Reflections – not on a monarch – but on her people.

Posted: September 17, 2022 in Political musings, Popular Culture et al
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The queue to file past the Queen’s coffin reaches five miles

What do the current scenes in London and elsewhere tell us
about the state of modern Britain?

Like most of the world, and as a Briton transplanted to the other side of the planet, I have watched on with a mixture of admiration, sympathy, bemusement, concern and some surprise at the British public’s unheralded response to the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The death of the nonagenarian Queen, which surely should have been expected at some point soon, has produced an outpouring of largely respectful mourning the like of which no modern nation has surely ever seen. As we write, the queue to file past her coffin stretches for up to 24 hours of wet and cold endurance. And still they come.

The very intense public reaction began as soon as rumours of the Queen’s last illness started to spread, with people nervously parsing the fact that BBC presenters were already dressed in black and wearing black tie before any announcement from the Palace, and has been supported, if not driven, by seemingly wall-to-wall 24-hour coverage of the Queen’s life and death on all main media channels.

Trade Unions and political parties have cancelled their Autumnal gatherings, a week’s football was delayed, (but not racing, which the Queen loved, it should be noted), and a myriad of other events small or large have been postponed or simply closed down.

The new King has toured every corner of the British Isles for services of commemoration, attended or abetted by other members of “The Firm”, (as the Royal family is known), receiving a genuinely warm and sympathetic reception, (it seems to this correspondent at least), wherever he has gone.

A very few voices of dissent have been swiftly silenced or marginalised – too swiftly, in the case of one policeman, who has been reprimanded for arresting a lawyer carrying a blank sheet of paper, and thereby sparking a helpful debate about the legitimate limits to free speech and policing of public order.

As modern argot would have it … ‘scenes’.

But at some point, it behoves anyone who cares about the health of society and the body politic to ask, sotto voce, whether such an overwhelming response to someone dying – even someone as rarefied and admired as a 96 year old, 70-year monarch – is actually, somehow, slightly concerning. And even, perish the thought, slightly ‘naff’. Watching some people prostrating themselves on the floor next to the coffin has made for less than comfortable viewing.

However, let us first establish a principle. It is entirely up to people to decide for themselves how to grieve, and not for anyone else to dictate it to them.

And, perhaps equally importantly, grief is a complex emotional reaction which is not reserved for the death of close relatives.

We grieve many things, and the passing of an era surely falls into that category, as well as the passing of the individual who, for many, epitomised that era and was a reliable and imperturbable constant at the heart of it.

The departure of the Queen leaves, we are sure, many people feeling like the constancies of their youth are now emphatically over, and that the future seems now just a little bit more uncertain – a less well-understood and as yet dimly-perceived landscape with one of its most dominant and long-lasting features removed, for ever.

So let us assert this unequivocally and boldly: if people want to turn out for the funeral – a million visitors are expected in central London for the event itself – well, that’s entirely up to them.

One might also ask, though, through simultaneously and quietly murmuring lips, whether the Queen herself might have been slightly discomforted by the scale of the mourning. She was someone who was known to be somewhat sceptical of too much pomp and ceremony, whilst she understood its unique role in British society, and she submitted uncomplainingly to the pressures on her personally.

Although she was apparently very involved in the planning of her own celebration of her life, one nevertheless suspects she might have been somewhat bemused by how utterly the event has consumed British society.

The Queen was never one for public demonstrations of emotion, after all. Her visible restraint after the premature death of her beloved father, and after the death of her long-standing consort Prince Philip, was notable. Many will also recall that she had to be persuaded to involve herself outside the gates of Buck House when Princess Diana died. That was the right decision, but it did not come easily to her.

The Queen at Balmoral

For one who lived her life in the public eye, she was a remarkably private person.

Not for nothing was the Scottish fastness of the Balmoral estate her favourite place on the planet.

A place where she could live away from the public gaze, and metaphorically let her hair down, wandering or driving the moors with her much-loved dogs and horses.

Accepting, then, that there is no right or wrong way to “do” national mourning, it seems – to our eyes at least – that with its unprecedented outpouring of grief, Britain is also collectively demonstrating an attack of anxiety, which few commentators seem to have the wit or courage to acknowledge.

An anxiety which is entirely reasonable, and predictable.

Recent years have seen many substantial changes and challenges for the British, after all.

A testing time

Covid hit Britain harder than any other comparable country with the exception of the USA. Many, many families lost loved ones, or know of families who did. Not since the Spanish flu epidemic more than a century before has the country faced such a mortal health crisis.

The country has also experienced political and economic upheaval of unprecedented proportion with the controversial and divisive Brexit decision to leave the EU, the consequences or opportunities of which (depending on your point of view) are still being worked through, but unquestionably with significant disruption to travel, shopping, employment, prices and more.

Indeed, the overall economic situation, it is generally agreed, is somewhat dire, with rampant inflation and a cost of living crisis that is seeing Britain’s less well off hit extremely hard.

The rambunctious former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a figure of as much scorn and mistrust as he was one of admiration, is gone, (at least for now), finally toppled by his own party.

The new Prime Minister Liz Truss

The new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, is something of an unknown quantity, known hitherto mostly for gaffes and sillinesses, notable mainly for being considered, by electing Tory party members, as the ‘best of a bad bunch’.

The fact that obviously better candidates fell by the wayside because they failed to secure enough support from their fellow MPs before even being submitted to the party’s judgement makes Truss’s accession yet more tricky.

The country is at war with Russia – albeit via its proxy combatant Ukraine – and whatever one feels about that situation, (we are firmly on Ukraine’s side and glad to see the West supporting them), it is nevertheless a worrying time, and the country being threatened directly by an increasingly bellicose Vladimir Putin and his apparatchiks does nothing to calm the nerves.

Ecologically the country is a mess, with millions of tons of raw sewage being pumped into its rivers from overwhelmed water infrastructure.

It’s inner cities are very obviously dirty and grimy, in a poor state of repair, and its road and rail network, and airlines, are creaking alarmingly.

Many of its major cities (and some smaller ones) have effectively declared their centres as ‘no go areas’ at night, with people vocally afraid to risk the street violence and robbery which has become more commonplace with every passing year. Fatal stabbings, in particular, were in 2019 at their highest since records began in 1946.

And the jewel of the British social crown, the National Health Service, is labouring to address the health needs of a 21st century nation with a model forged in the 1940s, which seemingly endless organisational tinkering never seem to adequately address. Ambulances which are supposed to arrive for urgent cases in 11 minutes are now routinely taking over 80. As one often hears people say, “but nothing ever seems to get done“.

Large scale immigration during the EU years, especially from Eastern Europe, sees the native population restless and concerned, despite the very obvious fact that immigration supports a vibrant economy and brings skills to the country that it historically does a poor job of developing itself.

In modern Britain your new plumber, plasterer or brickie is now as likely to come from Gdansk, Riga or Belgrade as they are to hail from Manchester, Swansea or Pontefract. People are happy to enjoy the benefits of an expanded workforce, but anxious about the relocation costs incurred by the social support system as people settle, and instinctively discomforted by hearing a new polyglot of languages as they walk down the High Street.

The very Union itself, especially as regards Scotland, seems on very shaky ground. It would be a brave punter who would bet against Scotland becoming independent in the near-to-medium term, and very few people have any idea what that new model of governance would look like in practice.

Last, but by no means least, the now King Charles III is an unknown quantity, at least in his new role. Will he reach the same heights of service and unflappable courtesy as his mother did? The British people will surely give him every chance, as his reception in the last week has betokened. But he is a very different character to Elizabeth, and despite his long apprenticeship for the role, his accession raises its own questions around continuity and reliability.

And so on, and so forth.

There’s simply been a lot for Britain to adjust to, in the last decade or so. And now, layered onto many other changes, this visible and sad change at the very pinnacle of society. The deeply felt loss of a woman who seemed to constantly and effortlessly send out a calming mixture of affability and stern adherence to duty, under whose stewardship it was surely felt that no matter what else changed, her reliably maternal gaze would smooth troubled waters and help find the country a route through to amicable solutions.

So our reflection on the unprecedented scale of mourning which we have been witnessing is that the Queen has, with her passing, suddenly and sadly become a cipher for the entire basket of anxieties that the British public feel – consciously and unconsciously – and that they are flocking to witness her final journey not just out of deep respect, but also to express a deep sense of unease about the future, which they might have some difficulty articulating, but which they feel nevertheless.

And so be it. No great harm is done by the wearing out of some shoe leather, the drip of rain down exposed necks, or the permanently tuned TV channel. And if the act of mourning assuages both grief and anxiety, as well as expressing deep respect for a life well lived, (and perhaps in contrast to so many others that could be mentioned), then all to the good. But then what?

From next week: the Challenge

The issues Britain faces mean that its leaders – and people – will need to move on rapidly, post funeral, to the business of repairing the increasingly obvious gaps in the social fabric. The business of mourning needs to be swapped for business as usual – and improved business as usual – with some alacrity.

Because to heal society, it’s not enough to walk, head bowed, next to one’s brothers and sisters.

One needs to be actively and intently involved in securing their well-being when they have left the streets and the halls, and returned to their homes and workplaces.

Britons need to be working, with the determination which the Queen undoubtedly embodied, for a better deal for everyone.

Humble or exalted, young and old, from wherever in the scept’red isle they hail from or from overseas, black or white, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or other, straight, gay, male, female, transgender and gender fluid – a nation for all, truly united in its determination to create a new Jerusalem in its green and pleasant land.

What Britain is now crying out for is an outburst of hope and effort from a people conjoined by what they agree on, and courteously debating that which they do not.

Eschewing cynicism and embracing ‘possibility thinking’.

A positive, active people dedicated to building a better Britain.

Because that dedication, above all, would be something which the Queen, God rest her remarkable soul, would generously applaud.

That is the celebration which Her Majesty’s life truly deserves.

Comments
  1. Paul says:

    Do I sense a touch of home sickness?

    Like

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