Whether you are a royalist or a republican, the sheer numbers of people willing to queue for hours and overnight to have some small part of the lying-in-state and funeral of Queen Elizabeth requires an explanation.
It has been estimated that four billion people tuned in worldwide and two million attended in some way.
In 1996, the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics reached 3.6 billion viewers, while Harry and Meghan’s 2018 wedding reached 1.9 billion and Diana’s funeral in 1997, 2.5 billion.
Princess Diana captured the hearts of ordinary people in a modern way, privileged but not an intellectual, dedicated to combatting the AIDS stigma and removing landmines in Africa – ‘the People’s Princess’ as Blair said, touching a public nerve.
Mourning is a complex thing, mourning a public figure even more so, and many reasons have been suggested by commentators for the so-called “outpouring of grief”. Writing in the Guardian two researchers suggested several threads including personal memories of deaths, perhaps not fully grieved; a need to feel a togetherness and part of something greater; the awareness of our own mortality. It was notable that some of the mourners who spoke to reporters came from Britain’s ex-colonies and talked of the Queen as a mother or a presence they had looked up to all their lives.
Are these sufficient explanations – can a republican dismiss them as a typical phenomenon of people acting against their true political interests – as they did in voting for Boris Johnson and Brexit?
The other side of the coin of course is the way that the authorities are able to orchestrate public feelings – inevitably having the benefit of reinforcing their power. But this could not succeed without a basis in public feeling, and nor do I believe that it can be simply or entirely attributed to the pernicious influence of the media – which definitely exists.
Public opinion is much stronger in favour of a monarchy among older people as expected, but what is being mourned, what has been lost?
There is much talk about nostalgia for the British Empire, and the symbolism of regiments of soldiers including some from commonwealth countries, the guns in Hyde Park tolling once a minute during the coffin’s journey to the Wellington Arch – a victory arch celebrating Wellington’s victory over Napoleon – certainly evoked memories of a different age. But nostalgia for empire can’t possibly account for the numbers of mourners after all these years.
Politics has not been mentioned much by commentators – all discussion of which was suppressed for ‘respect’ between the death of the Queen on September 8th and the funeral.
Let’s consider what the funeral looked like as a spectacle. When you watch, what do you see? Most obviously it is an enormous operation that required the extremely detailed and rehearsed coordination of thousands of police, military and official mourners, a huge security operation to make a spectacle that ran like clockwork.
At the same time, at its heart it was extremely simple, a family and a country mourning the loss of an important member.
And so, to politics
If this spectacle represents what people feel the UK has lost, it wasn’t the empire. But what we have definitely lost is decent and honest and courageous politicians.
The most powerful image that connects with this is the one of Elizabeth II mourning alone after the death of her husband this year during the Covid pandemic – while inside the heart of government Johnson and his staff were partying and getting drunk. Johnson had to apologize to the Queen for this, as he also had to do for his illegal attempt to prorogue parliament.
And this is just one of a whole trail of examples of rotten or corrupt government, from the first MP’s expenses scandal in 2009, through the handing out of contracts for Covid protective equipment to companies directed by friends of ministers. Companies which in some cases had no previous experience but were allowed to re-invent themselves overnight.
The public is well used to corrupt politicians, but at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign and until maybe the 1980s, when they were caught out, they resigned.
When you watch a grand procession mourning the death of the head of state, you feel the illusion of order and tradition, of decency and respect, like an island in a sea of conflict and chaos, in a country run by politicians unworthy of respect and incapable of acting in the interest of ‘their’ electorate, rather than for themselves, their party or the banks and other parts of the elite.
In Britain today, women mourners were arrested for public order offences, aftera serving officer murdered Sarah Everard: they were arrested by this same police force, which seems to have impunity when they kill someone during arrest, and whose public standing is now at an all-time low. So, it’s easy to understand how, even among people who “don’t talk politics” there exists a deep longing for order and decency and a deep disgust with the state that politicians have brought this country to.
When Marx talked about religion being the opium of the people, his remark is usually truncated to leave the impression that he was looking down on ‘stupid’ people who believed in God.
But he continued: “it [religion] is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of our soulless conditions.”
We don’t need to believe in the divine right of kings to see how the funeral evokes a craving for order and respect in a country being ruined by politicians who are unashamedly corrupt, or else lack the courage to be His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and stand up for principles.