possible to promote the advances in aerospace, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and green technology. Perhaps there could be a Science museum exhibition to highlight recent British inventions and discoveries. We could extend the London Open House and Open Garden Squares weekend programmes to the rest of the country, as well as promote paintings by British artists at metropolitan and provincial galleries. Moreover, we could have festivals of film and theatre, featuring British writers, actors, producers and directors. After all, one of the best ways in which to promote the success and diversity of the British economy is through the media.

How wonderful it would be if such an enterprise culminated in Andy Murray’s winning Wimbledon, England’s winning the European football championship and the British team’s winning an unprecedented number of medals at the Olympics, which would be opened by the Queen in her diamond jubilee year.

It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mrs. Dean, and to hear the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) talk about his vision of sunlit uplands in 2012, which I, too, very much wish to see. Let us hope though that 2012 will be the third time that Andy Murray wins Wimbledon.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised this very important subject for debate, and I am also delighted to welcome the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who has a long and proud record of support in this area. We have heard a number of interesting ideas and contributions. I look forward to seeing the facsimile record waved by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central during the debate. For more detail, I shall have to read about the festival of Britain during the summer, when I have a bit more time.

I am aware that the subject is a matter of interest not just to the hon. Gentlemen but to many people across the United Kingdom and Commonwealth. My noble Friend the First Secretary of State and I have received many letters on the matter. The way in which the Commonwealth and the dependent territories are referred to in the debate is extremely important, and I certainly wish to see them fully involved in the celebrations that happen in 2012.

Let me bring the hon. Gentleman up to date. On 5 January, I made a statement to the House announcing a special diamond jubilee weekend. The late May bank holiday will be moved to Monday 4 June and an extra bank holiday will be added on Tuesday 5 June. A diamond jubilee medal will be issued and there will be a competition for city status. Although it is still early days, I am now pleased to be able to report that the First Minister of Scotland has confirmed that there will also be a four-day weekend in Scotland, which means that people from across the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth will be able to celebrate the jubilee together.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the possibility of staging a year-long festival of Britain. He knows already of my great interest in that event and the context in which it took place in 1951. It is a very attractive idea, especially given the success of the 1951 festival, which so lifted the spirits of the nation after such a difficult time of rationing. Although the crisis then was of a slightly different nature and scale to the one we are encountering now, it is still important that we have a positive picture of Britain—not just for the outside world but for Britain itself.

Although it is still early days, as I said, we are already planning certain events. Given that the jubilee is only two years away, it may be too late to develop a completely new year-long festival. Moreover, 2012 may already be rather full of major events. We have the diamond jubilee and the Olympic and Paralympic games, which open in London less than two months after the diamond jubilee celebrations. However, the hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that we already have plans for the cultural Olympiad to reach an exciting climax in 2012. Festival 2012 will mark the finale of the cultural Olympiad and it will run from 21 June to 9 September 2012. It will be preceded by a series of “festival trailblazers” at the start of 2012. At the heart of the festival will be a programme of new commissions by the best artists and creative talent in the world. The festival will be a wide-ranging series of events covering pop, film, fashion, theatre, opera and digital innovation. By the end of 2010, the main elements of the 2012 programme should be in place. In addition, I can also report that Buckingham palace itself is currently developing some exciting plans for the jubilee weekend.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is planning a wonderful Cecil Beaton photography exhibition that will celebrate the Queen’s reign. That exhibition is likely to open in Scotland before coming to London early in 2012. It is anticipated that the exhibition will then travel to other museums and venues throughout the United Kingdom and other countries.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of cultural events in connection with the festival of Britain idea that he has proposed. We perhaps need to think more carefully about how to co-ordinate events during the celebrations in 2012. Although we need to recognise that all these events will be happening and that the diamond jubilee will occur very near to the Olympics, it is important that we celebrate the diamond jubilee separately from the Olympics, because a diamond jubilee is such a momentous occasion.

It will be only the second time in our history that a monarch has celebrated a diamond jubilee. The respect in which Her Majesty is held within our nation and across the world is so profound that the jubilee will be an opportunity to ensure that that respect is conveyed, so I would hate to think that the diamond jubilee would be overshadowed in any respect, even by an event as massive as the Olympic games. We have therefore to think quite carefully about how we approach the various events occurring in what will be an extremely exciting year.

The Big Lottery Fund is considering how it might support community-led activities to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the street parties in 1977, which I am sure we all remember, and I am certain that such parties will happen in 2012. It does not matter what I say or what anyone else says; I think that people will organise such parties off their own bat. As the hon. Members for Croydon, Central and for Romford may be aware, the Awards for All programme, which was funded by the lottery, made a significant contribution to the success of the golden jubilee celebrations in 2002.

We are receiving lots of ideas and suggestions all the time; there is no shortage of ideas coming through, not least from the hon. Member for Croydon, Central. There is a proposal for a diamond jubilee horse race, which is very appropriate given the Queen’s long-standing interest in horse racing, and that idea is currently being developed by the horse racing industry. The Government also hope that communities will come together and find their own ways to look back and remember the past 60 years, as well as to celebrate the Queen’s many interests and achievements.

I was very taken by the hon. Gentleman’s reference to monuments across the country. He is absolutely right to say that many of the monuments to Queen Victoria in our communities emanated from her diamond jubilee in 1897. It would be good for communities to think now about organising themselves in that regard, because it is sometimes quite difficult to realise that the next two years will pass very quickly.

Many of these ideas to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee will be completely independent of Government and, of course, that is how it should be. The diamond jubilee is not in any way a political event. We want to create the right environment for the jubilee celebrations to take place, and I am sure that we will proceed on a cross-party basis.

As the hon. Members know, there will be a diamond jubilee medal and a competition for a new city. I am not yet in a position to give more details about the criteria and eligibility for the medal or about the competition for city status. However, I can reassure the hon. Members that work is under way on both projects, drawing on the precedent set by the golden jubilee in 2002 and the lessons that we learned then. I am well aware of the strength of feeling about eligibility for the medals, and we will bear that in mind when we reach our decisions.

The diamond jubilee will be an ideal opportunity to celebrate science and innovation in the United Kingdom and I am sure that will be reflected in the events that take place in 2012. Recently, I attended an excellent exhibition in Manchester called “The Big Bang”, which aimed to encourage an interest in engineering and science among schoolchildren and young people. I was privileged to meet schoolchildren and young people, of ages ranging up to 18, who had completed fantastic science and innovation projects.

I do not think that such projects come to the attention of the general public enough. The type of interest that the diamond jubilee celebrations in 2012 will foster will provide a platform for us to celebrate all that is great about the United Kingdom, our culture, our science and our innovation. The diamond jubilee should certainly be an opportunity both to reflect on the past 60 years and to think about the future. I am sure that Her Majesty would wish to see it celebrated in that way. It will be a huge opportunity for us to present the United Kingdom in a way that will be to the long-term benefit of the country.

I am delighted that the Minister has said that the Olympics should not drown out the diamond jubilee. It is very important that we ensure that the two events are separate. I think that the historic significance of Her Majesty’s 60th jubilee means that it should be the most prominent event of the year, although we will also celebrate the Olympics.

May I also commend the Minister for what he has just said about schools? Can he assure the House that schools will have a vital role to play in celebrating the diamond jubilee and in teaching young people about the importance of the monarchy and the role that the Queen has played in creating stability and unity within our nation?

The hon. Gentleman is very aware that we share an interest in constitutional history and in the genius of the British constitution. Of course, the monarch plays a massive part in the success of the British constitution. It is very important that we communicate, especially to young people, what a special governmental set-up we have within the United Kingdom.

One of the reasons for Her Majesty’s success is the way that she has been able to maintain respect for the monarchy in a time of massive change. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central referred to a description of Heathrow airport from 1951, which showed that the changes in the past 60 years have been enormous. There are ideas around now that could not have been contemplated when Her Majesty came to the throne, yet the respect that she is held in now has been maintained throughout that period of change. It is crucial that we stress her importance in that regard.

The Minister is quite right to conclude this debate by returning to Her Majesty herself. The past 60 years have been a time of great change, including in social attitudes. The Queen has been the focus of attention in times of national celebration, but she has also been a source of counsel in times of crisis for the nation.

Indeed. The Queen fulfils an extraordinary and demanding role, but the respect that she is held in shows how well she has performed that singular role in the past 60 years. The diamond jubilee will be a tremendous opportunity to say thank you to her for the service that she has given.

I know that the hon. Members who have spoken in this debate will continue to contribute their ideas as we approach 2012. I greatly welcome their continuing interest. We will take on board what they have to say, discuss it further with them and see how the matter is resolved as we come to 2012.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.