There has been so much praise for Queen Elizabeth II that one more eulogy is not going to add anything to what you’ve already heard many times. Take recognition of her spectacular work ethic, her diplomatic charisma, and her rare smile in an ocean of frowns, as given.
She was all that.
None of that would have been a reason for me to watch every bear skin, count every goose step, gawp at every jewel on TV as I have done during the last 10 days.
I’m an amateur history buff, lighting up conversation with numbing trivia, and, as my long-suffering wife will attest, voluntarily mansplaining the esoteric details of blazonry and vexillology like your life, not mine, depended on it.
The last royal funeral I watched before this one was the recommittal of Richard III, reburied with rather more pomp than his first funeral, when his body was found under a car park where it had been lost for more than five centuries. My wife caught me watching it, fascinated by every detail, every bit of improvised fragment of protocol made to look centuries old. She would have been less irritated if she caught me watch, you know, things you don’t want your wife catching you watching. “You’re hopeless,” she groaned. I am.
The last 10 days were a veritable orgy of re-enactment, pageantry, symbolism, recollections of details from history, myths and legends made solid in red velvet, diamonds the size of eggs, Tudor skirts, Stuart kilts, military uniforms dashingly worn by people who haven’t seen an afternoon of heat in a combat zone, and swaying German funeral marches pretending to be as English as chips.
And yet, watching the coverage of a once in a lifetime event, I confess to getting uncomfortable in certain moments. I watched all of it on the BBC. As ever the national TV network did not only document history, but it was also part of it. Until two weeks ago, BBC’s archives were indistinguishable from the history they stored: the grainy pictures from a lifetime ago of the first televised coronation, the first promise to the world by a future queen of committed service to an empire she outlived, the first Christmas message, the first royal barbecue.
These 10 days we witnessed the first televised accession council, the first televised royal committal service, the first televised breaking of a Lord Chamberlain’s wand, never having known there had been a whole one.
Linking back to 70 years ago, to those firsts around the royal events of that last transition, the news coverage of the last 10 days was just what you would expect.
But then, this is not 70 years ago. As spectacular and complete as the coverage was, it was also patently nostalgic and, at times, forced. The grief of the hundreds of thousands of people who lined up for hours for the walk-by at the lying in state, the energy spent by the ones that stood overnight on a spot to see a coffin drive by them, the public tears and the devotion were, no doubt, sincerely felt. Elizabeth earned all that by being there all that time, smiling or growling through it all.
But the mourning of Elizabeth is not the same as loyalty to the monarchy. Indeed, as someone somewhere put it, Elizabeth is probably bigger than the monarchy.
Frankly if all that public grief and loyalty had not been in honour and memory of an individual but had instead been in honour and loyalty to an institution it would all have been a little bit absurd.
Only tyrannies command public crying at the passing of rulers. We watch awkwardly the funerals of the Kims in North Korea where we assume that the agonised anguish of random mourners off the street is the product of coercion and intimidation, or if voluntary, a consequence of brainwashing propaganda.
There’s precious little we would stand in line for 20 hours for in our part of the world, not even the changing of a head of state. We might behave in a silly manner when a rock star is nearby and as rock stars go, Elizabeth was as big as they come.
What made me uncomfortable watching the coverage of the days of mourning on British TV was that little distinction was being made between admiration of Elizabeth and loyalty to the monarchy. There was an urgent rush rather, particularly in the first few hours and days after news of her death emerged, to quickly cash the goodwill she had accumulated in favour of her heir.
It’s presumably what she would have wanted. She was as keen as any monarch to preserve the standing of her dynasty, her firm as she apparently called it, beyond her own life. But in free societies we’re not in the business of documenting events according to how a person of power and wealth wishes them to have turned out. Not officially anyway.
There’s an obvious imperative that Charles’s reign will not be anywhere as long as Elizabeth’s. But that’s not the only reason most would be surprised to see anything like the grief expressed for his mother expressed for him when at some point it’s his turn to pass.
And yet it felt like the media helped create the idea that the events of the last 10 days were only rare because the Queen lived a long time and her father died young. They seemed to help promote the idea that this is the natural order of things. Commenters at their microphones many of them invited back again and again over the last 10 days spoke about the constitutional system almost as if they really believed it was ordained by God.
I’m fascinated by history and if I could experience a re-enactment of the election of a Byzantine emperor, I would watch every detail ticking off the list of things I half expected and thumbing my phone to look up the things I had not known. That doesn’t mean I suggest we should have Byzantine Emperors running affairs.
I am intrigued by the founding myths of these traditions, and I admire the fact that mandarins beavering in the archives have kept these protocols alive and are able to replay them with such precision.
But that doesn’t make any of this less anachronistic and in some respects, frankly, any less ridiculous. It is ridiculous that the United Kingdom, a modern, exemplary democracy, treats one of its many faiths not merely as privileged but as official. When the BBC is always careful in its agnosticism and pluralism, during the last 10 days its commenters and hosts spoke as if they were Cromwellian puritans. And that’s just one example of many quirks and oddities that are only quaint if they’re not taken quite as seriously as the broad media coverage appeared to be taking them these last 10 days.
It is, no doubt, touching that so many people admired the Queen and mourned her passing. Quite likely most of the population felt that way and not without good reason. And yet it still feels odd to me that there appeared to have been an effort to impose unanimity and uniformity. That there was only one way to think about the constitution and that was that the way the constitution is, is just perfect, beyond complaint, above objection.
I didn’t think that it was still possible for the established powers and official narrative of the state to be so uniformly imposed on a western democracy as free minded as the UK’s even if only for 10 days. While it was spectacular to watch 3,000 uniformed soldiers march to the same beat down the Mall, some bearing mediaeval halberds and clad in Tudor petticoats, it was discomfiting to watch the TV’s coverage sing obsequious praise to living and dead royals alike like a Victorian choir.
Perhaps in this way too the passing of Elizabeth is the final rest of the attitudes of other centuries when this was still possible. That would be good news. The alternative bad news is if the success of the last 10 days of making everyone sing the same hymn ends up encouraging people of power to impose ideas less harmless than the notion that the right to rule is determined by God.