The death of Queen Elizabeth II was always going to be a momentous event for the UK, at least symbolically – British monarchs have virtually no power, so a handover from one sovereign to another is more a change of figurehead and moral leadership than making any decisions that affect people’s lives materially.
Yet after such a long reign, a profound reaction of sorts to the Queen’s death was expected, and that reaction offers the chance to look at how modern Britain faces up to a historical moment. I call it the Great Observation, and now the 11-day mourning period is over, it’s possible to draw some conclusions. And I have to say I’m less enamoured of my country than I was before the Queen died.
To be clear: the standing of Elizabeth II as a person is not in question. This was a woman thrust into her role at 25, who acted with great dignity and professionalism over 70 years. Sure, she had more than adequate practical and financial back-up, but her sense of duty – and judgement about when to keep quiet – was admirable. I suspect such admiration for her among anti-monarchists has kept the republican debate in Britain suppressed for at least two decades.
Nor am I denying the right of people to mourn her as they see fit. Much as I have no truck with queuing for nearly a day to file past a closed coffin, I have friends and relations who did just that. I respect their decision, whether they felt they knew the Queen in some way or just wanted to be part of a big national event. And the Brits’ ability to ‘do pageantry’ was on show at its best at the funeral.
However, there are two practical areas in which the (over)reaction to the Queen’s death has been alarming.
The first is the way those making decisions instantly forgot that many people in the UK are facing a dire winter, with plenty having to decide whether to eat or heat. The death of the head of state may provide a distraction, but it doesn’t stop the frightening reality of an approaching recession with rapidly rising fuel bills as the weather turns colder. It was symbolic that, when the note was passed round the front benches of the House of Commons informing senior MPs that the Queen was either dead or about to die, the debate in progress was about how to help people with their fuel bills. At a stroke, that debate stopped.
Against that background, the raft of events cancelled by well-off wallahs who will never have to worry about paying energy bills is a disgrace. Countless people who are self-employed or on zero-hour contracts will have lost work at just the time they need to keep their bank balance as healthy as they can. Some of those cancellations were plain daft, like the first weekend’s football matches – most football fans would have loved the chance to pay their respects to the Queen, quite apart from the loss of income the cancellations meant (and for lower league teams on tight budgets, it could be existential).
Even my own political party, the Liberal Democrats, cancelled their conference which was due to start on the ninth day after the Queen’s death! No doubt it was tactically wise, given the opprobrium that would have been heaped on the party if the conference had gone ahead, but if the liberal movement can’t discuss its business in the second week after the ceremonial head of state has died – at 96 – then something is badly awry.
This leads on to my second concern: the way the national mourning has suppressed freedom of speech. The right to question how our head of state is decided is apposite precisely at the time of transfer from one monarch to another, yet people were arrested for putting up placards and shouting slogans suggesting Charles III should not be head of state. In private, even expressing my view that the mourning has been overdone has elicited strongly disapproving comments from people; as long as we agree to differ and respect each other’s views, that’s fine, but the overriding sense is that, unless you’re part of the national mourning mood, you’re effectively guilty of anti-social behaviour. This is dangerously dystopian.
It also makes me wonder how much the mood of mourning is genuine and how much is fanned by the media, in particular the BBC which has not only shown unashamed pro-monarchy bias but has taken its eye off the ball of a number of very significant stories (including several highly questionable policy decisions by the new Truss government and some rare good news from Ukraine). The respect for Queen Elizabeth among the British people was always there, but would we really have been “mourning all day and mourning all night, falling over ourselves to get all of the misery right” (a quote from Evita) if there hadn’t been wall-to-wall coverage on national state television? I doubt it.
Soap operas and poor decisions
I can’t help feeling I have underestimated the importance soap operas and fairy tales have for the British public. The royal family is in effect a soap opera; OK, the people are real, but they are characters in a play, where only the sovereign has a public role, and even that’s a ceremonial one. I’m not knocking the value of soap operas – like a good novel, they provide a world we can all dip into to take ourselves out of our everyday lives and care about characters we simply observe from afar. They are important distractions, and we are entitled to be sad when a person we like in our bedtime novel or our favourite soap dies, but we wouldn’t dream of crying off sick from work because we were distraught about it. So why do we accept 11 days of disruption to national life – including sillinesses like removing cycle racks and cancelling kids’ sport – just because the ceremonial head of state has died?
This is important, because as long as soap operas and fairy tales remain influential, we risk making poor decisions as a nation. The classic case is Brexit, which was sold to the people as a fairy tale of recapturing Britain’s golden olden days, against the advice of those who warned about the economic consequences. Now the economic consequences are becoming every bit as grave as the Remain campaign warned, we need to be willing to put our fairy tales aside if we’re to re-establish constructive relations with the EU (whether we rejoin or not). The reaction to the Queen’s death suggests we’re not willing to put them aside.
I am not advocating abolishing the monarchy. I’m mildly uncomfortable with a situation where no citizen can aspire to be our country’s head of state unless they’re born into one specific family, but there are far more important constitutional issues to worry about (like a written constitution, a proportional voting system for the House of Commons and councils, reform of the House of Lords, making Britain less London-centric, etc). Until these are tackled, I am relaxed about us having a monarch, as long as he/she doesn’t cost us too much and the royals are ‘of us’, not ‘above us’.
But if we have that monarchy, we must be less deferential to it and less distracted by it. We should abandon obsequious titles like ‘His Majesty’, regardless of how ‘correct’ they are in protocol tradition, and we should learn to keep our sense of perspective when a major royal dies or gets embroiled in a scandal. On the evidence of the past 11 days, my Great Observation suggests the British still have a lot of growing up to do. We remain the ‘proles’ that George Orwell described us as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it’s not doing us any good.
(If you don’t hear from me again, it may be because I’ve been publicly lynched or sent to the Tower.)